Cenotaphs—monuments or “empty tombs” built in memory of the revered departed—were very common Ancient Greece and Europe. Some of the barrows found in Stonehenge in England are also believed to be cenotaphs from Neolithic times. The Taj Mahal too is a cenotaph—perhaps the most beautiful and incredible one that exists. At the heart of the marble marvel are the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan.
But here we want to talk about some cenotaphs that are not so deeply etched in the world’s imagination, but which deserve far more attention than they get.
On our recent trip to Rajasthan in India, we came across several beautiful cenotaphs in the cities we visited.
Ahar Cenotaphs, Udaipur
We walked through the entrance into an overwhelming cluster of milky cenotaphs with sky-piercing spires rising from the onion domes. The splendour and sheer grandeur of the marble monuments positioned on large platforms dwarfed us.
The Ahar Cenotaphs was the cremation ground of the Mewars for over 350 years. The site contains more than 350 cenotaphs of the royal family including those of the 19 kings who were cremated here.
The domes and the pillars are adorned with elaborate embellishments. In the centre of each cenotaph is a stone slab with an equestrian figure representing the king with his ‘satis’ (his wives, who immolated in his cremation flames).
The cenotaph of King Sangram Singh was the most impressive, with a 56-pillared portico and an octagonal dome. We were astounded by the sheer amount of artwork around the cenotaph. However, we did feel a somberness descend on us when we discovered that the king was cremated here with his 21 wives.
While you’re here, do pop into the Ahar Archeological Museum close by. Here you’ll find archaeological artifacts dating back to the 10th century.
Bada Bagh, Jaisalmer
The golden glow of the domes and the pillars was visible from a distance, with the backdrop of barren lands and towering windmills completing the picture.
Bada Bagh, located on the outskirts of the city of Jaisalmer on Ramgarh Road, houses the cenotaphs of the Bhatti rulers. The oldest cenotaph is of Jai Singh II, dating to the 16th-century and built by his son Lunkaran to commemorate his contribution in making the desert green around Bada Bagh.
We spotted a newly married couple in ornate attire seeking the blessings of their ancestors, a tradition to follow before proceeding to their village for other customs.
The slabs in the cenotaphs depicted an equestrian figure of the king with his sati, much like the Ahar cenotaphs. However, it was disheartening to behold the spectacular cenotaphs in deteriorating condition due to poor maintenance.
On the way out we walked past an unfinished cenotaph of King Jawahar Singh dating back to the 20th century. The unexpected death of his son was taken as a bad omen and subsequently, the tradition ended.
Try to visit around sunset for the best views and clicks.
Vyas Chhatri , Jaisalmer
The cenotaphs at Vyas Chhatri are quite similar in structure to those at Bada Bagh but fewer in number. Unlike Bada Bagh, the Vyas Chhatri is still used as a cremation ground for the Brahmin community. We could not make it to inside as the cenotaphs were closed at noon when we visited.
Cenotaphs near Gadisagar Lake, Jaisalmer
We also spotted some scattered cenotaphs in the wild shrubs outside the Gadisagar Lake in Jaisalmer, which looked rather humble. The marvelous view of the Jaisalmer fort dominating the city skyline in the background made us pause though.
Jaswant Thada, Jodhpur
The marble memorial popularly known as the “Taj Mahal of Mewar” was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh in memory of his father, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. The marble monument is soothing to the eyes in the scorching sun, and the large hall is just the perfect place for serene contemplation.
The Jaswant Thada Complex also houses the royal crematorium and several other cenotaphs, each designed in a unique style. Interestingly some of the cenotaphs had smaller versions of them positioned opposite, representing the queen.
Mandore Gardens, Jodhpur
The cenotaphs of Mandore Gardens are the most breathtaking of all rather than being built in the usual chhatri style, they take inspiration from Hindu temples. The astounding cenotaph of King Ajit Singh is a four-storey red sandstone structure with fine carvings and sculptures on the columns and the ceilings. We found the memorial rather distressing though—it is dedicated to the 64 queens and concubines who committed sati on Ajit Singh’s death.
Another cenotaph to explore at leisure is that of King Dhiraj Jaswant Singh I. The majestic structure has a large hall and a dome with pillars, all with intricate carvings and sculptures.
There were many other smaller cenotaphs similar to the ones in Jaisalmer and Udaipur.
The Mandore Gardens also houses a government museum, a “Hall of Heroes” with enormous carved figures of Rajput heroes and a Hindu temple for 33 crore gods.
Note, though, that the garden itself is not in the best condition.