Betwa – Flowing in the Heart of India

In the annals of Indian history, rivers occupy a special place. Revered as deities by Hindus, rivers mobilized resources, ideas and agricultural wealth. If there is something that strongly characterizes the idea of India, it is her endless river system. The very name ‘India’ or ‘Hind’ has been derived from the river Indus, first cited by Arab geographers. At the dawn of the Christian era, Ptolemy divided India as the lands of Ganges and beyond Ganges.

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River Betwa in Orchha

Although most of India’s rivers played a prolific role in shaping her civilization, only a few are celebrated as Pan-Indian tirthas, such as Ganga, Godavari, Narmada and Cauvery. Betwa or Vetrawati is a historically vibrant river that flows through the heart of Central India in the modern states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Cutting through the Vindhya ridges, its banks are not fertile valleys and the population density is low. It has still retained its medieval charm as not too many industries and large cities dot its banks.

Betwa silently crafted a story that we identify as the story of India. In her catchment we find the earliest imprints of humankind in India, the earliest of Hindu temples and India’s most splendid Buddhist monasteries. On its banks ran the grand highway of Ancient India, the Dakshina Path, connecting the cities of Gangetic plain and Deccan. Both Jains and Buddhists lived and prosper in the region. They together with Hindus have left beautifully sculptured edifices along the Betwa.

The story of Betwa begins approximately 30,000 years when the rock shelters of Bhimbetka and its surrounding hills were transformed into one of the earliest habitats of modern humans in the Sub-continent. The unique position of hills with gradual slopes and surrounding valleys not only provided shelters to live but also supplied a wealth of food resources. Our Stone Age ancestors took the advantage of this nature’s gift and silently laid the foundation of the story of India. They painted on the walls of the caves scenes from their daily life and created the first visual language. Today the rock-shelters of Bhimbetka are a world heritage site and a repository of knowledge of an ancient way of life and living.

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Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka

The Stone Age way of life continued for thousands of years until the process of earliest urbanization began in the middle of 1st millennium BCE. Vidisha became an important trade centre around this time and continued till the Gupta Empire took over in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE. Emperor Ashoka was the governor of Vidisha and his Buddhist wife Vidisha Devi was a native of this city. Today, among Vidisha’s oldest remains is the stone pillar that was erected in the 1st century BCE by Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador of Indo-Greek King Antialcidas. The pillar is surmounted by a sculpture of Garuda and dedicated to Vasudeva.

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Heliodorus Pillar at Vidisha

Sanchi, another world heritage site is a jewel in the crown of Buddhism. Originally commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, the great stupa at Sanchi is an architectural landmark. It was here that Ashoka married Vidisha Devi, the daughter of a merchant from Vidisha. In the 1st century BCE, four elaborately carved toranas with beautiful sculptures depicting daily life in Ancient India, the Dhamma wheels, Jataka tales and the worshipping of the Buddha in symbolic form were added.

Sanchi Stupas

During the course of time a number of stupas, temples and monasteries were built in Sanchi, among which the Temple 17 is worth mentioning. It is one of the earliest temples of India built in the form of a small square sanctum and a portico with flat roofs. The portico has four pillars bearing four lions on top. This temple is a wonderful example of the fact that the concept of Shikhara did not exist earlier.

Sanchi 17 Temple, one of the earliest temples in India

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A later Temple at Sanchi

Similar to Sanchi, a number of other hills around Betwa and its tributary Bes became established centres of Buddhism. One such centre is Satdhara. The main stupa at Satdhara is even bigger than the Sanchi Mahastupa and was built during the time of Ashoka. Overlooking Bes River, the strikingly simpler Satdhara stupas are spread over a sprawling plateau.

Satdhara Buddhist Complex

When the Guptas took over, they created a parallel centre of worship at Udayagiri Hill near Vidisha and introduced the idea of rock-cut Hindu monasteries in the region. It was perhaps to counteract the popularity of Buddhism in the region and spread Brahmanical faith. The gigantic rock-cut statues of Varaha and Anantaseshayi Vishnu at Udayagiri will leave any visitor spellbound. This was the beginning of Hindu iconography that later evolved into more complex forms profusely adorning the medieval temples of India and Southeast Asia.

