Khurram Kha anxiously glimpsed at the trickling sand in the hourglass. Glanced up towards the night sky, and then gazed at the frothy ivory waves lit up by the moonlight, lashing on the ancient and rugged rocky cliff-shore, on which stood his lighthouse, and finally looked at his daughter standing on the edge of the cliff. She stared at the abyss with a lantern in her hand a few feet away from the wooden monolith.
More than looking out for ships that night, Kha was worried about his daughter perched on the cold stone-cliff in the face of a bone-chilling sea-breeze. The greybeard’s vision was not as sharp as it used to be. Many years of tending to the continuously burning woodfire of the lighthouse lamp had taken its toll on his eyesight. Quite often, he would stumble with faulty depth perception and hence avoided going out or climbing stairs in the darkness or at night.
The year was 1604, king ‘Akbar the Great’ reigned on the Indian peninsula. The third Moghul Emperor had amassed a flotilla of around 3,000 seaworthy vessels, controlled from his naval headquarters in Dacca, capital of present-day Bangladesh, that time a part of the Indian subcontinent.
Shipbuilding was an ancient art in Bengal. Temple sculptures in Java from days bygone stands testament to various kinds of seaworthy vessels originating from this region. Maybe as a trickling effect of this very lineage, today the world’s second-largest ship graveyard is found on the eighty-mile coastal stretch north of the city of Chittagong in Bangladesh.
Long before the Moghul’s, people of lower Bengal built ships to sail to Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, and Japan in pursuits of colonising ambitions, artistic and religious missions, and commercial interests. Akbar taking advantage of this local knowledge and heritage, centred his royal navy in this geographical domain.
Khurram Kha’s ninety-six feet high beacon tower made of the locally found Sal or the Shorea robusta hardwood was strategic to Akbar’s naval presence. Unlike other Moghul structures, usually made of stone, this was a wooden marvel. The lighthouse stood on a rock cliff on the shores of Dariyapur village in the East Midnapore district of the Bengal region.
Light from the tower helped Akbar’s ships entering the Bay of Bengal from the Indian Ocean safely navigate to various ports along the rivers of Padma, Jamuna, Meghna, and Ganges in present-day Bangladesh.
The oldest written record of oceanic navigation in the Bay of Bengal is scribed, in the ‘Periplus Maris Erythraei,’ an early Greek manual of sailing directions from the 1st century AD. The ancient scroll describes sailing routes from Maris Erythraei or the Red Sea to coastal areas along the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal to Eastern India, north of the delta formed by the mighty Ganges.
Even the great, 2nd century AD Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, and geographer, Ptolemy described voyages from the Ganges across the Bay of Bengal to the Strait of Malacca region. Ships and sea voyages, hence, have always been present in the very fabric of this watery domain.
During those days Dariyapur hardly had any mortal presence. The only human residents in the area were Khurram, the lighthouse keeper and his beautiful daughter Marriam. Apart from the lighthouse on the cliff, there was nothing much in this realm. For miles inland, the topography was dominated by an impregnable and dense Sal forest. So, the only way to easily reach and supply the lighthouse was through the seaway.
Sal wood from the forest provided fuel for the lighthouse lamp, which continuously burnt 24 hours for 365 days. The wood was stockpiled in chopped blocks of manageable pieces stacked in a tower-formation in the middle of the lighthouse, rising cylindrically with the structure’s geometry, snaked by a spiral staircase. It took around six months for Khurram Kha to deplete the pile to fuel the burning beacon, helping ships navigate through the region.
Danish Pasha, captain of the Moghul supply ship ‘Ganj-i-Yatabarae’ was responsible for restocking the Dariyapur lighthouse and ensuring its existence. Once every six months the Yatabarae, would leave from its stationed port of Chandpur in present-day Bangladesh to cover a river and sea voyage of 500 nautical miles to release its anchor and halt in front of the lighthouse a few kilometres from it on the bay.
That night Mariam waited on the cold cliff looking out towards the sea for a good reason. Her father exactly knew why she was restless. It was the Yatabarae’s arrival that she anxiously awaited.
