The modern state of Madhya Pradesh is geographically located in India’s center—however its northern portions have played a prominent part in the politico-military and cultural history of North India. So the term Central India covers only the southern and eastern portions of Madhya Pradesh, the whole of the newly created state of Chhattisgarh, the western districts of the newly created state of Jharkhand, and portions of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Thus "Central India" leans more to the eastern and southern parts of the Indian continent.
The land is marked by several hill ranges like the Vindhyas and the Satpuras, which run due west to the Gujarat border, the Mahadeo Hills and the Maikal Range in the center, and the Hazaribagh Range marking out the bounds of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau in the east. Aided by copious rainfall, thick forests cover the hills and valleys. But large stretches of plain break these rugged features at a few places—these have sustained civilization from the earliest times and have been home to some of India’s oldest kingdoms. Central India also gives rise to great rivers like the Narmada and Tapti, which flow west into the Arabian Sea, the Ken and Betwa Rivers passing through the jungles north into the Ganga, the River Son meandering east through the plains of Bihar, and the Mahanadi flowing south into Orissa.
Central India today is home to a large tribal population (approximately 33%) but, as will be seen later, many of these have migrated to the region in the recent past from other parts of India—some these have actually displaced older settled populations. Similarly settled populations, on their part, have displaced tribal populations from other regions. There is actually no conclusive proof of which lands have originally been home to which segment of the Indian population.
The plains of Central India
The stretches of level ground in three distinct parts of Central India have sustained the rise of great powers from the earliest times. The Vedic republic of Chedi was located in the region around Jabalpur; similarly ancient Vidarbha comprised the plains of Nagpur, while Dakshin Kosala grew to power in the region of Chhattisgarh. These ancient powers passed through the stages of republics to monarchies until they became part of the Maurya Empire—even so they were the first to establish the religious and cultural traditions of Central India.
The Mauryas, the Satvahans, and the Vakataks, built roads to connect the different regions of their empires—they also introduced the Buddhist and Jain philosophies and the spirit of learning that marked this age. The increasing use of elephants in war displaced the chariots of the ancient republics and this change suited the inhabitants of Central India where large herds of elephants roamed the thick forests.
With the decline of the Gupta Empire in the 5th Century CE, the subsequent Hun invasions, and the rise of Kannauj under Harshvardhan in the middle of the 7th Century, Central India moved out of the main current of Indian History. The revival of historical tradition and power in Central India came from a local clan that claimed descent from an earlier Kshatriya family of the same region.
The Kalachuris were descendants of the Vedic Haihaya clan that had ruled the ancient Kingdom of Chedi. The first ruler Kokkala reigned from Tripuri (near modern Jabalpur) in the middle of the 9th Century—in many of the Kalachuri inscriptions they alternatively used the older clan name Haihaya and referred to their kingdom as Dahala or as the ancient Chedi. In these inscriptions great military exploits were attributed to Kokkala but it is enough to say that the Kalachuri rulers maintained their independence all through the period of the Pala-Pratihar-Rashtrakuta struggle that was then raging across India.
To the Kalachuris goes even greater credit for reviving the cultural traditions of Central India—the vast majority of temples and sculptures found in the region belong to their period. The Kalachuri also put their kingdom on par with the powers of North India in military and administrative matters—in the Kalachuri land grants the term Rajaputra is used for the sons of the king. The term’s evolution into Rajput occurred in the northern kingdoms of Ajmer and Kannauj as described in earlier posts, but in Central India too the local Kshatriyas began calling themselves Rajputs from the 15th or 16th Centuries.
Collateral branches of the Kalachuri clan spread north to Gorakhpur and south to Kalyan—but within Central India a younger son of Kokkala named Kalingaraj established a kingdom in the Chhattisgarh region. The greatest expansion of Kalachuri power occurred under Karan in the 11th Century when their armies campaigned in UP, Orissa, and Bengal. These wars exhausted the economic capacity of the state and the later Kalachuris were unable to resist the attacks of their neighbors. By the 13th Century the Kalachuri territories were divided among their numerous vassals.
Gonds and Cheros
Among the most prominent of these vassals was the Gond tribe, which had migrated from the south between the 10th and 13th Centuries. They had multiplied in numbers to dominate the western and southern portions of the Kalachuri territories—being forest-dwelling tribesmen they had inborn skills of capturing and training elephants for service under the Kalachuris. On the decline of those monarchs the various Gond chieftains became independent and gradually formed four separate kingdoms in Central India.
In the east the Haihaya-vansi Kalachuri kingdoms of Ratanpur and Raipur (the latter founded by a junior branch of the Ratanpur family and now serving as the capital of Chhattisgarh) continued under their rulers with one important change—the ruling clans now called themselves Rajput in the manner of the warrior clans of northern India. These kingdoms did not see any great developments or conflict with the outside powers till the rise of the Marathas in the 18th Century.
