Waiting to be heard at the Subcontinental centre

Bundelkhand is a region at the heart of South Asia, but you will not find it demarcated on the map. The evolution of history has decided that this historic region does not require recognition.

I might be writing about Birbhum in West Bengal or about Rajshahi in Bangladesh, so striking are the similarities with Bundelkhand. The divides are not based on centre-state fault-lines but on differences between neo-urban and rural socio-cultural aspirations.

As the Bombay-Howrah Mail chugged its way across mile after rugged mile of barren, undulating terrain, interspersed with small patches of scrub forests and rocky outcrops, young eyes, accustomed to mere patches of blue sky above the bustle of Mumbai streets, stared transfixed, beyond the rattling window, far into the distant horizon. Then suddenly, furrowed brows cleared and the preschooler from Andheri turned and addressed his bored companion, slumbering with the sway of the train, "Papa, you're always complaining there is no space in Bombay. Can't we come and live here?"

Yes, that's how the vastness of the gently rolling plains of Bundelkhand hit you when you first see them. This semi-arid plateau, the land of the Bundela Thakurs, set in the heart of India derives it name from 'bund', 'a drop', in allusion to the attempted selfsacrifice by the founder of the clan, a Gaharwar Rajput. His son was born from the drops of blood, which fell on the altar of Vindhayabasini Devi.

Tales of the Bundeli tracts

Bundelkhand is located in the central Hindi belt, south of the Yamuna River, with Chambal marking its western boundary. Crossing beyond the Vindhya Ranges, the Gondwana (Mahadeo) Hills form its southern limits, while its eastern edges are enclosed by the Maikal, Bhander and Keimur Ranges and the lower Ken River. Bundelkhand includes the Jalaun, Jhansi, Lalitpur, Hamirpur Districts and the Nareini and Karvi tehsils of Banda district in Uttar Pradesh and the Panna, Chattarpur, Tikamgarh, Datia, Sagar, Damoh, Narasinghapur Districts of Madhya Pradesh. However, bits of Jabalpur, Hoshangabad, Raisen, Vidisha, Guna, Shivpur, Gwalior and Bhind are also considered to be Bundeli tracts.

Tales of romance and valour make up the history of this land. The Chandela Temples of Khajuraho (Chattarpur) are monuments dedicated to love; the glorious stupa of Sanchi near Vidisha is a reminder of the lovely Buddhist maiden, Vidisha-mahadevi, whose love is said to have inspired the ruthless Mauryan conqueror Ashoka to assume the mantle of 'Devanam Priyadarshini'— one of the most humane rulers to grace the annals of history; Lakshmi Bai, the brave Rani of Jhansi, shines as the epitome of courage; and the forests of Chitrakoot (Banda) are immortally bound with the myths of the exile of Ram, Laksman and Sita.

Never a major power centre, the history of Bundelkhand is that of lesser, more localised dynasties and their monuments stand testimony to the merchants and craftsmen who lived under their protection.

Besides being referred to in the Mahabharata as the land of the Chedis and and though it contains Gupta Era ruins located in Eron (Sagar), Bundelkhand's recent past is a story of alliances and misalliances between the Chandels, the Bundelas, Marathas and Mughal subalterns. Chandel power reached its greatest height by the 10th century CE. Paramal, the sixteenth king of the Chandels, lost his kingdom to Qutab-ud-din in 1203 and thence they ruled as petty Rajas. The Bundela- Mughal equation went through many variations, until Chhatarasal, with the help of the Marathas, became the most important leader of the Bundelas, holding sway over most of western Bundelkhand by the beginning of the 17th century. Chhatarasal is known to have bequeathed one-third of his territory to the Marathas on his death.

