In the year 1980, a 17th-century cryptic temple lay hidden deep in the Joypur forest of Bishnupur subdivision in the Bankura district of India’s West Bengal state. This archaic monument was stone-built, unlike the other commonly found historical structures of terracotta in the region.
The jungle had completely engulfed the structure, and ancient trees and exotic flora and fauna had covered nearly every inch of the ruins. Built of Laterite rock, adorned with eroding stucco carvings, and with a base of 45 square feet, the temple must have been a sight to behold when it was built.
A high wall of 25 feet surrounded the entire 23,500 square feet complex, giving it the impression of a fort rather than a place of worship. Perhaps it was built for a different purpose other than praying.
On the four corners were four massive turrets or column rooms, and from the middle of the temple rose a 64 feet central spire tearing through the forest canopy. It had a room at the base too. This unique placement of 4 corner towers along with one central spire was known as the ‘Pancharatna’ or five-gem style of ancient civil engineering.
Deep in the dead of night, the flickering flame of a wooden torch passed through the dark and dingy corridors of the abandoned temple. An ancient man bent with the weight of time moved slowly carrying the burning light.
From a massive metal ring supporting five keys, he would take out one and open and close the monstrous locks that hung on the stone doors at the bottom of the five towers, that perhaps housed five sacred things. He would just check the mechanism of the locks and would not open the doors. He used to open them when he was younger, however, with age, he had become too weak to move the stone panels anymore.
No one knew what he was guarding in the middle of a jungle where no one would go. Why was it so important to him that he checked the locks every day to ensure that no one had breached the doors?
Long before the Muslims came to India when the Hindu kings were still governing Delhi, the ancient Maharajas of Bishnupur had already been ruling the fertile plains and mysterious jungles of West Bengal for more than five centuries.
Then sometime between Anno Domini 1197 and 1206 the Turko-Afghan military general Ikhtiyār al-Dīn Muḥammad Bakhtiyār Khaljī led the Muslim conquest of the Bengal and Bihar regions in this part of Eastern Indian’s geography.
Khalji’s conquest resulted in the mass exodus and merciless annihilation of many nonviolent Buddhist monks, destroying more than one-thousand-five-hundred years of peace and stability. It irrecoverably damaged the North Indian traditional Buddhist institutions of higher learning.
The Muslim conquest of Bengal, however, did not affect the Bishnupur princes. As if through some divine or magical protection, they remained undisturbed. The territories of these jungle kings were overlooked and hardly known to the foreign conquerors. They remained interested in ruling Bengal’s other accessible and fertile regions.
Going back to 659 years after the birth of Jesus Christ, a North Indian Rajput prince and his pregnant wife were on a pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple in the coastal town of Puri. During their travels, his wife entered labour while crossing a great forest at Laugram, 8.4 kilometres from Kotulpur. Driven by the maddening fever of pilgrimage, the prince abandoned his wife in the jungle during labour and continued alone on the Journey.
Filled with the guilt of abandoning his unborn child, he left behind his most precious treasure, his ancestral sword, and a scroll with his wife. He said that if the child were born and did survive, these two things would help him find back his royal lineage in time.
In the dead of the cold night, all alone in the dark forest, suffering excruciating pain the mother gave birth to her child. As a boy entered the world with his shrill cries, his mother breathed her last and died. At this moment, all hope seemed lost for the newborn as he lay shrieking on the chilly forest floor beside his dead mother with carnivores lurking by.
Fate, however, perhaps had other plans for the little fry. At that very moment, a woman from the indigenous Bagdi Tribe, heard the child’s cries piercing through the silence of the night, reaching her jungle hut where she was lying nearby. The woman and her husband were issueless and always prayed to the forest Gods for a child. That night it seemed the Gods had heard their cries.
The child started growing in the cradle of nature amongst the forest-dwelling clan of the Bagdi Tribe. From a very young age, the child showed signs of massive strength. By the age of seven, when he was working as a cowherd, it was very clear that he was meant for things much higher.
One day he found and brought home a large and unique golden nugget from the riverbed. Another day he fished out a golden insignia from a nearby stream. One time when he fell asleep while herding cows in the forest, a mighty cobra was seen, standing over him shielding him so that his sleep would not be disturbed by the sunlight. All these and many other portents foretold that the boy would ultimately become a king.
Then, one day, a very learned Brahmin came to the jungle to meditate and lead a secluded life. Here he met the young boy and through some divine guidance recognised the greatness that lied within him. Realising his potential, the Brahmin gave up his vow of seclusion and started training him as a warrior. The boy was taught from the sacred Vedas and trained in various forms of ancient martial arts.