This time of the year the ship could anchor only at midnight when the tide was at its highest. The bay in front of the lighthouse was pretty shallow in patches, with rugged rocks barely visible above the surface. It took an experienced captain, good visibility, and fair weather for a ship to safely anchor in the bay. Further, during the past few days, there were signs for the weather to turn rough at any moment.
The Yatabarae would usually stop at a very specific spot in the bay to anchor securely and safe from submerged rocks and shallow regions, and release smaller boats carrying supplies for the lighthouse to replenish itself.
Captain Danish Pasha and his men who carried the goods stayed in makeshift tents around the lighthouse for a week and helped Khurram Kha gear up the place. The crew would chop Sal logs from the forest and restock the woodpile tower in the belly of the lighthouse to fuel the beacon for the next six months ahead.
Mariam’s anxiousness was not out of place. Though, she was not so much concerned about the ship in general but worried much about one individual that rode in its wooden bowels. Her soul and thought went out for one man, the love of her life, Danish Pasha’s bondservant, a Chela (slave soldier) in the Moghul army, Aquib was his name.
Like the Timurids and other Mongol-derived armies, the Moghuls also used slave soldiers. Chelas, in the Moghul army, were mainly recruited from children taken in war or bought from their parents during times of famine or other unavoidable circumstances. Aquib, however, was found on the road by Danish Pash as an orphan. Like any other Chela, he too was converted into a Mahomedan.
Like other Chelas under Moghul reign, Aquib’s life too was solely dedicated to his master, Danish Pasha’s existence, who fed, clothed, sheltered, and looked after him in every way.
Most of the sailors slumbered, while few on duty kept a watch staying awake. Aquib had volunteered for the Barrelman’s duty, as was his habit during the last leg of the voyage. He was perched on the crow’s nest, the highest lookout point in the ship, while his master slept in the captain’s chamber safely tucked away.
The slave looked anxiously through his spyglass, searching for the beacon of the lighthouse. It should have been visible by now. Maybe it was the weather that seemed very out of place and was perhaps delaying their calculated arrival time and date.
At this moment in time, lovers Aquib and Mariam stood facing one another with only a sea between them. Though they were not in each other’s sight, yet both knew that the other was there at the opposite end. Their hearts anxiously palpitated to see each other’s silhouette at any moment. One, on a cliff and another on a ship’s crow’s nest.
Aquib had been coming to the Dariyapur lighthouse along with Danish Pasha from his childhood. The slave had watched Mariam grow over the years. He was fascinated by her beauty and had always been madly in love with her.
It was, however, only a few years back on one moonlit night very similar to this that he finally mustered the courage to walk up to the beautiful Mariam and express his feelings with stuttering hesitance. Totally unexpected, Mariam had responded with a gentle kiss on his cheek accepting his reciprocating embrace.
Khurram Kha chucked two more logs into the fire. Now to put in the next pieces of wood, maybe an hour later he had to climb down the stairs to the bottom and get it from the depleted stockpile right at the lighthouse base. He cursed himself for not having hulled up the right amount of logs during the day.
He looked at the diminished pile from the top, which was barely visible with only a few days logs left. If the Yatabarae did not come tonight, tomorrow he and his daughter would have to start chopping and gathering wood themselves.
The old man turned his hourglass, looked at the sky, then towards the sea, and finally at his daughter once again. She had not moved an inch from where she stood gently shivering on the cliff’s stone-cold surface. It had begun to drizzle, and the weather was slowly starting to turn against.
Mariam saw far into the sea, thundering skies streaked with continuous lightning strikes. It was certainly a bad storm heading towards them. They had time, but alas, the Yatabarae must already be fighting through the raging tempest.
Back on the deck of the ship the tranquil atmosphere had turned into an ultimate test of sailing endurance. Sailors desperately pulled on ropes, folded sails, tied knots and plugged holes and coved gashes as the ship got battered with merciless waves.
