Bundelkhand a region lying between the Indo-Gangetic plain and the Vindhyas, marked by hills, valleys, sparse vegetation and rocky outcrops. A region known for it’s harsh climate, aridity and barren spaces, an environment that has produced some of the hardiest warriors and rulers of India. The Chandela Rajputs who built the stunning temples at Khajuraho, Rudra Pratap Singh, who founded the princely state of Orcha, and is famous for the magnificient buildings and above all the brave Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi whom the British regarded as one of the most dangerous rebels during the 1857 War of Independence.
In modern times, the hockey wizard Dhyan Chand, the great Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupt, prominent Hindi movie lyricist Indeevar, novelist Vrindavan Lal Verma, all hailed from here.
In the pantheon of greats from Bundelkhand, one man’s name shone like a beacon of light, Veer Chatrasal. History is a chronicle of struggles for the sake of power, but in that there have been people who fought not just for power, but also for freedom. And such men and women have been immortalized as bravehearts. In Medieval India, Veer Chhatrasal stands along side with Chatrapati Shivaji and Maharana Pratap, as one of the bravest fighters for freedom from the Muslim rule, a man who fought for freedom till the end of his life. Chhatrasal not only established an independent state in Bundelkhand, he was also a patron of fine arts, and a good writer himself. Of the 82 years he lived, Chhatrasal fought 52 battles during his 44 year old reign. From the Narmada to Yamuna, from Chambal to Tons, Chhatrasal’s writ ran supreme.
From the soil that gave birth to great heroes and warriors, it’s beloved son Chhatrasal, gave equal importance to both the pen and the sword. The origins of Chhatrasal go back to the Orchha state founded in 1501 by Rudra Pratap Singh, who moved the capital to Orccha(now in MP) from Garhkunder around 1531. Rudra Pratap was succeded by his son Bhartichandra, who gave the Jagirdari of Mehba, to Rao Udayajit Singh and who in turn was later succeded by Champat Rai.
Veer Chhatrasal was born to the brave warrior couple of Champat Rai and Lal Kunwar on May 4, 1649, in the village of Kachar Kachnai now located in the Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh. Chhatrasal was just 12 years when his parents committed suicide than surrender against the Mughal Army in 1661. Amidst the forests, the hills, under the shadow of the forest Gods, Chhatrasal was born in conflicted times, amidst cannons, swords and bloodshed. Along with his elder brother Angad Rai, Chhatrasal, moved to Delwara, to learn the art of warfare from his uncle Saheb Singh Dhander. He also got married to Devkunwari of the Panwar dynasty as promised to his father.
Chhatrasal had no money power, nor an army, he had to live with the torment of his parents committing suicide in battle due to betrayal, and with his jagir seized away, he had virtually nothing to him, when he was just 12 years old. But Chhatrasal had something more precious, the famed Bundela courage, the sanskaar, and the self confidence of Veera Bhogya Vasundhara(The World is for the Brave). He was not broken in spirit,and armed with courage and faith, decided to fight back. Along with his brother, he joined the army of Raja Jai Singh, where he undertook military training.
Jai Singh then was a vassal of Aurangzeb, and when he was entrusted with the Deccan campaign, it was an occasion for Chhatrasal to show his bravery. On May 1665, Chhatrasal showed exemplary bravery in the Battle for Bijapur, and also played a crucial role in defeating the Gond king of Chhindwara too risking his own life. It was Chhatrasal’s horse “Bhalebhai” that saved it’s master from danger, else he would have lost his life. However when Chhatrasal did not receive due credit for the victories, and instead the credit went to relatives of Aurangzeb and court nobels, his self respect was hurt, and he left the Mughal Army. He came to know that the Mughals were merely an occupying force, who never really cared for the Hindus.
With Shivaji being the rising star of Hindu nationalism then, Chhatrasal felt it fit to ally with the great Maratha ruler. They met in 1668, where after listening to Chhatrasal, Shivaji advised him to set up an independent kingdom and also gifted him the sword of Bhavani. This is what Shivaji told him “We shall rule over our independent kingdoms, kill the Mughals, destroy their army.” Motivated by Shivaji’s call for Swaraj, Chhatrasal, returned to his native Bundelkhand in 1670, however by now, most of it was under the control of the Mughals. Most of the local chieftains were vassals of the Mughal empire, his own relatives were not in a mood to oppose Delhi. Chhatrasal received no cooperation from any of the local rulers be it Sujan Singh of Orchha or Shubkaran of Datia, who while honoring him, advised him against any conflict. When the kings refused to support him, Chhatrasal, began to rally the ordinary people against the Mughals , he was helped financially by his childhood friend Mahabali, due to which he was able to raise a small army of just 25 infantry and 5 cavalry. And in 1671, Chhatrasal raised the bugle of revolt against the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the establishment of a Swarajya.