The Udayagiri Cave Complex

Situated on the right bank of Betwa in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh, Deogarh has one of the best known Gupta period temples, Dashavatara Vishnu Temple. It is also identified as the earliest known Panchayatana Temple in North India.

Nar Naryana Sculptures at Dashavatar Temple in Deogarh and Jain Sculptures at Parshavanath Temple in Deogarh (Source: Wikipedia)

Deogarh was also a major centre of Jainism. There are about 31 Jain Temples with 2000 sculptures built between 7th and 17th Centuries CE in Deogarh. According to UP Tourism website, Deograh has the largest collection of Jain sculptures found in one place. Most of these temples were built by Jain merchants who carried on trade both inland and overseas from Deogarh.

Calm flows the Betwa towards Budhi Chanderi, or the Old Chanderi, which is 20 km North of modern Chanderi and yet another major centre of Jainism.

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A Jain Temple in Chanderi

The early seeds of architectural grandeur sown by the Guptas flowered during the period of Rashtrakutas and the best examples are found at the unfinished Shiva Temple at Bhojpur and ruins of the nearby Bhootnath Temple complex. The temple at Bhojpur was massive and the Shiva linga is the tallest in the medieval world.

Temple Ruins of Bhojpur and Bhootnath

The temple building activity continued in Vidisha and the sheer size of the unfinished temple of Bijamandal speaks eloquently of the skills and ambition of its builders.

Temple Ruins of Bijamandal at Vidisha

The next phase in Betwa story begins with the introduction of Islam. The political ambition of Sultanate rulers led their march to South and Betwa became the key passage. Victories of invaders pulled down the wealth of temples throwing life that revolved around sanatan belief into disarray. But this was not to last long. The faith in humanism saw new light through Sufi mysticism. Chanderi became a magnet of Sufi ideas with the preaching of the followers of Nizamuddin Auliya.

Chishtiyya is one of the four main streams of Sufi Islam. Though Chishtiyya had originated in Afghanistan in the 10th century CE, it was Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, a revered Sufi Saint who had his abode at Ajmer in Rajasthan in the 12th century AD, who established the Chishti order in the Indian Subcontinent. The Chishti order of Sufism made a profound impact on the spread of Islam in India and stressed on values such as independence from rulers and states, rejection of money and land grants, generosity to others through sharing of food and wealth, and tolerance and respect to religious differences.

One of the eminent disciples of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti was Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. According to primary historical sources, in 13th and 14th centuries CE, Auliya’s influence on Muslims of Delhi was so much that a paradigm shift was effected in their outlook towards worldly matters. People began to incline towards mysticism and prayers and remained aloof from the world.

During the time of Nizamuddin Auliya, the Chishti Silsila spread all over the country owing to the moving out of a large number of his followers to different cities and provinces. According to Abdullah Shatteri, a noted historian of that time, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya had sent seven hundred well-trained disciples to various important cities in the country. These Khalifas, as theye were called, went on to become central figures in their respective regions. One such Khalifa was Hazrat Wajihuddin. During the reign of Allauddin Khilji, he was ordered by Hazrat Nizamuddin to go and settle in Chanderi and work for the people.

Sufi Shrines and Indo-Islamic Structures at Chanderi

Chanderi lies at the meeting point of Malwa Plateau and Bundelkhand. It is strategically located on the major trade routes of Central India towards Malwa, Mewar, coast of Gujarat and Deccan. Throughout history, Chanderi has attracted all major powers from Pratihars to Khilji, Lodhi, Mughals, Bundelas and finally the British.

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A rock-cut Jain Sculpture at Chanderi

Hazrat Wajihuddin reached Chanderi in 1305 AD and established his Khanaqah. Soon he attracted thousands of visitors to Chanderi. These devotees not only came from Chanderi and surrounding areas but also from places as far as Bengal. Meer Khurd in his book Siyar-Ul-Auliya mentions many devotees especially from Lakhanuti, which is near Dhaka, who not only visited Hazrat Wajihuddin but decided to settle down in Chanderi. It was, most probably, this group of people that began the practice of weaving in Chanderi as Dhaka was a major centre of weaving in those times. Chanderi today is well-known for its silk and its patrons are from all religions, classes and faiths but most of us are unaware of its deep connection with Sufism, especially the Chisthiyya order of Sufism.

