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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

Gwalior Part 6: The Tombs of Tansen and Muhammad Ghaus

Sunlight streams in through the fine stone Jaalis, transforming the gloomy interiors, throwing bright patterns on the hard, cold floors. The Jaalis themselves shine against the light, as if studded with thousands of diamonds. Soft instrumental music playing in the background completes the picture, and for just a moment, I am transported back in time, when the passages I am walking through would have resounded to musical notes, played and sung by the greatest of musicians. It is late afternoon, and I am at the tomb of Muhammad Ghaus, in Gwalior, the spiritual mentor of Tansen, as the Tansen Music festival is in progress. I couldn’t possibly have chosen a better time.

Tansen is known as one of the nine gems of Akbar’s court, and as one of the greatest musicians of the era. It is here, in Gwalior that he truly belongs, the son the city is proud to claim as its own. However, in the tomb complex where he rests in peace, he is but a student, a disciple of the great Sufi master, Muhammad Ghaus.

Muhammad Ghaus (~1500 to 1563) was among the most eminent Sufis of the Shattari order, who came from Persia to India. After spending thirteen years meditating in the hills near Benaras, under severely austere conditions, he emerged to spend the remainder of his lifetime teaching a most eclectic variety of Sufism. A student of Sanskrit, Muhammad Ghaus wrote one book combining Islamic mystic thought with astrological theories, and another on the methods of self-discipline and breath control, as practiced by the Yogis. This was the first treatise on the yogis written by an Indian Muslim*.

Muhammad Ghaus was closely associated with Humayun, and when Humayun was overthrown by Sher Shah, the Sufi master was forced to flee to Gujarat. He only returned to Agra and Gwalior when Akbar came to power. This is also when Tansen came to him as a student, and became his disciple.

Muhammad Ghaus' tomb, as seen from Tansen's. 

Muhammad Ghaus’ importance in the Mughal court is clearly seen in the grandeur of the architecture of his tomb. The domes, arches and minarets are typical of the period, but it is the jaalis or stone latticework, that sets the tomb apart.

One of the  most beautiful Jaali panels. Notice that each square has a different pattern

Another gorgeous panel, incredibly detailed

The central hall with the tomb has jaali work too, but it is the outer walls of the passage around the hall that are so impressive in their design.

Painting on the ceiling

While the effect of the light on the jaalis is impressive, it also throws light on the sad state the monument is in.

This is the panel around the entrance to the tomb. Notice how parts of the jaali have broken

The tomb is a place of pilgrimage for many, as well as a major tourist attraction. However, there are bags of cement, and assorted things lying all around the place, diverting our attention from the gorgeous play of light.

Parts of the jaalis are also breaking, and it is high time the authorities take care to keep people from damaging the monument further.

Muhammad Ghaus’ tomb is the most impressive, but not the only monument here. There are tombs to many other disciples of the master,  among whom Tansen has an important place.

Other tombs in the complex
Another tomb with beautiful Jaalis

Tansen’s tomb is simple, in complete contrast to that of his mentor.

Tansen's tomb

A single man stands by, pointing towards a tamarind tree which, he assures us, is the secret of Tansen’s magnificent voice! Samhith quietly takes the leaves, but once we are out, says “If that was true, everyone who comes here would have had a voice like Tansen!” On that note, we head back towards our waiting car, our laughter mingling with the strains of music. 

*Ref. Richard Eaton, The Sufis of Bijapur 1300-1700, Role of Sufis in Medieval India

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  1. This blog is enriched with ancient and marvelous architecture. It's high time we take care of our heritage.

  2. Lovely pics,did not know about this place at all,such beautiful places enhance our interest in visiting these places

  3. There is nodoubt that Music is a soothing effect on a Human Mind, and Tansen is something special in that matter


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