“Hun Huna re, Hun Huna… Hun Huna re, Hun Huna… Palki choooleyyy gogon toooleeeyyy (The Palanquin mooovesss under the skkkyyy),” rhythmically chanted the fast-moving group of twelve. A torchbearer bearer in front and one in the back provided the only lights casting dancing shadows of the men and a swinging wooden box amidst them on the pitch-black surroundings in the dead of night, cutting through the wild and scary belly of the Chilapata forest in the mystical northeastern lands of India’s West Bengal state.
The dense forest, rich in wildlife situated in the Dooars region of Alipurduar district forms an ancient elephant corridor between the present-day Jaldapara National Park and the Buxa Tiger Reserve. Back in the fifth century Anno Domini of the Julina calendar the area was home to the largest Rhinoceros populations, which has dwindled much in the modern-day. Leopards, however, have managed to thrive and still continue to be largely found in this jungle domain.
The men were extremely fast as if they were evading something or someone. The soles of their bare feet, as hard as the skin of the One-Horned Rhinoceros found in the region, were adapted to swiftly move across the wild terrain. They moved like the wind, perfect in rhythm with each other, nonstop, and fearless.
The wooden box they carried on their shoulders was one of the oldest modes of transportation for the rich and royalty of the ancient Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, and Roman populace, and gradually even adapted by the Portuguese people. An antique means of travelling known in India as the ‘palki’ and later renamed by the British colonisers as the ‘palanquin.’
It was a rectangular compartment made of wood with a padded floor, walls, and roof. There were two sliding doors on both sides with shutters or horizontal Venetian blinds that could be opened or closed from inside for the passengers to have a peep at the world outside. Two sturdy wooden poles jutted from the front and back of the cabin, which four carriers placed on their shoulders to carry the human-powered transport.
The name ‘palanquin’ was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘palanki’ meaning bed or couch, which the Britishers much later in history came to call ‘palan queen’ or a bed for a queen. True to its anglicised name the vehicle mostly carried queens, princes, and women of the royal families, and on that chilly night moving through the dark and scary forest it was carrying a similar woman of might.
Aditoh Behara was in his mid-fifties. The man had spent a lifetime, towing members of the royal family on his shoulders as a palanquin carrier. This was a job that was usually inherited, and like him his father before him, and his grandfather before his father to many generations before, perhaps from the time of Ramayana around 250 BC when the first reference of palanquin or the palki can be traced, Aditoh Behara’s family was carrying people on human-powered sedans literally on their heads.
Over the years he had emerged as one of the best palanquin bearers in the Nalraja Garh fort of the Nal King, deep in the jungles of the Chilapata forest. He had mastered and perfected the art of carrying members of the royal family in their Palki’s, getting them across the dangerous jungle and unpredictable terrains.
Carving out a name for himself in a profession considered somewhat debase had not been an easy task for Aditoh to attain. Through sheer hard work, dedication, and intelligence he had created a highly specialised unit of twelve men, who were the fastest and best in carrying a palanquin in the region.
A big part of being a palanquin bearer was about strength, stamina, and endurance, and Aditoh and his men were the strongest in the business. The edge to their trade, however, came from Aditoh’s intelligence. His presence of mind and ingenuity had helped overcome numerous dangers on several occasions on many of their palanquin travels.
Aside from him as the leader, the twelve-strong included, four primary carriers, Giri, Nog, Mohi, and Shila, two reserve carriers, Shoilo and Goda, these six were giants among men, the strongest in the group. They were mainly responsible for carrying the palanquin in turn on their shoulders.
The fastest of the dirty-dozen were the twins Taph and Ogni, the lamp bearers, who were primarily responsible for lighting and tending torches to show the way in darkness. They were highly skilled fire starters, who could perhaps light an ember in the wettest of environments.
Shollo and Teer were highly skilled archers. Their primary duty was to hunt and provide long-distance offensive protection in case of an attack on the group by bandits, enemies, or predators. The last in the band of these merry men was Chula the ever-innovative cook. Though the men had their separate duties, all of them would carry the palanquin whenever necessary.
As the leader of the dozen, Aditoh’s responsibility, however, was more than the others, and on that particular chilly winter night, moving fast through the forest he was on a secret mission that would perhaps, forever change his and the lives of his men.
The year is 410 AD, the pinnacle of the ‘Gupta Period,’ the ‘Golden Age of India.’ From the Indus river in the west to the Bengal region in the east, and from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the Narmada river in the south, Chandragupta II, also known as Vikramaditya, the 7th king of the Gupta Empire is ruling the subcontinent.
Vikramaditya’s nephew Sridhar had come to secretly fall in love with Indumati the sixth queen of the Nal King. The queen was just twenty when the Nal Raja was sixty-five. There was no chemistry between the two and the young bride remained unsatisfied and lonely, playing the role of an occasional concubine. This was the reason why she perhaps instantly fell in love with the young and dynamic Sridhar, whom she met just once when the prince had visited the Nal region on a diplomatic trip.
The marriage between the Nal king and Indumati was politically important. She was the daughter of the neighbouring king of Cooch Bihar, and the pact between the two kings was that, as long as Indumati remained a queen of the Nal Kingdom, the king of Cooch Bihar would never try to claim the Nal regions of Chilapata forest.
Now in the dead of night, after months of planning, Indumati was finally escaping from her unsatisfactory life with the Nal King. She and Sridhar had been communication for the past one year through secret messengers, and now she had convinced Aditho Behara her trusted palanquin carrier to help her flee.
Sridhar was waiting for her on a ship a hundred-and-twenty kilometres away from the Chilapata forest at the Dhubri river port on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in the neighbouring Assam state. Now it was all up to Aditoh and his men to ensure that the queen and her lover ultimately united in love’s embrace.
The Nal King, King of Cooch Bihar, and Sridhar were supposed to meet after three days at the Nalraja Gar fort for diplomatic reasons, hence Sridhar’s arrival at the Dhubri port was not unexpected. The news of Sridhar’s ship anchoring on the banks of the Brahmaputra travelled fast to the ears of both the kings in the region, and they expected his arrival on the designated date.
By the end of the first twenty hours of Indumati’s escaping, the Nal King had discovered that her sixth queen was missing. He feared that the rumours that he heard about an affair between her and Vikramaditya’s nephew were really happening.
Coming to know about the missing palki, he rightly guessed the queen’s mode of escape and those who were helping. It was also clear that she had to be heading for the Dhubri port from where Sridhar could smoothly sail through the Brahmaputra permanently taking her away without any worry.
This was a disaster in the making. Maharaja of Cooch Bihar, who always wanted to have the Nal Kingdom would immediately attack if he came to know that his daughter was no more with the Nal King. Sridhar could not be touched, as it would mean open war with Vikramaditya the mightiest emperor in India at the time. The only option that remained was to get back the queen in a manner most clandestine.
For this, the Nal King deployed twenty of his personal guards, a group of highly trained assassins to eliminate Aditho and the palanquin bearers and bring back the queen. The Nal King could not send a larger group or create a ruckus about this as there were many spies of the King of Cooch Bihar in his region. So off went the assassins in their hunt for the palanquin.
The palki journey from Nalraja Garh fort to the Dhubri port was around three nights and three days, and at the end of the trek’s first day and the first night, with the faint rays of light on the break of dawn, the palki crossed the border of the Nal Kingdom on the edge of the Chilapata forest and entered the domain of the Cooch King.
Aditoh signalled his men to take a break. They needed it after twenty-four hours of continuous trekking through the uneven jungle-mountain terrain. He knew that by now the Nal King would have deployed the assassins. He knew that this was the only break he and his men could take, for from now on it would be a race between the stealthy light moving assassins and his slower palanquin bearing band of doomed men.
Looking at his men taking the break, for a moment he thought, that was he doing the right thing risking all of them. Helping the queen was the right thing to do, he loved her like a daughter, and a leader would perhaps sacrifice his men to save his child, though she was not his very own blood and flesh.
