It is an hour to sunset when I arrive at Devi Kund Sagar in Bikaner that February evening. I have just arrived from Mumbai earlier that day and this is one of the first sites I am visiting in Bikaner. Never having seen cenotaphs for Hindus before, I am very curious and intrigued about this visit and am not sure what to expect when I walk into the complex. (I didn’t know then that Devi Kund Sagar is only the first of the many Hindu cenotaphs I will be seeing during the course of my Rajasthan trip).
Located about 8 km from Bikaner, Devi Kund Sagar has been the cremation ground for the royal family of Bikaner and generations of kings, queens, princes and princesses of Bikaner have a memorial to their names here. According to the information board at the entrance to the complex, the oldest cenotaph at the Devi Kund Sagar is that of Rao Kalyanmal Ji (1539-1571 AD).
Rows upon rows of pillared and open-sided domed cenotaphs are spread out before me when I enter the L-shaped enclosure after removing my footwear. The place is empty, save for the caretaker and a couple of children playing hide and seek between the various structures. The base of each of these domed and pillared structure is mostly square, and sometimes hexagonal or rectangular. Locally, the cenotaphs are called chhatris due to the domes, which look like umbrellas (chhatris).
While most of the cenotaphs are made of marble, some are built from red Bikaneri sandstone and topped with a marble chhatri. An exploration of the various cenotaphs reveal the differences in the representation of cenotaphs for men, women and children. While the cenotaph of a male has a vertical memorial slab, that of a female has feet engraved on a stone slab. A memorial for a minor is a simple structure called nada and does not have a chhatri covering it.
The chhatris appear plain and unadorned until you look up and see the fabulous artwork inside the domes. Some have been painted with gold, while others are frescoes using vegetable dyes. Sadly, most of them are in a bad condition.
None of the cenotaphs carry any information as to whose it is in English and after a while, it does get a little frustrating and tedious to read the information in Hindi. The oldest cenotaphs are deep inside the enclosure and some of the memorials there are grouped under one chhatri. The memorial slabs here are also different — they depict a man on a horse along with women standing with folded hands.
I don’t know why, but these memorial slabs make me very uneasy and a Sati Mata Temple right next to these cenotaphs only add to the unease.
My unease is explained when I visit Bada Bagh, the site of the cenotaphs of the rulers of Jaisalmer, 3 days later. Bada Bagh is about 6 km from Jaisalmer and here too, I arrive an hour or so before sunset. The setting of Bada Bagh is dramatically stunning. The chhatris appear to sprout from the very rocks they are built on and since they are the same colour as the landscape around them, also appear like a mirage. The towering windmills in the distance only add to the fantastic photo-ops the area has to offer and I find it rather tough to put my camera away.
Like the chhatris at Devi Kund Sagar, the base of the chhatris at Bada Bagh are mostly square or hexagonal. The domes, however, are in a variety of shapes, ranging from the simple circular, to squarish to pyramidal and are also free from any kind of artwork. Most of the individual cenotaphs have boards giving the name and reign of the Jaisalmeri ruler in question. As I climb to the highest point in Bada Bagh and look around me, the cenotaphs glow golden in the light of the setting sun and throw into relief the general state of disrepair and decay they are in.
Since the chhatris at Bada Bagh are only for the various male rulers of Jaisalmer, the memorial slabs are all placed vertically. All of them depict a man on a horse and most of these slabs also have women with folded hands sculpted on them. The number of these figures vary from slab to slab—from 1 to 16.
My unease returns and as I ponder over the significance of these women on the memorial slab once again, a tourist group and their guide walk up to the cenotaph I am at. As I listen to the guide talk about the chhatris and the memorial slabs, I finally understand what the carvings on the slab represent — the man on the horse represents the Jailsalmeri ruler who died in battle or was murdered or of natural causes and the women on the slab represent the number of wives he had and who committed sati on his funeral pyre.
I leave Bada Bagh feeling shaken and vowing never to step into another chhatri or cenotaph complex if I could help it. But 2 days later, I am at the gates of the Jaswant Thada near Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.
The Jaswant Thada is a marble memorial built by Maharaja Sardar Singh in memory of his father, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, the 33rd Rathore ruler of Jodhpur. Built in 1889, the cenotaph looks like a cross between a Birla temple and a palace. The intricately carved marble exterior is made from thin sheets of marble with the result that the memorial appears to emit light from within. The large hall inside the Jaswant Thada displays portraits of the rulers of Jodhpur on its walls and from its windows, one can see some stunning views of Jodhpur. The Jaswant Thada Complex also houses the royal crematorium, some smaller cenotaphs and memorials that I do not bother to explore.
I must admit that part of the reason is because I want to avoid seeing more evidence of sati and partly because I am tired of seeing cenotaphs. Apart from the architectural curiosity and interest the cenotaphs arouse in me, I find them to be frankly quite creepy, particularly the memorial slabs of men on horses and women with folded hands. So when I am in Udaipur, I decide to give the Ahar Cenotaphs, the site for Maharajas of Mewar, a miss.
But my cenotaph story doesn’t end here; I have one more story to share and for that we have to go back to Jaisalmer.
I am quite upset after my visit to Bada Bagh and, Sushil, my driver notices it. He suggests that I visit Vyas Chhatri, the place where the celebrated sage Veda Vyasa has a cenotaph. When I tell Sushil that I am not interested in seeing any more cenotaphs, he tells me that Vyas Chhatri is also known as Jaisalmer’s sunset point and I could get some great photographs of Jaisalmer Fort from there. I reluctantly agree and that is how I arrive there at sunset.
The cenotaphs at Vyas Chhatri are quite similar in structure to those at Bada Bagh, but are better maintained and fewer in number. The memorial slabs are also different and I cannot believe my eyes at what I see on them:
I am quite taken aback with this depiction of winged angels on the memorial slab as I have never come a depiction of an angel in Hinduism before. Making a mental note to read up on this, I cross the last of the cenotaphs and come up short when I see this:
I am quite horrified to see ashes smouldering away at a funeral pyre. While I am many kinds of tourists, gawking at a funeral pyre type of tourist, I am not. I leave immediately and when I get into the car, I ask Sushil as to why he didn’t tell me that the place was still used for cremation. He just shrugs and says, well there are not that many Brahmins dying everyday.
To which I ask if there are caste-based crematoria in Jaisalmer. And he nods proudly and says that the caste-based Hindu crematoria are located in different corners of Jaisalmer and that is how they have been for centuries and that is how they will be for centuries to come.
I open my mouth to argue and then shut it for I know that nothing that I say is going to make a difference. I am an outsider after all. I may be given a hearing, people may nod their heads, and then go and do what they have been doing all these years. Be it their loving reverence towards sati or their belief in a caste-based system, nothing is going to change.
And I can’t tell you how depressed this thought that made me that day and still continues to do so. 😦