November 8, 2015 12:33:50 am
ON DUSSEHRA this year, the Manda Fort finally had some “visitors”. A group of protesters gathered at the head of the road leading to the 16th-century monument and shouted slogans against the “raja” of the fort for not holding the Ramlila, and burnt his effigy.
‘Raja’ Ajeya Singh shrugs his shoulders. Sitting in his office in the five-floor mall he owns in Allahabad’s posh Civil Lines, Atlantis, Ajeya says he just doesn’t have the resources.
Seven years after he died, the caste churning V P Singh wrought continues to decide elections. However, in Manda, all that remains of the ‘42nd Raja of Manda’s’ sphere of influence is the dying Ramlila once held by a trust owned by his family, and considered among the grandest in Uttar Pradesh.
The Ram Janaki Trust was created in 1932, with a grant of around Rs 20,000 fixed by the then British government. That has remained unchanged. Given the costs, holding a Ramlila for them is no longer viable, says Ajeya, V P Singh’s elder son.
While he also dismisses the protests as “the handiwork of a couple of local families”, he admits that this is the fourth year they were not able to hold a Ramlila.
The road to Manda Fort runs alongside India’s busiest rail route, the Delhi-Howrah line. No major train stops at the Manda Road station, and hardly any vehicles come looking for the fort that lies down a fork that branches off from the Allahabad-Mirzapur road. Tourists to these parts come for the Vindhayanchal temple in Mirzapur.
The Manda Fort is more than 470 years old, built by Raja Gujan Deo, a descendant of the Kannauj rulers. Spread over nearly three bighas, it is an imposing structure in medieval architecture, with a white flag with a red crescent fluttering atop underlining V P Singh’s lineage as a Chandravanshi Rajput. At one point, the Manda estate itself extended up to 100 km from the fort.
On the right is the Lal Bahadur Shastri Inter-College, a remnant of the forgotten association that V P Singh had with the second prime minister’s family. Shastri’s wife Lalita would often stay at the Manda Fort.
Up closer and inside, the decline is written all over. Sushil Singh, the manager of the estate since 2000, says, “Sab jeern-sheern ho raha hai (Things are getting old and falling apart).” One of the rare photos of V P Singh in the fort hangs in the room Sushil stays in.
Sushil, eight to 10 staff members and a few guards are the only occupants of the fort. The rooms where V P Singh and his family once stayed, are locked.
Walking gingerly into two rooms with broken doors and filled with what look like official documents, Sushil says, “These are all revenue records, but I don’t have any idea which paper belongs to what place, or even what they exactly contained.”
In fact, he admits, in 15 years, he is yet to check out all the rooms in the fort.
The gallery leading to an open courtyard is filled with rubble and taken over by wasps. There are six other courtyards, apart from a “tosha-khaana (treasure house)”.
The guest-house, located a couple of kilometres away, is in similar disrepair, as is the Club House, once reserved for British visitors.
Sushil says records show the estate used to earn Rs 3.5 lakh per year at one point. Now it doesn’t earn a single rupee, with almost all the land it owned given away.
The famous Ramlila would be held on a chabutra in the grounds of the fort.
Ajeya claims the Manda Fort event was second only in scale in the state to the Ramnagar ki Ramlila of Varanasi (which is seeking to join the UNESCO heritage list).
“My great grandfather was very religious. He started the Ramlila, besides setting up temples. Five temples, including the one of family deity Mandavi Devi, are still maintained. When I was young, I would accompany my father to the Ramlila and we seldom had space to stand. In the past few years, the numbers had fallen to just a couple of hundred,” Ajeya says.
Apart from stretched resources, he adds, this was the other reason he decided to stop the Ramlila. “The crowds have thinned. Many among them are out to create trouble,” he says, talking about elements trying to target boys and girls seen together at the Ramlila or to spark communal violence.
While the family didn’t hold the Ramlila in 2009 as it hadn’t been a year since V P Singh’s death, there was one in 2010. “After that, I consulted all concerned and decided to stop it,” says Ajeya, who is in his 50s.
A lot also had to do with V P Singh and his brand of politics. “In the early 1950s, when zamindari was abolished, he too participated in the Bhoodan movement. Even later, he gave away land to whoever asked for it or looked needy. He never worried about finances,” Ajeya says.
He also points out that because of his father’s generosity, even the region’s Brahmins never had a bad word for V P Singh during the anti-Mandal Commission protests.
Parasnath owns a paan shop not far from where the Dussehra protest took place. “Unke zamaane ki baat alag thee. Hum log koi seedhe taur par nirbhar nahin hain, lekin lagta tha ki raja sahab hain, hum logon ka khayal rakhte hain (His times were different. We were never directly dependent on him, but we felt our king was here, cared for us),” he says.
Rajesh Kumar, the owner of a provisions store, butts in. “Now the raja comes, visits temples etc, par gaadi ka sheesha chadha rahta hai (but the windows of the car are always rolled up).”
Ajeya remembers V P Singh also making it clear to him and younger brother Abhay Pratap that they would have to make it on their own if they wanted to join politics. “Don’t expect politics to be hereditary for you.”
Ajeya, an investment banker, as well as Abhay, a doctor, spent most of their youth in foreign countries. Ajeya returned after V P Singh’s health worsened.
After his father’s death though, Ajeya dabbled in politics for a while. He claims he did so under pressure. “I tried to revive the Jan Morcha. I then joined the Congress. But I have had nothing to do with politics since January 2012. It was a major mistake.”
He is also bitter at the Congress government not giving V P Singh “his due”. “Let alone a memorial in his name in Delhi, they did not even get his photograph mounted in Parliament. Even Chandra Shekhar has one.”
Talking about the current quota controversy, he adds, “If my father had the courage to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations, he would have also withdrawn quotas after the 10-year period as originally planned. Today, none of the politicians has that courage.”
As for the Manda Fort, Ajeya fears this legacy of V P Singh could also die a slow death. “I don’t remember the last time it was renovated. Even if I spend Rs 10 crore, it would not show.” Since he doesn’t “believe in memorials”, he hopes to eventually turn it into a heritage hotel.
For that to happen too, V P Singh needs a helping hand. “The problem is this fort is not on any circuit,” Ajeya says. “The bus that takes tourists from Khajuraho to Varanasi crosses barely 15 km away. If people can be given a story and heritage, they are likely to want to take a detour to here. I have talked to some people, let us see.”
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