Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tales of 'Dakats'... 'Ron-paa'/'Bojra'/'Panshi'... and 'Honour among thieves'... errr 'Dakats'!

This is my first post in 2010. Before I begin... let me wish you all a very Happy and Fabulous New Year! In this post, I intend to continue with my series on the dacoits... rather the Bengal dakats.

Author's Note: To read "Tales of Dacoits and one unique story... dating back three centuries!" click HERE. The story "Girl as Kali-Ma" can be read in this post.

"Life and times of the 'Bengal Dakats'... (Part - I)" can be read HERE. The equipments used and the unique mode of communication (including the 'gupto bhasha') followed by the dakats of yore can be read here.

"Tales of 'Dakats' and 'Dakate Kali'" is HERE. In this post you'll find the link leading to a compilation of 20 stories, "Bengal Dacoits and Tigers" (1916) by the Maharanee Sunity Devee, C.I. of Cooch Behar. An incident based on a true story involving the spine-chilling ritual/practice of 'nara bali' can also be found here. Read on...

Writers down the ages have been seduced by the literary possibilities of what can be termed the "outlaw" genre. Muscled bandits, eyes glowing through a lot of facial hair, with or without a heart of gold, riding hell for leather on powerful stallions, to raid houses in remote villages. Remember Sholay? Indian bandits - with the exciting backdrop of impenetrable jungles, wild animals and wilder exploits - have been storytellers' favourites for a long time now. Whether it was Daku Man Singh, the original bandit queen Putlibai or the more recent Phoolan Devi and Veerappan - who can resist the romance and danger inherent in their lives?

The Bengal dakats were not the usual horse riding kind. Their means of communication and transportation were truly unique... that cannot be found anywhere else. In those days, Bengal was undivided, meaning... there was no Bangladesh/East Pakistan. The entire area covering current West Bengal and Bangladesh (erstwhile East Bengal) was referred to as 'Bengal'. In the western part of Bengal (i.e., current West Bengal) people usually commuted on land, but in a riverine area like East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh)... people traveled via the waterways.

For commuting via these waterways, the dakats did not depend on conventional forms of travel... like boats (both passenger and fishing), steamers, launchs, ships, etc. They made some unique 'inventions'... which truly reflect their ingenuity and genius. More so... since they were usually uneducated fellows. But then, who said that 'education' or 'knowledge' is gained only within the four walls of the classroom in schools and colleges or by entering the hallowed portals of exalted universities/institutions... ??? 'Experience' is the greatest teacher and 'necessity is the mother of invention'... right... ??? Right!

The dakats invented the 'panshi' and the 'bojra' (country ship)... which were essentially 'slim long boats'. These were narrow boats with a paddle capacity/space of 20-30. Having many oars, these lightweight crafts could bear many people... and moved swiftly. Yes, that is the keyword... 'swiftly'. Infact, these panshis and bojras were very fast. The 'pirates' (jala dashshus) were in a class of their own. However, some of the bands of dakats who committed dacoity/dakaty on land... too availed of the 'panshi' and the 'bojra'. Deprived of good roads and transport to commute from one rural location to another - one had to remain alert for the attack of dacoits on the lonely stretches, during the night-travels on a bullock cart or a 'palki' (palanquin).

The present day 'pirates' or 'jala dashshus' ('Jala' is water and 'dashshu' is brigand/dacoit... in Bangla) usually commit dacoity... by traveling/using passenger boats on large rivers. On seeing any passenger boat/launch nearby, these dacoits request those passengers for a little fire: "Please spare us a little fire." Thereafter, on the pretext of 'borrowing' fire they bring their craft alongside their targetted boat/launch and proceed to attack. In this region, a class of cruel and wicked pirates named 'Bijanaa' commit dacoity on the river Padma in this typical fashion even today. Due to this, the boatmen engaged by the traders or jewelers and passenger crafts ought to never stop their boats out of compassion for lending fire or tobacco. Rather, the moment they hear a request, "a little fire please", "a little water ('mitha pani' i.e., 'drinking water') please", or "a little tobacco please"... they should not stop or slow down, rather increase their spead and move their craft far away. Among these criminal-natured pirates, the 'Sandaar' and 'Goaynaa' bands were/are notorious. These pirates roam about in boats and live on the fish they catch. Portuguese pirates (called 'bombete'), salt smugglers and dacoits operated in the Sundarbans... in the 17th century.

In the past many kings, Nawabs and Zamindars (landlords) used to take the help of these pirates quite often... during a war or to take possession of some land. After the fall of these landlords and princely houses/states, for some time these riverine bandits were forced to eke out their livelihoods only by means of dacoity. Like these pirates, the land dacoits were also extremely powerful in this region in the past. At places, their leaders have received honours equivalent to kings. In the past, landlords were even forced to pay them annual taxes. During the first part of the British rule in India, their power and influence was quite substantial. It is even said that the ancestors of some of the famous Zamindar families of today were dacoits.

The land dacoits used a type of bamboo staff called the 'Ron-paa' (stilt) for traveling. 'Ron' here signifies 'battle' and 'paa' is 'leg'. 'Ron-paa' is made of two pieces of slim bamboo. In the centre of these bamboo staffs... there is a knot. Placing their feet on these knots and thereby gaining in height or rather rising far up (from the ground)... these dacoits could travel at a speed of twelve miles an hour on these "battle-legs". With the help of these "battle-legs" they were able as a team... to cross through and across canals, tanks, fields, plains and undergrowth very swiftly. When these dacoits traveled on these "battle-legs", they would appear like 'massive giants striding on huge legs'. The use of these "Ron-paa" or "battle legs" demands great practice. Perhaps, just as none have been able to master the art of skiing on snow as well as the Finns... none but the Bengalis (and foremost among them were the 'Bengal dakats') have been able to use this "Ron-paa" so skillfully. The dacoits - expert in using it - can be compared with modern 'mechanized troops'. During the rule of the Bengali kings... soldiers used this "ron-paa" for speedy travel and because of this... these "artificial legs" were also referred to as the "battle-legs".

The Roman troops had several signature maneuvers in the battlefield... you must be familiar with them... they have been lampooned at in the Asterix series! Similarly, in ancient India too the ritual of battle was somewhat thus: in the first line, like the huge tanks of today, armoured elephants would crash through all obstacles and dangers with their huge bodies and behind these 'living tank-columns' would rush the chariots and cavalry, much like the motorized columns of today. But though this battle technique was effective on the hard ground and hilly terrain of North and South India, it was absolutely useless in Bengal... which was bereft of land routes and was full of marshy land. Therefore, in this region, kings and chieftains had to resort to fishing boats for traveling swiftly over the water bodies and to this "Ron-paa" for travel on land. In a way, the "Ron-paa" is an indigenous invention of the Bengali warrior. Needless to say, after the fall of the large royal families it was their scattered and disbanded soldiers who built up these dacoit bands in the past. The word "Ron-paa" and its near monopoly use by the dacoit gangs is a sure proof of this. From irregular acts of looting during famine/festivals etc... they graduated to indulging in the organised armed activities of professional dacoits.

When these dacoits came to eat at any zamindar's place - they would of course "self-invite" themselves - they refused to take salt. i.e., they used to have salt-less food, for they knew that good relations might not continue forever with these zamindars. Also 'salt' has a different connotation in our culture... it is equated with 'loyalty'. There is a saying: "namak khaya hai" (meaning: 'have taken salt'... which binds the person[s] to remain forever loyal to the one who has given/provided them the namak [salt]). One who breaks this hallowed/sacred bond/duty is taunted as a "namak haram" (meaning: disloyal/cheat/dishonourable). Even dakats would not want to be labelled thus! Talk about 'Honour among thieves'... errr dakats... !!!

Hunting for hidden treasure, they have even tied men to wooden posts and scorched them with 'kolkey' (clay pipes used for smoking tobacco). As for the women, let alone touch them, they have never even tried to take a single ornament off their bodies. They were true gentlemen indeed! What?? But this cannot be said about the dacoits of today. These modern dacoits at times perpetrate unspeakable atrocities on women and men... even on children and babies... indiscriminately.

Many of the dakat/dacoit gangs that came into being at the beginning of the British rule were 'sepoys' (foot soldiers) and 'lathials' (private army) dismissed by the zamindars. During the Pathan rule, these zamindars were fully autonomous with respect to internal government. Therefore, they had to establish these 'sepoys' and 'lathials' in the areas governed by them... in most cases, for generations... by gifting them land. So, by family tradition, their very profession became: 'fighting for the zamindars'. Even though under the Mughals the autonomy of the zamindars was slightly abridged, they went on sustaining these fighters for a long time for their personal requirements.

Under the English too, the responsibility for maintaining law and order was vested in these zamindars... for a while that is. Thereafter, on establishment of the police force (usually referred to as the 'lal pagdi' or the 'red-turbuned'... due to the red coloured 'turban' or 'head gear' they wore) and the judiciary, the zamindars had no longer any need for them. Many of these dismissed 'lathials' began to serve with the dacoit leaders of those times for their livelihood. Hence, at that time in every district of Bengal, several dacoit gangs had sprung up. It can be declared with surety that some dacoits of today (belonging to or categorized under the 'criminal tribes') are the unworthy descendants of these very warriors (sepoys/lathials). What a pity!

The dakats/dacoits of yore used to worship Ma Kali before embarking on any 'mission'. Hence, the form of Ma Kali worshipped by them was called 'dakatay kali'. Some even offered 'soma ras' or pure wine as a 'bhog' (offering of food) to appease the goddess... apart from 'nara bali' of course. With the passage of time... this custom changed and rams (male goats), sheep or buffaloes were sacrificed instead. It is said that Krishnananda Agamvagish (c. 15th-16th century) introduced the worship of *Daksinkalika in Bengal. During the time of Maharaja Krishnachandra Roy of Nadia (1710-1783, reign: 1728-1782), the worship of Ma Kali was well established in Bengal. Bengal also went through a phase of huge cultural revolution during his reign. His navaratna (nine jewels) sabha still plays a significant role in the cultural development of Bengal.

Legend says that Lord Shiva appeared before Maharaja Krishnachandra (the king of Nadia) in his dream, and told him that he was shifting his base from Kasi to his capital. So, in order to please the Lord... the Maharaja set up his new capital at Shivniwas, and constructed 108 (although historians have doubted this figure) temples in his honour. But historians have come up with a more rational explanation. They say that in the middle of the 18th century Maharaja Krishnachandra in order to save his capital Krishnanagar from the invading Maratha dacoits (Borgis) shifted it to Shivniwas, which was surrounded on three sides by the Churni River, thus providing a natural protection from the invading borgis. After shifting his capital the Maharaja christened it Shivniwas, probably after Lord Shiva. However, some historians claim that it was named after his son... Shiva Chandra.

It is generally thought that Durga Puja was not prevalent anywhere in Bengal before the 15th century. In the folk songs of the Bauls (wandering minstrels of the North and Western part of Bengal), the arrival of Gouri (another name for goddess Durga) in Autumn, has been sung.

The historical evidence of Durga Puja can be traced to the time of Hossain Shah Sultan of Bengal. It was (supposedly) the Golden Age of Bengal, the end of the fifteenth century. Political power was in the hands of the zamindars. The zamindars of North Bengal were all powerful. There was great rivalry between the zamindars of Dinajpur and Malda... for social supremacy. The zamindar of Dinajpur initiated Durga Puja... 'Akal Bodhan', on the day when Lord Shri Ram was supposed to have worshipped Ma Durga. He spent Rs. 9 lakhs. There was great pomp and pageantry and the climate was excellent as it was 'Ashwin' (Autumn... referred to as 'Shôrot' in Bengali and 'Sharad' in Hindi).

The zamindar of Malda... in order to out-beat his rival performed 'Basanti Puja' according to Puranic tradition during 'Chaitra' ('Chaitro' in Bengali, this month is associated with the coming of Spring) and spent Rs. 9.5 lakhs. From the following year onwards, both conducted Durga Puja in Autumn.

Later, the centre of Muslim rule shifted from Gaur (Gour) to Dhaka. The zamindars flourshed in East Bengal. They vied with each other and Durga Puja was performed by most. In the 18th century, it spread to other parts of Bengal. It is difficult to pinpoint the date but Radhakanto Deb and Kalikrishna Thakur brought the festival to Calcutta (Kolkata).
The Maratha dacoits/Marhatta raiders or the 'Borgis' (Bargis) would annually invade Bengal for about 10 years (1741–1751). They adopted Durga Puja and carried it westward with them.

