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In the Land of Narmada: Visions From 50 Years Ago

Sri. Nettur P. Damodaran (1913-1978) was a prominent public figure from the state of Kerala, India, who had made contributions in various fields as a freedom fighter, political activist,  social worker, author, journalist, Member of Parliament, and a senior government official. The recently published book In the Land of Narmada, which is a translation of a travelogue written by him in Malayalam and first published fifty years ago, is a fascinating work due to many reasons. It shines a light on many facets of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which are unknown to the present generation.

Among such lesser-known aspects of daily life in the province are those related to the dreaded gangs of dacoits.  For all practical purposes, dacoits have been eliminated in central India, the current generation, including the youngster from those areas, are not aware of the sway they once held on the day-to-day life of the people. 

Apart from their social impact, the stories of these bands, which included the full spectrum, from the scum of the earth right up to almost noble souls, make fascinating reading. The personal experiences of the author had half a century back, as highlighted in the excerpts below,  will certainly ignite curiosity in the minds of the readers to learn more about them. 

Dacoits come in, right in the introduction to the book written by renowned novelist, travelogue writer, and winner of Jnanpith Award,  Sri. S. K. Pottekkatt wherein he describes an experience he had while traveling with the author: 

“….I still remember a small incident that happened during that trip. Somewhere on the way, a group of six or seven men stopped the bus in which we were travelling. We noticed few passengers getting up and making seats available for them when they boarded the bus. Those who entered the bus were seen speaking loudly and gesticulating among themselves. We understood that they were showering abuses in strong colloquial tongue. Suddenly, a young man with thick moustache got up from his seat, removed his footwear and started slapping a fairly old and hefty man on both sides of his cheeks and shoulder without respite.

While receiving the blows, the elderly man did not utter a word nor did he resist. He just unsuccessfully tried to evade and then quietly withdrew, mumbling. The conductor, the driver and the passengers remained silent throughout the episode as if they have not seen anything. Nettur and I were a bit perplexed.

Once the bus reached a deserted place, after travelling two or three miles, the thick moustached young man ordered the driver to stop. After the bus stopped, first the young man followed by others in the group, including the person who received the slaps, got down and went away. Once the bus started to move after they disembarked, the passengers heaved a deep sigh of relief. Then they broke their silence. It appears the ones who disembarked were the members of a dacoit gang!”

Sri. Nettur P. Damodaran continues his narration in the chapter on the dacoits – Please keep in mind the fact that this book was written fifty years back. Many of the schemes described and societal changes envisioned by the author have already happened, which in turn highlights his unique insight and foresight.

From ‘Land of Narmada’, originally published in the year 1972

……Along with a team comprising a clerk, a peon, and a driver, I left Delhi to go on a tour of Madhya Pradesh, one day. Traversing the dacoits-dominated districts of Morena, Gwalior, and Shivapuri, we reached Shivapuri. Though we had some apprehensions in our minds, none of the dacoits cared for us. What would they gain by robbing us?

It is the rich, those who don’t pay upon their demands and the informants who help to catch them, that they generally kidnap and harm. Perhaps they would have known that neither I nor my party falls in that category. Apart from that, our travel was in broad daylight and on the Agra–Bombay National Highway. There’s heavy traffic on that highway.

It appears the dacoits have great respect for such highways. They are also true nationalists, who abhor parochialism! If anyone travels fearlessly on provincial roads, they do not spare them. Those holding local sentiments and are parochial in mind should hence exercise extreme caution before venturing on such roads. Generally, they do not harm outsiders. They catch hold of only those who are living among them; whom they know very well.

Dacoits also have certain needs, don’t they? They approach the rich and seek money, when in need. If the approached one does not pay up, they simply withdraw after setting a date. On that chosen date, they reach there and take him as a hostage. Once the set ransom is paid, the person is brought back as well. However, if he does not pay up, the rich man will never return home.

Helping the poor and the suffering lot is one of their covenants. They donate liberally to the poor parents for meeting the expenses of their daughters’ weddings. Is it for nothing that the authorities are failing to eliminate the dacoits? “

The political philosophy of the dacoit gangs also is socialism. They have a popular base and public support—the egalitarian principles of the dacoits are generally applied to those ruthless anti-socials, who have amassed wealth by exploiting the poor. I used to wonder at times whether areas such as Morena, Shivapuri, Bhind, and Gwalior aren’t more suited than Kerala for communism to flourish.

The dacoits do not have any special affinity towards communism. They are believers in God. For them, committing dacoity and even murder is considered as acts of offering to God. Whether communism will take roots among them is a matter to be seen.

