Sunday, October 25, 2009

Life and times of the 'Bengal Dakats'... (Part - I)

Bengal is rich is all kinds of stories... some of which are quite well known, some little known and several of them... unknown/undocumented and no history books have recorded them for posterity. Unfortunately! But somehow they have managed to survive via folklore, legends... i.e., by word-of-mouth. The very mention of Bengal conjures up many (familiar) images... fish (esp. the hilsa), sweets (e.g., the delicious rosogolla), the Royal Bengal tiger (I refer to the four-legged one here), Rabindranath Tagore, Durga Puja, Kali Puja, the passion for football, the Eden gardens, the Howrah bridge, the trams (video), the hand-pulled rickshaws (video), the underground metro rail, the 'Prince of Kolkata' Sourav Ganguly aka 'Dada'... even Mithun Chakraborty aka Mithunda... and so on. Mind you... I am deliberately undergoing a bout of 'selective amnesia' regarding Bappida *wink* Bengal is also noted for its revolutionary history (the Indian struggle for independence and beyond), intellectuals and being at the fore front of social reform.

However, one aspect that has been overlooked and/or ignored... are the legendary 'dakats' or dacoits hailing from this 'land of plenty'. Perhaps 'dacoits' are more associated with the desolate landscape, littered with ravines, valleys and criscrossing streams. Forbidding and haunting... much like the dreaded Chambal Valley... India's very own Wild West frontier, a name that spelt terror during the 70's (and still do). All that... courtesy the "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi, her paramour Vikram Mallah and "The Terror of Kings" Man Singh aka Daku Maan Singh or his side-kick Roopa. The original bandit queen... 'Daku Rani' Putli Bai, and even the now reformed dacoit/daku Malkan Singh. Or the densely forested and hilly terrains of the Biligirirangana Betta and Male Mahadeshwara Betta (Hills) and the Sathyamangalam and Gundiyal forests... due to the notorious forest brigand Veerappan. And not the lush green fertile soil of the riverine state of Bengal. Nothing can be more misleading. 

Incidentally, Chambal is associated with Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. About 3000 years ago the "Nag" kings had established their capitals in this place and potteries and coins of that era are still found here. The "Nag" kings established their capitals in Mathura, Kantipuri (Kuntibhoj) and Padmavati. In the Age of the Mahabharat (around 5400 BC... in the Dwapar Yuga), Chambal was famous by the name of 'Kuntibhoj' - named after King Kuntibhoj - the adoptive father of Kunti. There were even some 'Centers of Learning' here... in the past - now buried deep down in the grave of time. More HERE. (Note: Kuntibhoj was actually the cousin of Kunti's [who was then called Pritha/Pŗtha and Parshni] biological father Sura/Śũrasena - King of the Surasenas, of the Yadav clan... whose capital was Mathura on the Yamuna. She was thus the sister of Vasudeva, father of Shri Krishna... and was given in adoption to the childless King Kuntibhoja, who rechristened her as Kunti. After her arrival, King Kuntibhoja was blessed with children. He considered her his lucky charm and took care of her until her marriage.) 

Bengali or Bangla literature has an abundance of the tales of exploits of these 'dakats' ('dakat' is bangla for 'dacoit'/'dakait' or 'daku'.) But, perhaps many bengalis and most people who do not speak this language are unaware of these fascinating stories. I am making a humble effort through this blog to spread a few of these stories... beyond the shores of Bengal. There is the legendary and much dreaded Raghu Dakat and his son Madhu, his contemporary... the much feared Gaurey Bedey and the equally legendary but unusual and philanthropically-inclined brigand Hiru Dakat.  

