Cruising down the smooth roads of NH 3 from Agra towards Gwalior, a hazy silhouette of minarets on the right side of the stretch near Dholpur breaks the monotony of a bland landscape. Focus hard against the glaring sun and the silhouette fades away giving way to a sharp image of slightly red sandstone minarets that hint at being part of a magnificent structure. For the heritage and architecture lovers, these are nothing sort of magnets attracting them to come and appreciated their presence.
A green board on the side of the road marks the name of the settlement as Jajau Sarai. The minarets and the word sarai are a combination potent enough to ensure a quick stopover.
Up close, the minarets look stately, part of a towering gateway standing grand amidst a cluster of whitewashed brick and plaster houses. Conversations with the curious onlookers from around the settlement reveal the indeed has a regal past, having been built during Aurangzeb’s reign. Estimated to be around 500 years old, the minarets are the remnants of a grand sarai (rest house) constructed by the Mughals in the early 1600s.
Given their penchant for long journeys across their acquired territories, the Mughals built a number of sarais to rest while travelling. These sarais or motels as we might classify them today also served as rest spots for the travelling caravans of merchants and Mughal soldiers. The historic Grant Trunk Road is dotted with ruins of several such sarais and this one was such campsite, built on a highway that led to Mughal territories down south.
The gateway seen from the highway is a part of two identical gateways of the sarai complex The second one is towards the other end of the complex, close to the Gambhir river (also called Utangan river) that irrigates the farmlands around the sarai. Both these gateways are artfully designed three storied structures, with airy rooms and balconies that face the complex and perhaps helped keep an eye on the going-ons inside the sarai. The walls are decorated with arabesque motifs and carvings typical of the early Mughal architecture.
Typical of most such constructions, the layout plan of this sarai too had a large open courtyard with rooms around the peripheral wall. All of it is gone now, with the land encroached upon by the settlers who have built houses inside the once-walled complex. What remains besides the gateways is a three-domed mosque which is still in use by the locals.
Walking around the sarai, with the curious kids from the neighbourhood joining in, the exploration soon turns into a walking tour with random hearsay information flying freely. They are fun to hang out with, the kids, and keep the motley group that they themselves are a part of, entertained with silly gimmickry. Once every nook and corner of the sarai is explored, the giggly bunch of kids suggests the baoli (step-well) near-by be explored too. An unexpected bonus.
The stepwell, the construction period of which dates back to the same era as that of the sarai, looks grand but has been turned into a storage barn by the villagers. Clumsily stocked stacks of hay and scrubby overgrowth mar its beauty, but at the same time add an air of mystery to the forlorn looking structure. The sheen of the red sandstone speaks of better days, but it is in need of some sprucing up now. The locals are indifferent, for heritage conservation does not figure in their scheme of things. Of course keeping up with the elementary needs of life are a bigger priority.
Climbing down to the bottom of the three storied step well, the chit-chat with the kids turns towards the importance of protecting and preserving our heritage and the young ones promise to keep both the heritage structures clean and protected from nitwits who deface the walls of public monuments with ugly graffiti. With this promise, it’s time to say goodbye to Jajau sarai.
The short stopover gave another delightful insight into the caravan sarais of the Mughal era. Hope the striking minarets continue to intrigue and beckon curious travellers to appreciate their bustling past.
Distance – 30-35kms from Agra towards Gwalior (NH3)
Nearby towns – Dholpur, Morena