One day, I went to Sohagpur for spending some time with Master ji. Lakshmi had given me the translation of manuscripts written by Master ji. Though in Hindi, reading his handwritten notes was another challenge. They ran into more than two hundred pages. Now I realized why it took him so long to finish this work.
He was sitting in his office room in the college, discussing worldly matters with his two other professor colleagues. I touched his feet and took a chair.
The news about the incident in Delhi had not yet spread. In the later meetings, he and his colleagues would want to know more about that incident every time we met.
He took permission of privacy from others. Then he said, “I wanted to give this you before leaving. My retirement is due in two months.”
He gave the first page. It was an index of what was in each book or diary that was given to him. As he had expected, three books were common texts. One was a Ramayana, one a Shiva Purana and one a Vikramaditya's Pachhisi books.
The fourth book, according to him was a curious case, because it was a Dogra book. It came from tribes who lived in Kashmir and beyond. About it, he said, “At first, I thought that it was unlikely that these folks had contact with the tribes in this region. It appears that someone traveling from either side had brought it here. The other three books also seemed to have come here by mutual contacts. Some records of these contacts is given in the manuscripts. You will need to read everything here and the history to come to your own conclusions.”
I asked, “How old are these four books?”
He answered, “They seem to be between a hundred to two hundred years old, looking at the paper and print.”
Then he took next two pages, written on both sides. It was a list of all important pieces of information that he had come across in the manuscript diaries. He said, “The tribal diaries seem to have been written in last two hundred years, but they talk about events that happened much before. They must have got the information by rote. Four different folks have written the diaries at different times.”
Rote was a common and old Indian tradition, by which legends like Ramayana and Vedas had been passed from one generation to another for thousands of years.
He continued, “The diaries are fascinating. They give a broken account of many proud moments in their history and some interactions with the world. Many of these need to be just believed as true due to lack of other information. But we can also tie some of the events here with written history books. Sitting here, we can only admire the information and appreciate those who lived here. But we don’t have much research on history and culture.”
He ran over the two page list. Though a lot of work lay ahead, it was indeed fascinating and triggered immediate curiosity to go over everything.
Then I looked at Master ji's handwriting, and the curiosity waned a bit. Deciphering the manuscript languages was a easier task than figuring out each word written by him.
Then he took up the last page. He said, “This is the list of available books that will throw more light on the history of this area. You will need to buy them and keep a library. Then the many events mentioned in tribal manuscripts can be tied to known history.”
While I was wondering about his handwriting, tea arrived. Master ji continued, “I am very thankful that God sent this work to me. It has been the most productive use of my years of knowledge. Ever since very young, I had been fascinated by this area and its people. One can see cavemen paintings which are more than ten thousand years old to fossils here. One will find that signature of everything past has been taken and preserved here.”
I nodded in agreement. In the whole mountain valleys and gorges from Bhopal to Sohagpur till Pachmarhi, one could see the layers of rocks created age by age since pre-historic times. It was disgraceful how this treasure was being plundered and destroyed.
He continued, “Just about a hundred years back, this was all dense forests and inhabited by civilizations of tribals. Now, folks like you and me outnumber them here.”
I nodded, “That’s a global phenomenon. Human populations have gone through the roof with progress of science.”
Master ji was not much of a science person. He didn’t have much to say on it. Meanwhile, I had found a solution to the handwriting problem. I said, “I need a favor from you. Can you read your work and record your voice on a audio C.D.?” Otherwise, it will take me ages to figure out what you wrote.”
I explained how it was to be done. He said smiling, “Looks like you will keep me busy till retirement.”
I said, “May be beyond it too. What do you plan to do after retiring?”
He said, “There is no work here. I will go to Bhopal and find some tuition work. Now days no student wants to study the subjects I teach. So I will teach small children. Add that income to my pension, and me and wife can live comfortably. My children are settled in their respective careers.”
I said, “There are still two months to go. Let us see if you can teach village children. Any guidance is better than what they get.”
That conversation was the seed of a new work - teaching children in villages. Though the children had government funded schools to go to, not a single role model had been produced in these years. In last thirty years, no one had yet become an engineer or a doctor or a government official or even a primary teacher. The problems were deep seated but I felt that biggest challenge was lack of direction and academic resources, and a belief that anything was possible.