Captain Pasha shouted instructions barely holding on to the helm. Ganj-i-Yatabarae rose and fell thousands of feet with the gigantic swells, destined to be wrecked, heading towards a watery grave.
Aquib stood still amidst the hurricane glued to his crow’s nest. His sole focus was to catch a single glimpse of the lighthouse, whose beacon could help them navigate. Perhaps even have a last look at Mariam’s silhouette at the lighthouse base.
Then there was a momentary calm before a bolt of massive lightning struck the lighthouse pinnacle. It split open the roof in such a way that falling debris extinguished the long-burning lamp in the whiff of a single instance.
Barely surviving the hit, Khurram Kha stood up and somehow managed to clear the debris and rekindle the beacon. It, however, needed more wood to burn into a brighter flame, which was perhaps the only way for the Yatabarae to survive the violent tempest.
The old man rushed down the spiralling stairs to get the logs, and alas, his eyesight failed. Unable to perceive the depth of the fleeting steps, he fell from the top, crashing dead on the diminished woodpile at the lighthouse base.
Mariam was solely focussed with a transcendental gaze towards the distant storm in the bay, inching towards her every moment. Though she had heard the lightning strike the lighthouse, she was too focussed on the sea to look the other way.
She did not even hear her father falling off the stairs to his death. Sounds of the storm, lightning strikes and the raging sea made her deaf. At that very instance through a momentary window of a hazy blotch in the veil of the hurricane, for a split-second, Mariam saw the Yatabarae rising above the waves and then crashing into the water, wrecked to a thousand pieces.
Her world was shattered in an instance. She saw the love of her life being engulfed by a raging tempest. A million thoughts rushed through her brain, she fell on her knees, wailing and utterly broken.
Then Mariam suddenly realised that lightning had struck the lighthouse. She ran inside hurriedly picking up the lantern, only to find her father’s lifeless body drenched in a pool of blood lying on the few remaining pieces of wood at the lighthouse base.
Unable to bear losing the only two men she loved in very different ways, Mariam dashed out of the lighthouse and jumped off the cliff to unite with her lover in deaths eternal embrace. As she ran out, she toppled and broke the lantern she had carried in. Fire and fuel, from which started burning the wooden lighthouse in an instance.
Within minutes Khurram Kha’s beacon tower lit up into a dazzling spire of inferno, penetrating the mighty storm and shining its last beam of hope as far as twenty sea miles. At that very moment, the Yatabarae rose back from the depths. It had not sunk. In a mirage of storm, lightning, and sea waves, it had only appeared to have been sunken and wrecked.
Now with the light from the burning inferno on the cliff’s edge, Captain Danish Pasha and his crewmen found a way to survive the tempest.
With years of practice in anchoring the ship in the perfect place, guided by the beam of the lighthouse, that day too, irrespective of the massive storm, the battered and wrecked Yatabarae finally managed to come to rest along with the raging hurricane.
As morning broke captain Danish and the surviving seamen witnessed the lighthouse crumbled into a pile of smoking charcoal on the cliff’s edge. If it had not burnt, they could have never survived. Many souls were lost that night. Aquib too was gone. The raging tempest was merciful. It did not keep the lovers apart. It united them in death’s eternal embrace.
Three-hundred-and-thirty-nine years passed after that dreadful yet triumphant night. Many rulers came and went, however, no lighthouse was ever built on that location again, till in 1943, when a steel structure lighthouse tower was finally erected there. This was then dismantled in 1964 to construct a concrete lighthouse that exists to the present day.
So if someday you happen to embark on an adventure to the southeastern flank of West Bengal’s coastal region, you can take a one-hundred-and-sixty-two kilometre long road trip from the city of Kolkata to the Bankiput resort in East Midnapore district. From the resort, you have to take a seven-kilometre hike to reach the present-day lighthouse on the cliff of the Dariyapur village.
After reaching the spot when you soak in the beauty of the region, if possible for a moment, do remember the lovers Mariam and Aquib, Captain Danish Pasha and his crew, the Ganj-i-Yatabarae, Khurram Kha, and his wooden lighthouse of which hardly anyone knows today.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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