Rudra Singha – The greatest king of North East India

Rudra Singha

Originally published in DNA on 26 Feb 2017

When we speak of medieval Assam, Lachit Barphukan is perhaps the only name known to us, for his exploits against the Mughals. But the person who took Assam to its cultural and political zenith was a king named Rudra Singha, who ruled between 1696 and 1714 AD. He was from the Ahom dynasty which ruled Assam from 1228 to 1821 AD. Having ascended the throne, he had taken the Ahom name Chao Sukrungpha and almost immediately got down to building Assam into a prosperous kingdom. Numerous civil works were undertaken by him. The Joysagar, said to be India’s largest man-made tank with an area of 318 acres, was constructed during his reign. In a significant break from traditional Ahom architecture, which made heavy use of mud, bamboo and wood, Rudra Singha built solid stone structures. The Namdang Stone Bridge, which connects the eastern towns of Shibsagar and Jorhat, is another example. Built in the early eighteenth century, it was incorporated as part of National Highway 37 and continued to carry modern vehicles till a few years ago. Its heritage value was finally recognised some years ago and now a new road has been built.Various administrative buildings were constructed at Rangpur, the new capital of the kingdom. The king also built a number of temples, such as the Shiva Doul and Gauri Doul. He established various Satras and also gave royal patronage to the Bihu festival. He also sent young boys to Benares to study. Rudra Singha’s planned invasion of Mughal Bengal is perhaps his greatest claim to fame. Hindu kings who dreamt of going beyond their territories are few and far between. The reasons for this planned invasion are not very clear. Historian SK Bhuyan says various reasons can be attributed, such as Mughal officials sending him a khillat and Hindu pilgrims being harassed in Bengal. One must understand that Rudra Singha was a great patron o f Hinduism and the coins minted in his name contained the words “shri shrimadvengar deva rudra simhasya” and “shri shri haragauri padambuja madhukarasya”. The Tungukhia Buranji, a contemporary source, states that Rudra Singha held an assembly where he declared his intention to invade the region between Rangmati and Dhaka. Dhaka, at the time, was an important Mughal city in Bengal. Another reason could be that being a devotee of Shiva, he wanted to include a part of river Ganges into his domain. Meticulous preparations for this grand invasion were done. The neighbouring kingdoms such as the Jayantia and Cachar joined him. The Koch ruler Rup Narayan also sent favourable replies. He ruled over what is today’s region of Cooch Behar in North Bengal. He solicited support from the Hindu zamindars of Burdwan and Barnagar in Bengal. Closer to Guwahati, alliances were stitched with neighbouring kingdoms — Rajas of Morung, Bana-Vishnupur and Nadiya. For the first time, diplomatic relations were opened with Tripura and help was sought regarding the grand invasion of Mughal territories. Thus, Rudra Singha, in a short span of time, united all the tribes and kingdoms of the North East and a huge army of 4 lakh soldiers began to gather at Guwahati. Assam had a glorious tradition of beating back invaders for over 400 years. Rudra Singha intended to pay the invaders in their own coin. At this critical juncture, Rudra Singha, on whom the whole campaign rested, died a sudden death in 1714. His death is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Indian history. With a Mughal Empire on its last legs, who knows how much success would have come Rudra Singha’s way. In the context of the capitulation of Bengal in 1757, could a strong king have perhaps prevented a British entry? His death leaves us only with conjectures. Thus, Rudra Singha was a multifaceted personality, an able king who excelled at diplomacy, politics and warfare. At the same time, he patronised art and religion, and gave a great fillip to art and architecture during his reign. Assam achieved great heights in the realm of art, architecture, civil works, as well as military prowess during his reign.

Garden to Cup – A history of tea !

A piping hot cup of tea is something we routinely drink and also offer any and every guest. In fact, it is so common a courtesy, that not being offered a cup of tea would seem rude to many people! Let us see how tea began it’s journey in the jungles of Assam as a wild plant plucked by a tribe for it’s aroma , and grew into a cash crop involving plantations of hundreds of acres!

 

Read the full article at DNA –>  Garden to cup – Tea’s illustrious journey

Image : DNA

 

My book on Lachit Barphukan – ” Brahmaputra” – can be purchased at Amazon India. 

 

Shivaji an analysis – by Prof Narhar Kurundkar

 

Disclaimer : This post has not been written by me. It is reproduction of an essay authored by historian Narhar Kurundkar. It is one of the best analysis of Chhatrapati Shivaji , and originally intended as the Preface to Shrimaan Yogi.

The greatness of Shivaji and his limitations must be understood clearly. It is a fact that he doesn’t have the background of the 17th Century Renaissance enjoyed by any European Ruler. He alone has the broad religious background of the Varakari Movement (which traces its roots to Dnyaneshwar), a Hindu movement. This makes him different from the likes of Cromwell and Napoleon. He was not democratic. Indeed, he entertained no thoughts of mass education or liberation of women or removal of casteism or, for that matter, setting up printing presses (though a section of historians actually believes it strongly that Shivaji had a keen interest in printing presses). He had no thoughts of approving widow marriages or terminating the system of childhood marriages. Indeed, had somebody come up with so heretic an opinion, he would have certainly chopped off his arms and legs. He always went to the Dutch or the British for firearms. A thought of producing it himself didn’t occur to him. Who were these Europeans? And for what purpose had they arrived in India? He could not have had much clue to it. By that time Galileo had invented telescope, Columbus had discovered America and Magellan had completed the first cruise round the globe. And the illustrious Chhatrapati was unaware of these events. Like every great person, Shivaji was a product of his time. To what extent he understood the prevalent current of Time and how far he managed to go ahead of his time will ultimately gauge his greatness.

