A strong and assertive old-man stood on the edge of the Khoai, a canyon of purple geological rock formation naturally created by millions of years of effect of wind and water erosion on red laterite soil rich in iron oxide commonly found in the region.
From, top of the purple hill the greybeard looked at the wooden bridge that spanned across the tranquil waters of the Kopai, a tributary of the Bakreshwar River, which flows past the present-day towns of Santiniketan, Bolpur, Kankalitala, Kirnahar and Labhpur in the Birbhum district of Eastern India’s West Bengal state.
The year was around 2000 BC. A descendant of king Pandu of Mahabharata was ruling the land, however long gone were the illustrious days of the Panch Pandavas – five brothers, Yudhishthir, Bhim, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev and their glorious reign.
The king that ruled now was no comparison to his ancestors. He was like the rottenest of fruits in a tree of golden apples. The monarch was happily living off the land and its people, squandering its wealth and slowly pulling the thousands of years old kingdom to its end.
The old-man who stood on the purple hill, Bishokorma Chutoor had descended from a family of highly skilled carpenters. More than a thousand years back, his ancestors were commissioned by King Pandu himself to build this magnificent bridge at this particular spot, where the river took a unique sickle-shaped bend.
Thousands of years later in 1941, writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay would write a novel ‘Hansuli Banker Upakatha’ (Story of the Sickle-shaped Curve), also made into a feature film by the famous Indian movie director Tapan Sinha, based on this beautiful place.
King Pandu had visioned the bridge for comfortably accessing the Shonajhuri Jungle or Brown Acacia Wood Forest. The emperor would go for hunting trips into the woodlands crossing the wooden bridge. Every time he made this journey, he would stop at the middle of the bridge to admire the beauty of the region and briefly enquire about the bridge’s upkeep with Bishokorma’s ancestor who had built it and kept it in shape.
The river back then was very different. Today if you, visit the Kopai you will probably see a small and calm stream easily crossable at various points. As described by the Noble Laurette Rabindranath Tagore in his famous Bengali Poem – Amader chhoto nadi chale banke banke. Baisakh mase taar hantu jal thake (Our small stream moves forward in bends and curves. In the month of Baisakh it only has knee-deep waters.) In those days more than four-thousand-years back, however, the Kopai was a mighty monstrosity of raging prowess.
Building the bridge on the raging river was a feat of an engineering marvel. Bishokorma’s ancestor, the skilful carpenter, had come up with a brilliant plan to construct this bridge using the water-resistant brown Acacia wood from the Shonajhuri Jungle. The architecture of the bridge was so intricate that no one other than Bishokorma’s ancestor completely understood its construction and maintenance process.
Recognising the birth of an unique family trade, the oldtimer’s ancestor made sure that no one other than him completely understood the build and upkeep process. This particular bridge conservation skillset was then handed down from father to son through generations, and Bishokorma was now the custodian of this family secret. He had taught his son Kundon well, and after his time, the oldtimer knew that his child could carry on the bridge maintenance family business.
A big part of the bridge’s upkeep depended on the knowledge of various chemicals derived from plants and minerals found in the region, which was scientifically made into powders and paste to be applied and used on the bridge as part of the various build and maintenance process. Bishokorma’s ancestors had mastered this alchemy, which ensured a millennium of the bridge’s existence.
Now a thousand years had passed since the bridge was first made. It was the dawn of the Chalcolithic age in this geographical domain. The art of smelting copper and moulding the metal into various vessels, weapons and other things was just budding in the Indian subcontinent.
The Shonajhuri jungle had now become a source of wealth for the present irresponsible king, who mercilessly drained the forest of all usable natural resources. The woodland was ruthlessly logged for its unique brown Acacia wood. Elephants were violently captured and brought from the woods to be used for hard labour and war, animals were constantly hunted for sadistic pleasures, and copper was being regularly extracted from an underground mine deep in the bowels of the forest.
The wooden bridge was perhaps the most important thing that made all this extraction of natural resources possible. Without the bridge, the Shonajhuri forest would have been just inaccessible. Without the bridge, no animal would be mercilessly hunted, or no elephant, wood, or copper could ever come out of the jungle.
To run this process of resource extraction, the king had amassed a hoard of slaves, common men and women forcefully brought from various parts of the kingdom, as a punishment for perhaps no good reason. The king’s special force of soldiers known as the Dandadharis oversaw creating and running this engine of human enslavement.
Bishokorma hated these cruel torturers of women and men, who ruthlessly dealt with animals and human beings and were simply merciless. He hated the king, whose evil whims and fancies were killing the land and draining the region of its natural beauty and resources.
The greybeard’s biggest regret was that he was a part of this torturous system. His family business was that which made this possible. It was his engineering expertise, skill of woodcraft, and chemical knowledge that kept the bridge erect, which in turn made all the resource extraction along with human, animal, and nature atrocities possible.
Kundon was the oldtimers only source of greatest joy and happiness in his otherwise discontented existence. He had lovingly raised his son with much care and affection, especially as the child’s mother died giving him birth, and the bairn had to grow motherless. Bishokorma took great pride in Kundon’s woodworking skill and his secret bridge maintenance knowledge.
The old-man had mentored his son well. Now at twenty-seven-years of age Kundon was ready to take over the baton of bridge upkeep from his father any day. All that was fine, however, Bishokorma regretted much, thinking that the legacy he was leaving for his son was the part of an evil king’s profiteering engine of ruthlessness.
