Chandrapur city in Maharashtra is largely an industrial town, thanks to the multi-billion dollar coal industry that is centred here. But beyond the pollutants and poor quality of life lie the rich and historic remnants of the Gond kings, who once made Chandrapur their capital.
The Gonds are one of the largest and oldest tribal groupings in the world, numbering 13 million people spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, eastern Maharashtra, Telangana, northern Andhra Pradesh and western Odisha. They speak Gondi, a language of the South-Central Dravidian family of languages.
The Gonds came to prominence after a cataclysmic event in the early 14th century. Alauddin Khilji, the then Sultan of Delhi, had defeated the Kakatiyas of Warangal (1310 CE) and the Yadavas of Devagiri (1311 CE), victories that forever changed the history of the Deccan. The defeat of these Deccani powers disrupted the existing political systems and, in the chaos that followed, the Gond dynasties emerged.
The Gonds ruled the hilly region of Central India for 500 years – from the 13th to the 18th centuries. These powerful dynasties were either independent or served as tributary chiefs during Mughal times. Of these, there were three powerful Gond kingdoms – Garha Mandla of Jabalpur, Deogarh kingdom of Chhindwara and Chanda Kingdom of Chandrapur.
According to Gond lore, there arose among the tribe a hero known as Kol Bhil, a man of great strength and wisdom. He taught his fellow Gonds how to use iron, which transformed their culture and turned them into a powerful fighting force. Gond power reached its zenith during the Mughal era, as can be seen from the chronicle of Akbar’s reign, Ain-i-Akbari. It mentions Babji Ballal Shah (1572 CE – 1597 CE), a contemporary of Mughal emperor Akbar, as the powerful ruler of Chanda (Chandrapur).
By the 18th century, all the Gond kingdoms, including that of Chandrapur, were conquered and absorbed into the Maratha empire by the Bhosle rulers of Nagpur. Following the annexation of Nagpur by the British in 1853, Chandrapur became part of the ‘Chanda District’ of the British-ruled Central Provinces, and after India’s independence, a part of Maharashtra state.
It was the 10th ruler of the Gond dynasty of Chanda, Khandkya Ballal Shah (1472 -1497 CE), who made Chandrapur his capital. Let’s take a look at what remains of Chandrapur’s royal legacy.
Chandrapur – Anchaleshwar Temple
According to legend, one day, when King Khandkya Ballal Shah was hunting north-west of Ballarpur, then the capital of the Gond dynasty, he grew thirsty and rode up to the dry bed of the Jharpat river, looking for water. He discovered some water in a hole, and after quenching his thirst, he washed his face, hands and feet. That night, the king slept more soundly than he had in many years. The next morning, his wife, Queen Hiratani, was in for a surprise. She noticed that parts of his body that had been touched by the water were devoid of tumours that had been there previously.
Both king and queen proceeded to Jharpat, to the site where the king had quenched his thirst. They found the hole in the ground that the king had stumbled upon, and on clearing away the grass and mud, they saw five footprints of a cow in the solid rock, each filled with an unfailing supply of water. Inquiries revealed that was the resting place of the great God Achaleshwar, ‘The Immovable One’.
Queen Hiratani decided that they should build a temple above the healing waters, and the king sent his officers to collect skilled artisans for the project. The temple was later renovated by Queen Hirai (1704-1719) in limestone and she added panels of stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata on the outer walls of the shrine.
More than 500 years later, Anchaleshwar Temple still stands in memory of King Khandkya Ballal Shah's restoration to health and happiness.
While the temple of Anchaleshwar was being constructed, another dramatic event took place, which led to the founding of the city of Chandrapur, then known as Chanda. From time to time, King Khandkya Ballal Shah would ride across from Ballarpur, to supervise the work on the temple. On these journeys, he was always accompanied by his favourite dog. One day, not far from the temple and when riding back to Ballarpur, a hare darted out of a bush and began to chase his dog. The dog fled in terror with the hare in close pursuit.
Astonished at the sight, the king followed the chase. At times, the dog ran in wide circles, while the hare took a shorter and more zigzag course. On one occasion, the hare closed in on the dog, only to be quickly shaken off. And so the race continued until both animals were exhausted. When they were approaching the site where the race had begun, after a circular chase of 12 km, the dog pounced on the hare and killed it.
The king rode back to Ballarpur to tell the story to his queen. Again, Queen Hiratani was able to divine the actual meaning of the events that had just occurred. It was clearly an omen sent by the gods, that Khandkya Ballal Shah was to change his capital and build a fortified city around the temple of Anchaleshwar. The chase was but a metaphor for the town planning he was meant to follow.
The walls of the city were to be built over the tracks of the sacred hare – strong bastions in the places where the dog had made his circular detour, and special fortifications where the hare had closed in on the dog and also where the dog had slain the hare. These would always be danger zones in the new city. This is how the city of Chanda or Chandrapur came into being. While some believe that the city derives its name from the moon, others say it is from the white spot on the hare's forehead.
The massive gates of Chanda were completed during King Hir Shah's reign (1497 CE - 1522 CE). They bore the quaint emblem of Gond sovereignty – ‘The elephant helpless in the grasp of a gigantic tiger’. He also built the citadel and the palace, parts of which still remain, though now degraded to the less noble uses of a jail and a police station.
