Say ‘Bandhavgarh’ and tigers immediately come to mind but the king of the jungle is not the only star of the forest in the nature reserve here. Dominating a 560-acre plateau on a hilltop deep in the heart of the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh is a fort that goes back almost 2,000 years.
Although the seat of many dynasties, the fort was most famously the capital of the Baghel Kings of the Princely state of Rewa. The Baghel dynasty, which ruled from Bandhavgarh Fort between the 13th and 17th CE before they shifted their capital to Rewa, once owned the forest around the fort and used it as their private hunting ground. They handed it over to the state government in 1968.
But the origins of the fort predate the Baghel rulers. According to a popular legend, Lord Ram gifted the fort to his brother Laxman, and this is what probably gave the fort its name, ‘Bandhavgarh’, which means ‘brother’s fort’ (‘bandhav’ meaning ‘brother’ and ‘garh’ meaning ‘fort’).
When Dr N P Chakravarti, an archaeologist and epigraphist, visited the site in 1938, he discovered around 50 caves. Most of them are manmade and bear a number of inscriptions in the Brahmi script. These inscriptions provide a wealth of information, not only about the history of the fort but also the history of Central India.
They indicate that the Magha rulers occupied the fort in the 2nd and 3rd CE, a dynasty that takes its name from the suffix ‘Magha’ given to the kings named in the inscription. Their coins and seals have been unearthed at Bandhavgarh and other sites such as Kausambi in Uttar Pradesh (Kausambi has been identified as the seat of the Magha dynasty).
More than nine Magha Kings ruled from Bandhavgarh Fort, the earliest known ruler being Vashishtiputra Bhimasena, followed by his son Kautsiputra Pothasiri, and others such as Kaushikiputra Bhadradeva, Bhadramagha, Gautamiputra Sivamagha, Satamagha and Vijaymagha. The Magha dynasty came to an end around 300 CE.
Bandhavgarh Fort reflects the changes in the dynamics of power in Central India during different eras. After the Maghas, the Vakatakas are believed to have ruled from the fort during the 3rd CE, a dynasty that controlled parts of South-Central India from 250 CE to 500 CE. They lorded over an empire that extended all the way to parts of present-day Chhattisgarh in the east. The Vakatakas were an important dynasty and contemporaries of the Guptas in the north. Bandhavgarh was probably a part of their empire in Central India.
The Vakatakas were followed by the Sengars in the 5th CE. They were a Rajput clan that ruled parts of Madhya Pradesh, like present-day Lateri. Next to occupy the fort of Bandhavgarh were the Kalachuris of Tripuri, who ruled from Central India between the 7th and 13th CE. A rock inscription of a ruler named Yuvaraj Dev 1 of the Kalachuri dynasty confirms their presence in the fort and is dated to the 9th CE. It was during the reign of Yuvaraj Dev that the large, reclining sculpture of Lord Vishnu (Shesha Shaiya) was installed in the Bandhavgarh Fort complex.
After this, Bandhavgarh Fort passed to the Kalachuris of Ratanpur, a branch of their predecessors and vassals to them in Central India during the 11th and 12th CE. In the 13th CE, Soma-Datta Kalachuri of Ratanpur married his daughter Padma Kunwati to Karna Dev of the Baghel kingdom, and gave him the fort of Bandhavgarh as part of his daughter’s dowry.
Karna Dev was the son and successor of Vyaghra Dev, founder of the Baghel kingdom, originally from Gujarat. Karna Dev made Bandhavgarh his capital. In the mid-1550s CE, Raja Ramchandra Singh Baghela was known for maintaining a musically talented court, which included the legendary Tansen.
In the 16th century CE, the fort was destroyed by Akbar’s army and remained a Mughal possession until 1602 CE, when it was restored to Baghel King Raja Vikramaditya. In 1617 CE, Ramchandra Singh’s grandson Raja Vikramaditya Singh shifted the capital to Rewa. After his reign, the fort is believed to have been in the possession of the Marathas, before passing to the British in the 1800s. A couple of centuries later, the Baghela rulers returned to Bandhavgarh, but this time to use it as a hunting ground. Maharaja Gulab Singh (r. 1918–1946) of Rewa is believed to have shot over 500 tigers here and also hosted scores of shoots for British officials. Bandhavgarh Fort was finally deserted in the 1930s.
Apart from the famous Shesha Shaiya statue of Lord Vishnu, other statues depicting his different reincarnations such as the Koorma avatar (turtle), Matsya avatar (fish) and Varaha avatar (boar) can be seen in the temples in the fort complex. The many caves in the national park are said to have been used as stables, storage rooms and army shelters by different dynasties. The place also has a museum called Baghel Museum, which displays the belongings and military equipment of the Baghel rulers. It also displays a stuffed white tiger, the first of its kind spotted and hunted by Baghel King Maharaja Martand Singh.
Bandhavgarh Fort is struggling to maintain even a semblance of its former glory and is falling to ruin. Once a sentinel that watched over many kingdoms from its lofty vantage point, the fort has humbler occupants today – bats, deer and a host of exotic birds. Sadly, majority of the fort complex is out of bounds for visitors (the reclining statue of Lord Vishnu remains accessible to the public) and this once extraordinary fortress is slowly and silently being reclaimed by the forest.
Cover Image: Bandhavgarh National Park, LR Burdak via Wikimedia Commons
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