Sonbhadra: More Precious than Gold

Sonbhadra: More Precious than Gold

Not long ago, Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh made headlines when the Geological Survey of India (GSI) announced that it had discovered massive gold reserves in the Son Pahaadi hills in the district. Whether or not the region is sitting on a gold mine – the GSI later retracted its statement – the region has many priceless treasures that have brought prospectors of a different kind here over the decades – archaeologists and historians who have revealed Sonbhadra’s rich prehistoric, archaeological and cultural heritage.

Before we get to that, here’s a little perspective. Sonbhadra is the second-largest district in Uttar Pradesh after Lakhimpur, in terms of size. Earlier, it was a part of Mirzapur district but became a separate district in 1989, with its administrative headquarters in Robertsganj town.

Landscape showing Sone Valley

Robertsganj is named after Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, who was one of the most successful commanders of the British East India Company Army around the time of the Revolt of 1857.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts

Sonbhadra lies between the Vindhya Range and the Kaimur Hills in North India. Situated at the confluence of the Sone River and Rihand River, it has many prehistoric sites. These are caves and rock shelters that have the most amazing rock art. The district also has one of the biggest remains of pre-Cambrian fossils.

Salkhan Fossil Park

Officially known as the Sonbhadra Fossil Park, the Salkhan Fossil Park is 12 km from Robertsganj. This park has the largest collection of fossils from the Cryptozoic Age (also known as Pre-Cambrian Life), which is considered the oldest era in the earth’s geological history. The fossil park is believed to be more than 1.4 billion years old.

Salkhan Fossil Park

Located adjacent to the Kaimur Wildlife Sanctuary and spread across 25 hectares, the park contains a geological treasure comprising fossils of thalloid algae and stromatolites. These fossils were first researched in detail by J B Auden in 1933, when he was a member of the Geological Survey of India.

Close-up of the fossils

The Government of Uttar Pradesh had made an attempt to get the park declared a world heritage site but that has not borne fruit.

Rock Art Sites in Sonbhadra

The Northern Vindhyas have the greatest number of rock shelters with cave paintings in North India. Most of the art here ranges from the Mesolithic to the Heliolithic Age. The Vindhya and Kaimur ranges have around 250 rock shelters scattered across the districts of Allahabad, Mirzapur, Chandauli, Rewa and Sonbhadra. Most of the rock-art caves in the Vindhya-Kaimur ranges were discovered by British archaeologist Archibald Carlleyle in the 19th century.

Sonbhadra district has preserved these ancient rock shelters and archaeologists still refer to it as the ‘rock art hub of Uttar Pradesh’. The most significant sites in the district include the Panchmukhi rock shelters, Kauwa Khoh rock shelters, Lakhania rock shelters, Lakhma caves, etc.

Cave paintings at Ghorawal Rock Shelter, Mukkha Falls

All these rock shelters are within a 20-km radius of Robertsganj. Kauwa Khoh is the largest rock shelter here and is located in Khodwa Pahaad. Ghorawal, near Mukkha Falls in Sonbhadra, also has some interesting rock paintings and cave art but no serious effort is being made to protect the site.

Crocodile-hunting ritual at Kauwa Khoh Rock Shelter

The cave paintings of Sonbhadra primarily depict scenes of hunting, war, festivals, dance, romantic life and animals. These paintings reflect the tribal culture of the region, and there are many tribal communities still living in the hills of Sonbhadra including the Gond, Chero, Buksa, Jaunsari, Kharwar, Pankha and Patari tribes.

Rhinoceros hunting scene at Panchmukhi Caves

Tribal culture flourished in this region as it was a fertile patch on the Vindhyan Plateau, with ample natural resources that included a number of rivers including the tributaries of the Ganga; the Belan and Karamnasha rivers; and the north-flowing Rihand River, which meets the Son River in the middle of Sonbhadra.

