South of the outer foothills of the Himalayan Mountain Range and north of the Brahmaputra River Basin stretches the alluvial floodplains of Dooars in the northeastern realm of the Indian subcontinent. With eighteen historic passages between the lush green plains and the imposing stone and ice mountains, it is the gateway to the kingdom of Bhutan, an ancient and magical region.
Shobosachi had trekked a solid five kilometres through the tiger reserve from the village of Santalabari to reach his destination. The year is 1980. The young man was fresh out of college, and this was to be his last adventure trip before he embarked on the bandwagon of a nine-to-five job life.
As part of the Terai-Duar savanna and grasslands ecoregion, with innumerable streams and rivers flowing from the snowcapped sierras touching the heavens, Dooars was a treasure trove of exotic and endangered birds, plants, and animals. With a keen interest in wildlife and nature photography, Shobosachi had been visiting different parts of this region for the past five years of his life, and yet he had not seen it all.
“They say that even a few lifetimes are not enough to see all of Dooars, and I have come to believe it. I love nature but my real interest is in history. That has brought me to this very particular corner of the Dooars this time,” said the enthusiastic young man as he sipped a hot cup of wild tea brewed on an open log fire by the oldest man he had ever met in the wilderness. He had not expected to see or meet any soul in the ruins of such an ancient place.
With shaky hands, the archaic senior poured a cup for himself. Slowly moving with a wobbly gait, he went and sat on a piece of rock opposite to Shobosachi, with the log fire in between them. “Let me tell you what I know,” said the oldtimer as he sipped the steaming floral concoction. The young man who had travelled a great distance to come and see this enchanting place and perhaps find out something more about it than what the pages of history said, listened on with keen interest.
The year is 1870, and after more than three decades of tireless efforts in reducing ancient feuds between the nine conflicting provinces, Jigme Namgyal, the 48th Druk Desi or secular executive of Bhutan, had finally managed to usher a reign of peace in this wild and remote mystical region.
The past thirty years of his life from 1853 to 1870, as the Trongsa Penlop or the Governor of the Province of Trongsa, ‘The Black Ruler’ not only had to unify his countrymen but also deal with a festering tension between British India and Bhutan over the Assam Dooars and Bengal Dooars terrain. For economic reasons and to secure the borders of the Empire, the British had their eye on this rich piece of land, which was the most fertile part of Bhutan in those days.
The five-month-long Duars Wars from November of 1864 to May of 1865 marked the end of this phase of the Anglo-Indo-Bhutanese conflict. Through the Treaty of Sinchula between Her Britannic Majesty’s possessions in the East Indies and the Dhum and Deb Rajahs, on the 11th day of November in 1865, Bhutan ceded 20% of its territories in this lush and fertile region to the British for an annual subsidy of rupees fifty thousand.
Now there was a most beautiful fort made of wood and bamboo in this enchanting domain, used by the Bhutanese kings of the past to guard the famous silk route passing through Bhutan connecting India and Tibet. The stronghold was very dear to ‘The Black Ruler,’ who wished his spirit would come to take refuge in the citadel after his death. It was located in today’s Kalchini community development block of the Alipurduar district of India’s West Bengal state. A part of Bhutan before the Treaty of Sinchula took place.
For many generations, this fort was a big point of contention between the rulers of Bhutan and the Indian kings of the Koch Kingdom of the neighbouring region. Hence the Koch King of India, a powerful force in this secluded and esoteric terrain, supported the Brits in their aggression against the Bhutanese, and as part of the Treaty of Sinchula, on the 11th day of November in 1865, Bhutan handed over the fort to the British.
“Who are these men in the red coats and khaki uniforms, father? Why are they carrying guns with knives attached to their tips? Have they come to kill us and take over our fort,” enquired ten-year-old Azan, hurling questions one after the other to his father?
“Hush now, little one! They are the new overlords of our beloved fort. Our king ‘The Black Ruler,’ has given up our home to them. Now it is their home too. We need to do as they say,” said the old fort-caretaker to his curious son as soldiers of the Bengal Native Infantry of the British Indian Army marched into the wood and bamboo stronghold to stake their claim.
“Don’t lament my son! A home is not made of its roofs and walls; it is made of beings – animals, humans and all who shelter in it from heat, cold, rain, and storm. Their essence and presence never go away, even after death. Even the red coats and the khaki now belong to this place as much as you and me. Don’t cry my son, my spirit shall always be here,” saying these final words, Azan’s father took his last breath and left this mortal world. A month after the British takeover, the old caretaker had fallen from a scaffold while working on the fort’s reconstruction.
Realising its strategic importance, immediately after taking it over, the British started tearing down the fort’s wood and bamboo structure to rebuild it with stone. It was a shock for ten-year-old Azan to see his home being ripped apart by foreigners. He understood from his father’s dying words that no matter what happened to the fort, no matter how it morphed, it would always be his home. The spirit of his father and others who loved the place would always be there.
