Bundelas of Bundelkhand

Bundelas always revolted against Mughals and fought for independence. Descended from Vindhya Range they ruled in Bundelkhand. They were a Rajput clan of Chattari lineage who ruled several states in central India in Bundelkhand region. They grew to prominence in the beginning of the 16th century. The capital of Bundel dynasty was Orchha.

The Bundelas of Bundelkhand trace their ancestry to Maharaja Hemkaran (Pancham Singh Bundela) who was driven from his kingdom by his four elder brothers. While in exile, he propitiated the goddess Vindyhavasini and with her assistance established a kingdom at Mahauni in the Vindhya Range of central India. One of Pancham's three sons, Sohanpal, is believed to have wrested Garhkundar from the Khangars in the middle of the 14th century A.D. The Khangars were listed in the 19th century by the British as one of the tribal groups of Bundelkhand. The Khangars themselves claim Rajput descent.

According to Khangar folk tradition, a Khangar warrior, Khet Singh, fought along with Prithviraj Chauhan in the war against the Chandela king Parmal, and was awarded part of the defeated king’s territory. Khet Singh is believed to have made his capital in a massive seven-storied fort in Tikamgarh district, Garhkundar. We know little about the Khangar kingdom for over the next hundred years, till the emergence of a Bundela chief, Sohanpal.

The Bundela chief Rudra Pratap founded the state of Orchha. This city rapidly became the epicenter of Bundela supremacy in the region. Rudra Pratap, it is said, began planning the city and the fortifications of the citadel. He was martyred when he single handedly tried to rescue an unfortunate cow from a ferocious tiger. Though the cow was saved, Rudra Pratap died due to injuries, leaving the throne of Orchha to his Son Bharati Chand who continued to work on developing the capital. 
Bharati Chand I was succeeded by Madhukar. He brought Bundela presence into focus with his skills in diplomacy, military adroitness, religious actions, declarations and city building vision. The new king was a very religious person.. In fact it was during the reign of Madhukar Shah that the Mughals reinforced their approval of the Rajput legitimacy of the Bundelas. The court poet Kesavdas dramatically tells his version of the story of how the King challenged Akbar’s ban on Hindu sect marks and the wearing of sacred beads in his court and gained the Emperor’s admiration and a share in the profits of campaigns. Madhukar Shah contributed much to the development of Orchha. As a ruler his contributions were not satisfactory. His growing indecision and ineffectualness in State affairs drove the territories to divisions. He lost his son Horal Deo in a terrible battle resisting the Mughals onslaught on Orchha and finally he himself was forced to flee his capital and died in the nearby jungles. His second son, Ram Shah managed to occupy the throne of Orchha with the help of a peace treaty. Finally, controls passed over to his brother Vir Singh Dev.

The new ruler’s initial focus on manipulating the Mughals and forgoing new alliances drove him to attempt attracting the goodwill of the rebellious young Prince Salim by murdering Abul Fazal, the famous historian in Akbar’s court. This infuriated the Emperor who sent an Army into Orchha and ousted Vir Singh Dev. The Bundela ruler fled into the nearby forests and remained there until Jehangir came to the Mughal throne and reinstalled him in Orchha. Vir Singh Dev continued to bring back to his subjects the ‘lost glory’ of the Bundelas. His friendship with the young Mughal Emperor Jehangir paid off and radically improved the potential of getting back the fragments that had fallen away from his dismembered Kingdom. He succeeded rapidly in acquiring immense wealth and expanded the borders of his territories. With renewed vigor, he went about enriching Orccha, commissioning some of the most spectacular structures of his times. The Raja Mahal was further developed and a magnificent palace was built nearby especially for the Mugal Emperor and came to be known as the Jehangir Mahal. This was constructed for the visit of the Monarch from Delhi. According to accounts, it was used only for one night. Other contribution to Orchha during his reign includes the remarkable bridge that connects the fort area to the town, the stylishly improvised Chatturbhuj Temple and the amazing Laxmi Narayan Temple with its triangular courtyards and diagonal entrance. He brought to the capital his unusual stamp of originality.

Vir Singh Dev's son, the weak and ineffectual Jujhar Singh, succeeded him and came to be known more of his impetuousness than his statesmanship. He is ironically instrumental in immortalizing his own brother. As the story goes, when Jujhar Singh returned from his prolonged campaign in the Deccan, he suspected his brother Hardol of having an affair with his wife. He forced his wife Heeta Devi to poison his brother to prove her innocence. During his life Hardol was considered to be the embodiment of compassion, bravery and the truth. His charismatic public image had drawn innumerable followers around him. When he died, they immortalized him through stories, songs and musical performances. Gardens and Shrines were established in his name and he quickly became the Hero-saint protector of women, one whose blessings fructified marriages and protected households. In fact, till today, the power and blessings of Lala Hardol is sought throughout the region of Bundelkahand. Returning the fate of Jujhar Singh, his impetuousness drove him into open rebellion against the Mughals and they ousted him from Orchha and left him to die in the wilderness.

The Mughal Emperor Shahjehan installed Pahar Singh on the throne of Orchha. Even though the King of Orchha was still regarded by the Mughals as the head of the Bundela clan, the state’s powers had been radically depleted and Pahar Singh’s position was predominantly titular. In spite of his efforts to keep alive the Bundela Rajput identity, a rapid dissolution had been set in motion. His reign was virtually without note and was followed by Sujan Singh and Bhagwat Singh who managed to remain in power by kowtowing to the Mughals. When Udait Singh came to the throne in Orchha, the Marathas had already entered the region of Bundelkhand and had begun to make inroads into strongholds that were once controlled by the Bundelas. His Son Prithvi Singh was unable to hold on to the territories that he inherited and lost them to the invaders. All that remained within his control was Orchha. His successors Hatey Singh, Man Singh, Bharti Chand II and Vikramjit found themselves without a vestige of past significance. When Vikramjit shifted his capital from Orchha to Tehri (Tikamgarh), all that remained were their stone edifices, poems, songs, stories, musical memories and whirls of dust that an unforgiving wind kicked up along the Betwa.

Champat Ray, a descendant of Rudra Pratap of Orcha, revolted against the Mughals. His fourth son Maharaja Chhatrasal became the most prominent Bundela leader. He started a rebellion against the Mughals, and soon captured Naugaon in present-day Chhatarpur District. He conquered Mahoba and went on to control much of Bundelkhand, ruling from Panna. He formed an alliance with the Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao I, who was challenging the Mughals for control of central India. He sent a Maratha army to aid Chhatarsal against the Mughals. Upon his death in 1732, Chhatarsal left a third of his dominions, including Mahoba, Banda, and Jhansi to his Maratha ally Baji Rao. Chhatarsal's descendants ruled the states of Panna, Ajaigarh, Charkhari, Chhatarpur, Jaso, Banka, Banpur, Bijna, Chanderi, Chirgaon, Chatrapur, Datia, Durwai, Khaniadhana, Shahagarh, Tori Fatehpur etc. Chhatarpur went to the Ponwar Rajputs in 1785.

For the descendants of Bundela Rajput Royalty and the numerous individuals and families that still remain, the ‘Rajput’ issue still is a significant one. However, in the wider context of history, what is significant is not the battles that were fought but instead the rich legacy of the written and performed words, art, architecture and folklore that the Bundela Rajputs left behind.

Works Cited: Kambo, Dharam P. Orchha. New Delhi: Vashima Printers, 1984. 
 Yadav, Neeta. History and Heritage of Orchha, Bundelkhand. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 2012.


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