Vijaygarh Fort

The principal fort in Sonbhadra is the historic Vijaygarh or Bidjegur Fort located in the Kaimur Hills and whose history goes back more than 1,500 years. It is situated 30 km from Robertsganj. Before the fort was built, the hill that it crowns was called ‘Vijaygiri Parvat’, which was a haven for sages and hermits.

Ramparts of Vijaygarh Fort on Vijaygiri Parvat

According to legend, in the time of the Mahabharat, Banasur constructed the Vijaygarh Fort at the highest point in the Kaimur Hills, where Jarasandh was imprisoned. According to local lore, the great Mauryan king, Chandragupta Maurya (r. 324 to 297 BCE), attacked the ancient kingdom of Magadha from this fort. However, historical records testify that Vijaygarh Fort was built by the rulers of the Kol dynasty in the 5th century CE. Sonbhadra was subsequently ruled by the Guptas (early 4th to late 6th century CE), followed by the Gurjara-Pratiharas (6th to 11th century CE). Vijaygarh Fort was revamped by Jadoun Rajput king, Maharaja Vijay Pal, in 1040 CE.

Vijaygarh Fort contains several old temples and red stone pillars bearing inscriptions of Vishnuvardhan, feudatory of Gupta King, Samudragupta (r. 330 – 380 CE). The fort is famous for its rock inscriptions, cave paintings, black stone statues and its perennial ponds, of which there are at least four inside the fort. Miran Sagar and Ram Sarovar are the two important ones.

View of the Fort of Bidjegur (Vijaygarh) by William Hodges, 1787 | British Library

The first detailed description of Sone Valley dates back to medieval times, to the Baburnama, which chronicles the history of Babur, the 16th century founder of the Mughal dynasty in India. Babur established his rule in the Indian subcontinent after he won the First Battle of Panipat, after which he began to expand his empire. While he went about amassing more and more territory, he crossed the Sone Valley to crush the Afghans. This crossing is depicted by Jagnath, a Mughal painter in Emperor Akbar’s court. In Akbar’s time (r. 1556 – 1605), all the forts in this region were under his control, including Vijaygarh, which was administered by a qiledar till it was captured by the princely state of Benares (Ramnagar).

Babur crossing Sone River, Jagnath, 1598

The fort became a refuge for Raja Chait Singh, son of Balwant Singh, a local zamindar or landowner who took the title of ‘Raja’ and founded Banares State in 1740. Chait Singh, who ascended the throne in 1770, had absolute control over Banares State and his suzerainty was accepted by the Nawabs of Awadh. This brought him in conflict with the East India Company and, as a result, Governor-General of India Warren Hastings stripped him of his title. Chait Singh rebelled and sought refuge in Vijaygarh Fort, which was the permanent residence of his mother at the time.

With the help of Major Popham, Hastings crushed Chait Singh’s rebellion and the latter escaped to Gwalior, and Vijaygarh Fort was almost destroyed in the aftermath. William Hodges, the first British professional landscape painter to visit India, was sent by his patron Warren Hastings to witness Popham’s siege of Vijaygarh Fort of 1782.

Remains of the Kutchery (court room) in Vijaygarh Fort

Vijaygarh Fort was one of the first forts in North India in the East India Company’s possession. Hastings created a base and a temporary residence at the nearby fort of Chunar, around 90 km away.

Vijaygarh Fort is located on a steep hill, whose 3.2-km circumference is edged with a continuous masonry rampart punctuated by circular bastions at irregular intervals. Close to the main entrance of the fort is the tomb of Muslim saint, Saiyyed Zain-ul-Abdin Meer Sahib, popularly called Hazrat Meeran Shah Baba.

The fort is in ruins and the few partial structures that exist include Singha Dwaar, Rang Mahal, Baradari and the Kutchery.

Vijaygarh & Chandrakanta

Chandrakanta, an epic fantasy novel written by Devaki Nandan Khatri, a popular Hindi writer, in 1888, revolves around the forts of Vijaygarh, Naugarh and Chunargarh (Chunar) in the Mirzapur-Sonbhadra region. Chandrakanta, the protagonist of the novel, was a princess of Vijaygarh who fell in love with Prince Kunwar Virendra Singh of Naugarh. Krur Singh of Vijaygarh, the antagonist of the story, sought the help of Shiv Dutt, who was king of Chunargarh, to win back the princess.