 

Five years back, a South Indian author of little fame had written an article in an issue of Hindu. I haven’t studied a better article explaining the greatness of Shivaji. It was titled “How Small Shivaji Was?” Says the author, “Shivaji is the Deity of Maharashtrians. They would not have an iota of reservation in putting him above God. To say that in the entire five thousand years of the history of human civilisation, no other King can hold candle to Shivaji would seem an understatement to them.I do not intend to join this approbatory gang. Rather than evaluating his greatness as a human being, I wish to examine how small he really was.

 

The first fact to strike is that he created a kingdom. There must have been over 500 Dynasties in India. Each had a founder. One among them was Shivaji. The rest had an opportunity to do so because of the reigning confusion. Vassals of a weak king would declare independence with the central power helpless to prevent it. A powerful general used to dethrone a weak king and raise his own kingdom. This had been the fashion in which a new Power was established. The new king inherited the existing Army and the bureaucratic structure automatically. In Shivaji, we have the one who had to raise everything from nothing, who didn’t have the benefit of a ready strong army; who, on trying to establish himself, had to face the might of Great Powers; who had the neighbouring Bijapur and Golkonda powers still on the rise and the Moghul Empire at its zenith. Shivaji was eating away that Bijapur Empire which had usurped more than half of Nijamshahi and was on its way to consume almost all of Karnataka. Here is somebody who, from the start, never had the might to defeat his rivals in a face-to-face battle, who saw the efforts of 20 years go down the drain in a matter of 4 months; but still fought on to create an empire with 29 years of constant struggle and enterprise. It would be easy to see how small he was once we find which founder to compare to in the annals of Indian history, on this issue.

 

A Hindu Power has certain distinguishing traits. It is not as if they do not emerge victorious in a war. Victories – there have been many. But their victory does not destroy their opponent. The latter’s territory doesn’t diminish, his might is not erased. The victor’s territory doesn’t expand. Even though victorious, he becomes weaker and stays so. In short, it is plain that they faced total destruction in defeat and weakening in victory. A new chapter in Hindu history is begun with Shivaji wherein battles are won to expand the empire while strength and will power is preserved in a defeat. Secondly, the Hindu Rulers used to be astonishingly ignorant of the border situation. Their enemy would catch them unawares, often marching in over 200 miles in their territory and only then would they wake up to the situation. Whatever may be the outcome of the battle, only theirs would be the land to be defiled. The arrival of Shivaji radically changes this and heralds the beginning of an era of staying alert before a war and unexpected raids on the enemy. Thirdly, the Hindu kings habitually placed blind faith in their adversaries. This saga terminates with Shivaji performing the treacherous tricks. It was the turn of the opponents to get stunned. In the ranks of Hindu kings, the search still going on for somebody to compare with Shivaji on this point.

 

Shivaji was religious; but he was not a fanatic. Although iron hearted, he was not cruel. He was daring, yet not impulsive. He was practical; but not unambitious. He was a dreamer who dreamt lofty aims and had the firm capacity to convert them into reality. His lifestyle was not simple. Having adopted a choice, rich lifestyle, he was not lavish. He was gracious to other religions. On that account he may be compared to Ashoka, Harsha, Vikramaditya, Akbar. But all of these had great harems. Akbar had the Meenabazar, Ashoka had the Tishyarakshita. Shivaji had not given free reign to his lust. Kings, both Hindu and Muslim, had an overflowing, ever youthful choice taste for collection of women in their prime and diamonds. That was lacking in Shivaji. He had neither the money to spend on sculptures, paintings, music, poetry or monuments nor the inclination. He did not have the classical appreciation needed to spend over 20 crores rupees and hold deprived subjects with strokes of hunter to build a Taj Mahal even as famine was claiming over hundreds of thousands of lives; nor was he pious enough to erect temple after

temple while India was being systematically consumed by the British. He was a sinner; a practical man like the rest of us. Khafi Khan sends him to Hell. I, myself, think that Shivaji must have gone to Hell. He would not have enjoyed the company of the brave warriors who preferred gallant death to preservation of their land. It would have ill suited him to live with the noble kings who would rather indulge in rituals such as Yadnya than expand the army. For the Heaven is full of such personalities. Akbar adopted a generous attitude towards Hindus and has been praised to the skies for that. But, it is an elementary rule that a stable government is impossible if the majority of the subjects is unhappy. Akbar was courteous to them who, as a community, were raising his kingdom and stabilizing it for him. The Hindus he treated well were a majority in his empire and were enriching his treasury through their taxes. The Hindus had no history of invasions. They had not destroyed Masjids. They had not committed genocides of Muslims. They had not defiled Muslim women or imposed forced conversions. These were the people Akbar was generous to. On the contrary, Muslims were a minority community in Shivaji’ s empire. They were not the mainstay of his taxes. They were not chalking out a kingdom for him. Besides, there was a danger of an invasion and Alamgir was imposing Jiziya tax on Hindus. Yet, he treated Muslims well. That was not out of fear but because of his inborn generosity Given this background, I am ready to see Shivaji as small he really is. But who to turn to, to make him smaller? Is there any such standard?”

 

To round off this discussion, I should like to expand on a couple of issues left unanswered by the above article. Firstly, Shivaji’s expertise as a General is, of course, undisputed. But, besides that, he was also an excellent Governor. He believed that the welfare of the subjects was a responsibility of the ruler. Even though he fought so many battles, he never laid extra taxes on his subjects. Even the expenditure for his coronation was covered by the taxes on the collectors. In a letter he challenges, “It is true that I’ve deceived the enemy. Can you show an instance where I tricked an ally?” This challenge is unanswered. He funded establishment of new villages, set up tax systems on the farms, used the forts to store the farm produce, gave loans to farmers for the purchase of seeds, oxen etc, built new forts, had the language standardized to facilitate the intra-government communication, had the horoscope revised, encouraged purification from Islam to Hinduism. He was not a mere warrior.Secondly, and most important of all, to protect his kingdom, his subjects fought for over 27 years. After Shivaji’s death they fought under Sambhaji. After Aurangzeb killed Sambhaji, they still fought for over 19 years. In this continued struggle, a minimum of 5 lakh Moguls died (Jadunath Sarkar’s estimate). Over 2 lakh Marathas died. Still in 1707, over 1 lakh Marathas were fighting with spears. They didn’t have a distinguished leader to look up to. There was no guarantee of a regular payment. Still, they kept on fighting. In these 27 years, Aurangzeb didn’t suffer a defeat. That was because Marathas simply lacked the force necessary to defeat so vast an army. Jadunath says, “Alamgir won battle after battle. But in the end, after spending crores of rupees, he accomplished nothing apart from weakening his All India Empire and his own death. He could not defeat Marathas”. When the Peshawai ended (A.D.1818), there was an air of satisfaction that a government of law would replace a disorderly government. Sweets were distributed when the British won Bengal in Plassey (A.D.1757). In this light, the above facts demonstrate the extent to which his subjects identified themselves with Shivaji’s Nation and the excellence of Shivaji as its founder.

 

Defeat of the 8th century Arab invasion

For three centuries from 712 AD to 1001 AD, Indian kings kept Arab invaders at bay !

A totally unknown part of history , how an arc of Indian kings from Kashmir to Karnatak kept invaders at bay.

The full article was published on DNA . Read here : Defeat of Arab invasion

Check out my books on Maratha and Assamese history at Amazon India

Rudra Singha – Plan to invade Bengal

The great Ahom king Rudra Singha had mobilised 4 lakh soldiers to invade Mughal-ruled Bengal, but his untimely death at Guwahati stalled the campaign

Read my full article in DNA Newspaper  – Rudra Singha

Check out my book on Lachit Barphukan at Amazon India

Google Hangouts session on Indian History with Vision India Foundation , IIT D , IIT R students

Some days ago, I was invited for a Google Hangout session by a group of IIT Delhi and IIT Roorkee students, some of them associated with a group named Vision India foundation. It was indeed a privilege and honour for me to interact with them. A big thank you to Shubham Kumar for organizing the whole thing.  A wide variety of topics were discussed, right from what inspired me to write Brahmaputra to why is the general outlook towards Indian history the way it is etc. It was a sort of question answer session. Unfortunately we could not do a video recording, but Ishan Batta very helpfully noted down the questions that were asked during the interaction, so now I can present it in this format. Hope you enjoy reading it.  More like a transcript.
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Well so there we are , technology being put to good use here – me sitting in Australia and some of them are  in India, rest of them in the United States. We had to decide not just an appropriate time but appropriate time zone too. Pleasantries get exchanged. A brief intro round follows, participants in the interaction are students, working professionals, students pursuing a PhD etc. After which we try recording the whole thing, but doesn’t work out. Anyways, it is to be a discussion where I answer questions. There are nine – ten of us.  It’s something I am really looking forward too

Q : How did you go about researching for Brahmaputra – The Story of Lachit Barphukan ? 

A : Researching was not very easy, if I have to compare with research for my earlier book, Sahyadris to Hindukush. Reference books are not easy to come by when it comes to Assamese history. But my trip to Guwahati was really helpful, they have this area there called Pan Bazaar which has lots of old well established bookshops. So that’s where I found the best reference books. Also, there is Dept of Historical and Antiquarian Studies near the Guwahati High Court, where I found this awesome book called Tarikh e Ashaam – greatly helped me painting an accurate picture of the times. This was the reading and reference part. I also went to various places in and around Guwahati associated with Lachit Barphukan. So that really helped me in creating an atmosphere in the book that could immerse a person in seventeenth century Assam. And last but not the least, I spoke to Assamese people, both when in Assam and from home. That gave me a good overview of the Tai Ahom customs, culture and most importantly what the name Lachit Barphukan means for the average Assamese person.

Q: We have a narrative for Freedom Struggle . Is there a similar narrative about the counter to Islamic invasions ?

A : Yes, as far back as 736 AD, a grand alliance of Indian kings defeated an Arab invasion which threatened everything from Kashmir to Gujarat. Alliance which included Bappa Rawal , Nagabhatta , Chalukyas of Badami etc. I have written about it in some detail in this DNA Article  . Then we have Raja Suheldev and Battle of Baraich, the efforts of Hemchandra and further in the south we had Vijayanagar Empire , Chhatrapati Shivaji and Maratha empire. Talking of the east we have the Eastern Ganga and Gajapati dynasties of Odisha and ofcourse the Ahoms of Assam. But unfortunately all this is rather ignored.

Q: Why do you think that is the case ?

A : Well , I would say because we have had one particular ideology dominating the discourse for the past sixty – seventy years. The formal study course with regards to history is still centered around Delhi Sultanates etc . I have given talks in schools and colleges, and students are totally ignorant of other facets of  India’s history, even those which affected the whole subcontinent. But fortunately with help of social media , books etc an alternate narrative is slowly forming and becoming popular.

Q: And having a favourable government at centre will definitely help in this.

A : Well let us hope so. So far not much has been done. Anyways, I would concentrate on how can I contribute to building this alternate narrative.

Q: List of books you would suggest for someone wanting to know more about medieval India ? 

