In classical Buddhist literature and the five-thousand-year-old epic Mahabharata, there is a mention of a road called Uttarpath or the Northern road connecting the eastern regions of India to ancient Greece through Central Asia. Later in history during the 3rd century BC, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya rebuilt this mighty highway to reconnect India with Europe. Following him, Emperor Ashoka The Great further developed this ancient road.
Now on the 23rd day of October in the year of our lord 1605 AD, a tall and dark man of jet-black skin ran barefoot under the darkness of a dimly lit night sky in the umbrae of the trees and the forests beside the same road. He certainly did not want to be seen. Stealth, speed, and camouflage seemed to be his strengths while he moved like a half-clad ninja through the shadows.
During the Mauryan empire, this glorious pathway stretching two-thousand-five-hundred kilometres connected the city of Purushapura the present-day city of Peshwar in Pakistan in the west to Tamralipta the modern-day town of Tamluk in the Midnapore district of the state of West Bengal in India in the east. The iconic highway passed through the legendary ancient Indian cities of Hastinapura, Kanyakubja (Kannauj), Prayag and Patliputra (Patna) establishing a vital trade and military route.
Most of Alibhadra’s body was bare, that is how his breed of men felt comfortable running. A turban of thick cotton coils snaked around his head. A single loincloth slightly larger than usual chugged tightly around his waist, crisscrossed his jocks and wrapped around the upper portion of his thighs. As a belt, he used a red cotton cloth girdled around his hip secured in a knot above his naval. A dark and heavy shawl was casually tossed on his left shoulder, while on the other he carried a stick at the end of which swung a sack in which he cradled his precious cargo.
In the 16th century Sher Shah Suri, founder of the Suri Empire in India rebuilt Chandragupta’s royal road naming it Sadak-e-Azam. Fruit and shade trees were planted on both sides of the path wherever possible. At every 2 Kos or about 6.5 English kilometres, a Sarai or a roadside tavern was erected. Gardens to provide shade and rest and Baolis or stepwells for rejuvenation were made at different locations along the mighty pathway.
Alibhadra had to avoid all of these. His movements needed to be clandestine. He could not afford to travel on the open road, as there he could be easily spotted by someone from a Sarai or a tavern, or even stopped by the royal guards, though they were there to provide protection, especially to his kind – who were employed under the emperor’s royal decree to transport what he carried in his sack of load.
Now at the height of the Moghul Empire under the reign of Emperor Akbar the Great, the road renamed Badshahi Sadak, stretched for two-thousand-four-hundred kilometres from Teknaf administrative region in the southernmost tip of Cox’s Bazar district in the modern-day country of Bangladesh on the border with Myanmar in the east to the city of Kabul in Afghanistan in the west.
Passing through the cities of Chittagong and Dhaka in Bangladesh, Kolkata, Allahabad (Prayagraj), Delhi, and Amritsar in India, and Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar in Pakistan, it was the very vein which carried the lifeblood of the Moghul Empire during the sixteenth century under Akbar’s reign. It was the one most important link that ensured the emperor’s military, political, cultural, and economic dominance.
Running through the forest Alibhadra knew he was not alone. He knew that he was being pursued by the Afghan Hassassin, Baquer, a well-trained assassin employed by the emperor’s son to do his shady biddings. He knew that tonight the race was between him and the Persian killer. It was his sacred duty to make his delivery and it was the code of the assassin to stop him.
Akbar was a great visionary and in order to unify the vast Moghul state he had established a centralised system of administration, brought in inter-religious peace, eschewed tribal bonds and Islamic state identity, strove to unite far-flung lands of his realm through loyalty, and ultimately develop a unique and harmonious Indo-Persian identity amongst the people. This, however, created a lot of enemies within his community and even family.
Alibhadra doubted himself for a moment. Was he a match for the assassin – a trained killer bred in various combat techniques, a master wielder of many nimble and deadly weapons? If it came to it he would, however, not give in without a fight.
The pole on which he carried his sack was not just to bear the load, the solid bamboo shaft was a deadly weapon in his hands. The man claimed that he could deflect arrays of speeding arrows with his signature manoeuvre of rotating the stick 360 degrees around his torso. The stick was the runner’s all-purpose multitool.
Down the road of the evolution of this mighty pathway that Alibhadra followed, five centuries before the birth of Christ, Cyrus The Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire, formed an innovative postal system connected through several relay stations known as Chapar Khaneh or the house of couriers. Following him Chandragupta and later Ashoka maintained this unique system of postal transport.
Then at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, the first sultan of Delhi created a system of messenger post. Developing on his efforts, in 1296 AD Allauddin Khilji for the first time introduced the horse and foot carriers to deliver post.
Later in the fourteenth century, the Tuglak dynasty started the use of El Wolak (horse carriers) and El Davah (foot runners) for postal transport. Finally, when Sher Shah completed the road, he introduced the horse dak or horse mail between Bengal and Sind in 1541 anno domini for the smooth and effective movement of the kingdom’s post.
