Kaleidoscoped in this book is a landscape of history, culture and lore. In the bastions and ramparts of the citadels in Bundelkhand, is the thought, letter and song. When Rani Lakshmi Bai rode out of her citadel at Jhansi to engage the British, a legend was born to inspire an entire national movement; Kalinjar fort defied Maumud of Ghazni and daunted Delhi’s formidable Sultan Sher Shah Suri; and the loftiness and bountiful spread of art and architecture of Datia, Orchha and Deogarh is among the most venerable of the country’s heritage. Time and the elements have taken their toll, but these strongholds-monumental symbols of our past –continue to hold the senses.
Rita Sharma and Vijai Sharma are in the Indian Administrative Service. Rita Studied Physics at Miranda House Delhi and did a Ph.D.in Agricultural Economics from Cornell University. Vijai Studied at Lucknow and holds law degrees from University College London and Harvard Law School. Rita and Vijai are co-authors of The Forts of India.
My engagement with Bundelkhand was triggered in school by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s stirring ode, Jhansi ki Rani. Soon, my father’s posting as Civil Surgeon Jhansi gave me opportunity to explore Bundelkhand. Later, in the Indian Administrative Service, when the State Chief Secretary sought my choice of place for a posting as District Collector, I said: Jhansi.
Rita and I were soon captive to the forts in the area. Our son Dhruv, an inquisitive toddler, accompanied us and obliged by not tumbling off the ramparts. By the time our daughter arrived, we had been transferred to Moradabad. Rita named her Betwa after Bundelkhand’s life-giving river, to keep our tryst with the region. All this was in the early 1 980s.
Our cultural high noon in Bundelkhand came on a pleasant autumn day when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrived in Jhansi to lay the foundation stone of a museum. A culture-repast lasted many weeks, with the city tidied up and the station’s army unit providing the colour and brass. Heroes were remembered and their descendants feted. Jhansi fort provided the backdrop to an impressive son et lumiere on ‘1857’.
Bundelkhand’s forts are aging rapidly, more than time taking its toll. Some forts, as in Datia, are hemmed in by indiscriminate construction. For Kundar, survival is at stake. On my first visit, twenty-five years ago, this fort of the Khangar dynasty appeared well preserved. Recently, I was there again; my sixth visit. Kundar looked shockingly run-down. But, its ageless beauty still haunts, and while I have no take on the widely held belief that spirits hover around Kundar, whenever in its vicinity; I have felt a strange pull towards it. The Khangar history is already lost. It would be sad if Kundar too folds up.
This book takes Bundelkhand’s forts from the hinterland of history and mainstreams them along the highways. It is remarkable that Kalinjar fort twice halted Mahmud of Ghazni. The mutually sapping Parmardideva—Prithviraj conflict, a popular ballad theme, was a significant factor paving the way for the Delhi Sultanate. Over the centuries, the Bundelkhand chiefs and Delhi kings partnered in many ways, including in hybridising Rajput and Mughal architecture, such a visual treat in Orchha and Datia.
Rita and I perceived the forts in Bundelkhand as lighthouses for beaming history from a satellite region. Local snippets abound, whether it is the Kalinjarpujarii Chandella ancestry of a thousand years, the chronology of the sajjad-e-nasheen at Mahoba’s dargah, or the epitaphs of the European gunsmiths at Narwar. Such dockets of history are not eclipsed by the well profiled places of the region, like Khajuraho.
Our storyline has a diversity: Durgawati of Gondwana, Bit Singh of Orchha, Chhatrasal of Panna, Peshwa Baji Rao I and his paramour Mastani, the Scindia and others. In the centre are the Guptas and Chandellas, Hiuen Tsang, Alberuni and Ibn Batutah, the Bundela fortunes, Mughal dominance and Maratha ambitions. The wide periphery includes two seemingly unconnected events occurring simultaneously at the onset of 1761: the calamity striking the Marathas at Panipat against the Afghans and the French surrender at Pondicherry to the East India Company. The British could now spread out. In central India, Bundelkhand became the cockpit. The climax came in 1857.