British troops first entered Bundelkhand in 1776. A Gosain religious mendicant, Himmat Bahadur, rose to power and allied with the British to defeat Shamsher Bahadur, a descendant of the Maratha Peshwa, Baji Rao and his wild and beautiful consort Meherunnessa Begum. Both the Bahadurs were later made Nawabs under British tutelage. The British acquired Jhansi City in 1886 from Sindhia in exchange for Gwalior fort and Morar. Post-independence Bundelkhand remains divided between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

Cultural Bundelkhand

That is the story of the kings of Bundelkhand. Here, at the centre of South Asia, though, reality is deliciously multifaceted. Stone implements found in Banda and other tracts of the Vindhya testify to the presence of prehistoric people in Bundelkhand. The jungles of central India and its inhabitants have a strong infusion of Dravadian blood. The principal tribes are the Kols, Khangars, Saharias and Gonds, who though nominally Hinduised continue to practice animistic beliefs. The Kols, from the wooded areas of Chitrakoot, are a people whose entire lifestyle used to be shaped by the forests they dwelt in. The Gonds are believed to have dwelt in Panna, Sagar and Damoh areas since as far back as 5000 BCE. Every fifth person in Madhya Pradesh is a tribal.

If it is language which shapes the culture of a people, then it is the late 11th century 'Alhakhand', the first oral epic in Bundeli by Jagnik, composed by a poet patronised by the Chandela King Paramal, which molded the ethos of Bundelkhand. The ballads about the courageous feudal lords Alha and Udal, interwoven with rustic mysticism and codes of moral ideals, have been a favourite for centuries. In villages, the darkening of monsoon clouds signals a break from work to listen to the bards singing the 'Atha' to the beat of rainfall. A lilting dialect of Hindi, Bundeli is derived from Sanskrit and Sauraseni.

However, if Braj is maintained to be the land of devotional music, Bundelkhand is hailed for its Sringar Kavya or Lyrics of Romance. It is only natural that this melodious language lends itself to hymns of love. It is in Padmakar Bhatta's 18th century poetry that Sringar Kavya reached its greatest heights. The Bundeli poet Maithili Sharan Gupta has said, "We may be backwards in all other fields but romantic poetry is our intrinsic nature." In a 'phag' (Ode to Spring) Padmakar sings:

Phag ki bhirei abhirei lei gahi Govind bhitar gori Ayi kari man ki Padmakar upar nai abir ki jhori. Cheen pitambar kammar tei su bida dai meerd kapolan rori. Nain nachai kahou muskai, aiyyo Lala phir khelon hori.   A definitive feature of Bundelkhand is the happy, co-existence of various religious beliefs. Before and after Mahavir Swami's sojourn through Bundelkhand, Jainism found a lasting foothold in the area. Sonagiri, Dronagiri, Deogarh and Khajuraho are all revered Jain pilgrimage sites. The business community in the urban areas is largely Jain. During the Khalji and Tughlak eras, many Sufi saints settled in various parts of Bundelkhand with a growing number of disciples. The dargah of Khurram Shah in Konch and of Mangal Peer in Sagar stand testimony to this. Sevara and Kalpi are well known centres of Islamic learning. It is said that the Bundela king Chhatarasal had gifted 700 bighas of land to the Sufi saint Hazrat Mubarak Shah to establish his astana. The advent of the British brought Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian Christian beliefs. Quaint little churches in the Gothic style dot the countryside. Missionary education is still rated highly among the affluent classes and continues to provide schooling even in small towns and villages.

Of course, religion still remains firmly instituted in the realm of faith with very little inter-mingling. Rare is the Pramani sect, which worships both the flute of Krishna and the Moon of Islam as symbols of integ- ration. Founded by Devachand, it was promulgated by Prananath, who founded a centre in Panna, which continues to attract, from far and wide, followers of the Pramani belief. In this age of sectarianism promoted by organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Islamic group SIMI, one wonders if such a dialogue between faiths will ever again be allowed its natural development.