Devaki Nandan Khatri, author of Chandrakanta

The novel is full of tilism and other supernatural elements, and its sequel, Chandrakanta Santit, is written in seven volumes. Chandrakanta has a fictional plot but the geographical account is absolutely true. The novel was adapted into a television serial of the same name and released on Doordarshan in 1994.

Thanks to the TV serial, the story became so popular that it focused attention on the forts of Vijaygarh, Naugarh and Chunargarh. The Rang Mahal of Vijaygarh Fort is still known as ‘Chandrakanta’s Palace’ by locals and visitors.

Ruins of the Rang Mahal of Vijaygarh, popularly known as Princess Chandrakanta’s Palace

Naugarh is a small fort built by Raja Chait Singh on the outskirts of Robertsganj. The fort is locally known as Chandrakanta ki Kothi, a far cry from its current use, which is a guest house for government officials. It offers a panoramic view of the Karmnasha River and the surrounding countryside.

Agori Fort

Situated 35 km from Robertsganj, near the towns of Chopan and Obra in Sonbhadra district, the mountain fort of Agori is at the confluence of three rivers, namely Vijul, Rihand and the Sone River. Agori Fort or Agowry Fort (as the British styled it) was built in the 7th century CE by Balendu Shah of the Khayaravala Dynasty (11th-12th centuries). After them, the Chandelas (13th century) occupied the fort and, even today, remnants of the Chandelas such as temple pillars are visible inside the fort complex.

Sketch of the rear view of Agori Fort from the Sone River by Stanley Leighton, 1868

The legend of gold being hidden in Son Pahaadi of Sonbhadra has a strong connection with Agori Fort. As the story goes, tribal King Bal Shah was the ruler here in 711 CE. Misfortune struck the kingdom when a Chandela ruler launched an attack, forcing Bal Shah to flee and to lead his people to safety via a secret pathway. Tribal lore has it that the king took away about 4,000 kg of gold and sought refuge in the Panari forest, around 7 km from Sonbhadra.

Since there was no other way out, the king buried the sau man (hundred maund) of gold in the forest. The Chandela ruler finally learnt of Bal Shah’s whereabouts but before he could lay his hands on him, Bal Shah was already dead and his body eaten up by wild animals. The Chandela ruler, however, captured the king’s wife Jurahi, took her to Jugail village and killed her.

Later, a temple named after the deceased queen was built in the Jugail forest and it exists to this day. There is a saying in Sonbhadra – ‘Sau man sona, kona kona’, which means that 100 maunds of gold is hidden in every corner of Sonbhadra. Even today, shepherds and others hunt for the ‘hidden gold of Raja Bal Shah’.

Ruins of Agori Fort

Agori Fort also has a temple dedicated to Goddess Mahakali and is a site of penance for aghori saints, who are Shaivites and worship Bhairava, a manifestation of Shiva. Their rituals are sometimes considered to be dark and contradictory to orthodox Hinduism.

Stone ceiling of the Kutchery (courtroom) in Agori Fort

The fort is in desperate need of repair but there are a few broken structures dating to the Chandela period and a passage which leads to the Sone River. It is believed that the passage was used by Chandela queens to go to the river every day.

Queen’s Passage to Sone River from Agori Fort

Agori Fort is also the site of the legend of Veer Lorik’s. Loriki, still a very popular story in the Vindhya region, narrates that Veer Lorik was a warrior who fell in love with the local beauty, Manjari and they decided to get married. But the marriage was opposed by Molagat, the tribal king of Agori Fort. He tried to kill Lorik but Manjari urged her beloved to visit the Shiva temple in Gothani village near the fort and pray for victory. Later, Lorik fought the cruel ruler of Agori Fort, won the battle and married Manjari.