The very wise and widely respected, knowledgeable but shrewd Brahmin Bhabani Pathak, and his able disciple... the teenaged Prafulla - beautiful and unlettered, the daughter of a poor Brahmin widow. Due to a twist of fate, she had become the (neglected) daughter-in-law of a rich, greedy zamindar (landlord). But under her mentor Bhabani Pathak's guidance, the same Prafulla transformed into the feared by the British and the greedy and tyrant zamindars alike, but loved by the poor and the oppressed... the very cultured and accomplished, the legendary Devi Chaudharani. Along with her mentor, she was one of the early nationalists and played an inspirational role in the famous 'Sanyasi Movement' (1763-1800)... in 19th century Bengal. A 'sanyasi' is an ascetic/monk. The Britishers had first come to India via the Bay of Bengal... under the banner of the "East India Company"... as traders and merchants. Undivided Bengal then was the nerve-centre of everything... with respect to (undivided) India. 

In those days, it was not unusual for a daredevil brigand with several 'exploits' to his name to surrender and became the chief of the 'lathials'/'lethels' (private army) of a zamindar's estate/zamindari. I will bring forth each of their tales... in this blog... by and by. 

They were not the standard 'Tilak' (long red 'tika' on the forehead) sporting, dhoti wearing, turbaned dacoit, living in a den and worshipping the Ma Durga or Ma Kali idol. Nor were they dressed in army fatigues, with the cartridges drapped across them, stubbled and young... like the ones portrayed in the many ubiquitous Bollywood 'Dakait' movies... or the type(s) you read about in novels. Even their hideout was not any kind of den, with 'moshals' or 'fire torches', or an open space, hidden by the hills around. And most of them were not nomads, escaping the cops/the long arm of the law/the lathials of the zamindars. Nor were they anything like the immortalised-on-screen and on whom much ink has been spent... the very manifestation of pure evil - the belt wielding, maniacal yet iconic 'Gabbar Singh' (from the 1975 cult movie Sholay). Yes, he of the psychotic expressions, evil laugh, bad teeth and memorable dialogues like: "Arre O Sambha, kitne aadmi thhe" or "Yeh haath humko de de Thakur" or "Bahut nainsafi". The one who frequently subjected his men to a twisted version of Russian Roulette.

The Bengal dakats wore the unassuming dhoti - 'malkocha mere'... so that it did not fall below the knee - pretty much the way Marathi ladies wear their sarees or 'fisherwomen' are depicted wearing them (their sarees, that is) in typical Bollywood 'masala' movies. Only the dhotis were not colourful... just plain white and were made of thick cloth. They applied generous amounts of oil on their bodies and hair, for obvious reasons (to make it impossible for anyone to catch them.) And as a 'haather paanch' or 'double insurance' too [a la George Bush Sr aka Dubyaman's père... choosing Dan Quayle of all people as his 'Veep' or deputy in 1988... a sureshot 'insurance against impeachment']... in order to make it more than impossible for anyone to hold on to them, if caught. These dakats appeared and looked harmless enough. Most even indulged in farming, pottery, cattle herding, worked as ironsmiths, etc. Infact, many were such scrawny persons... no one could believe them to be dacoits. But after swallowing a jug or two of 'taadi' (fermented palm juice) they turned into terrible dacoits and then their nature was no longer timid.  

Lathi/Shurki/Bollom: They were usually not the gun totting types... though guns and even dynamites have been used in some cases. These dakats weilded the 'lathi' (a well oiled, long, thin bamboo stick), knives, swords (torowal) and shields (dhal), axe, spears (bollom) and sickles (used for cutting grass). Besides spears with curved blades, these people used a type of brass or bell-metal plate with serrated edges. These are spun and thrown with such force that they could slice off any person's head from afar. Talk about a distant 'cousin' of the sudarshan chakra... !!! Placing pebbles in loops of string and whirling them about, they threw them in such a way that, speeding like bullets, they succeeded in killing people. Besides... they also wore a type of mask. Some of them applied bitumen in such a way all over their faces that none could recognize them.  

