They say if Mahoba, a town in the eponymous district of Bundelkhand, has a beating heart, it's at the Aalha-Udal chowks – town memorials as much as landmarks for residents, tourists and travellers across Bundelkhand. You can even hear the heartbeat, they say—it's the strident galloping of the horse of Aalha, or Udal, depending on which chowk you're at.
The energy of the Kajli mela in contemporary Mahoba evokes the legend—because somewhere amongst the usual Bollywood mania, and the signature dangal matches, glimpses of Aalha-Udal abound.
The legend of Aalha-Udal, the valiant brothers of Mahoba, is cult stuff in these parts; if you've grown up in Mahoba, you first hear of them as babes. Suneeta, a Khabar Lahariya reporter in Mahoba tells us how they were told these stories so often since they were kids that they had them memorised—"by heart", if you please. Suneeta recalls that the narration, intended to invoke a special strength of will, at times deliberately coincided with those pedantic moments of instilling the epic values of bravery, courage, and excellence that parents are known to be partial to. And they worked! "We would feel the himmat and saahas, so powerful were the stories," she adds. The hint of pride in her voice is not to be missed, and one that finds echoes amongst her peers in Mahoba, as youthful as her. "We feel very happy. Garv hota hai, we are proud, since the stories are a mark of Mahoba."
Aalha and Udal are the sons of the brave warrior Dakshraj, born in Disrapur village, 5-odd kilometres from Mahoba. In a twist of events befitting a fairytale, they are displaced from their home, their father murdered, and kept under the protection of Mahoba royalty, King Parmar. They are brought up as soldiers and warriors—it is fitting that those who are protected by Mahoba itself, choose to protect Mahoba. As their prowess on the field gains strength, their fame increases too; it is soon considered a matter of fact that nobody can even dream of invading Mahoba while Aalha-Udal live there.
And so it is that when the brothers are in Kannauj that Mahoba finds itself endangered. And by none other than Prithviraj Chauhan – the mighty emperor of Dilli, much-fabled himself. It is said, he had not dared make any plans of conquest for Mahoba until he got to know that the legendary Aalha-Udal were not around to protect its gates.
[T]here is a curious juxtaposition. The singing and the theatrics, inherent to the story and to the mela thereafter, are a dying art.
The plot thickens. There are letters and unfinished whispers; covert missions and disguises and spies. Mahoba gains what Kannauj loses and Aalha-Udal return to fight the great Prithviraj. It is the month of saavan, Mahoba is drenched, abuzz with Kajli mela preparations, and it bodes well for the city and its residents who all celebrate Aalha-Udal's victory over Prithviraj Chauhan with great fanfare. Aalha-Udal's victory is after all, Mahoba's victory.
The energy of the Kajli mela in contemporary Mahoba evokes the legend—because somewhere amongst the usual Bollywood mania, and the signature dangal matches, glimpses of Aalha-Udal abound. Sounds too, as we hear the songs immortalised by poet Jagnik Rao in the Aalha-Kand ballad. Music repurposed into that ultimate compliment—phone ringtones.
And yet there is a curious juxtaposition. The singing and the theatrics, inherent to the story and to the mela thereafter, are a dying art. Perhaps that is why Sukhram Yadav, an Aalha singer, whose powerful vocal chords match his heightened skills in dramatics, makes for a muted interviewee. He speaks of the struggle and discipline, "We used to do as our guru said. Press their feet also, listen to their rebukes also, and learn."
This is a special time for Yadav, it's a very busy saavan, "We only have these few months—this will go on Rakshabandhan and then until Teej." The rest of the year, he tells us, he's a farmer.
Exiting the mela, we head towards the Aalha Chowk and think of how there is valour in survival too.