December 2014 brought an opportunity to see a new city, where I had not gone before. So, I had my reservations in 22182 Nizamuddin – Jabalpur Superfast Express that leaves Delhi at 05.50 pm and reaches Jabalpur at 08.20 am next day. That train was earlier named as “Gondwana Express”. The train journey of 900 kilometres from Delhi and Jabalpur was going to be through the countryside of the Central India. I was hoping to enjoy the freshness of the air, smell of the soil and natural beauty of vast landscapes opening before my eyes through window of my train. In that entire journey from Delhi to Jabalpur the train was to cross through four major geographical areas. Upto the cities of Mathura – Agra, it is in the main north belt. From Gwalior-Jhansi to Damoh, the area was once called “Bundelkhand”. Thereafter, upto Katni, the area was famous as “Baghelkhand”. Beyond Katni, it was the territory of erstwhile “Mahakoshal”. It was interesting to know the differences in the topography and the history of those areas. With those thought, I started that train journey.
From Delhi, the train crossed through the industrial area of Sahibabad, whistled through the new urban suburbs of Ghaziabad, raced along the farmlands of Palwal, chugged along the brajbhumi of Mathura and entered into the city of Agra. For a long time, Journey in the north belt was standard. But in Agra, a fleet of vendors selling “Agre ka petha” and “Tajmahal” stormed the bogey. Those two items have defined the city and culture of Agra since long ago. Decorative pieces of Tajmahal were made from marble, metal and wood. The statements and the wit shown by each vendor for selling a product to a prospective buyer, in the limited time available, were great examples of negotiation skills. Similar were the efforts of those selling “Agre ka Petha”. Anyway, the romance of the chaos got broken when the vendors got down the bogey as soon as the train started moving in its track for onward journey.
The train was speeding towards the historical city of Gwalior. It must have crossed the ravines of river Chambal as well as ran past the scenic view of the massive Gwalior fort. However, an all-prevailing darkness of the night prevented me to enjoy those beauties. Anticipating the arrival of night, all the travellers in that bogey started settling into their respective berths. Except for the chunks and jerks of the moving train, all were brooding in the silence. And, the silence I did not need on that day! My heart was feeling young and energetic. It was certainly not the time to waste in fruitless brooding.
So, I started chatting with one of my fellow passengers, who happened to be a young Probationary Officer in the Canara Bank. He was returning to Satna, Madhya Pradesh from a family trip to Nainitaal.
Introduction, followed by the discussions on mutual interest on travelling further increased the confidence. Then, we started talking about the changes in one’s life after getting the first job with anyone of the government agencies. The interaction with that young officer, who had just started his career, refreshed my own memories of those days. The pattern always remains same for the young boys and girls who step out of their homes in search of jobs and career. Almost all of us stepped out of our homes with minimum of the luggage (sometimes, it would be only with a bag and few books), shared the initial days of our posting with any of our batch mates or friends and later built a life on its own.
Outside the window, the landscape was covered with the darkness of the night. It was the night of early December in 2014. The cold winter air of an early December 2014 night coming into the bogey forced the inhabitants to bring down the shutters. Throughout the night, the Gondwana Express was travelling past the areas of Bundelkhand. The name ‘Bundelkhand” had been derived from its rulers, i.e., Bundel Rajputs. The city of Jhansi, in the recent times, was made famous by the valour of its queen, Rani Laxmi Bai. When the train was crossing Jhansi around midnight, it was the time to remember the couplets from the famous poem of Subhadra Kumai Chauhan:
चमक उठी सन सत्तावन में, वह तलवार पुरानी थी,
बुंदेले हरबोलों के मुँह हमने सुनी कहानी थी,
खूब लड़ी मर्दानी वह तो झाँसी वाली रानी थी।।
After Jhansi, the train went past the cities of Lalitpur, Sangor, Patharia and reached at the Damoh Station next morning. The darkness of the previous night had engulfed the topography of Bundelkhand. From Damoh, it was going to pass through “Baghelkhand”. I was very much curious to know the genesis of the name “Baghelkhand”. As per Wikipedia, the “Baghel” is derived from “Vyaghra (Tiger)”. The area was ruled by Solanki Rajputs, who were also called “Baghela Rajputs” in 14th Century.
The cluster of houses in the village settlement of Baghelkhand, with mud-walls and tiled roofs, looked very authentic. It is a matter of great debate to preserve the originality of construction of village houses in the present time, when the trend to construct cemented buildings in villages is growing. With the gradual loss of traditional occupation, the artisans are learning the new ways of construction. The beauty of those mud-houses in the villages, seen through the window of the train, tilted my heart to the side that always advocates about preserving the old ways of construction.
In the morning light, the vast expanse of arid landscape opened in front of my eyes interspersed with small hillocks and with the forests of Sal trees. The soil was red in colour at many places. Rains fed rivulets were abound in the forest of that area. Those were dry at that moment. But I knew that once the rains started, all those rivulets would come to life. I really wondered how that place would look like in a rainy season. At many places the tracks for the trains were laid down after detonating the hillocks. As and when the train crossed through such tracks, a loud noise filled up the entire bogey.