'Dhenki' and code words/'gupto bhasha': The dakats had even 'discovered' a 'fool proof' method of breaking down any door... however strong. The innocuous-looking 'dhenki' (paddy-husking pedal) was used for this purpose. This 'dhenki' is usually made of strong wood and is nothing but a simple implement to husk paddy... and can be seen in the houses of all classes of people - both rich and poor - in villages. These dakats would rob a 'dhenki' from a poor farmer's house and suspend it a little above the ground from three bamboo posts. The instrument thus made was called the 'dhenki kol'. In earlier times, European soldiers also used a similar instrument for breaking down the walls of forts. This was called a 'battering ram'.  

Bringing this 'dhenki' suspended on poles to their target's door - usually a rich man house - by means of a rope... the suspended 'pedal' was drawn back and then released at a high velocity to hit the door. By such repeated violent blows of this 'pedal', any door or brick wall would collapse. At the time of their operations or while returning from one... these dakats signaled their positions to one another by imitating the call of jackals/hyenas (or even birds). From the code words they used during arrival, return and travel, it could be easily understood that they were the mercenaries of old. As an example... two such code words are reproduced here: "Bro" i.e., "go" (quick march) and "Baybro" i.e., "go fast" (double march). Besides this, the system of finger or hand signals was also prevalent.  

'Shinge': We are referring to an era before the advent of the sophisticated telecommunication system (telephone, telegraph, wireless, etc). These bandits used musical instruments (e.g., the drum, bhepu) or even resorted to whistling... to pass signals to each other. The 'shinge' ('animal horn' and later maybe even hunting horn) was extensively used. The waves emanating from the 'shinge' spread across the sky... making the sound bright and clear. btw... 'shinge phonka' or 'shinge phukeche' is also akin to the English phrase: "kicking the bucket." 

Communication 'skills': These dakats preyed on the "Runners" (messengers and postmen carrying letters and more importantly cash and 'money orders' in a sack on their shoulders.) The "runners" would cover great distances on foot... through uneven routes, forests, etc... by running (hence the name, "runner"). The dacoit bands would also attack groups of common people/petty businessmen/farmers... while they returned after selling their goods/articles/crops at the city/town/village "haat" (the weekly village bazar/market). Their leaders used to issue commands through Sanskrit words... or through words with a 'double entendre' (a word or phrase having a double meaning).  

Sample this. A band of these brigands were once waiting to waylay a group of farmers/businessmen returning from the "haat"... some of whom were travelling on their bullock carts while others walked. It was a forest area, meaning, the path/road passed through a forest... with no sight of any other people/villagers/habitation around. The bandits were disguised as "sadhus" (holy men) wearing orange/saffron coloured robes and displaying long matted hair. A few of them were keeping a lookout for the intended 'victims'.  

As soon as they spotted them... their leader enquired: "Keshub! Keshub!" ("Keshub" is another name for Lord Krishna... and also means "Who are they?"). 

His "chelas" (disciples/band members) responded: "Gopal! Gopal!" ("Gopal" too is yet another name for Lord Krishna... and also indicates "a bunch of cattle".) Now "cattle" here is an euphemistic reference to the 'simple minded villagers/farmers'. (Echoes of the "cattle class" row... that was created courtesy a certain twitter-minister... ?!!)

Thereafter, the "chelas" cried out: "Hari!" Hari!" ("Hari" refers to Lord Vishnu/Lord Krishna... and also means: "Shall we rob them?") 

The gang leader responded (with apparent humility): "Hara! Hara!" ("Hara" refers to Lord Shiva... and is also a subtle indication of the 'granting' of the required permission: "Yes, please go ahead [and rob them]") 

Clever... isn't it... ??? Their ingenuity is amazing to say the least. These chaps had 'developed' and 'perfected' an entire vocubulary of their own... apart from a truly unique form (and means) of communication and logistics.

(More later...) 

P.S. My earlier post on the 'dakats', titled: "Tales of Dacoits and one unique story... dating back three centuries!" can be read: HERE.


Some info gathered, courtesy: Wikipedia.

The role of 'Gabbar', the dreaded Chambal dacoit, remains Amjad Khan's most powerful and memorable performance. 