Today, however, the dakats have become atheists and do not worship Ma Kali or Ma Durga any more...

(More later...)

Note: Some info gathered, courtesy: Wikipedia.

As Daksinakalika, Kali appears in her most fearsome aspect and is the most widely worshipped. In this aspect, she is shown as dark, four-armed and wearing a string of human heads with blood still dripping from them. She is three-eyed, with one eye in the centre of her forehead. She stands on the chest of Shiva and is encircled by his worshippers.


The picture of a bojra (country ship). Pic courtesy: link.


  1. Very well researched and nicely presented , as usual. With all the links it becomes very wholesome and meaningful for a serious reader. Your blog has been a great find for me and it truly epitomizes meaning of blogging at least for me, abundant in information and thought with minimum of opinion. I am learning a lot……

  2. Well researched post on Bangla Dakats ... I came to know so many new things about them also thanks for the bit history on Durga Pujas....

  3. It is very informative and frankly I didn't know anything about Bangla Dakats.
    You seem to have a lot of patience for research work.

  4. Damn.. i am starting to love all your articles with so much of details. Well researched and presented. For a techie like me, it gives a great relief knowing the things which I wasn't so oriented to all these days!

    Thanks for sharing such nice posts and look forward for more.

  5. As usual..... Informative, well researched, comprehensive presentation.....blah blah blah....

    Tell me frankly...

    1.From Where do you buy 'Patience'?
    2.Where is your database dump?
    3. Which brand of 'consistency' do you follow?

    Jokes apart, could you write a post on "Telangana" issue.? if possible.

    BTW, how about making your blog green??

  6. brilliant! this dakat concept has fascinated me since childhood ... there's this temple near our house back in cal ... the Dakat Kali Mandir ... was an awesome place. Awesome, because of its eerieness and history.

  7. Whoa!!! That was one helluva story of dacoits!
    Very interesting. Kudos to you! :-)

  8. Very interesting and informative post!! Didn't knew about this community!! Thank you for sharing this vast info!

  9. That was some article. I admire the research and the effort that went into this . Interesting and lively blog

  10. Girl you rock!!! As always, your post is full of do you manage to come up with such wonders!?? share the secret of ur success!!

  11. @ Sunil: Thank you Sunilji! The feeling is mutual :)

  12. @ Dhiman: Welcome back! Hope you had a great time during your vacations... and onek mishti kheyecho nishchoy :)

  13. @ BK Chowla: I just write on topics that interest me... and reading is something that I like to do as well :)

  14. @ Mohan: Thanks for those encouraging words. There are so many interesting things and info in our own country... yet we barely get to know them. Even our history is written by foreigners...

  15. @ Mahesh: Ha! Ha! Thanks a bunch Mahesh!

    P.S. My knowledge on Telengana issue is quite limited. Plus I look at it and similar issues from the national angle...

  16. @ Subhayan: Thanks! How about writing a post on the 'Dakat Kali Mandir' you mentioned... ??

  17. @ Karthik: Thanks! Glad you liked it :)

  18. @ Madhu: Thanks for those kind words. Appreciate it :)

  19. @ Tangerine: Thanks Tang! I too like reading your posts... but offlate you have been 'regularly irregular' or should I say 'irregularly regular'...??

  20. like Mahesh I would like to know the source of your database!! are u a historian?

  21. I have the original book of 1916 with me. Upofor sale at itemnumber 120511710375

  22. Hi Roshmi,

    I loved reading the write-up on the Dakats.

    I am wanting to know the details on Zamindars of Bengal & specific to Malda district of Bengal.

    I know that they prevailed in Malda from Late 16th Century until mid of 18th century. Can you please recommend me some good read on the Zamindar families of Malda district during that period.

    Thanks, Pankaj

  23. @ Pankaj: Thanks for stopping by my blog... and great to know you liked the post :)

    I myself am looking for some good read on the zamindar/raja families of Malda district. Perhaps the 'Kolkata Book Fair' guys can help... or maybe you can look up the net...

  24. i think that wud be bama kali... dakshina kali is the pacific kali