It’s a strip of arid land marked by hills that formed the divide between the fertile Gangetic plains and the old Vindhya mountains. And it is steeped in history. Yet we know so little about Bundelkhand or its famous 17th century CE ruler Raja Chhatrasal Bundela, who won this land back from the Mughals and established a kingdom here.
You are more likely to have heard of his daughter Mastani, made famous by the 2015 film celebrating her romance with the Maratha Peshwa, Bajirao I. But Chhatrasal is an even more celebrated figure in the history of this region.
The Bundelkhand region, which lies along the Vindhya mountains between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, was once the kingdom of the Chandella dynasty, which ruled the territory between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Chandellas left an everlasting legacy, the most prominent of which are the temples in their capital Khajuraho, as well as the fortresses at Kalinjar and Mahoba. After the fall of the Chandella kingdom in the 13th century, due to successive invasions of the armies of the Delhi Sultanate, the region splintered into numerous small kingdoms, many of which were ruled by Bundela chieftains.
The Bundelas trace their story to a legend, to a mythical warrior named Hem Karan, who once performed severe penance to appease Goddess Vindyavasini (near Allahabad). It is said that despite his many attempts when he failed to get a response from the goddess, he decided to sacrifice himself at her feet. As the first drop or boond of his blood fell to the ground, Goddess Vindyavasini appeared before him and granted him a boon, that he and his descendants would be kings.
– The clan’s name ‘Bundela’ is derived from ‘boond’ or ‘drop’ of blood, in Hindi!
In the 17th century, various Bundela chiefs played important roles in the expansion of the Mughal empire. The most prominent among them was Bir Singh Dev Bundela, who assassinated Abul Fazl, Emperor Akbar’s confidant and biographer and helped in the rise of Jahangir. One of Bir Singh Dev’s faithful officers was a man named Champat Rai Bundela, who was even more ambitious and dreamt of carving out his own kingdom. By the time Shah Jahan was on the Mughal throne, Champat Rai was using guerrilla warfare against his forces.
An opportunity came during the battle of succession among Shah Jahan’s sons. Champat Rai chose the winning side and played a very important role in Aurangzeb’s victory against his brother Dara Shikoh in 1658. However, he soon realized what a terrible mistake he had made, and rebelled against Aurangzeb, who in turn had him executed in 1661 CE.
– Champat Rai’s wife, Lal Kunwar committed sati, leaving behind a 12-year-old orphan named Chhatrasal.
Sadly, there are very few historical records on Chhatrasal. The most authoritative account is historian Dr Bhagwandas Gupta’s book The Life And Times of Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela (1980). Dr Gupta pieced together Chhatrasal’s life based on Chhatra Prakash, a ballad written by Gore Lall, a court bard of Raja Chhatrasal, while taking into consideration the obvious exaggerations of a court ballad.
Chhatrasal was born in 1649, in the forest of Maur Hill near Kakar Kachnaye village, to Champat Rai Bundela and his wife Lal Kunwar. After the tragic death of his parents, the young boy was taken under the wing of Mughal commander Mirza Raja Jai Singh, a friend of his late father. He joined the Mughal army as a lowly captain and served in the Deccan campaigns against Maratha leader Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1665, as well as the Gond kingdom of Deogarh in 1667. He was amply rewarded with mansabs (lands) for his bravery, but he never overcame the guilt of fighting on the side of his father’s killers. He was also inspired by Chhatrapati Shivaji and his ideals.
Noted historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar in his book Shivaji And His Times (1920) writes about how in 1670-71, Chhatrasal left the Mughal camp on the pretext of a hunting trip and reached the Maratha capital at Rajgarh. Here, he met Chhatrapati Shivaji and hoped to find employment in his service, but instead, the Maratha king advised him to return to his land and fight for the independence of his people.
Taking this advice, Chhatrasal returned to Bundelkhand and raised a small army. In 1675, he managed to establish a kingdom in the jungles of Panna (in present-day Madhya Pradesh), after defeating its local Gond chief. From 1678, Aurangzeb enforced a policy of repression against Hindus, such as the imposition of the Jaziya tax and the demolition of prominent temples. Taking advantage of a series of revolts that broke out across the Mughal empire, Chhatrasal launched attacks on Mughal forts such as Gwalior, Kalinjar and Kal
In 1683, in the forests of Chhatarpur in Bundelkhand, Chhatrasal met a sage named Sant Prannath, the spiritual head of the Pranami sect of Hinduism, which had numerous followers in Gujarat and Bundelkhand. The sage agreed to become Chhatrasal’s spiritual guru and lived in Bundelkhand till he died in 1694.
It is Sant Prannath who conferred the title of ‘Maharaja’ on Chhatrasal, providing him royal legitimacy. According to local folklore, he is also said to have blessed Chhatrasal with a boon ‘May diamonds be always found in your kingdom’, leading to the discovery of the famed Panna diamond mines! Even today, Sant Prannath is worshiped across Bundelkhand.
Aurangzeb was so busy fighting wars against the Marathas in the Deccan that he did not pay attention to Raja Chhatrasal. In 1700, the Mughals made a series of attempts to subdue him but they were defeated. Following the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal empire began to fall apart. The chaos all around enabled Chhatrasal to rule in peace. He enjoyed excellent relations with Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar, who conferred several honours on him in 1714.
In 1719, Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ became the Mughal emperor. His Prime Minister Qamaruddin Khan, who would go on to become the first Nizam of Hyderabad, was vehemently opposed to Chhatrasal. On his advice, the emperor ordered the Mughal governor of Allahabad Muhammad Khan Bangash to march against Chhatrasal, leading to the Bangash-Bundela War fought between 1720 and 1729.
Bangash, with his superior army, managed to inflict a series of defeats on Chhatrasal, besieging him and his family at the fort of Jaitpur. Chhatrasal and his family were taken prisoner and there was a very real possibility that they would be executed.
In desperation, Chhatrasal appealed to Maratha Peshwa, Bajirao I, for help. The Peshwa happened to be quite close, at Devgadh near Nagpur. Bajirao and his troops reached Bundelkhand on 12th March 1729 and inflicted a crushing defeat on Bangash. A few days later, on 18th March, Bangash signed the terms of surrender, in which he agreed to return to Allahabad and never harass Raja Chhatrasal again.
A grateful Chhatrasal declared that henceforth he would consider Bajirao like his own son and bestowed one-third of his kingdom, comprising the present-day districts of Banda, Jhansi and Sagar, on him. Peshwa Bajirao would appoint governors to administer this grant and this area later evolved into the princely state of Jhansi. Chhatrasal also gave the hand of his daughter Mastani, born of a concubine, to Bajirao. The romance of Bajirao and Mastani would become famous in popular culture.
Raja Chhatrasal died on 20th December 1731 at the age of 82. In his lifetime, he had seen extraordinary changes in India, He saw the Mughals at their height under Shah Jahan and their fall with Muhammad Shah Rangila. He had also lit the flame of independence in Bundelkhand.
After, Raja Chhatrasal’s death, his kingdom was divided among his sons, giving rise to the princely states of Panna, Ajaigarh and Charkari, which merged into India in 1947.
Today, there are roads, colleges and even a university named after Raja Chhatrasal. A prominent stadium, known for wrestling, is called the ‘Chhatrasal Stadium’ in North Delhi. Much like Chhatrapati Shivaji in Maharashtra, Raja Chhatrasal is a symbol of Bundelkhand’s identity, a medieval hero who inspires the region’s youth even today.
Cover Image: Dhubela Palace Museum - Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0 /Malay