Macho Afghans & dainty ladoos
When I checked into a hotel in Patna, I was
laden with stories of gallant Afghans and the intrigue of
the limestone steps refused to fade away in the chaos that
is Patna. In the darkness of the night and the buzz of a
cranky air-conditioner I was also riddled with choices -
mysticism or gluttony. Which should come first? Mention
Maner to a foodie and all he would talk of are the ladoos
of Maner. I am not sure which ingredient of the ladoo so
entices the gourmand but all of 29 kms I was being tempted
with their taste.
the Tate Gallery in London, an oil on canvas intrigues you.
In the painting the sky seems to blush pink and drape the
hills with dainty white and blue swirls. To offset the elegance
of the pink sky is a brown dome - enormous, robust and arrogant.
It is hemmed by a lake and two trees on the left add that
It is Sher Shah Suri's mausoleum in Sasaram
painted by Thomas Daniell, who along with his nephew William
trudged through the dusty terrains of Bihar for seven years
(1786-93). Their aquatints were lauded by aficionados for
"bringing scenes to our fireside, too distant to visit,
and too singular to be imagined".
Between the Daniells and I, there fell
210 years, but - perhaps in breach of propriety - I envy
the dead man. Not because he could daub his brush in pinks
and paint a deft stroke, but because the Sasaram that he
walked was prettier and the mausoleum more magnificent.
Imagine the inspired design - a five-storied red sandstone
octagonal mausoleum capped with a white dome concluding
in a golden lotus. The dome was adorned with red, yellow,
white and blue geometrical designs, its span of 22 metre
exceeding that of the Taj Mahal by four metres. In the corners
were pavilions with steps leading into a 430 sq.metre artificial
lake. Alas! Now the colors have faded though you can see
some traces of it on the parapets and battlements. The delicate
jalis are the sole testimony to the famed exquisiteness
that was born out of the imagination of Aliwal Khan, the
Sasaram was a jagir of Hasan Sur Khan, an Afghan adventurer,
and an important trading post. As I roamed on the streets
of the now dusty and ordinary Sasaram I wondered if these
were the same alleys that Hasan's son Sher Shah spent his
childhood some 500 years ago. The Afghan conquistador kicked
dust in the northern plains but it was in Sasaram that their
bodies rest in peace.
Nearly 500 metres east of Sher Shah's
tomb rests his father Hasan Sur Khan within a walled enclosure
with gateways on its sides and domed turrets at the corners.
Built in 1535, the tomb has lost its gloss and ruefully
merges with the banality of Sasaram.
Just as much as I had heard about the
Sher Shah's tomb, I was told that 39 kms away lie the remains
of his fort in Rohtasgarh that sprawled over 28 miles and
had 84 passages and 14 main entry gates. After a nearly
two-hour drive, I reach the base of the hill that has a
scary steep and 2,000 odd limestone steps that were probably
meant for the cavalry. You can get breathless going up those
rough-hewn staircase to reach the first gate that has a
cupola. But the remains of the fort are still a mile away
and you need to catch your breath before you can walk around
the fort that once was a safe shelter for Sher Shah's family
and treasures. Such was the reputation of this strong fort
that during the course of history even Shah Jahan and Man
Singh fretted to conquer it. According to legend, the fort
was almost invincible, thanks to the streams that cut through
the belly of the fort making the land fertile and self-sustainable,
the dense jungles, the wild animals. To this list of natural
sentinels, story tellers add the might of the dacoits who
would not let in even a maverick farmer.
Stories of the fort get more interesting
as they shift from gallantry and skew towards Afghan cuisine.
While in Sasaram somebody had gleefully mentioned the kitchen
at the fort for which Nur Jahan, the wife of the Mughal
emperor Jehangir, who was in Rohtasgarh Fort for the birth
of her third son, ordered 60 pounds of ambergris of the
sea, 160 pounds of khus, 2,000 pods of musk, 2,000 bottles
of the essence of Egyptian willow, essence of flowers, 10,000
bottles of rose water from Yazd and 4,000 pounds of saffron!
But now only stories remain, you no longer sniff the rich
flavour of such sumptuous food, but it says a lot about
the importance of Rohtasgarh Fort.
The cab driver knew that I was looking
for vignettes of Afghan rule and influence in Bihar. He
also knew I was headed towards Patna for more and suggested
a look at the mosque built by Sher Shah Suri in 1545. The
Afghan king wanted to commemorate his reign and to mark
this occasion he once again hired the services of Afghan
architects to build a mosque in the typical Afghani style.
Today, the mosque adds beauty to Patna and is often referred
to as the one of the most beautiful mosques in Bihar.
When I checked into a hotel in Patna, I was laden with stories
of gallant Afghans and the intrigue of the limestone steps
refused to fade away in the chaos that is Patna. In the
darkness of the night and the buzz of a cranky air-conditioner
I was also riddled with choices - mysticism or gluttony.
Which should come first? My itinerary had Maner written
with a red marker. The drive: Barely 29 kms. But what about
the choice? My information scrapbook listed Maner as one
of the earliest centres of Sufism in Bihar; I also knew
that the small town took its name from the 13th century
Sufi saint Hazrat Makhdum Maneri. But mention Maner to a
foodie and all he would talk of are the ladoos of Maner.
I am not sure which ingredient of the ladoo so entices the
gourmand but all of 29 kms I was being tempted with their
As I hit Maner after a rugged ride, I
shed irresolution - the saints would come first. Maner became
a Sufi centre nearly 70 years before the Mughals conquered
north India. It began with the arrival of Turks and of the
three chief orders of Sufism in India, Firdausi's Sufism
gained sway in Bihar. The Bari Dargah, which is a cenotaph
of the Sufi Saint Maneri lies in a mosque to the east of
a large tank, with masonry walls and ghats, pillared porticos,
three domed mosques and a few quaint cloisters. Such was
the benevolence of this Sufi site that even Sikandar Lodi
and Emperor Babar paid visits. The Bari Dargah and Choti
Dargah of Maneri's disciple Shah Daulat become crowded during
the annual urs.
Maner, however, is not the only Sufi centre
in Bihar. Biharsharif, some 13 kms from Nalanda is also
an important pilgrimage centre for Muslims who travel miles
to pay obeisance at the tombs of 13th century Sufi saint
Mukhdoom Shah and Malik Ibrahim Baya. Biharsharif remained
an Islamic cultural centre till the 16th century and Vaishali
that lives on the fringes of Patna and celebrated for its
Buddhist connection, also flourished as a Sufi centre.
Gallantry, gluttony and holiness can be
a giddy mishmash, but they all fell my way during this visit
to Bihar. It became all the more heady with a little dust
and some breathtaking monuments and soulful mysticism that
refuse to get rebuffed by the turmoil of small towns.
Published in India
Today Travel Plus Anniversary issue, 2006