Just back from a trip from magnificent Maharashtra and so thought of dedicating this story to a brave woman of Maharashtra….
I had been to the Lohagad fort at Lonavala and found it not so simple to climb even in broad daylight with almost proper stairs, an inexperienced trekker that I am. It brought to my mind the story of Hirakani who scaled down the Raigad fort in pitch darkness and had the honour of having a watch tower built in her name by none other than Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj had acquired the fort at Raigad and made it an impregnable fort. The fort was at the top of a very steep mountain. It was a marvellous fort which contained a city within it and nobody could enter or exit the fort without the knowledge and permission of the gatekeeper. The fort’s giant gates opened in the morning and people who were living on the foothills of the mountain could go into the fort and come out till the gates closed again at sunset. The gates would not be opened on any account till the next morning except on the word of the Chatrapati.
There was a lady by name Hirakani who made a living by selling milk to the residents of the fort. She lived in the foothills and maintained a few cows and selling milk was her occupation. She had a small baby who was looked after by her mother in law when she went to deliver milk. The mother in law was very old and could barely manage the baby during the day time. Hira’s husband worked in the army of Shivaji Maharaj and used to be at his place of duty on most days leaving Hira alone to manage the house and the baby.
One day as usual Hira milked her cows and carried the milk to the fort. On that particular day she had to help out with the delivery of a baby of one of her friends who lived in the fort. In those days, babies were born at home and the pregnant mothers were helped by other ladies to deliver the child. Hira was delayed there and by the time she started for home she realised that the sun was about to set. “Oh God”, she thought to herself. “It’s going to be sunset, and the doors of the fort will close. What will my child do if I cannot go home on time? He will be crying with hunger! I have to rush…”
Thinking thus, she ran to the gates and just at the moment she reached the gates, they were closing with a screeching sound and the next moment, the lock was sealed.
“Guard” cried Hira, “please open the door once so I can go out. My infant son will be hungry and waiting for me. I need to go home. Please open the door”
The guard looked at her with no emotion. With a cold look in his eyes he said “Sorry, I cannot go against the order of the Maharaj and it is his order that the doors closed once should be opened the next morning only. You have been coming here for the past so many years and not new to the rules. If you were in such a hurry you should have come earlier”
“Oh Bhaiyya, I am extremely sorry” pleaded Hira. “I did not realise that it was so late. In all these years have I ever come late on any day huh? Please open the doors just this once”. Hira’s eyes were full of tears at the thought of her infant child crying for her in hunger.
The guard did not even look at her face. With the same stony voice he repeated what he had said before. “Go and stay in any of your friend’s house and go in the morning. Now, don’t bother me again and again hmmph…”
Hira was helpless. All her thoughts were with her baby son whose smile on seeing her would make her forget all the troubles of the day. The very thought of that smiling face crying in hunger and anxiety at her absence was intolerable to her. And she was helpless…..
Hira ran back the way she had come. She was determined to get out of the fort come what may. She walked all along the boundary walls of the fort which was perched high on the mountain. At one particular point she noticed that there was no wall built. The portion of the mountain where the wall was missing was so steep and the vertical drop from that particular spot was so very deep with thorny bushes that no one would probably be able to climb up from there and get into the fort and therefore no wall had been built at that spot.
Hira looked down. The sun had set completely and it was pitch dark and she could see nothing but outlines of thorny branches sticking out from the shrubs on the mountain. The thought of her baby kept on lingering in her mind and she decided to climb down from the mountain by holding on to the thorny shrubs. She placed her empty milk cans slowly on the ground fearing that the slightest clanking noise would alert any soldier nearby. She looked around cautiously to see if any soldier was coming on patrol. Fortunately none were in sight.
In an instant, Hira had jumped over the edifice on the side of the mountain and caught hold of a thorny branch with one hand. The sharp thorns pierced her skin and her hand was bleeding. Her dress was caught in another thorny bush below. With great difficulty, she extricated her dress which tore at many places as she was sliding down on the depths of the mountainside, her hands groping in the dark to catch hold of the successive branches. Her arms, legs, face and body were terribly bruised and bleeding. Now and then, owls flew over her head with a “Whoosh” frightening her out of her wits but the image of her son’s face crying for her only increased her pace and within a short while she touched the ground. But the dangers had not ceased.
In front of her eyes, she could see, even in the dark, long snakes slithering around freely, rustling the leaves as they went in search of prey. The various sounds of the insects and the croaking of frogs with the occasional sound of the cane of the soldier patrolling made it very fearful. If she was caught, she would certainly be punished. Somehow, hiding behind bushes and trees, Hira made her way home. As she had expected, the child was crying uncontrollably and her mother in law was helpless as there was no way for her to find out why Hira had not returned from the fort.