On the northeast lay Jharkhand (forest-land), covering a portion of the Chhota Nagpur plateau where ruled numerous Rajput clans. In the 17th Century Chero tribesmen (to the number of 12,000 families) from Bihar moved into the Kingdom of Palamau and took up service under the ruling Rajputs of the Raksel clan. But within a few years (1613 CE) they had murdered their employers and usurped the throne—thus at least two great tribal populations in Central India were actually migrants from other regions.
The conquest of Gujarat and Malwa by the Khalji Turks opened the way to South India in the early 14th Century. Malwa comprised the plateau region around the Chambal River, part of the Vindhya Range, and the lower valley of the Narmada—following the course of the latter river an army could reach the kingdoms of Central India. Similarly after the conquest of Devagiri, the lower valley of the River Tapti afforded another point of entry into Central India. But the wealthy kingdoms of the south were a greater draw for the plundering armies of Islam.
Malwa became an independent sultanate in the 15th Century while the principality of Khandesh emerged in the lower Tapti valley. These local powers should have made an attempt to expand into the east but conflicts with their northern and southern neighbors completely drained their military power—the only permanent legacy of these sultanates were the founding of cities like Hoshangabad and Burhanpur.
Such were the lands in the northwest of Central India. To the north were the forested lands around the fort of Kalinjar forming the Chandella Kingdom of Jejakbhukti. The break-up of the Chandella territory in 15th Century and their usurpation by Muslim invaders and Gonds was interrupted by the ascendancy of a more prolific power——these were the Bundela Rajputs. So complete was the Bundela victory over the Muslims and Gonds, and such was their growth in population, that the land of Jejakbhukti has since been known as Bundelkhand.
Relations of the Bundela Rajputs with the Mughal Empire were stormy——some of their kings joined the Mughals in the hope of making gains, but as often, many others fought bloody wars with them. In the course of such wars the Bundelas would take shelter in Central India and, following them, the Mughal armies would also enter these unexplored lands. In the picture above, after several battles in Bundelkhand, Jujhar Singh Bundela and his son Vikramjit eluded the invaders by escaping into the jungles of Central India. They were finally murdered by the Gonds while sleeping at night—their decapitated heads were sent to the Mughal army, as shown above. But despite such wars, from this side there could be no permanent acquisition of Central Indian lands.
With the annexation of Malwa and Khandesh the Mughal armies had convenient bases for entering Central India—in their path lay the Gond kingdoms. Marching up the Narmada Valley the Mughals first conquered the Kingdom of Garha-Mandla, which was heroically defended by Rani Durgavati. After the annexation of Berar and the former Sultanate of Ahmadnagar in the 17th Century, the Gond kingdoms south of the Narmada also came within the Mughal orbit.
Whenever a Mughal army was freed from operations in the south, it was sent east to raid the Gond Kingdoms of Deogarh and Chanda (both of which cover the plain of Nagpur). Thus after the successful war against the Sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda in 1636, the vast Mughal army invaded Gondwana and imposed tribute on the Gonds. Again in 1667 and 1669, after the submission of the Maratha King Shivaji, the Mughal army was free to plunder Deogarh and Chanda—the former kingdom was annexed (renamed Islamgarh) and was restored only after the ruling family converted to Islam.
In Chhattisgarh, though the chiefs of Ratanpur and Raipur acknowledged Mughal supremacy, their territories were too remote for the Mughal government to realize tribute from or for the Mughal armies to plunder. In the northeast the Chero Kingdom of Palamau lay open to invasion from Bihar and was forced to pay tribute—in Aurangzeb’s reign the Mughal viceroy of Bihar, Daud Khan, invaded Palamau in 1660. The Chero ruler, Pratap Rai, submitted and offered to pay up his tribute but Aurangzeb demanded his conversion to Islam.
In the fighting that followed the few Chero guns were silenced by the Mughal artillery and the fort of Palamau was stormed and captured. Pratap Rai and his followers escaped to the rocky southern portions of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau while Palamau was annexed to the province of Bihar.
Back in the south the raiding of Gond lands for tribute or elephants eventually overlapped with Aurangzeb’s war against the Marathas from 1681 to his death in 1707.
Marathas and British
The full details of the Mughal-Maratha conflict are given elsewhere—what is of import here is the Gond role in that period. Aurangzeb had recognized Buland Bakht as the Raja of Deogarh in 1686, but he tried to throw off the alien yoke and was dragged to the Mughal camp—his successor was another Muslim Gond named Dindar. The throne was next given to Neknam, another converted Gond who was later on married to the captive daughter of the Maratha King Rajaram.
But Buland Bakht escaped and raised a large force to ravage both Deogarh and the neighboring region of Berar in 1696. In this period Maratha armies were also spread out throughout the peninsula, looting on all sides, while the Mughals painfully toiled behind them or tried to capture their forts. On the north Malwa and Bundelkhand were being similarly ravaged by Chhatrasal Bundela—Buland Bakht (high fortune) sought his help in raising a force of Bundela infantry to aid him against the Mughals. The angry Aurangzeb changed his name to Nagun Bakht (no fortune).
