Past Sonpuri, fed by the rivulets that race through the forests and fields on its banks, the Narmada swells from a waistdeep stream into a mighty river. Headed westwards to the sea, only once does it change course, suddenly lurching south, to meet its tributary, the Banjar. The two large rivers collide almost head on. The impact is enough to knock the Narmada back on its westward course. Along this arc described by the Narmada, on the far bank from the Banjar, surrounded by water on three sides, lies Mandla.

When the Pardhans sing the history of the Gond clans, they begin with the history of the ‘king of the 52 forts’ who ruled from the city of Mandla. Today this is almost the edge of Gond territory. Further west the Gonds begin to give way to a non-tribal peasantry who farm some of the most fertile land in the country. But five centuries ago Mandla lay at the heart of a vast Gond kingdom that today survives only in the songs of the Pardhans.

At the Jabalpur museum, an old map of undivided Madhya Pradesh, from a time when political correctness was not in fashion, displays the distribution of the tribal population in the state. The southeastern quarter is shown as inhabited by the Gonds. This includes the long southwards projection, now Chhattisgarh, which the map claims is home to the ‘most primitive Gonds’.

Waters Close Over Us—A Journey Along the Narmada: HarperCollins India, 272 pages, Rs 499
Waters Close Over Us—A Journey Along the Narmada: HarperCollins India, 272 pages, Rs 499

Like the painting of the Pardhans, the map tells a story.

Over the early history of the Indian subcontinent, the Narmada valley was home to a number of classical cities that lay along the trade routes that connected the two great cities of the Mauryan Empire, Patliputra in the Indo-Gangetic plain and Ujjayni that lay on the edge of the Narmada valley. After the breakdown of the empire a number of these cities flourished as city states, before declining in the face of new kingdoms that lasted till the early medieval period. For much of this period, the bulk of the population of the valley remained tribal.

Through constant interaction with these cities and civilizations, the Gonds eventually founded a kingdom of their own. Fifteen kilometres upstream of Mandla at the Ramnagar fort, where every room and terrace seems to have been designed with a view of the Narmada in mind, stands a stone tablet listing the history of the dynasty. The first name on the tablet is Yadav Rao.

According to a legend documented by [British administrator W.H.] Sleeman, Yadav Rao, a young Gond from the lands south of the Narmada had once gone on a pilgrimage to Amarkantak. Walking through the forest, he saw three Gonds, two men and a woman, walking ahead trailed by a gigantic monkey. The monkey dropped a few peacock feathers at his feet. Yadav Rao picked up them up. At night, the goddess Narmada appeared in his dreams. She told him that he had actually seen Ram, Laxman, Sita and Hanuman. The peacock feathers he had picked up, she said, prophesized that he would be king.

Yadav Rao followed the advice of the river goddess and took up a job with the local ruler of Garha, a few kilometres from Jabalpur. The king had only one offspring, his daughter Ratnavali. He called a gathering of eligible men where the kingfisher, an auspicious bird, would select the groom. Let loose in the assembly of men, the bird alighted on Yadav Rao’s head.

The legend seems to point to the same northward movement of the Gonds that their Dravidian language attests to, but the Rampur stone tablet imposes a chronology of kings that extends back to the third or fourth century AD. The names that follow Yadav Rao on the list seem apocryphal, matching the penchant of all Indian dynasties to seek sanctity in a distant past. It is only the figures of the medieval period that seem to reflect historical personages.

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The Shree Yantra Temple in Amarkantak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From the top, with the Narmada valley spread out below, it would have been easy to spot any approaching army miles away. Within the walls, remains of large perennial baolis were still visible.

The royal palace in one corner of the fort complex was in ruins. From the glimpses of paint on the façade and the work on the stone pillars collapsed amidst the encroaching jungle, it was easy to tell that the Gond had borrowed from the older dynasties in this region. They seemed to have done what every new set of rulers did in this land, use existing material for their construction. Amidst the ruins of the royal palace lay carved pillars that seemed to date back to the Kalchuri period.

From an independent kingdom to a feudatory of the Mughals, this was the beginning of a slow decline. Fort by fort the kingdom fell away. Looking for a more secure capital, the subsequent rulers first shifted to Ramnagar on the banks of the Narmada where the palace housing the stone tablet still stands, and then back to Mandla in 1699. It was the takeover of Mandla by the Marathas in 1781 that brought an end to the dynasty. By 1820 the Marathas had given way to the British.

In an account of his travels in 1835, W.H. Sleeman writes of an encounter with the last queen of this dynasty, Laxmi Kumari, “Her husband, Narhari Shah…died a prisoner in the fortress of Kurai, in the Sagar district, in 1789 A.D., leaving two widows. One burnt herself upon the funeral pyre and the other was prevented from doing so, merely because she was thought too young, as she was not then fifteen years of age…She is now about sixty years of age, and still a very good looking woman. In her youth she must have been beautiful. She does not object to appear unveiled before gentlemen on any particular occasion; and, when Lord W. Bentinck was at Jubbulpore in 1833, I introduced the old queen to him. He seemed very much interested, and ordered the old lady a pair of shawls. None but the very coarse ones were found in the store-rooms of the Governor General’s representative, and his Lordship said these were not such as a Governor-General could present, or a queen, however poor, receive; and as his own toshakhana’ had gone on, he desired that a pair of the finest kind should be purchased and presented to her in his name…when I returned in 1835, I found that the rejected shawls had been presented to her, and were such coarse things that she was ashamed to wear them, as much, I really believe, on account of the exalted person who had given them, as her own."....

Perhaps, Narhari Shah knew what the future held. Heirless, in 1779 he found an infant abandoned by the banks of the Narmada. He adopted the boy and named him Narmada Baksh (the gift of the Narmada). Narmada Baksh never sat on the Mandla throne but he was declared heir to the property of Laxmi Kumari. When the Bundela Rajputs fought the British in 1842, the records speak of a rebel named Narmada Baksh.

Edited excerpts, with permission from HarperCollins India. The book is available in stores.

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