I came back to Bhopal before nightfall. In my absence, I had left a couple of village men at home, just in case my father needed an urgent shifting to hospital. Nothing of that sort happened.
Within a week, Master ji sent the audio tapes. He had read his two hundred pages. Over next nine months, whenever I found time, I read the books listed by Master ji. Master ji’s audio was converted to a printed book. Many copies of this book were sent to the Trust office in the village. With that we started setting up a library there. I had planned books for each age of children. Lakshmi was given the role of a librarian.
For taking small children through the path of knowledge, Master ji was hired. He would go once a week to the village and took up one topic each time. He made children knowledgeable on it. Soon Master ji gave up the idea of going to Bhopal and settled down in Sohagpur.
The topic now moved to my research done with Master ji's help. I knew the whole village would gather to hear it. I compressed my research of history, and sprinkled it with mythology.
All these forests and mountains and rivers formed an impenetrable wall across the central India. They were dreaded as 'dandakaranya', and no king or military dared to pass through this tough terrain. Still many different communities of native origin lived in these areas since ancient times.
Till as recent as last three hundred years, there was no mention of any military crossing this forest, and mountain ranges. To travel from north to south India, they took a circular route that was closer to Gujarat.
The diaries also said that the first historical person to have crossed the forest was Sri Krishna. It had been the common belief. He had the allegiance of the tribal kings. Though Lord Rama was the absolute supreme in all matters, there was no account of his visiting these forests. Ramayana and Mahabharata were the pillars of Hindu mythology here.
Many scenes of Mahabharata were regularly enacted in village dramas. An artist named Teejan Bai had perfected the art and became an internationally renowned theatre artist.
Moving to the middle age described in the diaries, I described the major wars fought by the tribals. Apart from participating in Mahabharata, for which no historical proofs remained, the greatest moment of glory occurred in 54 B.C.
It is also an year revered in India for this war. Those days, Ujjain was widely known as the capital of the region, and the great king Vikramaditya was the king. Vikramaditya was described as Lord Indra' gift to then Bharat. In 54 B.C., his kingdom faced a fierce attack from Scythians (or Sakas). They were aggressive tribes from central Asia, and were considered fierce fighters.
Ujjain, and hence the Bharatvarsha was set to fall for the first time to foreign invaders. But the Scythians miscalculated the might of King Vikramaditya. On his call, the entire tribal lot came down to Ujjain. They were trained in forest warfare and were also stronger in close fights.
King Vikramaditya won this war. That year he removed all debts and emptied his treasure. Thus he became eligible to start a Samvat, meaning a calendar after his name, which all of India follows till now. It is called the Vikram Samvat.
Vikramaditya of Ujjain had an entire library of books written about him. I fondly remembered the Baital pacchisi television serials watched in childhood.
Such was the pride and hold of this event in tribal folklore, that many kings were named after Vikramaditya in central India. The name itself fetched tribal allegiance.
Folks gathered had listened to my narrative with utmost silence and attention.
Now was the tricky part. I continued, “There are not many historical proofs remaining of those events. However, in history books, there is one powerful Chalukya king called Vikramaditya the sixth, who historically came two hundred years later, that is in two hundred A.D. His kingdom reigned from the north of Narmada till the present Karnataka. These forests and the tribals formed the northern wall of his frontier. During his reign, continuous attacks came from western Asia and central Europe but none seemed to have touched him. It was likely that the wars tribals mentioned happened in this period. However one cannot refute that Vikram Samvat was not just followed by tribals but whole of India. Hence the historical discoveries still had many gaps.”
Many folks joined the discussion. Each had his own version of ancient events. In India, everyone was a distinguished historian. What I loved most was that no one had the slightest of doubt about their stories, and yet they did not need to contradict each other.
One fellow said, “Maharaja Vikramaditya was gifted a throne by Lord Indra himself, adorned with 32 putliyas. It is still lying in Ujjain.” He was speaking the truth as the throne was a tourist attraction in Ujjain. It helped close all doubts else folks would not have slept till it was resolved.
In the end, everyone agreed that we were sitting at a place which had played a great part in the history. Then we could also rest.
I did not take up the last part of diaries. They needed some exploration first.
Next few days, I spent the evenings discussing the last part of diaries with others. It was an important piece of work in my view. Evening after evening we went over the list and their deeds, I could feel we transcended into another time and world. Nagbaba and Lakshmi were ecstatic, so were many other men.
