The Historical Town of Rani Durga Bai

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Chandra Kanta Gariyali, IAS Jabbalpur comes across as a well-maintained, neat and friendly town. Roads are wide and have lovely shops on both sides. There are a number of cinema theatres and many new hotels are under construction. This is the historical town of Rani Durga Bai, who ruled from this region, much before ‘Jhansi ki Rani.’ She deserves a special place in Indian Feminist history, along with Rani Mangamma, Raziya Sultana and Rani Ahilya Bai.
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The town has got an excellent University named after her, which has a large and green campus. A beautiful bronze sculpture of Rani Durga Bai stands in front of the administrative building of the University. The consumption of herbal and Ayurvedic products is very high in the town. There are hundreds of shops selling these products. At the same time allopathic medicine shops also sell the Ayurvedic products side by side. This indicates a balanced approach in the use of drugs.

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Remedies prepared by the Baidynath Company are very popular. The products of Dabar can also be seen everywhere. But people, by and large, still swear by Baidynath. I was also gripped by the indigenous drug fever and purchased whole lot of oils, tonics, lehyams (medicinal jams and jellies) churans, etc., which are not easily available in Madras.

Jabbalpur is a shopper’s paradise. You can find good quality clothes, dresses, knick-knacks, hair bands, plastic products, bags, shoes, etc. sold at very inexpensive rates compared to Madras, Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore. There are plenty of restaurants and food stalls, which are also very reasonably priced. The favourite with people is ‘Rupali’ which serves food as good as home and costs only a little more. There is another ‘Rupali Main restaurant’, which is little more posh and little more expensive, but food is really tasty.

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For home made South Indian tiffin, there is Lakshmi Bhavan, situated opposite the State-owned MTDC hotel. A South Indian Mami (Aunty) who gives you fresh steaming Idlis and Dosas, runs it. There is Shiralaya for authentic milk based sweets and local cuisine, at a ridiculously low price (very yummy). Here we went to have rabri (basundi) rasamalai, rasagulla, chamcham and poori – kachopri and so on. There are also a few Chinese joints.

The stalls selling seasonal fruits and vegetables are every where. Fresh peas were selling for Rs.3 per kilo. I ate a kilogram of raw peas just like that. Lovely radishes and carrots were also selling at the same price. I felt it was the best place to go on a salad diet. I enjoyed roaming around the vegetable market and munching a carrot here and chewing a cucumber there. It still baffles me how things could be priced so low.

The best mode of transport is to get on a cycle rickshaw and imbibe the spirit of the town, at its own slow pace, halting wherever you like. The rickshawallas are very gentle and helpful. They are willing to hang around with you, help you, watch your shopping while you eat, lift your baggage. etc. They are noble and trust worthy. Commercialism of big city auto rickshaw drivers has not yet touched their mind and soul. They are still welcoming, hospitable people from Central India upholding traditional values. For Rs. 100 you may roam around the town making as many halts as you like and have the rickshawalla as your tourist guide-cum-escort-cum-helper. You cannot get a better deal anywhere else. In my younger days we used to see such rickshawallas in old Delhi. Now I am not sure if they are still around.

To pay homage to the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, there is Russell Chowk (Russell Square) named after him. It is a bustling market place not far from the museum of antiquities where the history of the region and the legend of Durga can be internalised.

It reminded me of another Russell Square in London. It is very different from the one in Jabbalpur. It is a very calm and quite place where London University is located. In the middle of it is a park called Russell Park. A bust of Gandhiji has been installed in the centre of the park. I remember sitting on the bench in front of Gandhiji many times, during my frequent forays into London University, during 1978, as a British Council visitor to UK.

The Jewish museum stood on one side of Russell Square, which fascinated me. I always made a point to spend some time there. It was small in size but it contained lots of ancient Jewish records, books, scriptures, manuscripts, scrolls, Hebrew writings and other ritualistic objects connected with worship and ceremonies. An aged rabbi with a long flowing beard acted as its curator-cum-keeper and always took time to explain things to me.

I felt happy that some scholars, in the University town, had the conviction to name a part of Jabbalpur after Bertrand Russell; same as some people had while putting the bust of Gandhi in Russell Park, at London University.