By Rabindranath Tagore
Translated© 2019 by Monish R Chatterjee with commentary
A few distant centuries ago, on a nondescript day
I can barely imagine
Upon what craggy hilltop, within a dense sunless forest
O sovereign Shivaji
Lightning-like, across your forehead, there flashed
The thought from above-
"With a singular religious thread, this torn up, fragmented
Bharata, I shall bind in One."
This Bengal, that day, had not awakened, startled
From stupor, had not received the tidings-
Had not rushed outside, her courtyards had not
Resonated then with the sound of the shankha.
Quietly spreading everywhere her chaste, unblemished
Verdant shawl upon the earth
She held at dusk hundreds of her children in the hamlets
Gently upon her breast.
Then came the day when from the plains of Maratha
The flaming tongues of your thunderbolt
Carved out in every corner of the sky the message of a new age:
The mahamantra of unification.
Upon the crown of the Mughals that tempestuous morn
The message arrived, writ upon a scroll-
And yet, that thunderous proclamation of Maratha
Bengal heard not, hence knew not its intent.
Presently, one by one, in the dense darkness of stormy nights
Emptied the vast palaces of the Empire in Delhi-
One by one, in sprawling room after room, the strings of lamps
Began to go out, only to become one with the darkness.
Outside, the skies were rended by the howls of carrion-eating
Jackals; the glory of the Mughals
Was laid to rest upon the burning ghat- nothing remained but
Scattered margins of ashes and ruins.
Then, upon a corner of Bengal's marketplace of goods
In silent steps-
The Lakshmi of Commerce, through the passageways
Of a dark tunnel ushered in an alien throne.
With the scared Gangodaka Bengal quietly
Anointed the new arrival-
Before the fateful night was over, the maandanda of the trader
Morphed into the rajdanda of the conqueror.
Where were you then, O contemplative One, Hero of Maratha
Where was your valiant name!
Your saffron insignia, scattered in the dust, crushed
Into nothingness by decree of fate.
The mocking annals of the invaders brand you as bandit
As they break into raucous laughter-
All your noble efforts nothing more than a robber's failed work
What all have since known.
Ye false tale-spinners, cease your garrulous speeches
O ignominious Muse of Lies
Know that the true verdict of Destiny shall over-write
The falsehood today, and Truth declare victory.
That which is deathless, how can it ever be smothered
By your words of scorn?
The sadhana steeped in truth, nothing shall stand in its way
This I know for sure.
O Royal Savant, those soaring, unifying thoughts of yours
In the store-house of Fate are preserved
Forever, could the hands of Time, ever purloin
The minutest speck of it?
That sacrifice of yours at the shrine of your Motherland
That resolute sadhana for the Truth
Who would have known- these became from thence
Till the end of time, Bharata's inheritance!
O Royal Recluse- after ages of obscurity and oblivion
As the swell of the immense rains on mountaintops
Bursts forth from mighty crags, awakened and resurgent
Like an unstoppable fountain-
Likewise you emerged, the world was filled with wonder
He whose vast ensign envelopes the firmament
Where was he concealed for so long, where was he
Retracted in such smallness?
And so, poet of eastern India, I sit and ponder
What glorious sight, this, I see- at the gateway
To Bengal's courtyard, wherefrom sounds the booming
Trumpet of your resounding victory!
Ripping apart the gloom-laden fabric of the deepest darkness
Accumulated over well-nigh three centuries
The incandescent star of your valiance is arisen today
Sending shafts of radiant light to the eastern horizon.
Nay- the Truth never dies beneath the oblivion
Of a hundred centuries-
Apathy kills it not, it stirs not nor weakens by insult
It takes a hundred knocks but stands tall.
The One considered long since vanquished and silenced
Beyond the field of action
That Truth is today arrived, clad as a venerable guest
At Bharata's door.
Yet today, its potent mantra, its generous eyes
Gaze upon the future
With rapt attention- what glorious vision it sees
Who is to tell?
O ethereal sage, you are arrived today
Manifest in your meditative image
Yet brought with you your legendary power
To fulfill your mission.
You have not today your ensigns, warriors or steeds
Nor your fierce weapons-
The skies are not rendered insane today
By booming chants of Hara! Hara! Hara!
From the realm of the fathers descended your name
And beckoned one and all-
And in an instant, the adoring heart of the Bengali
Embraced and installed it within her sanctum.
No one had imagined in these three centuries
Nor dreamt in their sleep-
That your hallowed name one day, without battle
Would unite Bengal and Maratha.
The power of your penance, long curtailed in oblivion
Like an everlasting message, would instill a fresh new life
Upon a fresh new dawn!
Once, when you had beckoned from the realm
Of Maratha, we knew not
You were the king, we paid not heed, felt not
The slightest shame at that call
Then, when the dazzling luster of your sword
Shone upon Bengal's skies.
On that ill-omened day we knew not the ferocious lila
Alarmed, we only ran and took shelter.
With your head held high, seated upon the throne
Of Death- the royal diadem
Upon your temple, never shall its divine radiance
Be concealed, ever.
You are revealed, revealed today to us, O Royal One
You are indeed the Maharaja.
Four score million children of Mother Bengal
Shall bow to you with their royal tribute.
Commentary- Monish R Chatterjee
Rabindranath Tagore wrote this Hero Poem commemorating the Maratha Warrior King and Hero, Chhatrapati (Holder of the Great Umbrella) Shivaji, more commonly from his warrior heritage, Shivaji Bhonsle (1630-1680). Shivaji, of course, is renowned throughout India and in Indian history as the valiant Maratha warrior-chief who relentlessly and without compromise battled the powerful Mughal Empire, and won victory after victory using great wiliness and of course exceptional courage. This restored pride and confidence among the Hindu population throughout India- a population which, despite its very ancient and accomplished history going back millennia, had been severely subjugated by invaders (the majority being Islamic, with Turkish, Mongol, Hun, Saka and other origins) over close to a millennium. This is the dimension which has ascribed a patina of heroic glory upon this legendary chieftain and ruler. Some might even compare Shivaji as a true, real-life Robin Hood (and even exceeding the Arthurian legends) in the Maratha/Maharashtrian part of India.