Vinobaji had conducted a padayatra over there. He also did succeed to some extent. But it is difficult for Vinobaji to succeed where government, police, law, rules, etc. are enmeshed in tangles. If such issues were not there, probably Vinobaji could have succeeded and the dacoits could have undergone a change of hearts and their lives would have found new streams to flow. Though they do not respect the law, they have certain laws of their own. They follow them. Before carrying out every dacoity, they bow before their Goddess.  The boundaries of operation for individual gangs are set. If anyone breaks these boundaries, they fight among themselves. As a result, many die. It is believed by the villagers that such dead bodies of dacoits killed in inter-gang fights are later picked up by the police and exhibited as the ones killed in police encounters falling prey to their guns to gain fame. To my knowledge, this belief is not only among the villagers but among others also. 

Many officials who had been in the captivity of the dacoits had described their experiences to me. Once the houses of the officials stationed in the district headquarters of Bhind district for the construction of an irrigation project fell prey to the dacoits. They did not harm anybody. After selecting and bundling things lying there that they felt would be of use, they dispersed peacefully. There is a danger only if they are resisted. In such a case, in addition to money, lives also may be lost. In Bhind itself, once a lady officer fell into their hands. But they did not do any harm. Being a lady and an outsider, she was let off. But her peon, a local, who got up from sleep and came there on hearing the noise had to bear a minor burn inflicted on his hand. Perhaps a punishment for not vigilantly guarding his lady boss. This was the only harm done by them.

In Shivapuri, we had parked our car in front of a shop for filling the tank. That shop was owned by a rich Sait. A month before, that very shop and the town had witnessed a scene. A few men came in a jeep, alighted in front of the shop, and asked the owner Sait to board the jeep. As if accompanying known people, Sait boarded the jeep. Only much later did the citizens of Shivapuri realize that the people who came in the jeep were dacoits and it was an abduction for money, after the Sait returned spending few days as their captive and guest and regaining his lost freedom by paying up the ransom. The shop and the Sait are still there. The Sait is quite sure that they will not approach him again for quite some time. The dacoits observe many such etiquettes. They approach an old target only after completing a full cycle of covering all the targets on the list. Such an understanding exists between the rich and the dacoits. Many people in the area also believe that there is a different set of understanding between the police and the dacoits. I have met many who believe that the issue of dacoits remains unresolved because both sides have reconciled on cooperative coexistence within certain limits. 

Chambal Valley (Image from Land of Narmada)

The Government has a good scheme to sink the dacoits. It is the Chambal ravines that aid the dacoits to hide and engage in guerrilla battles. 

On our way from Dholpur in Rajasthan to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, we reached Shivapuri after crossing this gorgeous and modest river that flows along the border between the two states. It is difficult to believe that dacoits are hiding within the folds of the flowing attire of this charming beauty of a river that is streaming through a long and broad path far beyond the line of sight.

If the shores on both the sides are visually examined, one can find truth in these stories. Because of the soil erosion due to the continuous flow of water, the terrain formed over a long distance is full of large pits, mounts, and caves. It will appear as if nature has built a fort for the dacoits to have a free run in the area. The Government’s plan is to flatten these areas for making them cultivable and to smoke out the dacoits like wild rats. The name of the scheme is Chambal Valley Reclamation Scheme. Long live the Chambal project!

Pradeep Nettur, the translator of the book, is the second son of the author. An Engineer by training and a Civil servant by profession, spanning 36 years, he pursued his literary passion by taking up the translation of this masterclass work of his father, which, though widely appreciated, was confined in the vernacular for about 50 years, for laying it before the world of an extended, enlightened and enlarged readership.


Orchha – A Hidden Heritage Site

Just because you’re stuck at home doesn’t mean you can’t add another place to your travel list.

Orchha in Madhya Pradesh, India is a ‘hidden’ gem. It’s historical monuments adjacent to pristine nature narrate a story.

I happened to be in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, on the occasion of ‘Namaste Orchha’ festival, whose director Yasmin Kidwai said that, “Madhya Pradesh is a very underrated destination. While its wildlife is acknowledged, the state’s vast historical and architectural heritage is not. The state represents what best India has to offer. Orchha is a part of these untold and undiscovered destinations in the state.” 

A small town in Bundelkhand region may have just emerged as the key to unleashing the rich potential of tourism in Madhya Pradesh, but it is a treasure trove of forts, rivers, forests, and cultures. 

So, to explore its historical and architectural heritage, I had decided to roam around the nooks and corners of the small town with a glorious past. 