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A Chanderi Weaver at Work

Mazar Khandan – e – Nizamuddin is a grave complex that was built in 1425 AD for the followers of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya during the rule of Hoshang Shah, the Sultan of Malwa. The complex has some of India’s most beautiful jali work on its walls and carving of motifs on black stone graves. According to KK Muhammad, a noted archaeologist and an expert on the subject, the jali work of these tombs are earliest, which eventually would develop into more intricate refined jali work at the Mausoleum of Muhammad Ghaus in Gwalior and the Dargah of Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri. Many of these jalis and motifs have found their way into the design of Chanderi Sarees and fabrics.

Chanderi has also a deep connection with Hindustani music. Baiju Bawra, a contemporary of Tansen sang many of his dhrupads in the court of Chanderi in the 16th century CE.

In the final leg of Betwa story, we encounter the fusion of two great ideas, the Mughals and the Bundela Rajputs. Orchha, the capital of Bundelas is one of the most celebrated centres of art, architecture, music and dance. The imposing chhatris of Bundela Rajputs, the majestic Chaturbhuj Temple and Jehangir Mahal were amongst the last link of Betwa story that began at the remote corner of time in Bhimbetka, some 30,000 years back.

In the 13th Century CE, Bundelkhand region was embroiled in battles between Sultanate and the Rajput kings to acquire power and wealth and the region became important as it connected the Ganga – Yamuna doab in the North to the Malwa Plateau and Deccan in the South. Betwa’s fortune changed with the arrival of Akbar and Bundela Rajputs. Their peaceful coexistence turned Orchha into a magnet of creativity. The region witnessed cultural renaissance with several innovations in Hindustani music, dance, paintings and architecture.

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The Bundela Cenotaphs across Betwa

The name Orchha has an interesting story. Once when, Raja Rudra Pratap was out on a hunting expedition, he came across a small Rama Temple in the middle of the forest. Being a devout follower of Rama, he sat in front of the temple to meditate unaware of a wolf that was hiding nearby. The smell of human sweat pulled him closer to the king. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a voice boomed ‘Orchha’, the chasing command given to dogs. The hunting dogs thus awakened chased the wolf finally killing it. According to the story the command was given by Lord Rama himself. The King immediately decided to establish his capital at this holy spot and named it Orchha.

Though Rudra Pratap founded Orchha, he did not survive to build his dream city. He died the same year saving a cow. His successor Madhukar Shah however took Orchha to new heights of prosperity. Orchha became a vassal kingdom under the Mughals during the reign of Emperor Akbar.

Vir Singh Deo was the next important ruler of Orchha. He was a vassal of Jahangir, the next Mughal Emperor after Akbar. It was during his rule that Orchha reached its zenith in terms of artistic and architectural proliferation. Vir Singh Deo built Jahangir Mahal, a jewel among the medieval palaces in India and the Laxmi Narayan Temple, where we see the best of Orchha murals. He had a dashing personality but his name was tainted as the murderer of Abul Fazal, the court historian and one of the nine jewels of Akbar’s court.

Splendours of Orchha

Jahangir Mahal was expressly built for a warm reception of Jahangir, the Mughal Emperor. A fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture, Jahangir Mahal is a three storied building in square shape. The entrance is flanked by two impressive stone elephants that look as if they have been standing guard forever. Another remarkable feature of this mansion is the stone lattice work on the windows.

Another major attraction of Orchha are its 14 massive cenotaphs of Bundela rulers that stand imposingly along the banks of the tranquil Betwa River. Most of the cenotaphs are three storied and the architecture of these cenotaphs is a synthesis of traditional Rajput, Indo-Saracenic and ornate Mughal architectural styles. Most of the cenotaphs are in a very good condition.

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Chhatris of Bundela Rajputs at Orchha

Today, Bundelkhand through which the Betwa flows is a thirsty region.  In a recent clearance to one of the most controversial projects of river linking, Betwa with Ken, has posed a series of questions on Betwa’s tranquility that has remained untouched for centuries. The Ken region harbors tiger habitats and the river linking will submerge a part of it.

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Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

 

 

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