Bundelkhand’s majestic legacy needs attention

Published on Jul 30, 2022 07:56 PM IST

The region is dotted with ancient forts. To restore its legacy, a public-private effort, fortified by brand-building, must be made

Jehangir Mahal of Orchha Fort. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Jehangir Mahal of Orchha Fort. (Shutterstock)

The heartland of Bundelkhand, which spans 13 districts in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh, captures India’s heritage sweep. The region is dotted with ancient forts, with potential to boost the local tourism economy and encourage healthy outdoor activities.

The charisma of Bundelkhand’s forts is reflected in Kalinjar, the mightiest fortress of mediaeval India, located in the Banda district of UP. Perched on a hill, the fort withstood an attack by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1023. Sher Shah Suri died here in 1545. The local kaleidoscope includes Narwar, the historic town and fort straddling the Vindhyan crest that acted as the backdrop for the epic tale of Nala and Damayanti. Among the many tales about the region, the one about the chivalrous Dulha Rai stands out. He left his patrimony at Narwar, crossed the Aravalli ranges, and established the Amber-Jaipur lineage. Then, there is the mighty citadel of Rani Laxmibai in Jhansi. Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s stirring ode Jhansi ki Rani resonates here. During his visit to Australia in 2014, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi mentioned John Lang, an Australian lawyer. The queen had engaged him to represent Jhansi’s legal interests in the face of Lord Dalhousie’s hostile Doctrine of Lapse. The unique legacy of Lang, who died in Mussoorie, lingers here. A highlight of that trip was PM Modi’s gift to his Australian counterpart, Tony Abbott. The gift was the petition that Lang filed on behalf of the Rani. An Indo-Australian creative collaboration can bring alive the unique story of this well-meaning Australian’s backing for Jhansi at a time when Indian nationalism was starting to evolve, and also encourage tourists to visit the fort. Such hidden gems must be highlighted during the 75th Independence Day celebrations.

The Bundela-Rajput forts such as Orchha and Datia, with their wall paintings and ornate ceilings, are as much a part of Bundelkhand as the long abandoned stronghold of Kundar and its Khangar legacy. Just an hour’s drive from Jhansi, the Gupta period’s 6th-century Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh displays the many changes in Hindu temple architecture. The Chandela takeover of the region is showcased in the Khajuraho temples and the irrigation systems that helped sustain these semi-arid areas. The political front saw Alha and Udal – brothers and legendary military generals – become allies of the Chandelas against 12th century Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan. Despite the disruption from the Ghurid invasions, Khajuraho survived. As did Deogarh. The Bundela Rajputs, who succeeded the Chandelas, gave the region its name.

Forts portray their times. So does literature. The Mahoba Khand of Chand Bardai’s Prithviraj Raso depicts the pulsating tempo of the epic conflict between the Chauhans of Delhi and the Chandelas. Orchha’s court poet Keshavdas broke away from the stylised literary culture to bring vernacular Bundelkhandi to the fore. Vrindavan Lal Verma’s Garh Kundar first drew attention to this 9th-century Khangar fort.

Alongside the forts, there are several other things to see in the region: The water conservation system in Mahoba, Orchha’s kos-markers for caravan-serais, the looms weaving Chanderi’s saree motifs, the flaking walls of a Roman Catholic cemetery at Narwar, Samthar’s Italianate touch, Datia’s brackets and pavilions that inspired Edwin Lutyens, the builder of New Delhi, and the ambrosial waft of Mahoba’s celebrated paan. In addition, the forts with temples, kunds, and parikramas can strengthen community identity and generate a commitment to conservation legacies. Today, the forts of Bundelkhand look rundown. For Kundar, survival is at stake. The fortress-palace at Datia is hemmed in by indiscriminate construction. In Deogarh, missing reliefs testify to rampant vandalism. Repairs have been patchwork and amateurish.

But there’s hope. In July, while inaugurating the Bundelkhand Expressway, PM Modi asked UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath to work on a plan to boost tourism in the state’s Bundelkhand region. This is a wonderful idea. A public-private effort, fortified by brand-building, must be made to restore the legacy of Bundelkhand.

Rita Sharma and Vijai Sharma were secretaries to the Government of India, and authors of The Forts of Bundelkhand, and The Forts of Rajasthan

The views expressed are personal

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