Today, Chandrapur fort, whose ramparts run along 12.5 km, is considered one of the largest land forts in Maharashtra. The entire city of Chandrapur during medieval times was enclosed inside the fort. The fort has four major gates – Pathanpura, Binba, Anchaleshwar and Jatpura – and five minor gates – Bhanapeth, Hanuman, Vithoba, Smashan and Chor Khidki.
Chandrapur Mahakali Temple
Another temple belonging to antiquity and worthy of note is that of Mahakali, situated across the Jharpat river, about a furlong from the Anchaleshwar gate of the fort. The original temple is said to have been built by Khandkya Ballal Shah when the Anchaleshwar temple was also being built while the present structure was built by Queen Hirai in commemoration of the victory of her husband, King Bir Shah (1696 CE - 1704 CE), over their son-in-law. The temple is beautifully adorned with colourful wall paintings of late medieval times.
It so happened that King Bir Shah and Queen Hirai had a daughter named Mankunwar, who was given in marriage to Durgpal, the zamindar of Deogarh (near Wairagad). However, Durgpal insulted his wife and so she returned to her parents, upon which Bir Shah vowed to punish him. He prayed to Goddess Mahakali, vowing that in the event of success, he would present her with Durgpal’s head and construct a bigger temple. Durgpal was defeated and killed in the battle that ensued, and, as promised, his head was severed and ceremoniously presented to the goddess. Later, in 1710 CE, when Queen Hirai constructed the temple, a stone head of Durgpal was fixed on the shrine.
Today, high up on the roof of the lofty temple of Mahakali, which lies outside the city walls of Chanda on its southern side, you can see a head carved in stone, gazing eastwards towards Deogarh, which perpetuates the memory of the victory of Bir Shah and recalls the story of the unfortunate Durgpal.
Gond Rajas Tombs at Chandrapur
Bir Shah, one of the best and bravest of the Gond kings of Chanda, was murdered by his nobleman, Hiraman, on the day of the king's second wedding. And to mark the deep sense of loss at his tragic death, the noblest of all the tombs in Chanda was raised over his grave, close to the temple of Anchaleshwar.
Bir Shah died at the tender age of 28, his queen Hirai, who was all of 24 years old, started constructing the beautiful and magnificent mausoleum for her husband, which is known for its intricate carvings and beautiful artwork. The artistic mesh, carvings and illustrations in the mausoleum are stunning.
Just as Haji Begum built Humayun's Tomb in the loving memory of her late husband in Delhi, Queen Hirai too built her husband’s tomb in his loving memory at Chandrapur. In front of it lies her own tomb, built by her son Ram Shah (1719 CE - 1735 CE). Even if only in spirit, the tomb of Bir Shah is sometimes compared with that of Taj Mahal in Agra, as being a symbol of immortal love.
The tomb complex is actually a royal graveyard consisting of 13 small and large tombs of Gond kings including the tomb of Hir Shah (1497 CE – 1522 CE), his queen Hirabai, Babaji Ballal Shah (1547 CE – 1572 CE), Dhundya Ram Shah (1597 CE – 1622 CE), Gangabai, queen of Krishna Shah (1622 CE – 1647 CE) and Ram Shah (1719 CE - 1735 CE), among others.
Apart from the royal Gond tombs, Chandrapur has a unique set of monoliths known as ‘Lalpeth Monoliths’, which are equally fascinating. Lalpeth, located 3 km to the south-east of the city, is known for its open-cast coal mine. Amid this locality stands a group of 16 colossal stone figures, locally called ‘Ravana’ and referred to as ‘Lalpeth Monoliths’ in the district gazetteer. These colossi are more remarkable for their size than for their artistic excellence.
They lie upon a raised platform on open ground, arranged in a sort of rough circle around a Linga of Shiva. They are very large, too heavy to be moved, which is why they must have been carved in situ out of living rock. The largest among them is a ten-headed Durga, measuring 25 ft x 18 ft and weighing 57 tons.
Locals have mistakenly associated this gigantic figure with the Demon King ‘Ravana’, which is why the place was abandoned and is deserted to date. Apart from the image of Goddess Durga, these monoliths include images of Annapurna, Kali, Mahishasurmardini, Ganga, Hanuman, Ganpati, Bhim, Nandi, Garud and Snake along with Vishnu’s incarnation of Matsya and Kurma.
These monoliths are believed to have been built by a wealthy trader Rayappa in the early 17th century, during the reign of Dhundiya Ramshah. In a grand gesture that he hoped would immortalise him, the king had these monoliths carved and intended to place them in a temple dedicated to Shiva, but he died before the temple was built. The monoliths have since been standing where he left them. If Dhundiya Ramshah had succeeded in finishing the temple, it would have been one of the largest temples in Maharashtra. Thankfully, due to their remoteness, most of the colossi are in a good state of preservation.
Due to its proximity to the popular Tadoba National Park famous for its tigers, Chandrapur draws a large number of tourists, who use the city as a transit point. Hopefully, greater awareness of Chandrapur’s monuments and vibrant history will draw more visitors to the city and keep the royal Gond legacy alive.
Amit Bhagat is an independent researcher. He is currently working on the Megalithic and Stone Age culture of the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra.