Journal : A Metaphor For India

Kalinjar Fort : An Introduction 

Kalinjar is a sleepy town in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh. But the area is almost an exact metaphor for India, the country itself. It was venerated ground in Vedic times, rose to great prominence and power over a millennium, turned into a refuge for crooks, abductors, killers and kidnappers, and now rests without a meaning, lost and without the animal vigour India’s Prime Minister seeks to infuse in the economy ! 

Information is scarce about the makers of the historically impregnable fort close to the town, as also of those fantastic sculptures in temple-dense Khajuraho some 100 km away. But chronological events about the fort are today available … including the people who lived by it, those it sheltered, invaders it drew, happenings it caused and invited, and the future it affected and shaped. 

Over centuries past, people never ceased to converge on this the hill fort… the high and mighty, learned and aspiring, renunciates and devotees… all would arrive on this huge, desolate plateau among hills, forest and cave dwellings, for pilgrimage, penance, discourse on wide range of facts and discoveries, exchange of personal views and studies, rise to power and live through decline. 

The Neelkanth Temple, cut into solid rock of a mountain slope, precedes the Fort by a few thousands of years it seems and still draws worshipers from far and wide. The entire Fort, massive as it is, came up around the cave temple. 

Historical events that occurred around the Fort often arose with developments far from it… in Deccan and far south in Indian sub-continent; Magadh and Kalinga in east; Saurashtra and Rajputana in west; Delhi, Kannauj, Kashmir and Kabul in north; and Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Mongolia, Tashkent and Samarkand abroad… right up through the reign of Aurangzeb, the last prominent Mughal, when the Fort and neighbouring region was filled with intense frenzy while the Marathas and Bundelas rose to peaks of power and gave way to British occupation in early 19th Century. 

The Fort’s history offers the occasion to glean a comprehensive perspective of what the people of Indian subcontinent lived though over the ages… how they grew with their genius and lost under those of inferior stock, how they sustained their beliefs and fought with forces unleashed from within and abroad. 

A fascinating and absorbing account of about 2000 years … 

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Representing a history entire in itself, Kalinjar Fort in Bundelkhand is a story that runs through 6000 generations in immediate past alone. You cannot think of it without the convergence it includes of people and events from a rather wide world that arrived at it. It is too much of history, we note in astonishment, with far too many people of all kinds to be converging on this quiet forested periphery of one the oldest mountain ranges on earth – the Vindhyas ! What economic and political significance did the region acquire to foster such legendary architecture as can be still be found in Kalinjar and nearby ruins from antiquity ? What we observe accentuates our wonder of that intangible bundle of happenings wrapped within an immense scale of time. The exquisite temples and irreplaceable sculptures at Khajuraho, mere 100 km away, never fail to cast its awe upon us. 

One may imagine the culture the region spawned over the centuries as the sub-continental civilisation itself evolved from its Vedic roots to the age of rich breakaway ideals offered by Jainism and Buddhism, through Greek infusions, Maurya nationalism and peace, the Golden era of mighty Guptas, through Hun, Shaka and Muslim invasions, Adi Shankar’s spectacular monism, Turk and Mughal domination, beautiful lyrics of devotion and rare philosophical texts by a series of exponents and savants, and spirited people movements that rose during the British period. The art we observe today is perhaps a tiny remnant of a pervasive phenomenon and the remarkable political stalwarts embody multitudes of endowed bravehearts, even as the battlefield came to be prevailed over by more devastating guns, canon and artillery. 

The Fort is principally associated with the Chandels who reigned high from 10th to 13th Century and minimally up towards the end of 16th Century. The cultural seat of Chandel kings was in that fantastically temple – dense “city” of Khajuraho. But the “Kalinjara” connection is with a stream of influx, back from the Kalchuris who might have been involved in some of the grand carvings in Elephanta and Ellora caves, the Rashtrakuts of Deccan, to Gujarat Parmars, Kannauj Pratihars and Chauhans, Vijaynagar empire, Mughals, Afghans, the English, the armed rebellions against British occupation and for Indian independence, and to Mahatma Gandhi. It takes the wind out of me, the heart brimming with humanity. 

The Kalinjar Fort was a fortress with unparalleled strength, much culture and uncounted wealth. Together with its twin fort at Ajaigarh, Kalinjar formed a formidable line of defence against attacks from the north. In 1019, Mahmud of Ghazni ravaged much of north and west India but had to turn back from Kalinjar on account of difficulties it posed and the opposition he encountered. The year 1022 saw a repeat, with Ghazni having to remain content with a few gifts from the Chandel ruler of Kalinjar, but without the keys to the Fort itself. 

In its heydays, it is said that the Fort was ‘ a frightening embodiment of Hindu power.’ The most significant place within the Fort, still extant, is the Neelkanth (Shiva) Temple. The wide platform in front of its small entrance includes a mandapa, with proud pillars that still stand, but which is now without a roof. All around it are priceless, ancient rock cut relics and carvings. 

It is certain that had the Kalinjar Fort fallen to Ghazni’s plunder, Khajuraho and its priceless expressions of art, its liberal thought and architecture, would not have survived. The irony is that Khajuraho, which the Fort shielded, is a thriving well-promoted tourist hub today while Kalinjar is a gray area, seldom appreciated, rarely remembered and infrequently visited by connoisseurs of history, art, architecture and defence strategy. 

The Chandel supremacy was constantly under challenge since early medieval period and its kings had to face assaults from rulers of Kannauj in their north-west, Malwa in the west, the Chalukyas and Rashtrakuts in south and south-west, the Pals in the east, and of Kalinga in south-east. But the survival of Chēdi–Kalchuris lineage – the Chandels, through a millenium in such hostile environment, with their own dateline, currency and administrative institutions, speaks a lot for their commitment to the dominion and of their capability of shoring up order and security in the region to allow for pastoral and agricultural occupations, crafts and trade, arts and culture. 

Towards their end, when the Chandel dominion had shrunk to a few districts in the neighbourhood, the forts at Kalinjar and Ajaigarh were still with them before the last of their line of kings was finally submerged in the waves of history that saw attacks by the Gonds … because the reigning Gond king wanted the hand of the Chandel princess ! Onslaughts of Afghan and Mughal armies followed, before the rise of Raja Chhatrasal and the sway of Maratha power, and its occupation by the British until India’s independence in 1947. 

Today, the Fort is at peace. The battles have ended and the two old forts are gradually fading, much like old soldiers of yore. 

In popular hearsay that survives, it is said that the Queen’s Palace in Kalinjar Fort precincts stills fills with spooky sounds at night, of ankle trinkets specially worn by courtesans and danseuse while they performed before a gathering of eminent persons invited by the royals for an evening of art, joy and pleasure ! 

* * *

I might continue this fascinating tale … 


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