Chhattisgarh Diary: The Palace at Kawardha

Secularism throbs in Kawardha’s historic heart and its pulsing beat invited Jennifer Nandi to be one with it
Stretches of evergreen forest flank the western edge of the township of Kawardha. Towards the south flows the river Sankari. Baiga tribals form a significant segment of the district’s tribal population; although the erstwhile rulers of Kawardha were Rajputs there has been an assimilation of both cultures.
Italian, British and Mughal architectural styles are all represented in this regal palace of some 56 rooms with a splendid domed and filigreed Durbar Hall. Much of the ground floor of this palace at Kawardha has been converted into a heritage hotel run by the erstwhile royal family.
The enchanting palace at Kawardha
Adding texture and depth to Kawardha’s history is its importance as an erstwhile centre for the movement of the followers of Sant Kabir, a late-15th century poet and revolutionary social reformer. Akbar’s architectural eclecticism coupled with his eclectic curiosity had far-reaching consequences. It was the Emperor himself who sponsored and supported dialogue between adherents of different faiths. Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, author of the imperial memoir known as the Akbar-nama, notes that Akbar was only 19 when he began to show an unconventional interest in the spiritual matters of his subjects. His pursuit of reason and the practice of open discussion to address problems of social harmony were welcomed by representatives of several new creeds.
The palace at night


Stately hallways
Nearly two thousand years after King Ashoka had championed public discussions, thereby sowing the seeds of democracy, disputing divines from far and wide flocked to the bazaar at Fatehpur Sikri to debate issues of heterodoxy that later richly contributed to the emergence of secularism in India.
It was late afternoon when we arrived for lunch. The owner and his wife graciously gave us company while we ate a delicious meal. When we stepped out into the garden the light was perfect for a visit to one of the nearby villages. Here the women pulled up their sarees between their legs as is the custom in Maharashtra. Their adornments were Baiga-like but this was a Hindu village. The children were at home, having returned from school. We handed out books, pens and sweets, all of which were gladly received.
The tinkling of bells announced the return of the cattle in the capable hands of the elders of the village. They filed past in orderly fashion to their sheds – some were sheltered in the very homes of their owners. They were lovingly received by the children. It was a sense of being family, with family values – respect for nature’s cycles, harmony, and a kind of reciprocity which is an alien concept for urbane sophisticates.


Birthday champagne loosens up the author (left) into joining the dancers
Our guide Tapan conversed with all slipping easily from one dialect into another. He led us through the village with humility and respect greatly enriching our experience. Back at our hotel, our hosts had organised the locals to dance for us. It was an all-male team, very colourful and very loud. Not one to be intimidated, I stepped into the performance much to the amusement of all. But the drumbeats were enticing and I was heady from the champagne we had drunk, it being Ken’s birthday!
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