Hidden behind hills in Gumla district in Jharkhand are the remains of an ancient kingdom. Built of brick and stone, and glowing in the late afternoon sunlight, this is the ruined Navratangarh Palace of the Nagvanshi kings, who ruled the Chota Nagpur region from the 1st century CE.
Located 70 km south-west of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, Navratangarh is also referred to as ‘Doisagarh’ for its location in Doisa, the second capital of the Nagvanshi kings.
The origins of this dynasty, which ruled Chota Nagpur till the mid-19th century, can be traced to the Munda tribes who live in the region.
Details of the dynasty can be gleaned from the Nagvansabali, the family chronicle of the Nagvanshi kings, which was converted into an abstract by the late Rakhal Das Haldar (former manager of Chota Nagpur Raj) and published in the Man In India magazine (October to December, 1928) edited by the famous anthropologist Sarat Chandra Roy. From this abstract, it is understood that tribal village chief and Munda patriarch, Madra Munda, handed over the reins of his territory to his adopted son, Phani Mukut Rai, who founded the dynasty, in 64 CE.
The history of Phani Mukut Rai is very interesting as is the tale of Durjan Sal, the 45th descendant of the Nagvanshis and the man who built Navratangarh Palace in the late 1630s.
Navratangarh: A Fortified City
The road to Sisai from Ranchi is in pathetic condition but it is still navigable. At the Basai road crossing, there’s a narrow pathway to the left, from where Navratangarh is just 7 km away. Not far along, hillocks appear on the horizon, a watchtower looming over them. As you approach your destination, a modern enclosure is clearly visible.
Apart from the seating arrangements in this enclosure, probably made by the state Tourism Department, time seems to have stopped at Navratangarh. The first thing that catches your attention is what remains of a tall structure that was once five storeys tall. This is the famed Navratangarh Palace.
The interiors are in a shambles and it is difficult to say how many rooms there were in each storey. There is a ruined structure with a small hall flanked by two rooms adjacent to the palace. There is a gate in the middle of this structure which leads to the palace.
The watch tower that was visible from a distance is now within reach. The upper storey of the two-storey tower was once accessed by a staircase. Very little remains of it now and what does exist doesn’t exactly afford access to the top.
Other structures in the vicinity are a large tank to the south-west corner of Navratangarh Palace, with staircase leading to it. On the other side of the tank is a ruined, hexagonal temple and a dilapidated mansion, which seems to have originally been three stories tall. The remains of a staircase still exist.
With your back to the temple and palace, walk a few steps north and you reach a brick structure with a pinnacle and another, small structure in ruins. The pinnacled structure was clearly a temple. It has an inner sanctum surrounded by a circumambulatory path (parikrama path). The adjoining structure too may be a temple or an accompanying structure. There is another ruined structure to the east, which is beyond recognition.
Near the brick temple are the ruins of two stone temples. Only the facades remain. One of them has two inscriptions, which indicate that it was built by Raja Ragunath Shah between 1678 and 1682, on the advice of Guru Harinath. Doisa remained the capital of the Nagvanshi kings until King Yadunath Shah decided to shift it to Palkote from Doisagarh in 1724. Doisa was then abandoned and the town, which was once the kingdom of the Nagvanshis, fell to ruin.
Tribal kings usually lived in simple mud or stone huts like common folk. How did the Nagvanshis end up in Doisagarh and build mansions? Let us study the history of the Nagvanshis in Chota Nagpur.
Origins of the Nagvanshis
As fantasmagorical as it may sound, Nagvansabali describes Phani Mukut Rai as the son of a serpent named Pundarik Nag, who escaped the wrath of Nagyagna (a ritual performed in front of fire to abolish snakes) performed by King Janmejaya to avenge the death of his father, King Parikshit, who died after being bitten by Takshak Nag, the king of serpents.
According to Dr Sudha Sinha, Associate Professor, PG, Department of History, Ranchi College, the historical account behind this mythical story could have its roots in the Nag tribe of Gandhar, now in Afganisthan, which attacked Hastinapur under the leadership of their king Takshak. King Parikshit died while defending his territory from this tribe. Later, Janmejaya took revenge by invading Takshasila, which may have been the capital of the Naga kings. The second part of the mythical story may have evolved from this.
According to the legend, Pundarik was the son of Takshak Nag, who settled in Kashi and married a Brahmin’s daughter, Parvati. On a pilgrimage to Puri, Parvati gave birth to a child, Munda, in Suitiambe, now in Jhrakhand. She sacrificed her life by throwing herself on a funeral pyre immediately after giving birth to the child, when Pundarik revealed his original form and vanished into a pond.
Pundarik persuaded a Brahmin named Janardan to take care of the child, who was to be named Phani Mukut Rai. Janardan had an idol of Surya Devata, which was to be the Kula Devata or deity of the child’s family. Janardan took the child to the house of Madra Munda, the chief of the Sutiambe village.
Phani Mukut Rai grew up to be the chosen one to rule the Nagvanshi kingdom over Madra Munda’s own son.
According to the Nagvansabali, Phani Mukut Rai was succeeded by his son Mukut Rai. His empire was named ‘Nagpur Des’ and since the Nagvanshis settled here, it was known as ‘Nagpur’. German Scholar Heinrich Blochmann, famous for translating the Ain-i-Akbari, mentions in his article titled Notes From Muhammadan Historians on Chutia Nagpur, Pachet and Palamau that ‘Chutia’ was the residence of the old kings of the area, and was selected as the fourth Nagvanshi king in descent from Phani Mukut. Hence, the area was known as ‘Chutia Nagpur’. The present name of ‘Chota Nagpur’ is probably an English corruption of this term.