A : I have written on Maratha history and Assamese history, so I will limit myself to that.
I found GS Sardesai’s books extremely informative and useful when writing my first book. Also books such as Seir Mutaqherin, and those by Kincaid and Parasnis. On Assamese history , Prof H K Barpujari’s books are quite detailed and extensive. Tarikh e Ashaam, like I mentioned earlier, is also a good contemporary source. S K Bhuyan another name which comes to mind. British authors have also written extensively, on every region in the country and their books are readily accessible today. But, one must be wary of the pro – British slant as also some errors in their work.

Q: Mughal – Assam struggle had nothing to do with Hindu – Muslim. Will that be correct way to put it ? 
A : Actually Ram Singh was leading Mughal armies of essentially Aurangzeb. In the years preceding and following this struggle, he had issued many edicts which were solely aimed at Hindus – such as Jaziya. So Lachit Barphukan, in achieving what he did, definitely protected the Indic way of life and Assamese culture from the depradations of the Mughal empire. He laid the foundations on which kings like Rudra Singha and Rajeshwar Singha could build. So I would say it was a struggle between Assam and Mughals to protect and preserve the age old Indic culture of the North East.

Q : When you started writing , was there an interest in historical fiction which inspired you ?

A : My interest in history, Maratha history, was sparked in large part due to my trekking hobby. I started off wanting to write a story that was entirely fiction, but then as I read more and more on the topic, I realised that a dramatisation of actual events, without playing around with historical facts will appeal more. And thats how I went about writing my first book – Sahyadris to Hindukush.

Q : How do you keep all those facts and references you read together ; and manage to weave it into a book ? 

A : Well, I would say my second book – Brahmaputra – I managed to plan it way I wanted to. Essentially you should be clear about the time period you want the book to fit in, so automatically anything beyond that is not required to be read in detail. Some people follow a set time everyday to write – might work for them, does not work for me . I prefer writing for six – eight hours on one day and then nothing at all for next few days. Helps to note relevant reference books when working on certain chapter. If I felt some part of the story needed more exploring to do reference wise, I would make a note there that more referencing needs to be done and move on. Even my chapters are not written in one order from start  to finish, it all depended on how best my ideas were formed.

Q : Writing as a part time career ? 

A : Well , can’t really say, since I would call mine a “hobby” . But definitely if it is being looked at as a full or part earning source than the question of how much are you capable of earning via your writing and books comes in. It is not easy, since writing a book is just the first step towards earning anything out of it.

Q : Coming back to history, Aneesh do you think Aurangzeb’s motives were religious or purely political ? 

A: I would call it religio – political. Aurangzeb was a pious and devout person. His religious worldview definitely impacted his politics. At a time when people were in general much more religious, it would be hard to separate the two. He passed many religious edicts, which had nothing to do with politics. And he heavily depended on the clergy for his political hold on the far flung empire, passing many laws compliant with the Sharia, but shorn of administrative or political logic.

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Many thanks Aneesh, it was a great session interacting with you. Hope we can look forward to more sessions like these and also meeting in person if possible.

Been my pleasure. Thank you.

Aneesh Gokhale’s two books can be purchased at Amazon India

The Idea of India !

The Evolving Idea of India – Revisiting History

The following write up of mine was published in a publication by IPPAI ­ a Delhi based organisation / think tank . Was also invited to speak at their Goa seminar (IPPAI’s Regulator’s and Policymakers Retreat , Marriot Hotel , Goa) but couldn’t make it unfortunately. Extremely greatful to Pathikrit Payne for having my  write up published.

 I was invited as Chief Guest for the Independence Day function at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Pune) on 15th Aug 2015. I gave a speech there along similar lines. 