Colors of Architecture 

Chatturbhuj Mandir

Founded in the 18th century by Rudra Pratap Singh, Orchha became the capital of the Bundela Rajput dynasty. Planned along the river Betwa, the complex of forts, palaces, and cenotaphs surprise the visitors with the unexpected. While exploring them, legends come alive and you are lost in a labyrinth inducing curiosity.

Yes, this is Orchha. A vast canvas with all the colors of architecture and each color tells a unique and vibrant story. It is the only place in India where Lord Ram is worshipped as a King. The grand temples stand majestically against the landscape, merging the stories of valor of the Rajput Kings with those of the Gods. 

Chhatris – Memorials of Rulers 

Chhatris along the river.

Fourteen chhatris or cenotaphs line the Kanchan Ghat of the river Betwa. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, chhatris are memorials spaces for the rulers of Orchha. Like the pyramids of Egypt, they were constructed to respect the dead, but no treasure can be found here. While watching the flowing river, walking through the green fields, you can marvel at their intricate beauty. While passing through the square shape cenotaph of Vir Singh Deo, I felt as though I could spend hours admiring the structure. 

Splendid Palaces 

Orchha, which means ‘hidden’, has a paradise of forts that need to be explored and admired for its blend of Mughal and Bundela architecture. To understand the grandeur of the past, one must visit the fort complex where Orchha’s rulers used to live. It is a delightful experience to watch the sunset from the jharokas built on the fort’s exteriors. From the top, you can see the entire town and three main structures of the fort – Raja Mahal, Jehangir Mahal, and Rai Praveen Mahal. 

Raja Mahal includes the Sheesh Mahal and every evening you can enjoy a light and sound show which narrates the story of the Bundelas. It is one of the most historic monuments in the fort.

Situated to the right of the quadrangle, is a palace built by Madhukar Shah. The plain exteriors crowned by chhatris, give way to interiors with exquisite murals, bold colors, and a variety of religious themes.

Jehangir Mahal has intricate carvings and large verandahs at every step. Passing through several dungeon-like staircases and maze-like rooms will leave you in awe. Invited by the Bundela King, Jehangir came and ended up staying for a long time; this was constructed to honor him. The Jahangir Mahal is multi-story and offers spectacular views from its balconies.

Rai Praveen Mahal was constructed for the poetess and singer of the royal court at Orchha during the time of Raja Indramani. When Emperor Akbar heard about her beauty, he ordered to send her to Delhi. But, her commitment and love for Indramani forced Akbar to send her back to Orchha. The palace built for her is a low two-storied brick structure, designed to match the height of the trees in the surroundings. Now it is left with stories of the glorious past in its ruins.

Temple Tales 

Raja Ram Temple is the main temple for the people of Orchha, where Ram is worshipped as king, not as a God. This complex was originally the palace of then-ruler, Madhukar Shah Judev, a devotee of Lord Krishna. His wife, Queen Ganesh Kunwari, worshipped Lord Rama and wanted to place his idol in the palace. At odds, the Queen set out to Ayodhaya. Pleased by her prayers alongside river Sarayu, Lord Ram appeared in the form of a baby and agreed to go with her on the condition that he will be the king of Orchha and the first place she seats him will be his final place of stay. On returning, the queen placed him in the palace for the night. Next morning, when she tried to take the idol to the Chaturbhuj Temple, which was constructed for it, Lord Ram did not move; hence the palace became the Raja Ram temple. 

The Chaturbhuj Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and constructed on a stone platform and is a rectangular building only reached by climbing a long flight of stairs. The temple has brown walls and beautifully carved high ceilings; a 202-meter-high ceiling is undoubtedly a unique feature of any Hindu temple. You will not find any carvings in this temple but the beautiful blend of palace and temple architecture is impressive. Lotus emblems and other symbols of religious significances provide delicate exterior ornamentation. Within the sanctum, it is chastely plain with high, vaulted walls emphasizing its deep sanctity.

Laxminarayan Mandir

Laxminarayan Temple is also a blend of fort and temple architecture. The interior is decorated with wall paintings and ceiling murals, which are vivid compositions. Although it’s a palatial temple with ongoing construction, you can still feel the serenity and calmness soothe your mind and body. 

Homestays – An Emerging Concept

Maximum tourists are preferring to stay in homestays, which is an emerging market. Designer Anupama Dayal painted the walls of these simple but comfortable stays with the drawings of Gond art. “It is a repetitive motif albeit in completely different art styles in the frescos and the colorful Gond art. These lovely motifs symbolize the freedom and the link between earth, waters, and strong elements of Orchha,” she told. 

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 10 books on different subjects and translated around 130 books from English to Hindi.