Hunting Horns' - It is also the traditional French musical instruments that were used during hunting. Hunting horns were evolved from animal horns that served as means of communication in the past. It was inducted in the orchestra in 1680 when it was played during the royal displays at the 'Maison de France' in the reign of the 'Sun King' (French: le Roi Soleil), Louis XIV. During the era of Louis XV the hunting-horn was introduced in hunting. At that time his subjects posted themselves at sensitive points to inform the public about the fate of the prey and the hunting dogs. 

More info on Phoolan Devi can be found: HERE and HERE.

More on Man Singh aka Daku Maan Singh: HERE.

The three dreaded dacoits Malkhan Singh, Maan Singh and Mohar Singh, who once terrorized villagers in north and central India... have surrendered several years ago and have since dabbled in politics... with the later meeting a violent end. 

Additional info on the reformed dacoit/daku Malkan Singh can be read: HERE. While info on Mohar Singh can be found: HERE

In the 50's, it was Daku Man Singh before Putli Bai struck terror in the 60's. Malkhan Singh and Mohar Singh came in the late 70's. Then it was Phoolan's turn in the eighties. Nirbhay Gujjar ruled the terrain for the last 20 years but, unlike Phoolan, failed to make a transition to politics... and met a violent end. Here is an article on the Chambal 'dakus' (link) and one on 'female dacoits' (link).

Harkishan Mehta's three books about dacoits in the Chambal, "Chambal taro Ajampo" are worth a mention. They are thrilling stories of the life and times of dacoits in Chambal such as Mansingh and Daku Rani Putli and Rupa which can make your hair stand on end. They are adventure stories in the best tradition with larger than life dacoits and some may say they romanticise dacoits.

The late Taroon Coomar Bhaduri was a legendary Special Representative of 'The Statesman'. His book 'Chambal: The Valley of Terror' bore proof of his prodigious narrative skill. All-time dreadful dacoits Man Singh and Madho Singh and the mother of banditry Putli Bai came alive on the pages of his book. Here's a Telegraph link that touches on 'woman-dacoit phenomenon'. 


The Howrah Bridge (popularly known as the Rabindra Setu) - a rare photo of the bridge under construction... from the archives of the Ananda Bazar Patrika (Pic courtesy: link.) This bridge is one of the four on the Hooghly River and is the definitive icon of Kolkata and West Bengal from 1943 onwards.


  1. That very detailed and well researched post on Dacoits of Bengal... One more thing some of the dakats become zamindars and setup huge properties etc... Theres a Place near my Kolkata home called Ramlal Bazar its named after 'Ram lal' dakat set it up....

  2. Gosh!
    It's huge!
    Will read it after the exams or sometime in between,


  3. Aila... why are you researching on dacoits??? r u looking for a new career option??? :P

  4. @ Dhiman: Thanks Dhiman! I am aware that many (erstwhile) zamindar families are descendents of 'dakats'. This is only the Part - 1 of this series... all that and much more will come out through the other posts :)

    P.S. Tumi ekta dakat-der upor-e post lekho. The ones who are not so well known. Aami to kokhono Ramlal dakat-er nam-i shunini.

    Maybe you can leave out the ones I'll write on: Devi Choudhurani, Bhabani Phathak, Raghu Dakat and his son Madhu, Hiru Dakat, Gaurey Bedey and Putiram Dhara. But... feel free to add on your comments/observations/any detail(s) I may have overlooked... once I put up these posts :)

    I have asked a few other blogger friends hailing from U.P./Bihar/Bhilai/Mah... to write a few posts on the dakaits... the ones who are not so well known. And then we can link them all up... what say... ???

    Kali pujo wthout dakat stories… not done... tai noye ki... ?!!

  5. @ Pawan: Please do...

    The Bengal dakats are nothing like the ones you may have heard or read about... and/or watched via the ubiquitous Bollywood 'dakait' movies. They were in a class of their own...

  6. @ Sid 'Ravan' Kabe: Ha! Ha! Ha! :D

    The 'Ravan' kid at work... again!!!