What exactly do we understand by the words, ‘the idea of India?’. Although the Republic of India has existed for nearly seventy years, when we speak of India, we always refer to its five­ thousand­ year­ old history and not just its existence as an independent country for the past sixty­ eight years. This is unique, although it has become so routine for us, that we fail to realise this. Ask anyone as to what is the first image that springs to their mind when someone says ‘India’, and it could be anything: Yoga, Ramayan, Ashoka, Chandragupta or perhaps the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi or even the modern IT revolution. For me the idea of India is the continual thread that joins the hoary past to the 21st century. If this link is broken, the concept of India, as we know, dies with it. As an example, let us apply the same logic to America. What comes to mind when we say USA? Along with the strides in the modern age, perhaps Abraham Lincoln, or may be Christopher Columbus. Nothing further. Although people have lived in America too for over five­thousand years, the prevalent image of USA does not take us much beyond 1492, the year it was ‘discovered’. Thus, the thread which takes us to the age of the Rig Ved is something to be cherished and preserved, because, as we see, the idea of India immediately encapsulates everything, from ancient Ayurved to modern day pharmacy giants, to cite an example. The idea of India can now be expounded into various spheres – cultural, religious, political, historical, etc. I will try and tackle the question from the history point of view and later, delve into how this idea of India also connects with the geography of the country. Our perspective of history should reflect this evolving idea of India. The narrative that is taught or imbued by the lay person is very important in this case. This narrative should reflect positivity and connect people to their past. Unless we feel we are directly connected to our remote and ancient times, we cannot feel proud of it. And the moment our history seems distant and remote, we feel a disconnect with it and the thread taking us there starts to strain. This present shape of India we see is something unique. For we have overcome centuries of domination to build this country by choice and run it with values based entirely on this land. This can be seen in the Ashok Stambh emblem of India and the many Sanskrit slogans of various government departments, to give an example. The last time something similar happened, Chandra Gupta Maurya was around. From the golden age of the Guptas and Mauryas, came a series of events which eventually brought us where we are today. All the  people and events in between are about how our ancestors preserved the idea of India. And about how they did not allow the link to the remote past to break. The sacrifices they made, the defeats they faced and most importantly, their victories. One can draw a loose line from the distant past to the Kingdom of Harshvardhan to the north and to the Rashtrakutas to the south. A line that joins the Gurjara Pratiharas and the Battle of Rajasthan and also weaves through the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughal Empire and the struggles and victories of Shivaji, the Marathas and our freedom fighters to culminate in today’s India. But to feel proud of this history and remember it, we must take a positive view of our land’s past. It is a human tendency to move on and forget the negatives and imbue the positives out of anything. If we regard our history as a series of failures, a sequence of defeats, then obviously at some point we will lose all connect with it. Who wants to associate with failures any way? When this happens, the idea of India which we have built and cherished will begin to suffer. Unfortunately, the way we look at history has for a long time taken very negative overtones. One is hard­ pressed to associate himself with or feel proud of this kind of writing of history. True, it is important to write about mistakes and defeats, but it is equally important that we know about the victories achieved, for these victories in the past are the stepping stones to today’s India. Each victory achieved in politics and on the battlefield by various Indian powers has contributed to the idea of India. In many ways our rendition of history is a reflection of the times. Through the 1970s and 1980s, this defeatist view of history, which went against the idea of India, prevailed. The country also reflected this rather sombre mood with its protectionism and inward looking policies. But as India has opened to the world, we find that people are willing to look afresh at the past, and derive and draw inspiration and positives from it. The evolution of the idea of India is a continuous process, and each age contributes to it in its own way. Thus if the remote past gave us the Vedas, the modern day has given us information technology, all building into the idea of India. So to understand why we are extremely lucky to be born in the India of today, knowledge of the past is essential. Only then can we appreciate that all the ethos that many of our ancestors fought and died for have been upheld by the Indian Republic. Since we are on the topic of history, I will also delve into geography a bit. Or to put in better words: it is history from a geographical perspective. Since the idea of India is not merely a thread that joins us to the remote past but also a line that joins the four corners of the country, it is important that we appreciate and understand this aspect too. Unfortunately, we have a very regional outlook towards studying history. How many of us have heard about the Cholas? Or the fact that they reached South­east Asia? How many of us have heard about the Gajapati Dynasty of Orissa or the Ahoms of Assam? These histories are not merely the histories of Tamil Nadu, Orissa or Assam but should be regarded as the history of India. We must recognise that these men fought for and upheld the idea of India in their own way in these corners of the country. They have helped preserve, expound and continue the thread that leads us to today. The idea of India has evolved in unique ways in all its regions and provinces, and thus the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So I would like to conclude by saying that the idea of India has evolved over a period of time and will continue to evolve. Although changing and adapting to the circumstances, it has a kernel which leads back to the ancient days. Various parts of the country have preserved and defended this ideal, and all of us should be aware of such events and personalities. Only when we realise the enormity of the political achievement that is the Republic of India, from a historical and geographical point of view, can we truly  appreciate the meaning of our Independence Day and Republic Day.

The views expressed are of author and do not necessarily represent the views of IPPAI.

© Aneesh Gokhale

Astansari – Dhaundasari (Konkan to Ghat)- Crazy trek !

I had been on one ‘offbeat ‘ trek with the trekking group  ‘ Offbeat Sahyadris ‘ before . It is something I like about this group , of doing treks other than well trodden routes . Its certainly their USP . So when Priti asked whether I could come for a trek from Valvan to Kandat , across two mountains , I readily agreed . In any case there had been a very long hiatus since I had trekked last , what with my job keeping me away from the country for half a year 😀 .   We , eight of us in all , started from Mumbai late on the 15th in a shiny red Tavera . We were to reach Khed first , a town deep in the Konkan before travelling on rural roads to a village called Valvan . From here , we were to trek to a village called Kandat in the ghat region and in Satara region proper . Konkan to Desh trek in short .      We reached Valvan early in the morning , after about seven hours on the road . Our guide for the trek was one guy from the village named Jangam . ( Janguman according to Yadnesh Bharne . Which gave us all a good laugh 😀 ) . So this Janguman , sorry Jangam ,  served us hot tea at his house while we took in breathtaking views of the massive Sahyadris all around us . The near vertical walls of basalt seemed to surround the village , with the dense jungles at their base contrasting beautifully . Meanwhile Priti and Jangam had got into a discussion regarding how much payment he was to receive .  [ Going off track here a bit . I believe trekkers should get together and decide who is to be paid how much and for what on such excursions . This dude was asking 200 per head ] . So after some haggling we settled for paying him 700 bucks for trekking all the way to Kandat , and after dropping our sleeping bags back into the Tavera ( high on misplaced confidence . We were dead sure of getting to Kandat  by evening , and had told our driver to be there !)  we began our trek . Our route took us up the extreme end of a nearby mountain called Parvatgad .  The route initially climbed gently along a well worn track , and became steeper as the we went higher . The last part was really steep , with plenty of dried grass and loose soil . It would have been quite a handful getting down by the same route ! . Finally , the route traversed the hill , with a valley on one side and passing by a huge boulder which seemed so much like a naturally formed Ganesha , we reached the top . An awesome panorama unfolded in front of us . Towards our right , we could see the famous forts of the Satara region , with Pratapgad amongst them . A sharp ridge rose up to the left and layer after layer of hills and mountains of the Sahyadris unfolded in front of us .    All this sight seeing was fine , but we had to now get down from this hill and to the village of Astan . ” Me davto ki . Hya hithe ”  ( I know the way . This way ) , our guide led us to the edge of the mountain . I had one look and said to myself “You gotta be kidding me ! ”  . I bet for some time everyone else felt the same way too . Our guy was asking us to descend a near vertical patch of about fifteen feet , which merged into a steep slope full of dried grass and scree . Very conviniently , this slope also stopped abruptly above a dense cluster of trees ! .  So we gingerly made our way down . Hats off to Yadnesh n Adi’s trekking skills here . Little  handholds and footholds got us past the first patch . Then a very narrow path traversed the hill , with plenty of scree on it , and descended towards the forest . After about half an hour of rather ‘exciting ‘  trekking , we managed to reach the floor of the forest . Phew ! . Worst part , there was a nice well worn path reaching that reaching from a much lower height . So all this effort was not required actually ! .  The photos below will tell part of the story 😀 .

