Kalpi: Small Town, Big Story
Kalpi is a quiet town with a big story. Resting on the banks of the Yamuna River, between Jhansi and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, it seems like just another unremarkable town in North India. But take a closer look and you will soon realise that Kalpi is steeped in history.
Kalpi’s story goes as back as 45,000 years, to the Middle Palaeolithic Age (broadly, 300,000 to 30,000 years ago). It is one of the few sites in the Ganga-Yamuna doab where evidence of human settlement going back to the Stone Age has been found.
The town is also considered to be the birthplace of Sage Vyasa, the author of the epic Mahabharata. In medieval times, it was part of the Jejakabhukti region (present-day Bundelkhand) and was ruled by the Chandela Dynasty in the 10th-11th CE. The Chandela Kings built a fort here, which is considered one of the eight great forts of the Chandelas. Its rulers are known for their art and architecture and are most well known as the builders of the famous Khajuraho temple complex in Madhya Pradesh.
In 1196 CE, Kalpi was conquered by the armies of Muhammad of Ghor, who along with his general Qutb-ud-din Aibak founded the Delhi Sultanate in India. All the Sultanate dynasties – Mamluk, Khalji, Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodi – used the fort at Kalpi as a stronghold that served as a communications hub on the Yamuna.
In the 14th CE, Kalpi was the seat of a minor and short-lived Sultanate called the Kalpi Sultanate. It was founded by an ambitious and powerful Governor of the Tughlaq Dynasty, Malikzada Nasiruddin Mahmud, who carved out an independent kingdom in 1390 CE, on the dissolution of the Tughlaq Empire.
Scattered across the town are many remnants of the Sultans, especially their tombs. The grandest among these is the ‘Chaurasi Tomb of a Lodi Badshah’. While we don’t really know who this ‘Badshah’ was, there are many theories. Some believe it is the tomb of Jalal Khan, a brother of Ibrahim Lodi (r. 1517-26 CE), the last Sultan of Delhi. Jalal had, for a time, tried to set himself up as a parallel authority to his brother, with his capital in the city of Jaunpur, nearby. Ultimately, Ibrahim prevailed and Jalal returned to Kalpi, his old fiefdom. After his death, he was likely buried in this tomb.
The Delhi Sultanate was followed by the Mughal Dynasty, whose founder Babur defeated the forces of Ibrahim Lodi in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 CE. During Mughal Emperor Akbar's reign, Kalpi was a governor's seat and it is believed that Akbar’s favourite minister, Birbal, was born here.
In the 1670s CE, the Mughals were faced with a series of revolts from Raja Chhatrasal, a warrior belonging to the Chandela Rajput clan. He had initially served in the armies of both, the Mughals and the Marathas, before he established a small, independent kingdom in Bundelkhand. He was also the father of Peshwa Bajirao’s second wife, Mastani. On his death in 1731 CE, a part of his dominions including Kalpi was handed over to the Marathas, who used the fort at Kalpi as a treasury.
In 1803 CE, Kalpi was taken over by the British, who made it a part of the Bundelkhand Agency. In 1857, during the First War of Independence, this town witnessed heavy fighting, with the sepoys of an infantry battalion stationed here rising against their officers.
When the fort of Jhansi was under siege by the British army, Rani Lakshmibai along with her son Damodar escaped in the middle of the night with some guards. They headed north-east, towards Kalpi, which was around 150 km from Jhansi. They stayed here and were joined by the forces of Tatya Tope in Kalpi. However, soon enough, the British attacked Kalpi too. The Rani herself commanded the forces against the British but was defeated. The leaders of the Revolt had to move once again and they headed towards Gwalior.
Kalpi once again became a dominion of the British and the cemetery in the town is a remnant of the town’s colonial legacy.
There’s one more noteworthy monument in Kalpi that is reminiscent of its history – a 225-foot tower called ‘Lanka Minar’. It was built under the patronage of a wealthy citizen Mathura Prasad Nigam in 1885 and is embellished with scenes from the Ramayana.
Sadly, with time, the historic town of Kalpi slipped into oblivion. Its rich and beautiful monuments are falling to ruin although there is enough to salvage and preserve, to revive the town’s past glory.