The Royal Cenotaphs of Bhuj

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    Rulers like to be remembered long after they are gone, and in medieval times, royals in Central and Western India found that cenotaphs were an excellent way to achieve immortality on the earthly plane. One such group of exquisitely carved cenotaphs are the Chhatardis of Bhuj, which mark the reign of the Jadejas, the erstwhile royal family of Kutch in Gujarat.

    Cenotaphs are umbrella-shaped pavilions or chhatris built of stone, and these elaborate funerary markers were common in medieval Hindu kingdoms, especially in Rajasthan, Gujarat and parts of Madhya Pradesh. The Chhatardis of Bhuj are among the most ornate, their fine carvings making for an astonishing sight.

    Built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and famed for their intricate craftsmanship, the cenotaphs of Bhuj are located on the banks of Hamirsar Lake in the centre of the city. The Jadeja Rajputs who built them, ruled the princely state of Kutch from 1147 to 1948, with Madansinhji Vijayaraji being the last ruler.

    Kutch has a history that goes back more than 4,000 years, to the Indus Valley Civilization. During medieval times, the region was a significant centre of trade, with the ports of Mandvi and Lakhpat trading with places as far away as Zanzibar, the Middle East and Greece.

    Kutch has many architectural marvels dating back to the Naga chiefs, the Gujarat Sultans, the Jadeja Rajputs and the British Raj. The Jadejas, who constructed the Aina Mahal, Prag Mahal and many other significant public buildings in the erstwhile princely state of Kutch, are an integral part of the region’s history.

    The Chhatardi cenotaphs are made of red sandstone, the most impressive of them being the one built for Rao Lakhaji, who ruled in the 18th century and was pivotal in the development of Kutch. At the various cenotaphs within the Chhatardi, memorial stones commemorate the spots where the remains of the individuals were cremated.

    In those times, each ruler would be cremated next to the chhatri of his closest relative, unless explicitly stated otherwise. Interestingly, the second-last ruler of Kutch, Vijayrajaji who passed away in 1948, was cremated in Mandvi due to his fondness for the place. He has a chhatri dedicated to him there.

    An interesting aspect of the funeral procession of a royal is the fact that the newly anointed ruler and his direct successor don’t attend the funeral. This has its roots in the story of how on the demise of Rao Rayadhan II in 1698, his third son Pragmalji usurped the throne in a coup when his brothers and their sons were at Rao Rayadhan’s funeral.

    Unfortunately, the Chhatardis of Bhuj were heavily damaged in the earthquake of 2001. Some of them fell apart completely while others were damaged partially. Many of the domes collapsed and the pillars, sculptures and other decorative elements suffered great damage. The dome of the grandest cenotaph, the one for Rao Lakhaji, was among those that collapsed. Currently, the complex is being restored.

    Despite the heavy damage, the exquisite skill and dedication of the craftsmen who created these beautiful monuments are still clearly evident. Some of the domes have beautiful blue tiles, hinting at a Persian influence.

    Each cenotaph has been intricately carved in traditional designs and bears icons that are different from the others. One can see many sculptures of individuals dressed in traditional Kutchi attire all over the monuments. Floral patterns, hexagons, octagons are also liberally carved on them.

    The Chhatardis of Bhuj are a testament to the skill of the Kutchi artisans and despite the havoc caused by the 2001 earthquake, its glory still shines through.

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