Bravado amidst ruins: A day in Jhansi

This post is dedicated to the sweet little Jhansi ki Rani who was our host during our stay in Jhansi

The train slowly pulled up and I pushed my head out of the door to see the name of the station painted in black on the yellow background, the ubiquitous pattern of the Indian Railways. Jhansi had arrived, or rather I had arrived in Jhansi – an otherwise sleepy town, famous in the tourist map for the heroic Rani who fought the British yoke.
We began our sojourn from the decrepit Lakshmibai palace. Built in the late 18th century, it was partially in ruins and the palace seemed to be shorn of every bit of its former glory, if anything ever existed. Many old defaced stone-carved statues were strewn around the rooms in complete carelessness. These were supposedly ‘preserved’ by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Mainly inspired from Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, these statues were hardly guarded and it hardly seemed a big deal to smuggle out a few of them in broad daylight. My first experience in Jhansi was far from pleasing and did not seem worth the effort. I asked my friend to take me elsewhere.

We reached the Jhansi fort, the seismic point of the Lakshmibai saga. A guide was more than willing to show us the way. “I don’t need a guide” I expostulated, trying to find my way. My friend held me back and with a lot of effort and I was convinced to let the guide accompany us.
We moved around as he kept belting out tales of yore one after another. “This fort was built in 1613 by Raja Bir Singh Deo, the ruler of Orcha”. The fort too, was seeking maintenance but it was far better than what I got to see a while back. “Maharani (Lakshmibai) was born Manikarnika. Her father trained her in martial arts even though she was a girl” he said as he led us through the inner portals of the fort, through buildings like the Diwan-e-aam, Diwan-e-khaas, the Rani’s private chamber, the room where she used to swing with her friends, after which he led us out to the open part of the fort.
The ramparts of the fort, guarded by ten gates named after the brave martyrs of the revolt, majestically stood high over the city and the settlements far and wide could be seen from there. The fifty-something guide walked far ahead of us, waving a lathi carelessly in his hand while we took our own sweet time, clicking photos all along the way. “From here the soldiers would place their bows and shoot arrows” he said indicating the upper parts of the wall “and from here, they used to fire canons”. A reconstruction of the deadly battle had been made near the fort in stone.
“Jhansi was dreaded for the capital punishment awarded by Maharaj Gangadhar Rao. We have a popular saying here – Jhansi gale ki faansi, datiya gale ka haar, Lalitpur kabhun na chodiyo, jab tak milta udhaar” he said indicating the gallows that stood there, reeking of a millions shrieks of pain. I kept pestering the guide to repeat it umpteen times before we left so that I could get the saying verbatim.

The Rani used to go for her daily puja to the Shiv Mandir here. Since gallows were on the way, she could hear the cries of the prisoners who were hanged to death. This greatly disturbed the Rani and she requested the Maharaj to do something about it. The Maharaj, who loved her dearly, did away with the concept of death sentence. “The Rani became even more popular among the masses. Let us go and have a darshan” he said, leading us to the Shiv Mandir downstairs. The temple is still alive with rites and rituals and sees quite a crowd during the Mahashivratri.
As we moved on, the guide suddenly stopped and knelt down. He seemed to examine something on the floor. “Come here sirji” he called for us. It looked like a man-hole. “This is the dungeon. The prisoner would be thrown into this kaal-kothri and he would reach the basement where no light would reach. It was a dreadful prison!” I held my cell-phone tightly as I peeped into it and turned to see his face animated with the fright of the dungeon.

The story went on, and he finally signed off saying “The Rani fought for the city and attained martyrdom in Gwalior. After the revolt, nothing was left. All the Baniyas of Lalitpur left the place after the city was consigned to anonymity”. I could sense a loyalty in this man to his queen. I handed his fees to him; it was not the price for his loyalty. Seeing many like him in Jhansi, I sensed that loyalty could perhaps never be purchased. He smiled and took it with all satisfaction.
Dusk had crept in and it was time for the ‘Sound and Light’ show. We all seated ourselves in the space marked out for the spectators. As the sky grew dimmer with the sun almost gone, lights were on and from nowhere I could hear horses speeding nearby.

The gala show had started. “Main Jhansi ka Qila hoon” said a familiar baritone. I soon realised that Om Puri’s voice, playing the role of the Jhansi Fort, was the sootradhar of this show. The story of Lakshmibai began. “I saw my queen enter the fort resplendent in her wedding attire…” went on the narrative. The story took a twist. The king was dead and the company agent came before the Rani to impose the Doctrine of Lapse on Jhansi. “Main apni Jhansi nahi doongi!” This punch-line, delivered strongly by Sushmita Sen, who played Lakshmibai, echoed across the fort, setting the tone for rest of the drama. I soon realised, both from my conversations with the guide and from the show, that Lakshmibai was no less than a demi-goddess in Jhansi. People looked up to her and carried all the respect bestowed on a queen to this day. The show ended but I discerned that in her death, she had become a heroine larger than life. In India, immortality comes either with a person being cast in gold as a demi-God or being thrashed in history as a dark-faced villain. The shades of grey are something we are yet to learn to live with.
Subhadra Kumari Chauhan had enshrined the Rani in popular imagination through one of her poems, which is repeated at every turn in Jhansi and is at the tip of the tongue of every denizen of this town. Bundele harbolon ke muh humne suni kahaani thi, khoob ladi mardangi woh toh Jhansi wali Rani thi… (From the bards of Bundelkhand have we heard her saga, the queen of Jhansi gave a tough fight with the spirit of a man). It is a strange mixture of fact and fiction which builds a long-lasting saga. Every stone of Jhansi seemed to look back with pride at that tale of courage, which was no less a fact. After all, it was not a small deal for a woman of twenty-three to shake the mightiest empire in the world with just five words “Main apni Jhansi nahi doongi!”

How to reach there: Jhansi is well connected by rail to Delhi. Nearby towns like Khajuraho and Orcha are spots not to be missed.
Where to eat: Narayan Chaat Bhandar in Sadar market is the ultimate place for gob-smacking chaats.
Where to stay: Many resorts are available in Orcha and Khajuraho. Jhansi has many budget hotels.

(This article was published in The New Sunday Express)

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