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  • Keeping Up with the Rajputs: Appropriation and the Articulation of Sacrality and Political Legitimacy in Scindia Funerary Art
  • Melia Belli

Within the royal necropolis known locally as chatrī bagh (“garden of cenotaphs”) in Gwalior (Mādhya Pradesh, central India) are three imposing structures that resemble late medieval northwest Indian temples in form and decoration (Figs. 1–3). These structures, however, are not temples, but rather chatrīs (“cenotaphs”) that mark the locations where three mahārājās (“kings”) of the Scindia Marāṭhā dynasty—Daolat Rao (r. 1794–1827), Jankoji Rao (1827–1843), and Jayaji Rao (1843–1886)—were cremated and subsequently memorialized. These three Scindia kings and others in the dynasty are commemorated not only through their architectural memorials, but also through a twice daily program of worship held within their chatrīs, a practice that continues today. The several Scindia chatrīs in Gwalior and in the dynasty’s nearby former summer capital of Shivpuri are among the largest and most ornate, and have the most extensive ritual memorial programs of all the Indian chatrīs.

The 19th-century Scindia mahārājās of Gwalior combined monumental scale, symbolic internal organization, and memorial rituals in their ancestral chatrīs to proclaim their recently established political authority through models they appropriated from three of the most powerful Hindu Rajput dynasties—the Kachhawahas, Jodha Rathores, and Sisodias.1 The Scindia chatrīs embody the memory of the Marāṭhā community’s territorial expansion during the 18th century and legitimize Scindia political authority in Gwalior. Rather than simply adopting the Rajput chatrī form, which possesses its own royal and sacred associations, the Scindias, like other Marāṭhā rulers, dramatically and meaningfully adapted it. The Scindia chatrīs present the dynasty as politically legitimate through a recognizably royal medium, but one that the Scindia patrons transformed to address matters that were specific to their time, location, and community.

Chatrīs as Metonyms of North Indian Political Legitimacy

Chatrīs are funerary memorials that mark the locations where Hindu aristocrats were cremated. A portion of the cremated ashes is interred in the ground, above which is erected a chatrī dedicated to the memory of the deceased. In north Indian languages chatrī literally means umbrella. The name of these cenotaphs is appropriate, as the chatrīs’ domed forms resemble umbrellas, which are pan-Indic metonyms of political and religious authority.

The origins of the chatrī tradition date from at least the early 16th century, when Rajput kings throughout northwest India began commemorating their predecessors through architectural memorials, a material practice they appropriated from the royal Indo-Islamic tomb tradition. Under Rajput aegis the sign (tomb) and signified (Indo-Islamic kingship) were transformed into chatrī and Rajput kingship, respectively. The Rajputs established the chatrīs as an integral component of north Indian Hindu courtly culture, and members of the former north and central Indian Hindu princely states continue to memorialize their ancestors through chatrīs today. When the various Marāṭhā dynasties rose to power in the 18th century, they reinvented themselves as royal and appropriated the established north Indian visual vocabulary and performances of kingship. Among these were the chatrīs. Each of the Marāṭhā dynasties appropriated the chatrī tradition from the Rajputs, adopting and adapting the forms, layout, and memorial sculptures to their own cenotaphs. Prior to sustained contact with the Rajputs in the 18th century the Marāṭhās did not construct chatrīs. They commemorated their high-ranking dead through marble-faced platforms in the center of which they planted a Tulsi tree.2

Figure 4 presents two chatrīs from the royal necropolis in the former Rajput state of Bikaner in present-day Rajasthan. These examples are typical of the Rajput cenotaphs, although, as will be discussed, there are notable variations. Characteristic of Rajput chatrīs is the scale of these two examples—they stand approximately ten feet high. Their forms—they rest on a plinth, have domed roofs supported by pillars, and are open on the sides—are also typical. As in these examples, many Rajput chatrīs also contain a stele under the dome that provides information about the...


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