The flip side

This is the mosaic on which is bred the common Bundeli. Vitthal Bhai Patel, renowned poet, filmmaker, politician and in the vanguard of the 'Bundelkhand Mukti Morcha', insists that I write about the simplicity and industrious nature of the samanya Bundeli.

Hatte-katte hardo vale, chaordi chakli kathi vale. Thori kheti-bari rakhe, keval khate-pite-jite. Deepak ki choti batti ki, mandi ujiyari ke niche. Ghanto 'Alba' sunte-sunte so fate murda jaise.

But why the need for a separate state for Bundelis? Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this story.

The Bundelkhand region is characterised by some of the lowest levels of per capita income and human development in the country. Literacy levels are low, especially among women, and infant mortality is high. Local inhabitants rely primarily on subsistence, rainfed, single-crop agriculture and small-scale livestock production for their livelihood, with wheat, grams and oil seeds as predominant crops.

Population density in the region largely correlates with such factors as soil types, natural vegetation, industrialisation, and urbanisation. In rural areas, rising population has led to fragmentation of family land holdings. Human pressures on the existing natural resource base are compounded by livestock pressures: the human-to-livestock ratio is relatively high, almost 1:1, compared with a national ratio of 1:45.

The Bundelkhand region was densely forested until the late 18th century, after which rising demand for wood and agricultural expansion led to deforestation. Post-independence population growth and the Green Revolution brought even larger tracts of land under the plough and further increased wood-based energy needs. These factors, combined with poor land manage-ment and ruthless government-approved commercial logging, have drastically reduced forested area in the region. In addition, the growth of private land ownership has led to the rapid decline of forest cover, reducing traditional sources of fuel, fodder and food. Combined with limited rainfall and fresh water resources, this has resulted in low levels of agricultural productivity with many families unable to meet their subsistence needs. Throughout most of the year, the residents of Bundelkhand experience acute scarcity of water for agricultural and domestic use.

Dr R C Srivasta of Banda is an angry man. Over 65 percent of the population is poverty-stricken in his Thansi District alone, he says. Rates of suicide are unnaturally high. There is a 36 percent migration rate from villages in Bundel-khand in comparison to only 11 percent in the entire country. The backwaters of this region are gravely and continuously dacoit-infested, which has resulted in the closing down of a large number of industries in Chattarpur, Damoh and Panna. But this need not be so, Srivasta explains. Panna District has a wealth of 1.4 million carats of diamond producing potential yet to be mined. Bundelkhand also is rich in sandstone, granite, aluminum, bauxite and other minerals. Building materials from here have found a market in Italy, Germany and Japan. Sagar is a well-known paan and biri manufacturing area. With the Chambal, Betwa, Dhasan, Ken and Narmada flowing through it, one wonders why women of Bundelkhand walk several kilometres every day in sizzling heat to collect water.

The Chief of Bureau in Sagar of Rajya ki Nayi Duniya, Ramshankar Tiwari, is well known in the town for his benevolence and love for all that is Bundeli. His paper regularly publishes articles in the dialect. "Leadership!" he exclaims. "That is the main problem. Bundelkhand and its problems have never been represented properly at legislative or executive forums. They are a people waiting to be heard."

In need of a voice

Where and at what point, then, is the voice of Bundelkhand getting lost? Trudging back from Tiwarji's nondescript two-storey office in the midst of the squalor and bustle of Katra Bazaar in Sagar, I could have been in any sabzi bazaar, in any part of the Subcontinent. The same muddy walkways between the rows of vendors squatting on the ground; the same haggling of prices; in fact, almost the same array of vegetables- aloo, pyaz, bhindi, baigan; and, of course, the ubiquitous pink and blue polythene carry-bags all over.

For all the heated debates on history and historians, the sameness of the concrete jungles of South Asian urban centres reflects little of their millennia of heritage. Run-down STD/PCO booths, shabby imitations of 'fast-food' centres, dingy cyber-dhabas, video stores and a few shining Marutis squeezing their way between dusty rickshaws and auto-rickshaws on the narrow streets of Sagar- all of this could easily have been a picture of either Multan, Patan, Comilla or Agra city.