Azan’s mother had passed away a few years back, and now with his father’s sudden demise, he had become an orphan. This vacuum in blood relations brought the little man closer to the transforming castle. He had come to consider the stronghold to be his kin. Azan believed that any man, creature, being, no matter how loving or vile, who came within its walls, became a part of the fort and his own family.
From 1865 to 1885, for the next twenty years, Azan and the other remaining Bhutanese residents of the fort worked alongside the Anglos and the Indian soldiers of the British. They transformed the castle into a stronghold of mortar and stone from its wood and bamboo origins. In between, in 1881, Jigme Namgyal, ‘The Black Ruler,’ passed away, and everyone wondered whether his spirit left the mortal realm or had come back to the fort to roam in and haunt the place.
The initial years of British occupancy though hard in labour were rewarding for Azan as they enhanced the strength and beauty of the fort. Though occasionally oppressive, the new overseers were generally peaceful. The seclusion and remoteness of the fort severed the British regiment from the constant oversee and tyrannical influence of their mother force. This made them less brutal and more tolerant of the Bhutanese natives.
Azan was now thirty, and his beloved fort was all-new built with mortar and stone. The original wood and bamboo structure was gone and only remained as fading images from his childhood. The British General who was in charge of the fortress fell in love with the place. He also said that if his spirit was unable to leave the mortal realm after death, it would come and reside in the citadel.
The General soon realised Azan’s potential in taking care of the place. He saw that Azan not only knew every wood and brick in the citadel but had a certain degree of love for the fort that no one else possessed. Like his father, Azan too was made the caretaker of the stronghold in the wilderness.
The young man dedicated the next eighteen years of his life to smooth out any flaw in the construction of the fort. Then there came a change in 1903 when the armies of the three presidencies of British India, namely the Madras Presidency (or the Presidency of Fort St. George), the Bombay Presidency, and the Bengal Presidency (or the Presidency of Fort William), were absorbed into the British Indian Army.
After providing years of dedicated service to the crown, the good old British General of Azan’s citadel left for his home back in England and died a few years later. No one knew whether his spirit made heavenly abode or returned to his beloved citadel.
Now came a new General with new blood and a band of the most brutal recruits. Unlike the old General, the new one was ruthless. On the very first day, he executed five old men to spread his shadow of tyranny in the hearts and minds of the people of the fortress.
From 1903 to 1930, for nearly three decades, the British did their worst to the fort and its residents. Through torture, food deprivation, sickness, and execution, they managed to eliminate all the original native Bhutanese residents till only Azan was left. They could not kill Azan for his immense knowledge and experience in keeping up the place.
The little boy was now sixty-five. He had lost everyone he had ever cared for, and his beloved fort was slowly crumbling. Then came the nightmarish transformation of his cherished home into a detention camp and high-security prison. For the next seventeen years till the independence of India in 1947, Azan’s fort became the most notorious prison in British India after Andaman’s Cellular jail. Many Indian revolutionaries were brought here, tortured, and even killed by the British.
The little boy was not eighty-two years of age. With the exodus of the British, Azan was left all alone in his fort in the wilderness. He spent the next twelve years of his life mostly in solitude. The old caretaker could no longer look after the place with the same vigour of his youth. His beloved home gradually turned into a ruin in the jungle. The old man slowly prepared for his life to end.
At this time, in 1959, further up north across Bhutan, Chinese troops moved aggressively against the highly celebrated Drepung monastery in Tibet. Most of the ten thousand monks that lived there, were mercilessly slaughtered by the Chinese forces, while only a few hundred escaped.
Covering a distance of nearly four hundred kilometres on foot across some of the harshest hilly terrain and treacherous mountain passes, these monks, representing all the diverse Tibetan orders, landed on Azan’s doorsteps. The little boy who had become an old man waiting to meet his maker once again found a purpose of existence.
For the next twelve years, the monks from the Drepung monastery in Tibet made the fort their refugee camp and set up a monastic study centre there. It was not until 1971, that they were relocated to Bylakuppe and Mundgod in the state of Karnataka by the Indian Government. The little boy a hundred-and-six now was once again left all alone. After a lifelong struggle, he could finally spend the December days of his life in peace, in the ruins of his beloved home, the fortress in the wilderness.
“That was just nine years ago. I still remember reading it in the papers, how the monks were reluctant to leave this place and how they were finally convinced by a message from the Dalai Lama to relocate. Well sir, what happened to Azan,” enquired Shobosachi while sucking out the last droplets of the wild tea from his cup of clay?
“The little boy is now a hundred-and-fifteen talking to a young man with a keen interest in the fort in the jungle,” replied the old man and rose up to pour himself and his youthful acquaintance another cup of wild tea brewing on the log fire under the starlit evening sky in the open courtyard of the ruins of the Buxa fort, the citadel in the wilderness.
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. 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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