Written between a hundred to two hundred years ago, it talked about an ancient network of trusted communities and prominent families spread across the country. It gave an account of many travelers from distant places, their gifts and knowledge they shared. It could be seen from the content, that our forest world was not as isolated and unknown outsider as I had assumed it to be.
For thousands of years, the tribal kings and prominent folks like Nagbaba were in constant touch with settlements in the northern plains and southern plateau. They were aware of foreign invaders in the north. They paid visits in courts of great kings from Mahabharata times till the eighteenth century.
There was a long contact list mentioned in the diaries, and there were comments about each one. It was obvious that each one was an important community or family. I termed them the custodians. They were natural custodians or protectors of the cultural and natural heritage of his vast sub continent. They kept in touch amongst themselves, and shared the heritage.
I would imagine that they were the underlying forces that dictated the destiny of this land. If all else failed, these provided such a protection to the heritage that the chain of human civilization never lost its continuity and heritage.
Nagbabas of Satpura were considered the key to knowing the secrets that the vast jungles held, from its beasts to its medicines. Their significance was much more than the kings. They would send regular messengers outside with various medicines, and artifacts. They also got regular visitors from as far as present day Afghanistan to Southern sea coasts. The diaries kept the records of what news and gifts they brought.
An intriguing letter was also found in the diaries. It was written in Baltic language. It took a long time for Master ji to decipher the letter. Then, he took help from a professor friend in Delhi. The letter was quite recent, written in 1970, just about forty years back.
Written by one Ramnath Dogra in Rama, it read-
‘We do not have much hope now. Please come and collect our heritage and your gifts. Ramnath Dogra.’
The diary also listed Rama as an important place, more beautiful than any other place on earth, blessed by Lord Ram himself. The Dogra family was listed as the heritage custodian there.
It was still a mystery where this place called Rama was. Anyways, it seemed we were too late in seeing the message; forty years had passed.
Out of a sudden flash of discovery, I asked Lakshmi to bring out the three original books. These books were the usual religious texts. I expected to find some hint of their publication place.
We started searching for it. Unlike present day publications, these had the name of the author written at the end. The three books had the same source address, but different names of the authors. The publication belonged to one Chaturvedi family, and was from Kashi, the present day Varanasi.
The newest book was more than a hundred years old, while oldest one looked much older.
I cross checked the address with the custodian entries in the diary list. It had one Chaturvedi family's address. The address in the diary matched that on the books. The diary read 'Pundit Chaturvedi and his family is the guardian of many ancient religious texts. A visitor to Kashi must bring some book from them.' It was not known when and how these three books were brought here, but it was clear that this practice had been followed.
One evening in mid May, we decided to go back to the fort and explore the items there. Now they seemed very significant.
Next early morning, I started with Nagbaba, Lakshmi, Piya and four others for the fort. The fort was now the core territory of tiger T3. We made adequate preparation, just in case it felt offended.
I was coming on this trek after almost two years. So much had changed but the forest looked familiar. The large teak, bamboo and banyan trees stood as they were. It was Piya's first experience of a frightful forest. Midway, she started having doubts if Nagbaba knew where we were headed. I said, “Don’t worry, they know each tree here.” My claim seemed too lofty for her, but she kept quiet, not having any other option but to stay in the middle of the line.
Two hours later we were at the dilapidated fort. We had brought breakfast that was laid out in the court. Tea was also prepared. Then we got down to work. Nagbaba opened the cupboard which had many artifacts. As before, there were a few stone and granite sculptures, some brass idols and some bamboo and chestnut artifacts, apart from the shanks.
They were matched with the list and description in the diary. There was nothing much to show except two items. One was a timber box with Buddhist images and some Baltic text carving. I matched it with one box listed against Dogras.
Another was a Shiva sculpture in granite. It was listed as received from one Vyasatirtha in Vijayanagar.
Master ji had written a full note on this entry According to him, the Satpura region was replete with Shiva temples, and sculptures that depicted Shiva Purana. He argued that this influence came from southern Chola kingdoms. It was quite a discovery.
The remaining items in the cupboard had no mention in the diary, while others mentioned were not to be found. Time and neglect had taken its toll. The metal cupboards were brought just a few decades back. Thankfully, no one had stolen anything from here.
