History & Culture

Epical comparisons

The Purana Quila never ceases to amaze students of history. The Delhi High Court order last week directing the mahant of Kunti Mata temple to vacate the area occupied by him and his family for the past three decades is the latest development in the fort's 3,000-year-old history. Kunti Devi, the mother of the five Pandava brothers, used to worship at this temple when Yudhishtir was ruling in Hastinapur. The quila was a part of his capital of Indraprastha that is supposed to have been an Ilium of sorts (where the Trojan king Priam — who, like Dhiritrashtra, also had 100 sons — ruled). One sometimes wonders at its similarity with the Purana Quila, which was not known by that name then.

The war between the Trojans and the Greeks took place some 3,000 years ago and that too over a woman, Helen of Sparta, just as beautiful as Draupadi whom the Kauravas, the cousins of the Pandavas, had insulted. In the case of Helen, it was her seduction by Paris of Troy that had led her husband Menelaus to form the Greek confederacy for the invasion of Ilium. Helen was finally taken away after a 10-year war in which Paris and nearly all his 100 brothers had been killed. Something akin to the fate of the Kauravas. Aeneas, one of the surviving Trojans, went on to found a principality which later gave birth to Rome. Just as the surviving Pandava descendant (Parikshit) went on to establish a new kingdom. So to draw a comparison between the Purana Quila and Ilium is not far-fetched. The other Greek classic, The Odyssey by Homer, on the wanderings of the hero Ulysses, corresponds with the 14-year the exile of Rama and his return after the rescue of the kidnapped Sita to Ayodhya. Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, was also united with him (after being harassed by several suitors) after a decade.

When one visits the Purana Quila, all these thoughts cross the mind. Kunti built a temple in it to honour her favourite gods and goddesses, but no temple of hers dedicated to Surya, the sun god, exists there. It was Surya who fathered her firstborn, Karna, a child born out of wedlock, whom shame prevented her from publicly acknowledging. But just before the fratricidal Mahabharata war, she did try to draw from him a promise that, fighting on the Kaurava side, he would not harm Arjuna and his brothers, revealing that they were Karna's half brothers. This sad meeting could have taken place at the Purana Quila.

Another mother-son encounter related to this war was when Gandhari tried to make Duryodhana invincible by passing her powerful gaze on all parts of his body. Only the middle portion modestly covered with a cloth remained unprotected. ( The Greek hero of the Trojan War, Achilles, was also made invincible, in his infancy, by his fairy-mother, who dipped him in the river of hell, Styx, except for the heel held in her palm. ) The mahant of Kunti Devi temple claims to be its hereditary priest. The 108th mahant, Pandit Ghasiram Bharadwaj, renovated the temple in 1915. The present pujari is his descendant whose claim of residential rights was rejected by the High Court which, however, allowed him to continue offering daily puja in the mandir as of old.

The Bharadwajs could have been ministering at the temple almost since the time of the Mahabharata. They take their name from Rishi Bharadwaj (son of the planetary ruler Brihaspati) of the Ramayana and Mahabarata times. Isn't it exciting to know that such a long tradition has been continuing at the Purana Quila which, in its present form owes its inception to Humayun, the second Mughal ruler, who named his fort Dinpanah — built at the site of the Pandava citadel. The fort was rebuilt by Sher Shah Suri after he had defeated Humayaun but the ousted ruler returned to recapture Delhi after spending 15 years in exile in Persia. He died a few months later after a fall from the steps of the Sher Mandal in the fort, which continued to remain in the control of his descendants till the time of Akbar Shah II, father of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who unfortunately had control only over the Red Fort.

So when you see the Purana Quila next, try to remember that it is not only linked to the Mahabharata but also in a way to the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epics written at about the very time the fort took shape in brick and mortar. The temple of Kunti and its mahant of course, are there to lend credence to the events of long, long ago. Surely Purana Quila in word and deed.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 10:40:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/epical-comparisons/article3536346.ece

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