When a king in the region had died and the Brahmin was invited to the funeral, he took the boy with him. To the astonishment of everyone, the king’s elephant who was in deep mourning lifted the boy with his trunk and placed him on the king’s throne gently. This was another sign that he would one day become a king.
Among all the things that the boy excelled in, his greatest attribute was in wrestling. When he was fifteen years old, he became an invincible wrestler with no one to beat him in the whole territory. This earned him the sobriquet ‘Adi Malla’ or the original wrestler. A name which would resonate in the annals of time and history.
Adi Malla’s qualities and determination led him to become a chieftain near the modern-day block of Joypur, 12.8 kilometres from Laugram, under the Raja of Padampur, who further went on to make him the grant of Laugram and some other villages in the vicinity. Then, gradually over time, he was able to establish his kingdom in the jungles of Bishnupur and became the first Malla king.
As time passed, Adi Malla proved to be a worthy ruler. His prowess and power grew in the region, and he also came to be known as the ‘Bagdi King.’ The different forest clans of the region prospered much under his leadership.
Now, the Bagdi Tribe started to believe that the sword that Adi Malla’s father had left with him had brought all the prosperity to their forest community. They believed that as long as the sword stayed in the jungle, no foreign ruler would ever be able to rule their part of the country.
Understanding the unifying power of the sword, Adi Malla realised that the artefact had to be safeguarded not only in the present but also for the future to come. For this, he devised an ingenious plan.
The Bagdi tribe had saved and raised him and were most loyal to him. So, he selected five of the most faithful families and dismantled the sword into five parts, namely, the scabbard, the blade, the hilt, the handguard, and the pommel.
He then gave the families new surnames – Khol, the keeper of the scabbard, Dhar, the protector of the blade, Hatol, the guardians of the hilt, Dhal, the defenders of the handguard, and Guli, custodians of the pommel.
The king had selected the families from the best of his warriors. He further trained them in various forms of martial arts, guerilla warfare and assassination techniques. Over time they became the fiercest of warriors, whose shadow became enough to instil fear and kill. The five families from then for generations to come would guard their part of the sword through the course of the region’s history.
Adi Malla then went on to rule for another thirty-three years till 710 AD. After him, over the centuries fifty lineages of his sat on the throne of the Mall King. Then, in the year 1626, Raghunath Malla Dev, who would later come to be known as Raghunath Singha Dev became the king.
Singha Dev saw that the protector families of the sword were scattered, many of them had gone and settled in unknown lands beyond the jungle territory. He feared that if the people came to know that parts of the sword were no more within the boundaries of the kingdom, he would lose control over them. Further, he was also a strong believer in the sword’s magic.
Then for the next seventeen years, Raghunath Singha Dev dedicated himself in finding and bringing together all the five families and in the year 1643 constructed a fortified temple with five towers to house the five different parts of the sword in it. There were marriages between the five families, and they were unified under a new family name of ‘Pancharatna.’
After erecting the temple and unifying the five families and appointing them as the ‘Guardians of the Pancharatna,’ the 51st Mall King Raghunath Singha Dev breathed his last in the year 1656.
Two-hundred-and-seventy-four years passed after that, and Kalipada Singha Thakur became the 63rd and last king of the Malla Dynasty in the year 1930. By his time, a lot had happened in the region. Seven kings before, Bishnupur was ceded to the British along with the rest of Burdwan in 1760. For the next ten years, the Maratha raiders plundered the region bringing in the great famine of 1770.
A large section of the population lost their lives, cultivation and farming became nearly extinct, and lawlessness became rampant. The once-powerful kings were reduced to the state of mere zamindars.
The temple of Pancharatna by this time had lost its limelight. The people of the land gradually forgot its importance and over time even the knowledge of its existence. Perhaps the temple was really destroyed, the ancient guards dead, and the sacred sword lost, that’s what had maybe brought all the bad luck.
As the last of the Malla Kings vanished from the land, mysteriously the sword and the temple too was lost in time. Somehow through some magic, perhaps its being was related to the lives of the Malla kings.
Since then, many have tried to find the temple, and assemble the sword but have failed every time. If you happen to have an adventurous spirit and decide to embark on an expedition deep in the bowels of the Bishnupur jungle today, who knows you may find the ancient temple and perhaps even make a dime. However, even if you find the temple, beware of the ‘Ancient Guards of Pancharatna,’ for even if one of them still survives, there is no guarantee that you would come back alive.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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