The steep descent of Parvatgad . Totally unnecessary .The steep descent of Parvatgad . Totally unnecessary .

We reached the bottom of the rock patch , and a well worn path led away to the left and into the forest .   From here , the trek was one long walk through the forest , all along a massive and widge ridge which wound its way down to the village . The thick layer of dried golden brown and red leaves scrunched under our feet as we made our way to Astan . The dense forest formed a canopy over our heads , shielding us from the harsh noonday sun . A stream joined our path after about an hour of trekking and someone had thoughtfully put a pipe to channel the water . We continued along this path , till the pipe emptied into a small well . Plenty of water here for hunters , gatherers and other people from the village who must be frequenting that forest . It was around one in the afternoon by now , and we settled down to have lunch next to the well . Puran poli , bhakri , gajar , chutney , theple . Routine trekker fare ! . After spending sometime eating , we continued on the trail , which steadily descended till finally we exited the forest and the houses in the village with their typical brown roofs and mud walls became visible . Right in front of us loomed a huge mountain , and beyond it was our destination – Kandat .  We flopped down near a tree , couple of us going off to sleep .  The sun had got really harsh by now , and beads of sweat had begin trickling down by face . So while we were deciding what to do next .. our Janguman decided to ditch us 😐 . Very clearly the guy had been told to take us to Kandat , and here he was , saying that this would be it as far as the trek was concerned . “But this is just Astansari . What about Kandat ? “, said Priti, referring to the village we had just reached.

” I have to reach the temple at Chakdeo by evening . ”

” But you agreed in the morning ”

” It is Holi .. so I have to leave ”

Some conversation like that . Gist of the matter being , we were half way into the trek with no guide to take us further ! So we began  asking the villagers at Astan if there was anybody who could take us there . But most of them seemed to be absent from there for the festival . A few of the villagers told us about the temple of Nirabji , which we should aim for if we were to reach Kandat . At least we came to know that some sort of a route did exist to the other side of the mountain . We looked up the mountain . At least from where we were standing , there didn’t seem to be much of a route , but that was hard to tell .   About a quarter of the way up the hill was another cluster of houses . An easy and broad track led from Astansari to that cluster . Since we had not any luck in Astansari , we decided to try our luck here ! .  A lot of villagers were wondering why did we want to trek the whole distance when the goverment had built a road connecting Valvan to Kandat ! . But then there is no answer for that question ! Only a trekker will know why he walks over the mountains when he can drive ! Anyways , we reached that cluster around two in the afternoon . Parvatgad loomed in the distance now , the sharp edge of the descent we had successfuly tackled in the morning standing out against the sky . The col and its dense forest could also be seen , cascading down to the village . I was surprised actually , at how far we had travelled from Valvan ! . Our group took a short break here – nobody wanted to go plodding on a bare hill at that time of the afternoon ! A curious kid from the village kept us in her gaze all the time , like some sentry 😀 . We did give her a packet of biscuits afterwards . An old lady over there managed to give us some clear cut instructions regarding our further route .

“There is a singular house situated slightly higher up . The route begins from right behind the abode , and climbs steeply to the left most edge . Then a  walk on the ridge till we reach a saffron flag . Fifteen minutes from the flag , on the left , you cannot miss seeing the village ! ” — that was her advice .

All of us were now charged up .  It would take us around 3 hours we surmised . So by evening we thought we would be in Kandat . So all gung ho , rested and well stocked , we started the steep climb . Through the scree and boulders we made our way up the mountain . The massive block of basalt that was Parvatgad was looking even more beautiful now . The sun shone off it’s sheer walls and created a breathtaking site . Trekking our way up the mountain , we came to a small plateau and the deadly traverse loomed in front of us . I swear my heart skipped a beat on seeing that route . We continued on and gingerly entered the traverse . The traverse of Alang and Madan is a cakewalk compared to this . A very narrow path which hugged the mountain and traversed it to the ridge beyond stretched out in front of us . The path fell away sharply to the valley on our right , and mountain loomed ominiously on our left . Loads of scree all along the path made it even more ‘exciting ‘ . There were no handholds along the wall to our left , so just trusting our feet to hold onto the scree , we slowly made our way ahead .

A pic by Priti of the traverse ( red line )  :

