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The Bundelas gave their names to a dialect of Hindi and an entire geo-cultural region and left behind a legacy of art, architecture and folklore – and yet their living story was one of constant turbulence as they struggled to hold on to their ‘Rajput’ identity.

Walking the dusty streets of Orchha town in the Tikamgarh district of North West Madhya Pradesh, one is overwhelmed by the sheer scale and expanse of the architectural remnants of the past. Temples, palaces, forts, cenotaphs, shrines and royal homes, now in semi-ruin, make their presence felt with aesthetic force. Each has innumerable stories to tell…through local residents who willingly give you their own special folkloric versions, peppering them with songs and poems. Indeed, the past persists, giving all life a context.

Bundela Fortification on the island

Orchha is located on the border between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, hardly 16 km away from the historic city of Jhansi. Set in a hollow encircled by scrub jungle, it lies along the left bank of the river Betwa.  The area forms part of the extensive region that has been culturally and historically known as Bundelkhand (meaning ‘the domain of the Bundelas’). In fact, Bundeli, a derivative of the name, is linguistically given to the dialect of Hindi spoken by people of the region which includes eight northern districts of Madhya Pradesh and four southern districts of Uttar Pradesh. Of course this linguistic region is far more expansive than the actual Bundela territories.

The Story of the Bundelas

To understand the Bundelkhandi ethos, let’s look at the story of the Bundelas.

A depiction of Bundela Rajputs establishing their royal lineage

Their origins reach far back into the misty past to a place where folklore holds centre stage. It is said that Virbhadra, the ruler of Kasi (present day Varanasi) had two wives. The elder had three sons and the younger just one – Jagdas (also known as Hemkaran). When the king died, the sons of his elder queen refused the young prince his share of the kingdom and instead sent him into exile. As a wanderer, he travelled into the mountains of the Vindhyas to worship Vindhyavasini Devi (the goddess who dwells in the Vindhyas). Extreme penance brought no response from the Devi, so in desperation, the prince drew out his sword to behead himself. When the steel drew the first drop of blood from his throat, the Devi appeared and said that she was so well pleased with his courage and devotion that she blessed the sword that he carried and turned the drop of blood into a boy who she said would be destined to become the founder of a warrior people known as the ‘Bundelas’ – (the givers of the drop – of blood).

Chhatries beside the river Betwa

There are of course, many other versions of the same story, all stressing on the fact that the Bundelas are a heroic people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause. It would be useful to note here that Vindhyavasini Devi continued to be worshipped by all royal Bundelas as a clan goddess.

Enhancing these folkloric claims are those that assert that the royal line of Bundelas can be traced all the way back to Lord Vishnu. Their origins from the stem of the divine lotus flower legitimately entitled them to be rulers – of royal and spiritual descent. This empowered them to protect, rule and guide their territories and their subjects.

Their History

The Bundelas were a subsidiary or lesser (the terms are debatable!) Rajput clan of military employers who gave their name to the soldiers that they employed to help the Mughal Empire. In fact being both service providers and land holders gave them a strong position in the region. This position proved to be both a source of support as well as a challenge to the Mughals because as time moved on, the Bundela Rajputs began to build a subsidiary state.

Bundela Rajputs preparing for war

Several unsuccessful attempts were made by the Muslim rulers to dislodge them as middle-men from the region. However, they held fast because they were deeply entrenched in the region as landowners and had also established a ‘Bundelkhandi’ ethos which had a strong geo-cultural and linguistic base.

It was quite early in the 13th century that they developed a firm footing in the area on the borders of present-day Jhansi and Timkamgarh. Apparently, they uprooted the Khangar chiefs in Garh Kundar and brought together the Bundelas, Dhanderas and Panwar families in the area into a broader Bundela Rajput group. Even though the group was a mixed bag so to say, a concerted effort was made to popularize the notion that they had in fact all the aspects that made them both royal and special enough for them to be considered as Rajputs. However the Rajputs themselves did not recognize them as one of their clans and turned down all attempts at marriage alliances. It was the Mughals instead who acknowledged this identity.

Records dealing with the early life of the ‘Royal Bundela Rajputs’ are predominantly folkloric. Mention is made of the ‘Royal Bundelas of Garkundhar‘ with a listing of the ‘kings who ruled’ from 1252 AD to 1501 AD. These included Sohan Pal, Sahjendra, Naunak Deo, Prithvi Raj, Ram Singh, Ram Chandra, Medni Pal, Arjun Deo and Malkhan Singh. However, recorded history starts from the time when Rudra Pratap emerged from his impregnable fort of Kundar and established Orchha, his new capital on the left bank of the Betwa river.

This city rapidly became the epicentre of Bundela supremacy in the region and symbolically represented the quest for position, dignity and a slice of pan-Indian power of a scattered people who had spent their early years in the social backwoods as soldiers and ploughmen.

Chaturbhuj Mandir

For the descendants of Bundela Rajput royalty and the numerous individuals and families that still remain, the ‘Rajput’ issue still is a significant one, and rightly so. However, in the wider context of history, what is significant is not the battles that were fought, nor the heroes who spent their while upon the stage and then were seen and heard no more, nor the power of the kingdom and the extent of the territories but instead the rich legacy of the written and performed word, art, architecture and folklore that the Bundela Rajputs left behind.

In the wider context of history, what is significant to note is the rich legacy of the written and performed word, art, architecture and folklore that the Bundela Rajputs left behind!

 

Author: Randhir Khare
Photographs: Susan Bullough Khare
Source: Heritage India Magazine Vol 1 Issue 2 (2008) (The article above is abstracted from the piece titled THE QUEST FOR POWER AND DIGNITY from the magazine)

Web Editor: Kshitija Pande

 

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