After the death of Aurangzeb, Buland Bakht annexed the Gond principality of Kherla and established order over his kingdom. With the death of his successor Chand Sultan in 1739, and the quarrels in the royal family, the Maratha chief Raghuji Bhonsle seized Nagpur and the whole of Deogarh. Raghuji also annexed Chanda and in the course of his eastward expansion also brought Chhattisgarh under his control. The insignificant Muslim population of Central India is thus concentrated in cities and is the result of migration and some local conversions.
Unfortunately the Marathas never had a secure financial base for reasons discussed here, and their armies naturally earned their bread through plunder. This alienated the local populations in Delhi, Rajputana, Bundelkhand, and other places——the same was true for Central India. A series of revolts broke out among Gonds, Marias, Halbas, and other tribal populations——at the same time Raghuji was involved in a war with the Nawabs of Bengal, in which he annexed Orissa and received chauth from the Nawab.
The Diwani of Bengal was taken by the British after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and they stopped payment of chauth until Raghuji Bhonsle could guarantee that no Maratha soldiers would plunder Bengal. This was beyond the control of Raghuji and so the British asked for Orissa in exchange for a cash payment and the regular delivery of the Bengal chauth, further offering as bait exemption from all government duties to the Maratha pilgrims coming down to Jagannath Puri, and even those going north to Gaya, Benares, and Allahabad!
The tribal revolts against the British increased as the new rulers tried to exploit the forest and mineral wealth by digging mines, building roads, and cutting down trees. A Chhattisgarh landlord named Vir Narain Singh led a rebellion against the British, which merged with the general revolt of 1857 across India. The tribal revolts though continued to erupt long afterwards to the early years of the 20th Century.
 Literally the central state.
 In olden times known as Malwa, Bundelkhand, and Baghelkhand.
 Unlike the earlier empire the Guptas established their influence through matrimonial alliances—in Central India the Gupta princess Prabhavati was married to the ruler of Vidarbha, Rudrasena II.
 Its capital was later moved to Ratanpur after which city the kingdom is known to modern historians.
 Of the others even the Oraons, Mundas, and Kanwars, have stories of their migration to these parts.
 Sultan Hushang of Malwa is said to have once raided Orissa while Sultan Adil Khan of Khandesh fought the Gond Rajas of the eastern jungles and assumed the exaggerated title of Shah-i-Jharkhand (king of the forest land). These campaigns were more like probing raids because the main fighting of Malwa was with Sultanate of Gujarat and the Rajput Kingdom of Mewar—Khandesh on the other hand was always crushed between Malwa, Gujarat, and the Bahmani Sultanate. In fact the Sultans of Gujarat claimed suzerainty over Khandesh and had granted the title of Khan to its early rulers—for this reason the principality came to be known by the unusual name Khan-desh.
 Burhanpur commanded a large gap on the Satpura Range, which became an easy route to the south, and provided an alternative to the road passing through the Gujarat coast.
 Durgavati’s son, Prem Narayan, was allowed to rule as a Mughal vassal over Chauragarh. But he was later killed by Jujhar Singh Bundela, who took away all his wealth. This episode provides an example of the appalling nature of Mughal statecraft (as seen earlier in the parallel case of Sri Ranga Rayal). Both Jujhar and Prem Narayan were Mughal vassals, but instead of restoring the latter’s kingdom or compensating his son, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan wrote to Jujhar, “If you wish to be confirmed in (possession of) that land, you must give up some estates near your home, in exchange of it, and send to me 10 lakh rupees out of the cash taken from Prem Narayan.” In other words the tyrant would tolerate a criminal act as long as he was given a share of the booty!
 What actually happened was that the Ratanpur chief visited the Mughal court in the 16th Century to obtain aid or some sort of benefit by allying with the Mughals.
 Neknam was originally Kan Singh, the younger son of the Gond Raja of Chanda, who had helped the Mughals in defeating Dindar.
 The other Maratha princesses that Aurangzeb had captured were also married to Muslims. The second daughter of Rajaram was married to Shamshir Beg, while Shahu’s sister was betrothed to the son of the former Bijapur Sultan, Sikandar Adil Shah. Shahu himself was married to the grand-daughter of Rustam Rao, a Maratha chieftain in Mughal service.
 In 1699 Firuz Jang captured Deogarh, while Buland Bakht escaped to Malwa and later to Khandesh. In 1701 he recovered his capital, and in alliance with some Marathas raised a large force of 4000 cavalry and 12000 infantry.
 Cultivators and craftsmen were brought in from outside to increase Deogarh’s wealth—the town of Nagpur was established and expanded into a city. Hindu and Muslim outsiders were indiscriminately employed in the administration.
 The chauth was one quarter of the annual revenue of a province. In the case of Bengal it had been settled at 12 lakh rupees. To enforce payment Nagpur armies invaded Bengal in 1759 and 1761 but were repulsed by the British——some chauth was paid in later years when the British became involved in a war with the Nawab Mir Qasim.
 But nothing came of these negotiations as the Maratha house of Nagpur was setting fast into decline. After the final Maratha war of 1818 Orissa and Chhattisgarh were annexed, while Nagpur itself was occupied some decades later under the Doctrine of Lapse.