What fascinates me about history are the not the facts and figures that are thrust on us, but the stories – especially the ones that are untold. Staring at the crumbled bricks of an old building, the faded walls, the dilapitated pillars, the rusty doors, my imagination takes me into a different era. Who would have lived here and what were their stories ? Is there an unseen ghost roaming around ? Are there haunting memories that just vanished into thin air ?
Every dusty town and village in India has these stories to tell, if only someone had documented them. I found myself in one of them a few days ago – a town called Rewa in Madhya Pradesh which lived under the garb of yet another unassuming city that went about its business as usual.And yet, there were stories that were waiting to be heard. I stopped at a little lake called Rani Ka Talao. An old temple emerged from the waters while there were several shrines around the lake. Families were walking, couples were on a boat ride, kids were playing while the devout were praying. I was however lost. The child in me came alive.
Stories usually start with ” Once upon a time there was a king..” perhaps, here you would say, there was a queen. After all the lake is named after her. An incoherent watchman muttered reluctantly something about a queen who had a dream and who built a temple here based on a deity’s wish. I wondered if he was making it all up. But ruins of old monuments stood out from behind trees like shadows from the past. Perhaps there was a story here .
I walked around and another crumbling remains of a temple stood in a corner while a few boys were playing cricket. They wanted me to take their photographs. In return they told me that the old dilapitated monument in front of me was a Kali temple that was built here by one of the queens.
Rewa I later learnt is one of the princely states of India and was part of the Bagelkhand Agency created by the British. Standing in a dusty, dingy Baghel museum under the eyes of a paranoid caretaker who refused to even let us take our mobile phones out, I saw some of the priceless treasures of the Baghela Dynasty. There were stories of friendship between Mughal Emperor Akbar and the Bagela king, Rewa Ram Singh. Birbal and Tansen came from their courts.
The entire museum was a treasure trove with old clocks and curios, porcelain from China, priceless colonial gifts from the Queen, guns that put James Bond to shame and several daggers. And I saw photographs of Shah Rukh Khan on the sets of Ashoka with some of the weapons used by the rulers. A story goes that a daring robbery in the museum which resulted in countless loss of treasures had made the caretakers more vigilant that they do not allow you to even take notes on your mobile phone or write notes in a book.
Walking around, I saw an entire lineage of the kings of Baghelkhand that was charted out in front of us. But the story of Rewa lies in a different lineage – of white tigers. And standing in front of me is Mohan, the stuffed White Tiger with its sad blue eyes gazing into oblivion.
When I entered the portals of the ruins of Govindgarh, one of the palaces of the Baghelas, I saw a tacky cardboard cut out of a tiger with white stripes and a board that said – ” This was where Mohan was first captured. ”
Hunting was a passion among the kings of yore and while they loved to show their trophies, capturing a live, unusual animal probably was one of their fantasies. And so, Mohan the white tiger cub was found and captured by the Baghela Maharaja Martend Singh in the forests around Govindgarh. He decided to create an entire lineage of white tigers and brought a tigress, aptly titled Begum to mate with Mohan. Begum was not white and apparently she gave birth to three cubs, all of them were normal Bengal Tigers. In order to keep the experiment going, Mohan had to mate again, this time with one of the tigresses he had fathered. And there in lies another tale.
Tragically, Rewa’s history has got somewhere mixed up with the story of the white tiger, at least for me. Walking around the beautiful ruins of Govindgarh, where time stood still, I wondered if the lineage of the Baghelas had more interesting tales tucked away amidst these pillars and columns which were far more exciting than stories of forcing tigers to mate and create hybrids. Perhaps I need to make another trip again.