His modest army did not have any royalty, but were mostly made up of commoners like Telis, ordinary peasants, craftsmen etc. His cousin Baldiwan also joined hands with him, and his first attack was against the Dhanderas of Sehore, who had betrayed his parents. The Mughal vassal Kunwar Singh was not only defeated and imprisoned, but Hashim Khan who came to assist him was roundly defeated. Sironj and Tibra, were attacked and the looted wealth was used by Chhatrasal to build his army and also to motivate people to join it. In no time, Chhatrasal managed to raise a large army and soon Pawai, Bansa, Damoh, Meher, were all conquered. Munawar Khan, the subedar of Gwalior was routed, and the treasury was sacked, and it came under his control.
Furious at the loss of Gwalior, Aurangzeb sent a huge army under the command of Rohilla Khan which had 8 cavalry units, and an infantry of 30,000. In a pitched battle fought at Garhkot, Rohilla’s army was not just routed by Chhatrasal, but he himself had to flee from the battlefield to save his life. The victory made Chhatrasal that much more stronger and between 1671-80, Chhatrasal ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched from Chitrakoot to Gwalior and Kalpi to Garhkot.
In 1675, Chhatrasal met Mahamati Prannathji the guru of the Pranami Sampradaya at Mau, through his nephew Dev Karanji who was a disciple of the Pran Nathji. Chhatrasal highly impressed by Pran Nathji became his disciple, who blessed him saying “You will always be victorious. Diamond mines will be discovered in your land and you will become a great emperor.”“Prannathji in a way was to Chhatrasal what Samarth Ramdas was to Shivaji, he would be his spiritual, political, economic advisor.
Chhatrasal defeated the Gond ruler of Panna, and made it his capital as per advice of Pran Nathji. This would prove beneficial, as the diamond mines at Panna, bought him prosperity, and helped him to build a mighty kingdom. And soon the forts of Orchha, Sagar, Damoh, Kalpi, Mahoba, Ajner and Vidisha were conquered by Chhatrasal. The Mughal jagirdars themselves began to pay tax to Chhatrasal now. His victory march continued as far as Malwa, Punjab, Rajasthan, establishing the Bundela kingdom. The Nawab of Allahabad, Mohd Khan Bangash, launched an attack on Chhatrasal, he was around 80 years then. Facing a defeat at Jaitpur, Chhatrasal sent a long letter to the Peshwa Baji Rao , reminding him of the need to protect the honor of the Bundelas as gratitude for the assistance they had rendered to the Marathas. With the advent of Baji Rao’s army, Bangash’s army had to suffer a humiliating rout, and Mohd. Khan Bangash himself had to run away from the battlefield in disgrace.
In gratitude Chhatrasal, adopted Baji Rao as his 3rd son, and also gave him the entire Bundelkhand region of Jhansi, Sagar, Kalpi etc, as also his daughter from a Muslim courtesan Mastani. The unity shown by the Bundelas and Marathas in repelling the Mughal forces and creating an independent kingdom in the Deccan is to date an exemplary episode in history. He also gave equal share of his kingdom to his two sons Jagatraj and Hirdeshah and advised them to always follow Raj Dharma and deliver good governance. Chhatrasal was not just a great warrior, but an equally able and wise ruler too, whose governance ensured, his kingdom always had a full treasury. On Dec 1731, Chhatrasal passed away near Chhatarpur, but he would remain forever in the consciousness of Bundelkhand. Sharp as his sword was, equally sharp was his pen too. An excellent poet himself, he would felicitate and honor other poets too. When the great poet Kavibhushan came to Bundelkhand, Chhatrasal himself carried the palanquin bearing him. Warrior, empire builder, writer, poet, Veer Chhatrasal would forver be one of the great sons of Bharat.