Now after Sher Shah, in the year 1556 Emperor Akbar set up postal relay stations along this ancient and evolving pathway and employed superfast long-distance postal runners to carry the post. Alibhadra’s forefathers down the generations from the days of Cyrus The Great had dedicated their lives and mastered this very trade of on-foot postal transport.
The distance from Agra to Delhi was around two-hundred-and-thirty kilometres. Alibhadra knew the pathways through the forests, above the hills and across the rivers like the back of his hand. He could stay off the road and cover the distance in roughly forty-eight hours or perhaps slightly more than two days at the most.
It was early in the morning of the 25th of October in 1605. Alibhadra had completed more than one-and-a-half days journey and was just a few hours from reaching his goal. Stopping for the first time during this iconic trip of his life, the runner felt he could not carry on anymore. Putting down his sack from his shoulder he set his weight on his solid bamboo shaft, deciding to rest for a few moments before carrying on.
The morning was pleasant and exceptionally silent. Alibhadra could not help but admire the beauty of the land amidst all the worry of this very special postal transport, the most important he had ever executed and perhaps would ever do. The sounds of the night had ebbed away under the mists of the morning dew. The predators of the night had retreated into their dens and the preys rested silently feeling the triumph of surviving yet another day of earthly existence.
At that very moment when peace and silence seemed to fill the morning air, Alibhadra heard a mild crack of dry leave behind his ears. Instinctively the man rotated his bamboo stick a 180 degree around his torso. Sparks flew in the air as the fast-moving shaft deflected four oncoming knives, one of which tore opened his sack of post, while its precious content fell into a ditch on the forest floor.
Baquer moved like a ghost in the shadows. The assassin threw volleys of sharpened aerodynamic projectiles at Alibhadra, all of which he deflected by rotating his bamboo stick at a lightning speed around his torso. The two men drew closer and in an overwhelming manoeuver the Persian killer bolted his yatagan short sabre across Alibhadra’s throat.
Silence returned to the forest once again as the two men stood at their spots a few feet away from each other after the mayhem of their lightning-fast combat moves. A thin red line gradually widened into a gush of red, oozing out blood around Alibhadra’s throat, and the lifeless body of the runner fell on the forest floor.
It seemed the assassin had triumphed, after all, he was a greater warrior and as the Persian took a step to reach the contents of the runner’s sack lying in the ditch his skull split open while his brains oozed out from his head like a fountain and Baquer fell dead in a pool of his own blood and gore. Alibhadra had not missed, his stick had made fatal contact with the assassin’s head in the lightning-fast ultimate moments of their short battle.
At about the same time, Emperor Akbar The Great on his deathbed, unable to speak, motioned towards his son Salim and took his last breath. Akbar’s last action with his hands pointing towards his son was quickly interpreted by those present there as the dying wish of the king for Salim to inherit the Moghul throne.
A month back in September Akbar fell sick and realised that he would not live to see the winter’s snow. His son Salim an opium and alcohol addict was the natural successor to the kingdom. Akbar, however, prefered Salim’s son Khusrau Mirza to be the next king of the Moghuls.
The dying king knew his power on the deathbed was feeble and Salim would do anything to acquire the kingdom. After all, in 1591 Akbar had suspected Salim of trying to poison him and then in 1600, Salim had attempted an armed rebellion to overthrow his father from the throne.
Two days back one of Akbar’s most trusted servant had come over to hand Alibhadra a sealed note from the emperor himself and had asked him to take it to Delhi and personally hand it over to Salim’s son Khusrau. The king could not use any other official means to deliver the letter as by then Salim had acquired the confidence of most of Akbar’s confidants. He would certainly interrupt any correspondence between his dying father and his son the contender to the throne.
As the body of the assassin and the runner lay lifeless in an obscure location in the jungle and the Emperor’s last letter to his grandson lay lost in a deep ditch on the forest floor, it makes one wonder, what was the content of Akbar’s last post to Salim’s son Khusrau? Did the dying emperor declare his grandson as the next rightful heir to the Moghul throne? Was his last hand action pointing towards Salim an indication as not to make him the next king, wrongly understood by everyone in the other way. This will, however, never be known.
Salim went on to inherit the throne as Jahangir, the fourth emperor of the Moghul kingdom. His son Khusrau though tried to take the kingdom from his father, was unfortunately defeated, shamed and paraded on an elephant to see his supporters impaled to death on the streets of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, and eventually blinded and prisoned.
Mahabharata’s Uttarpath, further developed by Chandragupta and Ashoka of the Mauryan empire, becoming Sher Shah Suri’s Sadak-e-Azam, and later the Moghul’s Badshahi Sadak is Asia’s oldest and longest major pathways, known today as the Grand Trunk Road.
The postal service created by so many kings and dynasties went on to be bettered by the British and finally take the shape of the “India Post”, the most widely distributed postal system in the world, however, men like Alibhadra would perhaps never again deliver its post.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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