The moment Hira called out to her baby, like magic, the crying stopped. Quickly washing her wounds, Hira carried her baby, spoke endearing words to him and fed him and soon the baby was gurgling with laughter, the one thing that made Hira forget all her ordeal that night. With her mind at rest, Hira slept peacefully cuddling her baby.
The next morning as usual, Hira milked the cows and set out to the fort to sell the milk.
The guard who was there in the evening had not gone yet. When he saw her he was aghast! How could a lady whom he had not allowed to go out of the fort come from outside?? The fort as far as he knew did not have any weak point anywhere. It had such high walls and where there was no wall the mountain was so steep that no one could scale it…
As she neared the gate, he stopped her.
“Halt” he said in a gruff voice, “where are you coming from huh? I had not allowed you to go out of the fort yesterday and did not see you going out today. So where are you coming from? Tell the truth”
Hira laughed. “Why are you frightening me thus with your gruff voice Bhaiyya?” she said feigning a frightened look. “I jumped out from the side of the fort where there is no wall and climbed down the mountain. Can you not see my bruises?” she said pointing to her bruised hands, face and shoulders.
The guard was shocked beyond words. “A milk vending woman scaling down the steep mountain? Impossible!!” he thought to himself and said again, “Now Hira, you know the punishment for telling lies don’t you? Come on tell me the truth or I shall have to take you to the presence of His Highness Chatrapatiji”
Hira got angry. “Why will I tell lies?” she asked him angrily, irritated that he was not believing her and also that she was getting late to deliver the milk. “You did not let me go in spite of my telling you that my baby would be waiting for me. So I jumped the wall and went home. I am also showing the bruises I suffered and still if you do not believe then do as you like. Now let me go!” she shouted.
“No way” said the guard. “Come with me immediately to the presence of our Maharaj and only then you will tell the truth it seems. Looks like you are destined to get punished today by His Highness. Hmm… how can I prevent what is written in your destiny?”
He did not realize the great reward destiny had for her, at that point.
Marching ahead with Hira in tow, soon enough the Guard ushered her into the presence of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the great ruler who was renowned for his sense of justice.
Shivaji Maharaj was perplexed on hearing the story told by the guard. He too did not think it was possible for a woman to do what Hira had done, but he could not disbelieve her too looking at the bruises sustained by her.
He thought for a while and said to her, “Well, show me from where you climbed down”.
Hira went to the place from where she had climbed down, followed by the King and the guard and on reaching the spot, pointed the place to the king. The king looked at her and said, “Well Hira, can you do that again now? Climb down now in front of me!”
Hira went near the edge of the rock and peered down. Seeing the steep fall made her dizzy. The sight of the thorny bushes crisscrossing, gave her goose bumps. For the first time she realized what a dangerous thing she had attempted. If she had slipped even once she would not have been alive now.
She looked at the King and the depth of the mountain again and again and suddenly realized she could not do what she dared to do the previous night.
Not able to look into the King’s eyes, with her eyes downcast she said, “Sorry Maharaj, I will not be able to do it now. I realize how deep and dangerous this side of the mountain is, only now. Yesterday, the motherly instinct in me and the anxiety to see my child who would be crying with hunger blinded me from seeing these dangers, but I have not lied to you Maharaj and therefore I am willing to accept whatever punishment you may deem fit for my action”
A moment of silence followed. Then the Maharaj spoke “Yes Hirakani. I have decided to punish you…”
Hirakani’s heart was beating fast.
“I am going to punish you by building a watch tower at this very spot”
Hirakani looked up surprised.
Shivaji Maharaj was smiling and continued, “You have displayed exemplary courage and motherly affection by risking your life. But, if an untrained woman like you can scale this dangerous mountain, it indicates that I have to be careful that trained soldiers of the enemy do not use this very route to come into my fort which all along I was thinking was impregnable… So, I am ordering a watch tower to be built here and it will be named after you, the Hirakani Buruj. Not a severe punishment I hope….”
Hira was relieved and conveyed her happiness to the king with folded hands bowing her head in respect.
And the tower which was built in honour of Hirakani came to be known as ‘Hirakani Buruj’ and is still seen at Raigad fort. The tower which reminds us of both Hirakani’s exemplary courage and the greatness and humility of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj!!
PS: The photo collage which is shown in this story is not that of Raigad fort but is of Lohagad fort.