I told Nagbaba, “Now we must vacate this cupboard and take the items with us.” It was imminent that such treks were going to stop soon once the villages moved.
He did get saddened. He took a full round of the premises. He recalled and told us what his father had told him about the fort and tribal kings. It was quite a burden for him to leave the fort one last time and start our walk back.
Probably sensing that burden, the T3 showed itself. It was a large tiger, majestic as last time but had grown. He didn’t look angry. As we froze together outside the fort wall, it gave a casual look. I could bet that it recognized Nagbaba. It slowly walked away, marking its territory and making satisfied sounds.
Nagbaba said, “It can distinguish between dangerous folks and friends. It attacks only when hungry or threatened.”
I said, “Then it must have come to thank you for all the care. We need not be sad at leaving this place now. Let’s leave before sun sets before us.”
In next twelve months, I came across T3 many times, though it was the last sighting for Nagbaba. There were many other tigers and tigresses, some of them found roaming around our village, but none matched the size and wisdom of T3. It acknowledged our presence each time as if it knew our purpose.
We reached the village by dark. The office and a few homes now had solar water heaters. We also had managed to put together some solar water pumps and overhead tanks. A hot water bath in the village, unthinkable just six months back was now a luxury available.
In addition, now the trust premises also had cooking gas made from bio-waste. It was a pilot project that was under testing, though it didn’t show much promise for large scale use. But in the trust's premises, we had the luxury of cooking anything fast without filing the eyes with smoke.
Nagbaba was very tired after the day's walk, but my eyes knew no sleep. After bath, I again sat down in the compound with Lakshmi, while Piya served hot soup. At some distance, a small group sang bhajan's with Amma.
I wrote my observations. Out of all the listings of communities given, we had some proof of existence of three of them.
The first one, going by the surname Chaturvedi, had lived in Kashi and were custodians and distributors of religious and cultural texts. The last contact with them was assumed to have been made a hundred years ago. The basis for that assumption was the age of the most recent book.
The second one was some Vyasatirtha in Vijayanagar. The stone sculpture was sent almost four hundred years back. It was relatively new compared to all the Shiva sculptures found in Sohagpur temples. It appeared that all the goodwill of Vikramaditya of Ujjain, was passed onto Vikramaditya the Sixth of Chola dynasty, which in turn was passed onto the Vijayanagar kingdom. It was an essential element of the strategy of all great empires to have the ‘dandakaranya’ tribals on their side.
The third one was one Dogra in a place called Rama. By the Baltic language, we only had an assumption that this place was somewhere in Kashmir or further north. Dogras were the rulers of Kashmir for long. This message was the most recent one. There was distress in the message but I was confident, someone still existed out there.
In next one week, we had a clear idea. This place Rama, was a small town in Gilgit, surrounded by Himalayas. Gilgit was now a territory occupied by Pakistan. It was on the northern side the Line of control between India and Pakistan. It was about a day's drive from Siachin glacier on Pakistan side, and was on the foothills of Nanga Parbat.
It was impossible to make any contact with anyone there, as we thought that it would be monitored heavily. The piece of heritage the Dogra wanted to send was left to our imagination.
It was likely that the message was sent to many folks like us, believing someone would act. And someone might have responded. It was in the period when cultural landscape was forced to undergo a change in that area, either by geo political forces or by religious forces. I thought over the matter for many days.
The question in front of us was whether to leave the leads or to find out more about them? The community now had full trust in all the information we had about the past, and we did not need to find out more. But everyone left this matter to me, half expecting me to choose further exploration.
In front of a meeting of our core group, I shared my views. I said, “We now know that this beautiful community in the forest did not exist in isolation for ages. We shared our values, and took care of our heritage for the common good, as did the ones outside. They enlightened us, protected us from invaders and also learnt from us. While this circle lasted, this sub continent was the heaven on earth. Once broken, it went into decline and exploitation.”
“When I used to come here initially, and compared the place with the technological progress outside world has made, I used to feel very distraught. But we have learnt to stand up and come out of a very precipitous situation. I have also learnt now that we should choose what strengthens our soul. So now I suggest that if the Chaturvedis and Dogras still exist and are in grim situation, we should lend a hand to resurrect them. Probably, the task is assigned to us and that is why such information reveals itself now. I would follow the leads to know more.'
So the matter was decided. It was solely my project, and didn’t need much assistance.