One of the many sacred spots in the Himalayas is the confluence of Devprayag, where the rivers Alakananda and Bhagirathi unite and flow together into one single river, called from then onward as the Ganga, one of the seven holy rivers of India. I was mesmerised when I saw the confluence, the blue-green waters rushing down from one side to merge with the placid brown streams carrying the nourishing silt which would nurture the plains on the way during their united journey towards the ocean.
And I wondered if this had been the prayag that was part of the many fables attributed to the ancient King Bhoja.
This is the old story.
Once upon a time, there lived a learned Brahmin who was fed up of poverty, a shrewish wife and demanding children, advancing age and failing health. In short, he was fed up of life and decided to give it up at Prayag, for it is believed that all your last prayers at Prayag are answered in your next life.
As he sat near the edge of a cliff overlooking the swirling blue-green waters reflecting on what he wanted in his next life, he saw four young women walk up to the edge, state their intentions for their next births, and fall into the waters, one by one. The first woman prayed for a brave, wealthy and generous husband. The second asked to be married to a famous scholar. The third woman wanted a paragon of a poet, the very sight of whom would inspire unlettered peasants to compose poetry. The fourth asked to be married to an extraordinarily handsome man who was a great lover. One by one, they bowed to the holy confluence of rivers and jumped down, casting off their bodies as though they were leaping forward eagerly to fulfilling next lives. In a flash of inspiration, the Brahmin prayed that he should get married to all four of these women in his next life before he jumped down after them.
It is said that this Brahmin was reborn as King Bhoja who was brave, handsome, wealthy, a well-known philanthropist, a celebrated scholar, poet, and patron of art, literature, architecture and sciences, in whose kingdom even the weavers wove poems on the side as they worked at their looms, producing stanzas of verse with the same dexterity with which they produced bales of fine silk and muslin.
What happened to those four women? The story does not mention them again. We only know that Bhoja had four queens, so it was likely that all four women had their prayers answered, as did the poor Brahmin.
While King Rama’s rule is hailed as the ideal utopia and Krishna is considered the master politician and diplomat, few other kings in Indian history are as celebrated in India as King Bhoja. One exception is perhaps the legendary Vikramaditya who is said to have reigned many centuries prior to Bhoja, and whom Bhoja is said to have looked up to as an ideal, the same way many kings who lived after his time looked up towards Bhoja and styled themselves after his name.
Bhoja is remembered not only for his valour and courage as a warrior leader who protected his empire and as a master builder of forts, palaces, temples and schools of learning, but also as a scholar who has more than eighty works on varied topics including architecture, grammar, philosophy, medicine and political theory attributed to his name. He was a connoisseur of the arts and a great patron of poets and artists, who composed his own version of The Ramayana.
However, many details about Bhoja remain a mystery with many of the stories about him being either rooted in fantasy (such as the story I have shared above and the stories within a story of how Bhoja once tried to sit upon the throne of Vikramaditya) or the stories linking him to the poet Kalidasa who has been proved as a fake – the timelines simply don’t add up.
The ancient inscriptions confirm this much, an accomplished scholar-King by the name of Bhoja did rule from his capital city Dhar in Central India commanding an empire that extended from the Himalayas to Kerala in the South. Some scholars suggest that he lived in 2860 BC than the 10th century date shown by wikipedia which for some inexplicable reason, tends to date almost every ancient temple and scholar of Indian origin to the tenth century AD or whereabouts.
While historians have tended to write history as it suited them, smudging and erasing and changing dates and details, they cannot erase the national pride which lies in the DNA of each person, an appreciation of one’s own culture and love for the heroes of one’s country. It is heartening how people in Madhya Pradesh still celebrate the city of Dhar, or Dhara as it was called in Bhoja’s time as the capital of Raja Bhoja.