THE FORGOTTEN PALACE OF CHARKHARI
Charkhari, located in Bundelkhand region, is the best stopover destination to visit Orchha, Panna and Khajuraho
Charkhari is a non-descript town, in the middle of nowhere, around 160-odd km from Jhansi on National Highway 76 in Mahoba district of Bundelkhand region. Most of the Bundelkhand region is bound by majestic forts, magnificent temples, ancient lakes filled with historic tales, pilgrimage sites from the Ramayana, a huge display of rich culture and much more…
It is here that I meet the present and the 10th maharaja of Charkhari, Jayant Singh Ju Deo at his royal residence, Raobagh Palace. Built almost a century ago, Raobagh Palace is still the residence of the royal family of the Bundela Rajputs of Charkhari. The massive pillars of the palace reflect a grand vision of Doric architecture. The palace lies in the granite terrain of Bundelkhand, just two hours from Khajuraho which has a number of 10th century temples. The mines of Panna have been famous for magnificent diamonds and a large one dug from the last was kept in the fort of Kalinjar.
Jayant, as he prefers himself to be addressed as, tells us that the palace was built by his grandmother after her husband died as she was childless and felt too lonely in Mangalgarh Fort, now known as Charkhari Fort. The scion of the royal estate of Charkhari informs us that the town is noted for the Mangalgarh Fort on Mulia Hills that was built by the son of Maharaj Chhatrasal Jagat Raj in 1734. Since 2005, the fort has been with the Ministry of Defence and out-of-bounds for civilians.
“Charkhari may not be a known name to most people, it has tonnes of history attached to it. The king of Jaitpur, Jagat Raj, the son of Raja Chhatrasal of the Bundela dynasty, came here to hunt a species of deer called chakhar. He loved the place so much that he laid the foundation of a fort in the dense forests of Ranjit Hill on a mangalwar (Tuesday). Over the years, the place came to be known as Charkhari and the fort was called Mangalgarh. However, the main aim of the king was to subdue the local Lodh community. A struggle followed that finally ended in a compromise with Jaitpur recognising the Lodh chieftain’s locus standi with the awarding of a title. The ensuing peace paved way for a new principality, Charkhari, to be carved out of an extended Jaitpur,” Jayant tells us.
But the fort became a bone of contention among the brothers and the enmity continued for generations who paid the price in blood. To save the royal lineage, Jayant’s grandmother adopted his father Maharajidhiraj Sipahbahadur-ul-Mulk Jayendra Singh Ju Deo, the son of Maharaja Mahipal Singh Ju Deo of Sarila in 1942. Charkhari was the first state in Bundelkhand to seek British protection through a sanad (agreement) and assure fealty in 1804. As a result, the British rewarded the raja of Charkhari with a khilat – a sword of honour, land, the privilege of adoption and an 11-gun hereditary salute during the reign of Raja Ratan Singh.
After a sumptuous spread of masala bhindi, arhar dal, gobhi-aloo, dahi and salad in silverware where we get to meet Jayant’s wife, Maharani Urmila Kumari, the younger daughter of Raja Shivraten Singh of Poonch. Not only she a good hostess, Urmila has been in public life as the mayor of Charkhari as an independent candidate.
We are introduced to Hanif Ahmed who is deputed to show us around town. He leads us through the busy and narrow streets of the town to the old palace of Charkhari. It was built during the rule of Maharajadhiraj Sipahdar-ul-Mulk Sir Arimardhan Singh Ju Deo Bahadur. Just as we are about to enter the complex, Hanif stops us. “This iron gate was not installed here when the palace was constructed. It was got here as a memento after the Charkhari army defeated the ruler of Banda. Notice carefully the brass spikes on the top half that were used as a defensive device by the enemy so that the elephants couldn’t ram the gates. Our soldiers offered to stand between these nails and the elephants as a cushion so that the latter could trample their way in. As a result, many soldiers died but Charkhari won the battle of Banda,” he narrates.
The palace inside follows the typical Islamic-Rajput grammar of architecture – an exclusive Diwan-e-Khaas where the king met his core counsel and the more popular Diwan-e-Aam where he freely interacted with the public. Even after a century, the wooden panels and inlay work on the walls are perfectly intact.
After a quick round of the palace, as we exit, Hanif directs our attention towards the road that stretches in front of it. “Shops line both sides of the avenue, more or less on the same lines as Chandni Chowk in Delhi which you can see from the ramparts of the Red Fort.
As dusk sets in, we return to Raobagh which was partially converted into a hotel by Jayant as he felt Charkhari was a great stopover destination to travel around the Bundelkhand region, especially Orchha (180 km), Khajuraho (80 km) and Panna National Park (240 km).