The man knew that the trail his palanquin bearing group was leaving behind was easy to track. Two more days of the journey was still left. The assassins would surely catch up unless they continuously moved and covered the remaining stretch in one-and-a-half days. Still, then it would be a close call for the queen, Aditoh, and his men.
On the second day, the palanquin was spotted moving through the forest of Cooch Bihar, and soon its news reached the ears of the Indumati’s father, who now deployed fifteen of his very trusted warriors to kill Aditoh and his men and get the princess.
The Cooch king planned to keep her daughter hidden, and in turn, demand to see her at the Nalraja Gar Fort where they were supposed to meet after two days. Of course, not seeing his daughter there would allow him to declare war with the Nal King, and thereby fulfil his long desire to raid in and rule the rich Nal region.
Now Aditoh and his men were the prey and the assassins of the Nal Raja and the warriors of the Cooch King the predators right behind closing in on their tail.
At the end of two days and nights, Aditoh and his men had nearly completed the journey. From the top of a hill, far in the distance a few kilometres away they could see Sridhar’s ship at the Dhubri port waiting for them ready to cast its sails and escape with her highness.
Right at the same time Aditoh and his men spotted the Cooch King’s warriors a few kilometres away on the left horizon, and the assassins of the Nal Raja right a few hundred metres behind them.
Aditoh and the Palanquin bearers realised that running was futile, they would never make it to the ship in time. Putting the palki down the men took their final stand.
That day on the hill in front of the Dhubri port on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra clashed the stealthy assassins of the Nal Raja, the mighty warriors of the Cooch King and the insignificant bearers of the palanquin.
The battle was fierce and bloody. First, the assassins and the warriors teamed up against Aditoh and his men and then they fought amongst each other. After an hour of brutal violence, of metal clashing against metal, of heads bashing against each other, of blades slicing through human flesh, lay the bodies of forty-seven men, some lifeless, some barely breathing, and some severely wounded.
In the centre of this sat the wooded palanquin with its doors unopened. A wounded assassin of the Nal King closest to the wheel-less carriage dragged himself slowly and slid opened the door of the palanquin to have a look at the queen he had come to save.
As the door of the palanquin opened, it revealed an empty chamber with no queen or anyone within.
Miles away on the opposite side of the region on the banks of the river Teesta in the Dharmmapur village Indumati and Sridhar hugged each other united in love’s embrace.
It was clear now that the whole palanquin journey was a diversion. While Indumati along with two loyal servants journeyed westwards from the Nalraja Gar Fort in the Chilapata forest to rendezvous with Sridhar on the banks of the River Teesta, Aditoh and his palanquin bearing men travelled eastwards towards the Brahmaputra, taking away all the heat with them.
The ship that stood on the Dhubri port did not have Sridhar in it but was carrying his brother who met with the Nal Raja and the Cooch King at the Nalraja Gar Fort on the scheduled date and asked forgiveness for his brother not being able to come due to sudden sickness. He further said that Emperor Vikramaditya was pleased with both the kings and agreed not to tax them in any way as long as they never fought amongst themselves.
Sridhar and Indumati escaped, to lead a simple life with the blessings of Vikramaditya in a village somewhere in Uttarkashi. The two kings of North Bengal never fought amongst themselves. Some say that few of the Palanquin bearers even survived the battle that day, however, it is not known who all did. They too like Sridhar and Indumati must have escaped to an obscure life somewhere else.
The palanquin continued to be used as a mode of transportation in India till modern times despite other innovative means of travel being adopted. After the kings, the Britishers, landlords, and the rich extensively used it to move around as a symbol of their status and prowess. The coming of railways and motorised vehicles from the beginning of the mid-nineteenth-century gradually led to the decline in the use of the palanquin.
Today in India the palki is exclusively used in weddings, religious, royal processions, and various socio-cultural ceremonies. It has even found its place on the logo of the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway, depicted as a tribute to the innovative human mind that has made our journeys faster from human-carried boxes to maglev trains and supersonic planes.
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