The Tempest of 1817

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“If you can’t make it to the airport, then you can come along with us tomorrow morning. We are driving down to his ancestral village near Brahmagiri, in Puri district, for his cremation”, I informed the person at the other end of the phone, whose voice by now, gave away that he was choking with sorrow and about to break into tears.

Hanging up on him, as I glanced at the TV set, I could see thousands of people had flocked to the otherwise ‘not so busy’ Bhubaneswar Airport. People from all walks of life had gathered to pay their last respects to the deceased. We reached his village, the next afternoon and joined the deluge of people, possibly running into lakhs. The way the name of Buxi Jagabandhu and the ‘Paikas’ still resonated amongst the Odiya people, left me in awe.

I assume here that the reader has spent atleast a few years in Odisha, in which case, these names cannot possibly sound unfamiliar. Buxi Jagabandhu, a larger than life figure, loved by the common folk and feared by the British during their colonization of India. He was after all, the leader of the Paika rebellion ! Now, if you want a modern kitschy comparison to ‘Game of Thrones’ then let me tell you, it was a phenomenon where Robert’s rebellion or even Tywin Lannister would pale in comparison.

The Paikas were a class of warriors who as they say, were the ‘banner-men’ of the feudal lords of Odisha. Taking the role of landholders or ‘Jagirdars’ of huge tracts of farmlands, during peace time, these highly skilled soldiers used their expert martial skills to quash any threat that loomed over their lords.

Renowned and revered for their valour, the Paikas of Odisha were divided into three ranks, named after the nature of their role and weapons.

1. The Paharis

They carried a large wooden shield, covered with hide and reinforced by iron knobs and circles of iron. They also carried the ‘khanda’, the long, straight national sword of Odisha and were primarily stationed as guards.

2. The Banuas

They used the matchlock (an early form of the musket), besides carrying a small shield and a sword. They were essentially field warriors, who also undertook distant expeditions.

3. The Dhenkiyas

Armed with a bow, arrows and a sword, these versatile warriors performed all sorts of duties.

Their war uniform consisted of a cap and a vest made out of tiger/ leopard skin, a chain meshed armour for the torso and thighs and a girdle made out of the tail of some wild animal. Their intimidating attire, combined with their exemplary courage in the battle ground, terrorized their foes. Adept, in both, open field and jungle combat they were also battle hardened owing to their skirmishes with the Mughals or the experience of serving under the Marathas, when they had briefly acceded Odisha.

But what made them immortal in the minds of the people is yet to come ! Even before the British had consolidated their military presence in India, through the British East Company, a revolt erupted deep inside Odisha after Khurda fell to the British in 1803. Soon after, the British replaced the ‘koudee’ monetary system of trading with that of silver minted coins. Call it the ‘British demonetization’, it created great confusion which led to high inflation and devaluation, as it also shook up the social order of Odisha, otherwise untouched for 500 years.

This sudden arrival and gradual dismantling of the Odia feudatories prompted the Paikas to wonder, if it was the beginning of their end? The answer, was just a few years away. The rapid economic and social changes caused massive suffering and there was complete disarray. In 1817, about 400 irate Kandhas (a very proud race from the hilly tracts of Odisha) from Ghumsur in Ganjam, rose up in revolt against the ‘Company’. They marched towards Khurda in protest, burning down and destroying any British piece of infrastructure that came their way.

On reaching Khurda, they approached Buxi Jagabandhu, a Paika who was next in line, only to the king. Buxi Jagabandhu, immediately mobilized his troops around the Kandha contingent and in a matter of weeks the rag tag bunch of hill-men were transformed into a formidable fighting force, now adding up to 3000 men. Buxi Jagabandhu also started roping in, other chiefs and lords around the area and rallied them under the banner of Lord Jagannath, the popular form of the Almighty in Odisha.

A great strategist , Buxi Jagabandhu, also reached out to the Bhonsles (the rulers of Nagpur) for assistance. The outcome? The British did not know what hit them, as they rapidly started losing territory to this disciplined force. In a matter of weeks Khurda was wrested back from the British and the Paika force had set its eyes on Cuttack as they were also joined by Buxi Jagabandhu’s loyalists who were in charge of the old hill forts.

The rattled British, sent out a field force to arrest the Paika army’s progress at Pipli but even their superior firepower was no match for the grit of the Paika soldiers and their gallant leader, who led from the front. Although short in height, Buxi Jagabandhu’s stature as a battle axe bearing horseman was unparalleled. Their army was completely motivated to realize their goal of liberating Odisha from the clutches of the British.

However, the sheer firepower and advantage of numbers helped the British to gain back Khurda, a critical cog in the wheel of the Paikas, on the 9th of April 1817. Meanwhile the Paikas kept up their own morale by taking Puri. The exemplary courage and resilience not withstanding, the Paikas were clearly illequipped and outnumbered in comparison. Well that’s what even the British thought till they took stock of the loss on the ground as they realized that the small rebellion had now taken the shape of a massive uprising, spreading across from the hinterland of Odisha to the coastal belt. Dumuduma Dalabehera Mir Haidar Ali, a Muslim leader and supporter of Buxi Jagabandhu, also joined their juggernaut with his followers.

A British historian of that era sums up the Company’s concern. “It was not long however before we had to encounter a storm, which burst with such fury as to threaten our expulsion, if not from the whole of Odisha, at least from Paika territory of Odisha.” The rebellion lasted well into the year 1818 with the advantage see-sawing between both sides. Sensing a stalemate, the British colluded with a few local leaders of Odisha and captured the family of Buxi Jagabandhu and imprisoned them at Ganjam. He too was eventually caught and imprisoned in Cuttack where he was brutally tortured and killed. Then, the British mercilessly hunted down the Paikas and their supporters one after the other, pillaged their land, eliminating entire families and villages and burning down forests where they sought refuge.

Finally, by October 1818, the British assumed total control over Odisha and in the process, claimed thousands of innocent lives. Termed as the ‘Paika revolt of 1817’ it was the first organized armed uprising against the British rule in India, 40 years prior to the ‘Sepoy Mutiny of 1857’! The very thought of taking on the might of the British speaks volumes about the grit, courage and selflessness of the Paika martyrs led by Buxi Jagabandhu. Trust, this answers the earlier question about their immortality? Now, to complete the other narrative about the phone call. The deluge of people hailing the name of Buxi Jagabandhu while brandishing their weapons by the pyre of his descendant captures the sense of pride and valour that all Odiyas associate with the Paika community.

“The Paika will never be conquered, we shall always remain free and proud. Our motive is to protect our motherland from all threats – internal or external. The ghosts of our ancestors still form a protective realm around these hallowed grounds.” , said one of the grieving relatives of the man whose body was now up in flames.

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