And then a miracle happens. Bringing traffic to a halt with the beat of the dholak, a band of village bards and danseuses start a Baredi (cow-herd in Bundeli)- the tale of the immortal cow-herd Krishna and his retinue of frolicking gopis. As a crowd of spectators quickly encircle the streetside performance, an office babu scurrying along, briefcase in hand, warns me in dire tones, "Be careful, ye log sub daru peekar nachte hai." Such is the new world when what is most local, most regional, most South Asian and most originally South Asian, is denigrated in the eyes of the bureaucracy, the market and the media.


The distance between the reality of life in the villages of South Asia and the 'virtual reality' of our urban centres is attitudinal rather than spatial. The 'office-babu' in Sagar condemning the revelry of the village danseuses and bards performing in the streets as 'daru-intoxicated nautankiwalas' has, in fact, voluntarily distanced himself as far away from his Bundeli heritage as a Delhi- ite sitting a thousand kilometres away.

An 'oral' culture does not, in any way, make it 'lesser' despite our obeisance to technologically advanced textual culture. And material poverty cannot and must not be equated with cultural poverty. Unfortunately, we have learnt to revere the 'text' to the exclusion of the plurality of the non-textual cultural forms. It is this hegemony of homogeneity of the textual and, therefore, the more powerful culture, that has failed to encompass and include the diversity that is South Asia. Little does the 'churning mill' of our educational curricula absorb from its cultural multiplicity.

A couple of years ago, sitting in a Santhal village in Birbhum trying to drill English grammar into the minds of children weary from working in the rice fields, I looked askance at the texts so far removed from their lives. Nowhere will other children learn to understand the aspirations of local children and their families, nor to honour the sheer hard work that they must take upon themselves to enable them to attend school. This, too, is where the Bundelis lost their identity.

The dreams of Dr Harisingh Gour, one of the brightest sons of Bundelkhand, remain unfulfilled. Dr Gour, who himself, through sheer hard work had broken the shackles of poverty to become the first Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, besides holding other posts of importance, had hoped the impetus of education would bring economic advance to this land. Through the years, there have been doctrates galore from Sagar University – in Botany, Pharmacy, Criminology- with most their first aim being 'to leave Bundelkhand'. A lot of learning, certainly, but not enough of this will translate into the welfare of the Bundelis.

Town and country

Of course, through the years both the urban and the rural cultures have come to represent- equally- the twofaces of South Asia. We cannot wish either away. However, these differences must not be further allowed to culminate in a conflict of aspirations. Maybe getting to know each other's strengths and weaknesses, developing a respect for our 'I-ness' and the other's 'otherness' and allowing all our multifaceted sides to develop simultaneously will allow South Asia to reach solutions.

During another train journey, in a chance meeting with Medha Patkar, the person who epitomises all that is good in South Asian activitism, I had asked if she thought NBA's movement was sustainable and she had replied, "This will never end, in itself. This… sort of retaining of this seed of simple-living, this seed of self reliance, this seed of equality of justice." The Narmada Bachao Andolan, which she chaperones, goes beyond the movement against the dam to critically oppose the consumer culture, lifestyles and goals of modern civilisation, the inequality and injustice which have become a part of the current world order, and to suggest an alternative vision for the future- a life of simplicity, frugality and tolerance based on biospherical justice. She has said, "There is a need to empower people themselves to fight with a mass base. Mass-roots not grassroots. Grassroots are very superficial. But this specific, micro-level base, will lead to a macro-level impact on policy planning processes and structures, including the present politics."

Advice well worth listening to. However, the question is, "Are enough people listening?" Certainly, the Bundelis are a people badly in need of being heard.

(Shama Parveen, a Bundeli journalist from Sagar, helped with researching this article.)

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