    P.S. Well Sid... the Bengal dakats of yore, were nothing like the ones you may have heard or read about... and/or watched via the ubiquitous Bollywood 'dakait' movies. They were in a class of their own...

    They had their own equipment/communication codes/means of transportation/logistics... which were unlike any other.

    You may have heard of the events of 1857 - touted as the 'first war of Indian Independence'. That is a misconception. The first war of Indian Independence began around 1763... through the famous 'Sanyasi Movement'... which had its roots in undivided Bengal... then the nerve-centre of the East India Company rule/British Empire... till 1911.

    Two famous 'bengal dakats'... 'Devi Choudhurani and her mentor/guru 'Bhabani Phathak' were prominant and inspirational figures of that era and movement.

    Feel free to read my posts incase you want to know about those events :)

    Note: Most of my posts are derived from incidents/events I have heard as a child from my grand parents and others and/or read in books (in the bangla language)... that are mostly out of print now...

  7. on a lighter note ..."dakoieeets" reminds of Robi Ghosh.

  8. @ Gyanban: I agree... and welcome to my blog!

    Robi Ghosh was an actor par excellence. His passing away at a comparatively young age has been a loss to bengali cinema.

  9. From : Your blog on the dakats of bengal is a great job and an wonderful effort. Looking forward for more in near future. I hope ur blog on Dakats will also cover kalapahar. Great story. You may find inputs at wiki.

  10. @ Anon/Projwal: Thanks and welcome here. Yes... I will write more on this topic... and cover 'Kalapahar' as well...

  11. Bengal's Dakats in early British periods are very misunderstood chapter. One must remember, during early British rule there was total breakdown of administrative machinery in Bengal.

    Nawab's Mirkashim and Mirjafar was only interested in their selfish entertainments, "East India Company" were upto making money. There was no one left to think about the welfare of people. In this setup, we had number of people coming up with leadership. Some of them were downright criminal, but many like Bhawani Pathak, Raghunath Chattopadhayay, Gaurey Bedey were self made administrator. They looted the rich Jamindars, East India Company taxes and distributed the wealth amongst needy people.

    During Great Bengal Famine, the situation was so bad, that people stopped cultivation. Raghunath spread the rumor that he has hidden the treasure in the field of Halisahar. This had drawn hordes of people digging the barren fields in hope of treasure. When the found nothing, they sowed paddy on those field. That's how agriculture revived in those area.

    It is sad, proper study has not been done on the contribution of these "Dakats" in the society. Britishers labelled them as Criminals, but they were actually leaders who fought for the people.

  12. @ Soumyanath: Welcome to my blog... and thanks for the inputs. You're right... a proper study has not been done on the contribution of these "Dakats" to society. The Britishers labelled them as "criminals"... just like they had labelled the real freedom fighters and revolutionaries as "terrorists".

    ... Most of our history has been written by foreigners especially our erstwhile colonial masters. The real heroes have been lost and buried in the sands of time. Sadly.

    Bhawani Pathak and Devi Chaudhurani were freedom fighters too... and were part of the movement called the "sanyasi uprising"... which predated the 1857 "first war of Indian independence" aka "Sepoy mutiny" (as dubbed by the British) by several decades.

  13. Thank You for such interesting information. The mode of communication between the dacoits (hari hari ? and hara hara !) etc. is mindblowing, to say the least. Please keep posting such wondrful stuff in the future.

  14. @ Sharmistha: Thanks much... and welcome to my blog! Glad you liked it :)


  16. @ Shampa: Welcome to my blog and thanks for that nugget on Chite Dakat :)

    Do let me know if there are any books or links where I can find more info on them.

  17. vide history of chitpur and the link below

    Gupta, Bunny and Chaliha, Jaya, Chitpur, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp. 27-30, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-563696-3.

  18. Gupta, Bunny and Chaliha, Jaya, Chitpur, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp. 27-30, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-563696-3.