I have been waiting for a bus to Raisen for twenty minutes but there is no sign of any. The only buses that are stopping at Sanchi are buses to Bhopal. There is a rumour that many buses have been requisitioned for tomorrow’s state assembly elections. Meanwhile, a shared tempo drives up and quickly fills up with seven passengers.
‘Raisen. Raisen,’ shouts the driver.
‘How much?’ I ask him before boarding.
‘Twenty-five,’ he replies. I stand around looking to see if any bus will arrive. The tempo will not depart anyway till he gets another two passengers. He sees my hesitation.
‘There are no buses and I don’t have enough passengers. That’s why I am charging twenty-five,’ he assures me. Apparently the right fare to Raisen is only twenty. I don’t mind the fare at all but five rupees make a lot of difference to village folks.
Left with no choice, and not knowing if a bus will ever arrive, I board the tempo. It is quite a squeeze but the good road gives a smooth ride. We stop close to Raisen at a petrol station. The driver has decided to fill up. After few more minutes of waiting, we depart and without incident arrive at the small town Raisen. From here I can see the hill behind and the fort right on its summit.
I stop for lunch – rotis and aloo gobi for sabji. As I pay at the counter I casually ask the man the way to the fort.
‘There are three ways to the fort. Which one do you want?’ he asks.
‘I am going to walk up. Which would be the shortest?’
‘You see that man turning right,’ he points to a Muslim walking into a small lane that disappears between buildings.
‘You take that path and walk through the village. It will lead you to the fort. It is a steep climb.’
I thank him, turn right and start walking. But there are many paths in the village, all looking significant. I ask bystanders to keep myself on track. The village is built on the lower slopes of the hill. Soon I leave the buildings and hit a clear rocky path surrounded by bushes. The path is steep but foothold is solid. The real difficulty is climbing a hill with a backpack right after a good lunch. Looking back, I get fantastic views of this village, the town of Raisen further down and the wider landscape. Within fifteen minutes I arrive at the fort wall. Looking up I see projected balconies rising as domed kiosks, small arches and niches in the wall. I walk around it to find an entry point into the fort.
I dump my backpack for a sip. The place is deserted. I am at the edge of a water tank. It is set in a large courtyard surrounded by ruined buildings. Most of the buildings are on two levels. The facades are bare pillars. Once standing walls are no longer standing. Some domes are standing. Many others have fallen leaving gaping holes pointing to the sky. Crumbling stairways dangerously tempt visitors to climb up to higher floors and roofs.
A few cows are grazing in the courtyard but the cowherd is nowhere to be seen. I clap. Echoes come back from different directions. I repeat this from different parts of the courtyard. Soon a man appears from a lower ground beyond the courtyard. He starts chasing away the cows.
‘They are not allowed to graze here,’ he tells me. Apparently he is one of the guards at this fort, appointed by the ASI. There are only a couple of guards during the day. There are four or five guards at night.
‘Where is that sound coming from?’ he asks rhetorically and wanders off looking for it. He comes back to me few minutes later and asks, ‘Did you hear that sound?’
‘What sound?’ I ask.
‘As if someone was breaking stones.’
‘Oh. I was clapping a little earlier, just to listen to the echoes,’ I tell him.
‘We have to be careful of vandalism. People come here to do all sorts of things. We keep strict vigil,’ he elaborates.
‘There is not much to steal around here, is there? I mean, there are no sculptures or wall reliefs as such.’
‘That’s true but still vandals can damage the buildings and make it unsafe for visitors. There is a plan to restore much of these ruins.’
I like the ruins as they are at the moment. Raisen Fort has that feel of a ruin, being overrun by plants and creepers, being reclaimed by wild nature and being slowly brought to the ground with each passing season. It should not become another Gwalior Fort or another Jhansi Fort.
I am ignorant of the fort’s history but it bears evidence to both Hindu and Islamic influences. I walk with the guard to an unused mosque nearby. It looks like its been built from an earlier temple or palace building. There is another mosque near it where a Muslim priest sits. He faces the might of six silent cannons. It is Thursday and a small crowd has gathered before the priest.
‘She has brought shame to my entire family. The boy is not even from our caste,’ cries a woman as others around her comfort her. She then relates a series of events that appears to be the stuff of Bollywood.
‘These things are officially not allowed here,’ explains the guard to me. ‘But we cannot prevent them for fear of creating religious tensions.’
‘All I want to know is who is wrong? Is it the boy or my daughter?’ continues the woman in a wailing tone.
I leave the priest and his believing crowd. I return to Raisen town but along a gentler downhill path. The views are different on this side but just as lovely. Women are busy carrying firewood from the hill to their homes below. It is ordinary for a woman to carry a load as heavy as ten kilos. Normally with such loads they work in pairs, each one helping the other to lift the load to the head. Balancing such an unweildy load on hilly terrain is quite a skilful task. Village women of India are hardy and tough.