“Father we should do something about all this injustice and pain inflicted by the Dandadharis on our fellow countrymen,” protested Kundon with a loud voice, as he helped his father tie a special kind of jute rope smeared in a recipe of lukewarm tar and a secret powdered chemical mix of natural extracts to strengthen the central wooden pillar in the middle of the bridge, while a bunch of soldiers pulled a group of around ten chained slaves a few meters away.
“Keep your voice down child, do you want to get us killed,” said Bishokorma quickly looking over his son’s shoulders to see whether their conversation had caught the attention of the oncoming men. “I know you hate the king and the Dandadharis. I know you don’t want to be a part of all this inhumanity,” said Kundon putting down his tar bucket looking straight in his father’s old and milky eyes.
Next day at the bridge, the Dandadharis did an unspeakable act of inhuman violence. To torture a recently captured female elephant caged at the forest end of the bridge, they speared her calf to near death and threw the baby elephant from the bridge into the raging river to satisfy their sadistic whims.
That night Bishokorma could not sleep, the old-man kept on turning restlessly from side to side perspiring cold sweat. If it was only him, then he could protest and stop working at the bridge, perhaps even take down a few Dandadhari’s not caring for any punishment or the consequence. With Kundon by his side, he could not do that. He loved his son more than anything in the world and could not jeopardise his child’s life in any way.
Over the next few months, the oppression of the Dandadharis became unwatchable. Every day the father and son saw hundreds of men, women, and animals been tortured till one day Kundon could not bear the atrocities anymore and lashed out striking a Dandadhari with his wooded mallet. This resulted in a scuffle, in which Kundon fell from the bridge on to the Khoai-rock river-shore below and broke his back making him a quadriplegic for the remainder of his existence.
Bishokorma was devastated, yet he somehow managed to take care of his immobile son lying still and lifeless on a wooden bed. He could not bear looking at Kundon’s paralysed body and tear-filled eyes every day. Something had to be done, his misery had to end, the atrocities had to end, the Dandadharis had to be stopped, and the king’s ruthless destruction of nature had to be terminated.
As time passed and days became months, after many sleepless nights of deep thought sitting awake beside his lifeless son, Bishokorma finally decided to do something to end this reign of terror in the region.
For the next one month, the old-man did nothing other than relentlessly breaking away very specific portions of the purple and red Khoia rocks; grinding, sieving, refining, and alchemising it into a fine reddish-brown powder, which he cautiously preserved into ten airtight glass containers.
At the end of the thirtieth day, the greybeard called his chief assistant, whom the king had instructed to learn the secrets of the bridge upkeep process. Bishokorma was commanded to mentor him without any reluctance. The fellow, however, was not that sharp, and it was doubtful whether he could ever master the tricks of the trade.
The king had also ordered the Dandadharis to be gentle for some time with the old-man and assist him in any possible way to keep the bridge up and running, till his assistant and perhaps some others knew enough about its maintenance process.
The old-man told his assistant and the Dandadharis to bring ten barrels of the special tar mix that was kept aside. They were to intricately apply it on every inch of the bridge’s underbelly without any mistake. A group of around fifty Dandadharis immediately got on to the job, applying the tar on the mammoth fuselage hanging from ropes and balancing on the bridge’s underbelly wooden frame.
As the tar smearing work progressed, one by one Bishokorma brought out the ten glass jars of the fine red powder that he had painstakingly made over the past thirty days, and placed in at equal distances on a central line across the entire length of the bridge pathway.
Now he went to the chief of the Dandadharis and his select few special men, who were sitting under a shade watching this very peculiar upkeep process. The old-man requested them to lend a hand with a fairly easy but important and interesting part of this unique maintenance system.
“Sir since there is no one else as skilled and daft as you and your men, may I dare to request you and some of your best soldiers to help me sprinkle a special red powder on top of the bridge, which I have kept in the glass jars placed on the pathway. I would have done it myself, but the sprinkling of the powder has to be done at the same time, then only will the coating be most effective in preserving the bridge’s surface,” requested Bishokorma in a most polite way.
Somehow the chief Dandadhari did not refuse the old-man. Further, the king had instructed him to help him in every possible way, and getting his hand dirty in the maintenance process, would be pleasing to the emperor for certain.
Excited with this fairly easy commission the chief and nine of his men went and lifted the jars in their hands as per the old man’s guidance. Bishokorma now standing at the forest end of the bridge signalled the men to open the jar and sprinkle the powder on the bridge surface.
As the men opened the jar and brought the powder out in the air and sprinkled it on the bridge it spontaneously caught fire. Sparks and flames shot across the entire bridge in the flash of a second. The tar smeared underbelly caught fire in an instance. The Dandadharis on top of the bridge ran madly engulfed in flames. Those applying tar below fell burning on the raging river surface.
Within a matter of moments, it was all over. The thousand-year-old bridge lit up in a horrifying inferno of a dazzling blaze. Bishokorma was seen for the last time at that moment, with his son in his lap walking into the pyre of flames.
Through thousands of years of generational knowledge of chemical alchemy, the old-man had extracted Iron Oxide or Ferric Oxide (Fe2O3) present in the Khoai, which he converted into a finely powdered Ferrous Oxide (FeO) the highly flammable and reactive compound that spontaneously ignited when exposed to air.
The king and no one else was able to build a bridge at the sickle-shaped bend on the Kopai river ever again. As years past the emperor gradually abandon his whims of exploiting the Shonajhuri jungle. There were other matters of greater importance to attend.
Thus goes the tale of Bishokorma Chootor, the skilled carpenter, craftsman, engineer, and alchemist who burned down the thousand-year-old bridge built and maintained by his forefathers. How he saved the people, animals, and nature in the Shonajri jungle on the banks of the Kopai river in the Birbhum district of Eastern India’s West Bengal state.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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