A measure of such heroic adoration for a warrior chieftain who challenged the mighty Mughal Empire to the fullest measure, may be readily understood from one stanza out of a post-independence Hindi song (from the 1954 film Jagriti, lyrics by Pradeep, dedicated to the panoramic and heroic pageantry of India). In the stanza on the Maratha province, it says (this author's translation capturing its essence):
Gaze upon this realm of the Marathas
The domain of the valiant Shivaji
The Hero who took the measure of the Mughals
Upon the tips of clashing swords
Every craggy boulder on the hills were then aflame
Every pebble, every stone on fire-
And on the lips of every last child of the land
"Har Har Mahadev" was the incantation.
More than two hundred years since Shivaji's heroic deeds, India's greatest poet-philosopher of the modern age was also faced with the pressing need to recall the heroic deeds of heroes across India who fought oppression, occupation and genocide to not only place the oppressors on notice, but to more effectively inspire the oppressed and subjugated masses into direct action against all manner of injustice imposed especially by foreign hands. The 200+ years of British colonial occupation of India was still firmly entrenched in the early 1900s, including propositions to partition Bengal around 1905, and brutal economic exploitation of and profiteering from a vast subcontinent. Tagore himself began by participating actively in the Swadeshi movement, and also offering creative and inspirational support to the early years of the Indian National Congress, established in 1885. His poems and songs, including Banglar Mati Banglar Jal, Bidhir Bandhan Katbe Tumi, Ekla Chalo and several others were already drawing far-spread admiration and focusing people's minds.
Motivated by this search for heroes, Tagore wrote powerful biographic and narrative poems on the Sikh hero, Banda Singh Bahadur, titled
In his writings, Tagore has frequently discussed religious matters or symbols from philosophical perspectives (on the Buddha, events and issues from the Mahabharata, the Hindu Trinity, Christ and much more) and humanistic interpretations. Despite his many devotional compositions, he remained staunchly secular in his views, and stressed the human ideals of brotherhood and cultural exchange over religion, languages or ethnic origins. Hence, it may come across somewhat unusual that he would offer high praise for a warrior chieftain whose goal appeared to be religious unification of an oppressed and divided land.
It is reasonable to speculate that Tagore offered high praises to Shivaji on behalf of Bengal primarily since finding heroic inspiration at a time of great flux in the nation's rising freedom struggle in opposition to the British colonial occupation, and the collective degradation and oppression of a vast land with an unprecedented history of civilization. In the poem, he utilizes Shivaji's clarion call for all of India to unite under a common cause- the cause being to overthrow the oppressor (the Mughals and other invaders during a 500-year period of subjugation for Shivaji; the British occupation in Tagore's time). In terms of sheer courage, determination, wile and unprecedented success, Shivaji would be the perfect inspirational hero (comparable to Banda Singh Bahadur in the Punjab, and the Ranas of Mewar in Rajasthan). Tagore anoints Shivaji "the Royal Recluse," arrived at Bengal's doorstep, carrying his clarion call to shake off and discard the yoke of oppression and colonization, and by his example of valor, manifesting his regal self and the ensigns of his victory for all to emulate.
The intended accolades to Shivaji's heroic history notwithstanding, this translator has been partially perplexed by one aspect of the valiant Maratha clans, especially post-Shivaji, which had been frighteningly deadly to Bengal, its peasants and its land-owners for a considerable period of time. When this translator was quite young, he would learn of various invaders and tormentors of Bengal in the preceding several hundred years, primarily through the many nursery rhymes we were taught as children. These "tormentors" and pirates entered the region's collective folklore and traumatic memory as the Olondaaj, the Harmaad, and the Bargi, among others. The first two were readily identifiable as the Dutch and Spanish maritime piracy. The third, for a long time, was rather unclear to me. The Bargi reference, in fact, has been immortalized in the best known nursery rhyme of them all:
The boy-child fell asleep at last, peace befell the neighborhood
In the cover of night, the Bargi crept onto the landscape-
The pecking bulbulis have eaten all our paddy-
And you invaders torment us for taxes, you think we could?
It turns out that during the various Maratha conflicts with the Mughals and other Muslim potentates, including those of pre-British Bengal, at some point Bengal's Nawab Alivardi Khan was unable to check the conflicts with Rustam Jung, and lost control over Orissa and much of western Bengal. It turns out that Rustam Jung inflicted the counter-attack upon Alivardi with the help of a Maratha clan, the Hatkar leader Raghoji Bhonsle. These Hatkars, who later terrorized much of south-west Bengal, and came to be referred to as the Bargis (hired horsemen), apparently conducted massive looting and depradation across the fertile Bengal region, on an annual basis for an entire decade (1741-1751) which left a permanent traumatic memory in Bengal, and became part of the folklore. This forced taxation and plunder apparently led to the ruthless murder of many tens of thousands of Bengalis over this decade. I do not have any doubt that Tagore would be well aware of this history (as he was of much of the collective history of India and its culture and heritage); hence I am left to wonder if the Maratha rampage of Bengal, especially by a Bhonsle clan, would not have given him pause to hold up Shivaji (valiant and widely celebrated though he is) as the heroic figure for his own Bengalis to venerate and emulate. This dilemma more than likely will remain unresolved for this translator.