At one point, I saw the laying of new railway tracks. It is an area of a psychological research to find out people’s sentiments and emotional response to an infrastructural change that is going to change their lives. I was visualizing the excitement of villagers who will be benefited by that train line. Soon that railway line would be changing the way people live in those areas. New settlement would crop up with renewed possibilities of occupation and business. I feel that railway tracks are a tool for bring social transformation of any area. In this time, such transformation was taking place in the area once called as Baghelkhand.
As luck would have it, one of my fellow passengers was a Forest Ranger in the Madhya Pradesh Government. He was travelling to Jabalpur in connection with some official business. Initially, he hesitated to have any conversation. But later, he told a lot of stories of “jari-booti”, that are found in those forests. He was, however, not happy with the present day forest management. His biggest grouse was about losing the knowledge of the medicinal plants. He said that soon the country would forget its treasures till some foreigner would come and revive it.
Around 8 o’clock in the morning, the train halted at Katni, where its engine was to be replaced. It was a long halt, so many of the passengers got down for their morning breakfast. There I saw a very organized arrangement for selling morning breakfast. Two vendors were sitting in front of almost every bogey and selling Jalebis and Onion pakoras. The third vendor was sitting with a tea container. The management had also provided for a runner-vendor to replenish the stocks available with the vendors at the platform. Each of those vendors was wearing a uniform with a badge. There was absolutely no chaos. It was really a good sight to watch over their well-coordinated performance.
From Katni, the train was running in the “Mahakoshal” Region which was ruled by the Gonds and Kalchuri dynasties upto 12-13th Century AD. That region is situated in the upper Narmada valley. The train was cruising past the vast open landscapes. The hillocks and arid landscapes of the Baghelkhand changed into somewhat less dense.
The most remarkable observation, however, was about the way people converse in that area. The Hindi spoken by the daily passengers, who have stormed the bogey at Katni, was really music to the ears. They spoke in very soft tones and in a very good Hindi. I must say that the linguistic traits from Delhi to Agra, from Agra to Jhansi, From Jhansi to Katni and from Katni onwards were quite distinct. The soft style of people of Mahakoshal was the best in my opinion.
In the meantime, the train went past the junction of Shihora Road and was chugging along the tracks of the Jabalpur Railway Junction. The Jabalpur was the main city of the Mahakoshal Area, which derived its name from the sage “Jabali”. After deboarding the train, the first remarkable thing that caught my eye-sight was the presence of a functional narrow gauge line. In my opinion, the narrow gauge passenger trains should carry a heritage tag. However, Jabalpur station had some more surprise elements up its sleeves. When I was about to come out of the station, I saw the board trying to invoke pride in oneself for being at Jabalpur. It proclaimed Jabalpur as “Sanskardhani (Cultural capital)”. Later, I came to realize that people of that city were very much interested in art, music and culture. Some of the famous writers in Hindi literature like Subhadra Kumari Chauhan were born there. It was also the city where Osho and Mahesh Yogi had lived and preached.
One of the doyens of Hindi Movies, Prem Nath, also belonged to the Sanskardhani. He had once built a cinema hall in the heart of the city, which was named as “Empire Theatre”. From outdoor screening of the film to cinema halls and now to multiplexes, there is a great history of the growth of Indian cinema. But I still carry a fascination with the old cinema halls. So, after coming out of the Jabalpur Station, I went to a crossing where the old building of that Empire Cinema was situated. It was completely in ruins. I felt much attached with the Empire cinema and climbed up the fallen bricks to see it from inside. I was astonished to find that the speakers were still clinging to those walls. In its heydays, that hall must be the cultural hub of the Sanskardhani, graced by the likes of Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Prem Nath.
The city of Jabalpur, in its peak had also seen hectic political activities. During struggle for independence, that city had also played a major role in 1939, when it had hosted the General Assembly of Indian National Congress. In that assembly, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had won the election for the president of the Indian National Congress. However, later he had to resign from the post. The 1939 general assembly of the Congress held at Jabalpur is famous as “Tripuri Congress”. The name “Tripuri” is derived from the ancient city of Jabalpur. A historic gate, erected in the memory of the congress assembly is erected at the biggest market place of that city and is named as “Kamania Gate”. Today a very large Jewellery market is situated near the Kamania gate.
That market was the life-line of that city which caters to all the shopping needs of its people. It is an old market. Many of the shops were as old as running for three- four generations. I entered in one of such heritage shops that proclaimed its existence since 1889. The best thing in that shop was the most remarkable sweet items of the city of Jabalpur, i.e. ‘Khoye ki jalebi”. I had eaten the “jalebis” and “Imaratis” at many place and had never eaten the “Khoye-ki-jalebi” before. That was very good in taste. On a lighter vein, after eating that Jalebi, I came to realize the very reason for the sweetness of the language spoken by the inhabitants of that great city in Central India.