Veer Lorik’s Rock and statue

Veer Lorik’s Rock

According to the legend of Loriki, Veer Lorik split a huge rock with a single stroke of his sword to prove his love for Manjari. The mammoth rock, locally known as Veer Lorik ka Patthar, is venerated as a symbol of love and bravery. Situated 5 km from Robertsganj, on Markundi Hill, it is a protected site and one that offers a panoramic view of the Son Valley.

Main idol in the garbh-griha of Shiva Dwaar Temple

Shiva Dwaar Temple

Around 40 km from Robertsganj is a huge temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and his consort, Goddess Parvati. The temple was originally built in Chandela-style architecture but was modified in recent times. Inside the garbha-griha or sanctum sanctorum of the temple is an 11th century, black-stone idol of Shiva and Parvati. This 3-foot-long idol is in Srijan Mudra, where Parvati is seated on Shiva’s lap and Shiva is shown caressing her chin with his hand.

11th-century Shiva-Parvati statue without shringaar

The temple is in a place called Guptkashi, where one can find sculptures of various gods and goddesses that are heavily carved and made of black-stone in typical Chandela style.

Renukeshwar Mahadeva Temple

This temple was built in 1972, in Renukoot town, 70 km from Robertsganj, in Sonbhadra district, on the banks of the Rihand River (‘Rihand’ is also known as ‘Renu River’). The temple and town have taken their names from the adjoining Renu River.

Renukeshwar Mahadeva is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and was built by the Birla Group. The temple was inspired by the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh and is built in the same Nagara-style architecture. The main shikhara (tower above the sanctum sanctorum) has very intricate carvings.

Renukeshwar Mahadev Temple, Renukoot

Sonbhadra is the most important industrial centre in Uttar Pradesh. It has many big and small dams, thermal plants and many industrial units. Two important dams in Sonbhadra are the Dhanraul Dam and the Rihand Dam, built on the Ghaghar and Rihand rivers, respectively.

Also known as Govind Ballabh Pant Sagar, the Rihand Dam was inaugurated in 1962 by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was accompanied by G D Birla and JRD Tata. It was Nehru who suggested that G D Birla develop this region into one of the most important industrial hubs in North India. The same year, Birla established the city of Renukoot with the opening of the Hindalco aluminum plant, which made this region the capital of aluminum production in India.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, G D Birla and JRD Tata inaugurating Rihand Dam

Nehru was so impressed by the scenic beauty of Sonbhadra, then known as the Robertsganj division of Mirzapur district, that he called it “the Switzerland of India”. Sonbhadra has many waterfalls and sites of great natural beauty. Lakhania Dari, Dev Dari, Raj Dari and Mukkha Falls are some of the most beautiful waterfalls and tourist attractions in the region.

Sone Valley has some beautiful lakes as well. Chilka Lake of Shaktinagar, named after the famous Chilka Lake in Odisha, is one of the biggest manmade lakes in Uttar Pradesh. The Kaimur Wildlife Sanctuary is also situated in Sonbhadra district, with its headquarters at Churk. The rich and varied flora and fauna of this region have made it a buzzing tourist hub.

Raj Dari, Sonbhadra

Despite being an important industrial hub and the mines in the region, Sonbhadra is an extremely poor district. Around 3,700 sq km of the district’s 4,000 sq km is forest land and, post-independence, the region has been rife with land-reclamation conflicts. Feudal lords, the Forest Department and local authorities have never let the tribals get ownership of their land. As a result, the Naxalite movement has gained momentum in the region. In 2006, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was passed, which guaranteed land rights of traditional forest dwellers on disputed forestland. But that promise is only on paper.

DID YOU KNOW?

Sonbhadra is home to some of the richest mineral reserves in North India and has yielded gold, bauxite, coal, limestone and other minerals. It also has a number of thermal plants, which has earned it the nickname ‘Energy Capital of India’.

ABOUT AUTHOR

Akshat Lal is a PhD scholar in the Department of Medieval and Modern History, University of Allahabad. He is also a heritage conservationist and founder of the Allahabad Heritage Society.

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