The Nagvanshis do not seem to have encountered any emperor or king in India until the 14th-15th century. Since Chota Nagpur was essentially a densely forested area, Mulsim chroniclers, including Abul Fazal in his biography of Emperor Akbar, Akbarnama, had termed this area as ‘Jharkhand’ or ‘Jungle Pradesh’. He also uses the term ‘Kokrah’ to refer to Chota Nagpur in Ain-e-Akbari. It seems Kokrah was the capital of the Nagvanshis in Jharkhand.
Mughal Invasion in Jharkhand
Historians began to record the saga of Jharkhand and the Nagvanshi rulers after the Mughals learnt of diamond mines in the region. This is where an anomaly is found between the records of Mughal historians and those of the Nagvanshis.
According to Abul Fazl, there was a certain landlord in Kokrah who refused to provide tributes to the Mugahls. Their records state that this local zamindar, Madhu Singh, believed that the Mughals would not dare attack his kingdom after crossing the mountains.
Shahbaz Khan Kamboh, one of the greatest generals of Akbar, sent an army to Kokrah. The land of the Nagvanshis was subdued for the first time. The Mughals procured enough booty and Madhu Singh was forced to become a malguzar or tributary to the Mughals.
According to Mughal chroniclers, Madhu Singh was succeeded by Durjan Sal as the Maharaja of Kokrah. This does not tally with the genealogy of the Nagvanshis themselves, who mention a Madhukar Shah as the ruler after Durjan Sal. Historians have decided to go with the account of Mughal chroniclers, especially the autobiography of Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627), Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri alias Jahangirnama.
Capture of Durjan Sal
After ascending the throne, Durjan Sal refused to pay the prescribed tribute to the Mughals. Finally, when Ibrahim Khan became Governor of Bihar, he marched against Durjan Sal. He was not satisfied with the tributes offered and invaded the interiors of Kokrah with his army in 1616. The Nagvanshi king was captured from a cave with his family and all the diamonds in his possession were confiscated. Ibrahim Khan also acquired 24 male and female elephants.
Ibrahim Khan was awarded the title of ‘Fateh Jung’. Even though Durjan Sal offered him a substantial ransom, Ibrahim Khan did not release the Nagvanshi king, who was imprisoned in the Gwalior fort for 12 years.
The story of Durjan Sal would have ended in misfortune but there’s a twist in the tale. After 12 years in confinement, Durjan Sal was released captivity when he correctly identified a real diamond of the two stones presented to him by Emperor Jahangir, who doubted their authenticity. Jahangir released the Nagvanshi king and returned the property that had been seized from him, in addition to his kingdom.
Henceforth, he was to pay an annual tribute of Rs 6,000 to the Emperor. Durjan Sal begged the Emperor to also release a number of other Rajas who were his companions while in confinement. He requested that his former rank be restored, including the right to sit on a chair in the presence of the Emperor. His wishes were fulfilled.
Nagvanshi Capital Shifts To Doisa
Durjan Sal returned to his kingdom in 1627 but he had to fight to regain his lost throne. He was assisted in this struggle by the kings whose release he had successfully sought from the Gwalior Fort. Now that he was declared ‘Maharaja’ by Emperor Jahangir, Durjan Sal decided to upgrade his living standards. First, he shifted his capital from Kokrah to Doisa, which was surrounded by lofty hills on three sides and difficult to access by invaders.
The kings who accompanied him sent architects and masons along with marble and other building materials to build a five-storey palace at Doisa, the new capital of the Nagvanshi king. The palace was named ‘Navratan’ or ‘Navratnagarh’. This was the first time a palace had been built for a Nagvanshi King.
It took around 10 years to build the palace and its associated structures. Durjan Sal shifted his capital from Kokrah to Doisa in between 1636 and 1639. Unfortunately, he could not enjoy the joys of the palace for long as he died in 1639-1640.
Notwithstanding the Nagvanshi genealogy, the facts provided by historians prove that Ram Shah was the next-of-kin to the throne after Durjan Sal. The inscription at the Kapilnath Mahadev Temple says that Raja Ram Shah built the temple in 1643 on the advice of Guru Harinath. He ruled from 1640 to 1663. Raja Ragunath Shah was his successor.
It is just fascinating, how long in time, the Nagvanshi lineage continued. Jharkhand historian, Mangobinda Banerjee in his book "A Historical outline of Pre British Chotanagpur" published in 1989, states the last Nagvanshi King from the original bloodline to be Jagannath Shah.(1818-1860). He had no son, his brother' son Pratap Udainath Shah Deo became the king after lot of litigation among the various claimants in the British-Indian courts . It is during the reign of Pratap Udainath Shah Deo, the capital was finally shifted to Ratu, where the present Ratu Palace was built. The Palace was completed in 1933. As per Mangobinda Banerjee's book, the last king of the Nagvanshi dynasty was Chintamani Sharan Nath Shahdeo who became the titular ruler in 1950 and was popularly known as Ratu Maharaj. An active politician and a member of Bihar legislative assembly, he died in 2014 and with him, it was the end of the 1950 year old dynasty.
The end of my tour climaxed with the sounds of chanting coming from the palace grounds. A group of people dressed in white had encircled the palace and were performing a ritual there. They said they were Mundas and were paying homage to their ancestors. If their claims are true, this tradition is probably the only link between the 21st century and the legacy of the ancient kings of Jharkhand.
Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for numerous travel magazines and publications.