Impressions: Pugal

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The Legend of a Fort in the Desert

Pugal is at first glance a small unimpressive village and the fort at Pugal appears even more so. To the casual visitor or tourist ticking off tourist spots in his crowded itinerary as he rushes around Rajasthan, the time spent at Pugal Fort would hardly seem worth the while. And this exactly was my first impression when I set foot inside the fort. The crumbling mud-plastered walls and the fort small enough to be termed tiny, seemed almost dull in its placidity. There was no architecture that it boasted off. It had neither the grandeur of the Lalgarh Palace of Bikaner nor the splendour of Gajner.  It was just a small fort on a sand dune. But that feeling lasted only for some time.  I had enough and more time to spare and was not in any particular hurry. I listened patiently to the proud Bhati, a close relative of the 25th descendant of Ranang, who was the first ruler of Pugal’s Golden era, recount a few folk tales.

Sensing my interest, he warmed to his subject and soon his voice wove its spell around me and I listened enthralled. The scales fell away from my eyes and I looked around the fort with new eyes. I saw history come alive and was profoundly touched at the pride and simplicity of the people of Pugal, who still revere the descendants of Ranang.

As I put my pen down to paper, I shall try and record only that which I have so far not read and what had been told to me. The stuff I’m going to pen is what folklore and legends are made of.

The Temple in the Fort

The first structure I saw on entering the gate of the fort was a temple, which was locked. In fact, it was so located that the temple is the first structure one sees while entering and the last structure while leaving the fort. The fort has only one door used both as entrance and exit.

The mandir (temple) houses the Trishul (Trident) of Karni Mata. This is the story of how a temple was built for Karni Mata inside Pugal fort and why it was built at that particular spot.

During its golden era, 1360 to 1500, Pugal was ruled by five Kings. King Shekha who was the fifth and last ruler of Pugal’s golden era was finding it difficult to control the vast kingdom of Pugal bequeathed to him by his ancestors. The constant pressure on the border had necessitated frequent visits by the king to the far-flung outposts. During one of these visits King Shekha was caught and imprisoned by the Langha Chief of Multan. Multan is now part of Pakistan across the international border opposite Rajasthan. King Shekha’s brothers and relatives were ineffectual and not strong enough to carry out a rescue. Enter Karni Mata of Deshnok, a saint revered by Hindus and Muslims alike.

A personage who had the ears of the leaders of most of the clans at that time and more importantly, wielded great influence with them, Karni Mata, is said to have enlisted the help of the Paanch Pirs at Multan and sprung King Shekha from imprisonment in Multan. The other version is that Karni Mata, invoking the powers of God made Shekha’s escape possible by turning herself into Lord Garuda, the bird king, and flying King Shekha out to safety. Whatever it be, Shekha managed to escape the Multan Chief’s clutches and returned home to Pugal .  All this is recorded in the book “The Desert Bastion” written by Major General S C Sardeshpande (former GOC, 24 Infantry Division).
What follows is the story as narrated by the villagers. It is told that when King Shekha entered the fort at Pugal, he was so filled with the joy of return and reunion with his family and people that he rushed inside the palace forgetting for the moment about Karni Mataji who had been instrumental in his escape. Karni Mata being the saint that she was, was not angered at this human folly and forgave the king. But to remind and chide the king, she is supposed to have left her Trishul near the gate of the fort. When King Shekha learnt of the departure of Karni Mataji without her taking his leave, he was filled with remorse. He is said to have built the temple around the trident at the very spot where Karni Mata had planted it. It is also said that the temple had been built at the very portals of the fort so that one is always reminded of the selfless help rendered by Karnniji Deshnok. Also interesting is the fact that the temple and the small monument erected on a mound outside the fort by King Shekha, in ever loving memory of the Paanch Pirs, is one of the few places in India wherein Hindus and Muslims worship alike.

Pugal’s Golden Fort

Legend has it that Pugal once had a golden fort. The fort during the passage of time got buried in what was shifting sand dunes at that time. The old man who narrated the story to me and his eager band of listeners who hung onto every word of his were totally vague as to when the Golden fort came into existence and why it was allowed to be buried or covered by sand.

Nevertheless, the old man was vehement and spoke of its existence and the ‘angrez log’ who had come to excavate the fort.  Any question in trying to narrow down the period as to when the excavators came was deftly parried by the old man who told me the story. He said the story had been narrated to him by his grandfather. When I asked him if his grandfather had seen the excavators himself, he enlisted the support of his chorus band of listeners.  In their eagerness to listen to the usually close-mouthed old man, they laid to rest any hopes I had of even approximately guessing the location of the excavation site, if at all there had been any.

To get on with the tale: Sometime in the old man’s grandfather’s days the excavation team with its machines and equipment descended on Pugal.  The silence and tranquility of Pugal was shattered. The roar of the machines filled the desert by day and mountains of sand were thrown out by the huge sand eating monsters. In the silence of the night, the old man said, the pits excavated by day got filled, a phenomenon that still remains one of the greatest mysteries of Pugal, To the curious onlooker of Pugal and the elders it must have seemed like an omen. In our country where superstition and fact intermingle so closely it was not possible to separate fact from fiction. The foreigner in charge of the excavation is said to have started suffering from delirium and hallucinations, when he persisted in his effort to locate the golden fort in spite of advice from the village elders to pack up and leave.

The old man told me that the health of the excavation’s team leader deteriorated to such an extent that he finally had to pack up and leave. He was the moving force behind the expedition, and once he left, the entire team cracked up and disappeared, machines and all, leaving Pugal to its relative obscurity. When questioned about the rationale behind the glee of the villagers to see the foreigners pack off without as much as a glimpse of the golden Fort, the old man was guarded in his reply.

Let the fort lie buried, he said. It will at least give folks another tale to talk about when they warm their hands at night around a desert fire. The desert, he said, has its secrets which it guarded jealously and who knows as to why it guards the secret of the golden fort. With great difficulty I managed to extract from him the promise to show me the excavation site. Though I had time on my hands, it was not endless. I had to be satisfied with the promise and leave my quest for history for another time. On my way back to my mundane existence, I pondered on the essence of what the old man had said. If there had been a golden fort and no one then had stopped it from being covered or buried, it must have been with good reason. Why bother now when the desert has already given its answer? Pugal logic perhaps. But logic which has stood them in good stead in the march of history. So according to the old man and the folklore of Pugal, the sand dunes around Pugal still conceal a golden fort.

A quaint custom

I had noticed in what had been the King’s rooom in the fort, offerings of rice grains and sugar heaped in a corner. When questioned, the guide said that most of the villagers of Pugal still invoke the blessings of their ancestors on their wedding day. The groom and bride, newly-wedded, still come to the Fort to offer their prayers and invoke blessings. These offerings of rice grains and sugar are not swept away, but lie there as a mute testimony to the sway the then Kingdom of Pugal has to this day on the people of Pugal. Pugal’s present existence could be summed up by one verse.

“Full many a gem of the purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of the ocean bear
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Lt Col S V Sundar
Lt Col S V Sundar is an infantry Veteran, who has seen service all across India’s borders from deserts to mountains, including the glaciers. An avid reader and writer, he enjoys sharing snippets of his service experience through his writings. He is Chennai-based and can be reached at sundar.icwa@gmail.com
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