Scary traverseScary traverse

After the traverse , the route again climbed very steeply . Since hardly anyone used this path , grass had grown plentiful on the slope , creating a rather slippery ascent . Again , there was little to hold us in case anyone fell , which fortunately didn’t happen . The slippery slope gave way to a ridge , from where we could see the entire panaroma all around us . At one end of our horizon was Parvatgad etc . At the other was Pratapgad and other forts . Everywhere we looked , there were layers upon layers of hills . The sun had begun to set by now , and we decided to hurry to our destination .  From the ridge , the path continued on to a hillock , where the grass had been burnt off , created a bald and exposed path . The loose soil scrunched under our feet , and every now and then a few bits were sent tumbling into the valley as we continued to ascend . The ridge narrowed even further , till it was only a few feet across . Then it abruptly ended in a rock face about fifteen feet high . Vishal and Sagar climbed up the patch and secured our rope to a tree . The rest of us climbed up , using the rope for support . From here , the route climbed through some more burnt patches , criss crossing the hill  . After about half an hour of walking we reached the flag , a saffron swallow tailed standard . The sun had well and truly set by now and the dark of the night had begun to envelope us . But we had reached the flag , so now we would see the village at any moment ( after all the lady had told us so . )    Then we got the shock of our lives . To the left , for miles at  a stretch , there was not a single light to be seen , leave alone a whole village ! . Vishal had in the meanwhile found another path. Slightly below the flag and to its right , was another well worn  though exposed path traversing the mountain and leading away to a plateau .On its own this traverse would be scary , but after what we had seen in the afternoon , this one seemed mild . So we made our way to the plateau . Still no luck . We could see the lights of Astan in the valley to our right , but nothing at all to the left . We were in a real quandary now . Had we really followed the correct route ? Going back the same way was out of the question . But why hadn’t we seen the village yet ? The full moon was shining brightly now and we decided to spend the night there on top of the mountain , in the scarce patch of open space we found . It was not the smoothest , poking into our backs like a thousand needles . We likened ourselves to Bheeshma of Mahabharat . ( sarcastic jokes come easily when you are in a soup ! ) . Then there was some futile hunting for a route on google maps – a total waste of time . Since we had so confidently tossed our sleeping mats n bags into the car , we had to sleep on the bare ground , with little cover . A small campfire kept us warm , as well as kept any wild animals which may have been lurking around away .   So that is how the first day of our trek came to an end .. on top of an unknown mountain , with us not knowing whether to go left , right or straight .

We travelled a long way

Walked a long wayWalked a long way

Day  2

 

 We woke up early , so as to not get tired walking under the hot sun later in the day . Sagar pointed out a few old bear tracks near where we were sleeping . So it had been a good idea to keep that fire alive all night ! . We followed a path created by bears most probably through the forest , reaching  a vantage point from where we hoped we could spot the village .  Disappointment awaited us . All around were only mountains upon layer of mountain . Now we were truly stuck . Straight down from where we had been sleeping , there was a dense clump of trees and bushes . We did not expect the route to lead that way . ( We later realised it did ) . We peered along the left edge of the mountain , and decided to make our way down the hill by way of a col we could see amongst the folds of basalt .    But reaching there was the real challenge .  There was obviously no path leading to it . So we cut and scraped and pushed our way through the dense ‘karvi ‘ bushes towards the col . Every few steps my sack was getting stuck in some or the other thorny bush or branch , much to my own chagrin . Crawling our way through the forest , we reached the forest , and were happy to see that it housed a stream , which gently cascaded downwards from there . There was a good chance it would take us all the way to the base of the hill . After all there were other hills – like Gorakhgad and Chanderi , where the whole trek consisted of a gently descending stream of water , which we had to just follow properly . Maybe this was one of them . Maybe it wasn’t  . There was only one way to find out !  So we continued . The path had broadened now , and there was little trouble from the trees and bushes . Large rounded boulders typical of streams made up our path now , and we could quickly descend . About two hours into the hike , we reached a small pond .. with clear and cold water in it . That really made us happy , since we had begun to run short of the vital element . Each of us had upto then just a litre or so with him . Not a very comforting thought when you have no idea whether you are to walk five kilometre further or twenty !! . Finding that pond , a remnant of what must be a mighty stream in the monsoons , was truly a godsend . Our legs had begun to tire from hours of walking by now and we decided to halt here for lunch . Quite a spot that was . We spotted birds like the Paradise Flycatcher and butterfly enthusiasts amongst us got to see lot of rare kinds of the winged and beautiful insects ! A ‘machaan ‘ set up at the spot by some hunter  gave us even more relief  . The first sign of civilisation !! Infact , a small but well worn path led into the forest just before this little pond of water .    After an hour of resting , we continued . The path considerably broadened now , and we had to make our way past huge boulders . It was looking more and more like the Chanderi trek . All of a sudden , the gentle decline came to an abrupt end . A twenty foot vertical fall stared back at us . There was always a chance of that happening when following a stream , and so there we were , staring at twenty feet of solid stone .    Fortunately we had brought ropes , carabiners , descenders – the works , alongwith us . With Sagar and Yadnesh on top , Aditya , Vishal and Priti managed to descend / rappel down the steep patch . Priti and Aditya proceeded to check the route further ahead , while the rest of us readied to descend  . In less than ten minutes , her voice crackled over the walkie talkie ( Offbeat Sahyadris carries these things , which I think is great from communication and safety point of view ) “Stop whatever you are doing . There is a thousand foot fall here . The place looks like Grand Canyon ! ”

pic of what Priti saw ahead :

Grand Canyon . And a thousand feet deep dead end .Grand Canyon . And a thousand feet deep dead end .

So now what ? We had been trekking for close to four hours now . Going back the way we came was going to be very tiring . Even so , doing the exposed traverses of the previous day was out of the question . We had reached a second dead end in as many days . Maybe try and descend the thousand foot cliff . Crazy idea , there were no takers for it . What about the path we had seen leading into the forest ? Plus there was a  ‘machaan ‘ , so obviously people can reach this place from somewhere ! .    We retraced our steps to the well worn track . This was about ten minutes walk from our ‘pond’ .  The well worn track wound its way into the forest , gently climbing and dipping as it wound its way around the mountain . For the first time we were seeing something ‘normal ‘ .  We hurried along , our strides quickly covering the ground beneath our feet . After two days of scree and exposed traverses , this seemed like a highway .   After about an hour of walking , we saw the village ! I was happy for one , I guess all of us were . Our pace quickened and descended rapidly to our destination.Until a few hours prior , we did not know even the direction in which it existed !  The village of Kandat was well and truly in sight now . It was only a matter of time before we reached it , hopped into our Tavera and headed home .