Driving south from Lucknow, Bundelkhand can be imaged as a history conclave. Its detachment is striking, adding to the romance so perceptible on the Yamuna during the river-crossing at Chilla ghat over a bumpy pontoon bridge, onwards to ancient Kalinjar. The legendary Aiha and Udal came from Chilla; their mother’s village nestles in Kalinjar’s shadows. When Rita and I first visited Kalinjar, one had to trek up the hill; today, one can drive. Ajaigarh hill is still done on foot, as is Narwar.
A tribute is due to the local scholar—often, the village patwari or teacher—who doubles up as a guide. He has the key to connect events and places for a discourse on Bundelkhand’s forts. In this asset, I saw a zeal for promoting preservation and information, reminiscent of the nineteenth century surveyors and officers who rediscovered India and decoded its treasures to piece together the mosaic of heritage we value today.
Years ago, Charles Allen presented me his book A Glimpse of the Burning Plain—Leaves from the Indian Journals of Charlotte Canning, noting: ‘For Vijai, To remind him that the other side of the story waits to be told’. In this sense, I am not equipped enough. But, in the meanwhile, The Forts ofBundelkhand has taken shape. Rita and I have felt fulfilled in writing the book and taking its photographs. We had long wished to do this work on Bundelkhand and feel very happy in being able to do so through Rupa.
A big thank you to our publishers for unhesitatingly agreeing to publish the book. They were understanding and made me feel at ease when I approached them about this project on Bundelkhand, an area quite off the popular circuit. Ms Deepthi Talwar at Rupa has done the editing and so much more; her help was always there, in abundance. Ms Brinda Datta has painstakingly designed the book, and the result is there to see.
At the end of it, one cannot but reflect on the stream of ‘calling cards’ left behind in Bundelkhand over the millennia, with Kipling:
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear: ‘A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East
In the foreground is our unassailable legacy kept by the many in Bundelkhand whose forefathers fought alongside the Rani:
Bundele harbolon ke munh hamne suni kahani thee,
Khoob ladi mardani woh toJhansi wali Rani thee:
From the Bundelkhand folk we heard the story,
Of the brave Jhansi queen, her valour, her glory.
Shiv Dayal Trivedi (for the ever-widening horizons at Jhansi Museum) Ranjeet Singh Judeo Samthar Mukund lal Mehrotra Rajeshwar Khare Rakesh Tewari Bhagwan Das Gupta Amita Rajan Kaushelendra Pratap Yadav Manoj Maheshwari Murari Lal Jain Pramod Kumar Joshi Shyamanand Upadhyaya Majid Khan Pathan Om Shankar Khare ‘Asar’ Bhagwat Narain Tripathi Avadhesh Kumar Nigam State Legislative Library, Lucknow State Museum, Lucknow Directorate of U.P. State Archaeology National Archives of India.
This book tells the story of India’s heartland. In the bastions and ramparts of the citadels in Bundelkhand is a landscape of events — history, culture and lore — chronicled through letter, thought and song. Time and the elements have taken their toll, but these forts, monumental symbols of our past, continue to survive.
A thousand years ago, the Chandellas defied Mahmud of Ghazni and forced him to accept their terms at Kalinjar. The fort daunted Delhi’s formidable Sultan, Sher Shah Sur, who was killed mounting an escalade on its ancient battlements. The echo is still heard of Chhatrasal’s horsemen rounding the sal forests at Ajaigarh. And, when Rani Lakshmi Bai rode out of her stronghold at Jhansi to fight the British, a legend was born to inspire an entire national movement.
Bundelkhand’s historical legacy lies not just in the battles that were fought over it. In art and architecture too, it shone. The symmetry of the pillared walkways and pavilions of the Bundela fortress-palace at Datia sent Edwin Lutyens into raptures, inspiring his designs for New Delhi. Orchha reverberates with the compositions of poet Keshav Das from his Kiwi Priya, dedicated to Raja Bir Singh’s gifted paramour Praveen Rai, who spurned Emperor Jehangir.
Every corner of Bundelkhand has a story. In the coves of Chitrakut, where Lord Rama spent years in exile, the celestial songs of the Ramayana are told and retold amidst the warbling of forest birds. The Deogarh saga is of repose, not of cannon and conquest. Khajuraho’s sublime virility has lived through the ages, having survived also the fervour and bigotry of trampling armies on the march from Delhi to the Deccan.
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