Or so we thought .

Kandat at last !Kandat at last !

Reach the village we did . And were immediately served cold taak ( buttermilk ) by a kind old woman . After two long hard days of trekking , the cold buttermilk in her simple mud house felt like heaven . We thanked her and went looking for our vehicle . It had been there that morning . Then the driver left with it . So now we had a new problem – after two days of finding the correct route , we got involved in finding our car and the driver. Grrrr .  Two guys went to the temple near the village , Rajas went to another village close by ( 5 km ) to try and phone the driver . When he returned an hour later, he had news for us ! Our hero had driven back to Valvan – the village where we had started – 25 km away .

Now what to do, since it would take him two hours to drive back. We decided to rent a vehicle to Valvan – from that village five km away.

A five kilometre walk along a tar road followed . After climbing up and down mountains all the time , these bonus five km bugged me no end . Cursing our luck we plodded to the village  . From there , we managed to get a rickety old jeep to Valvan . I am just glad it didn’t break down on the way ! . Janguman , pardon me , Jangam was there . I feel he was rather relieved to see us ! . We had missed Holi – quite  a big event in the Konkan , but were happy to have done the rather difficult trek  . And then we all hopped into our Tavera and headed home . And thats how a great trek came to an end .

Wish I could sign off on that note .

But our Tavera had other plans 😐 . As if two days of excitement had not been enough , there was another twist in the tale .  Somewhere near Panvel we turned off the highway  and onto some non descript internal road, to err.. save time ! Around fifteen minutes later we got a flat tyre . This was around twelve in the night ! . So there we were .. off  the highway , on a dim lit nondescript two lane road , with little sign of humans anywhere and a flat tyre . Some of us got down to remove the flat wheel . Others tried to get the stepny ready . Vehicles whizzed past , at the rate of perhaps one every ten minutes . Soon we found that our stepny was also flat !  Some pointless arguing over the phone with the Tavera’s owner about his punctured stepny  followed . But still , it was us who was suffering ! . Yadnesh and Aditya then managed to flag down a sumo and hitchhiked their way to a mechanic with the stepny in tow . They managed to return a good two hours later .. around 3 am . Now there was another surprise . The flat tyre just refused to budge from the axle ! . No amount of pushing , hammering , pulling could move it ! . In the end , we just drove to the mechanic with one tyre flat ; which nearly tore away to the rim ! Around 4 in the morning our vehicle was fixed and we could finally be on our way . It was around 5 in the morning that I finally reached home . A most memorable trek had drawn to a close . By far the most difficult one I had been on . This thing was Alang – Madan and Nalichi Vaat combined . And then some more . Many thanks to  Rajas , Yadnesh , Sagar , Vishal , Aditya , Priti and Blaise sir for the great company and all the help .

Chapter 3 – Jirga , Kandahar

attock

Sample pages from  ” Sahyadris to Hindukush “

Chapter 3 — Jirga , Kandahar

 

The dry brown-red cedar leaf crunched under the horse’s hoof, splintering into a hundred pieces with a distinct crackle. Rehmat Khan Barakzai, astride the sturdy Arabian horse, wrapped his keffiyah closer to his face, to protect himself from the chilly autumn winds that had begun to blow across the Afghan city of Kandahar. He looked across the barren landscape, a drab mixture of  grey , light brown and yellow. Here and there, the spruce and deodar trees sprang out of the ground, bereft of leaves, which lay scattered at the  base of their trunks. He scanned the area with the vision of a hawk, his eyes honed in the Pashtun highlands, watching the Afghans, clad in their usual long flowing clothes,go about their daily business. A bearded man carting away some fruit, a man on horseback rushing away to somewhere, few others strolling towards a mosque.Rehmat Khan was annoyed that the person he was waiting for hadn’t yet showed up. He put a hand to his forehead and peered into the distance. Rehmat Khan spotted a lone horseman, slowly making his way towards him. The outline of the pancake shaped kapol which covered his head  could be clearly made out. Finally!, thought Rehmat Khan Barakzai,  even as he raised his right hand and waved it,  signalling to the new comer.
“Taso sanga yay?” asked Barakzai, cheerfully in a loud voice as Mohamadzai came within earshot. “Pakhair” replied  Mohamadzai , his  white teeth glistening in a broad smile. He was well into his fifties, with a rapidly graying  beard and cheeks which had grown infirm with age. There was still a firm determination in his eyes though, a sign of the numerous trials by fire he had to  undergo as Khan of his tribe.
Barakzai gave a sharp jab to this horse with his right heel, and turned towards the dusty road leading to the tomb of Sher-e-Surkh. The old fort at Kandahar towered above them, lording over the Pashtun heartland. The two warlords had been invited to a jirga by the Pir Sabir Shah. Slowly they made their way their horses moving in a rhythmic trot over the barren track. It was customary for the Pashtuns to conduct such jirgas from time to time. These councils, would then decide issues of social and political importance to the Pashtuns. The untimely death of Nadir Shah, the Persian ,had prompted this latest jirga. Sensing that the Afghan lands would fall into disarray one again, Pir Sabir Shah had organized this jirga at the holy place. The Mohamadzai, Popalzai, Barakzai, Jadran, and other Pashtun chieftains had been specially invited.
Before long, the two of them had arrived at the simple sandstone monument that was the tomb of Sher-e-Surkh. Rehmat Khan Barakzai looked at the group of camel hide tents which came in view as they climbed a hillock. Coarse cream coloured fabric, blending into the surrounding plains. Barakzai and Mohamadzai trotted closer to the camp,where the Pir himself was ready to welcome them.

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