It would be difficult to find someone in this country today who, having grown up in a typical middle-class Bengali household of the 1950s-60s, has not heard of the fabled tale of the Bhawal Sannyasi (a Hindu mendicant) through family sources. Story-telling as an oral tradition, often passed down through generations, was very much en vogue then in most families.
It is not in the scope of this essay to deliberate on the Bhawal Sannyasi story in detail, let alone on its lengthy judicial proceedings. In the last few decades much has already been written about it, as newer sources of information became increasingly available. The most scholarly and celebrated book on the subject, is undoubtedly by the renowned historian Partha Chatterjee, who in his seminal, assiduously researched, meticulously developed and absorbingly narrated classic entitled, A Princely Imposter: The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism (2002) brilliantly introduces newer dimensions to the story, previously untold.
Our dear mother, like most mothers in a Bengali household of yore, was a constant source of story-telling. She would regale us children with fairytales, ghost stories and what have you. It is from her that I, when hardly five years of age, had first heard of the Bhawal Sannyasi, the Bhawal garh and the Nilgai that dwelt in its dense, dark Sal forest. However, when it came to the Bhawal Sannyasi, we as children were told the very basic, that the mejho (second) Kumar of Bhawal had fallen ill, was taken up to the hill station of Darjeeling to recover, where he suddenly died. And, that after his corpse was taken to the crematorium grounds to be consigned to the flames, a sudden heavy thundershower drove the mourners and others to seek shelter, abandoning the lifeless Kumar on the unlit funeral pyre. After the torrential downpour had died down, the mourners on return were surprised to find that the Kumar's body in the meantime had mysteriously vanished. And that, many years later he suddenly reappeared as the Bhawal Sannyasi, to reclaim his rightful place as the missing Kumar of Bhawal. The riveting tale shrouded in myth and mystery, fact and fiction, begins from here on.
So it came to pass, that in the summer of 1963 during our school vacation, a plan was made by mother to visit her elderly parents in Bogra with us. Father was overseas, which left only the three of us—mother, my older sister and I, to undertake the train journey from Dhaka, with an uncle as our escort. Our journey began amidst the usual last minute commotion on the railway platform, whistle blowing of the guard, hooting of the age-old steam locomotive and the slow chugging of the train as it rolled out of the station. We excitedly took our seats beside the window to keep a good lookout. We passed by the usual scenery, soon to become a blur, as the train picked up speed. However, not too long afterwards, the train slowed down and appeared to be negotiating higher grounds. It swayed, groaned and rattled. The landscape changed pleasurably, becoming slightly undulating and hilly, forested with Sal trees. I observed that the terrain was different from those of the plains we left behind. The soil seemed harder, if not rocky and had taken on a reddish hue. By then we had actually hit the Madhupur forest tract, having arrived in the environs of the Joydebpur Palace of the once legendary Bhawal raj. Soon we espied with wide-eyed wonder portions of the palace that went by. However, what remains embedded in my memory is the splendid sight of the Rani-Mahal (zenana), a large, airy, two-storied white building with a semi-circular projection supported by rows of massive Corinthian pillars. It was then in a good state of preservation with a large water tank (pond) at its front. The gentle breeze made ripples on the large water body, which sparkled brilliantly in the morning sunlight dazzling our eyes. It was a spectacular sight. Later in 2005, on a visit to the sprawling Joydebpur Palace complex, I wistfully roamed outside the main gate of the rajbari across a meadow to the south, where dilapidated remains of the manager's office and two large rows of stables could still be seen. In 1909, the year of the Kumar's disappearance, forty handsome horses and carriages, including a stately one mounted in silver, and twenty large elephants including Kumar Ramendra's favourite, the majestic Phulmala, were kept there.
The Bhawal raj estate was once the second largest zamindari (feudal landholding) in the Dhaka district. In terms of territory, revenue and prestige it was next only to the Dhaka Nawab estate of the Khawja family. In fact, its enormous landholdings within Dhaka city began from today's Bangla Motor right up to Tejgaon and beyond. Most of the land to the north of the city fell under the Bhawal estate. As a school boy in the early 1960s, I remember regularly passing by a curious period building with a very large pond, which stood on the opposite side of the old Dhaka airport in Tejgaon. One day I asked my driver to stop at this old two-storied building surrounded by huge banyan and rain trees, for a good look. This attractive edifice was once the Baganbari or pleasure-villa of the Bhawal zamindars.
In the 1990s, I was told an interesting story by a grandson of Nawab Salimullah, who had heard it from his father, a witness. Salimullah had developed a cordial relationship with the second Kumar of Bhawal, Ramendra Narayan Roy, who often spent time merrymaking at his Nalgola rajbari, in Old Dhaka. Once they agreed to a dogcart race for a wager of 1000 rupees, a princely sum. The sensational dogcart (tumtum) race was held at the Ramna Racecourse in full view of the Dhaka citizenry—a boisterous, often unruly crowd. The tumtum was a two-wheeled chariot or tonga-like carriage drawn by horses. This incident is perhaps the most hilarious spectacle on record of that time. One can visualise the short and portly Dhaka Nawab, ruddy-faced from excitement breaking into peals of laughter as he raced the tall, muscular, athletic Kumar of Bhawal to the finishing line. Needless to say, the Nawab lost the race and with it the bet, but certainly not his izzat (honour), for at the finishing line both aristocrats were seen fondly embracing each other in good-natured sportsmanship, while waving at the assembled crowd. Thus, it was not exactly a sullen citizenry of Dhaka who reciprocated by cheering and waving back enthusiastically! That the Kumar of Bhawal had got the better of the Nawab Bahadur of Dhaka on his own turf, and that too, in front of his people did not really matter. Such was the extent of camaraderie between the feudal gentry in those days, regardless of their religious or political persuasions.
Now a brief on the Bhawal raj, the second Kumar, the sannyasi, and the most celebrated case in the history of the British Raj in colonial India. The illustrious zamindar, Raja Bahadur Rajendra Narayan Roy Chaudhuri of Bhawal died in 1901, leaving behind his widow, Rani Bilasmani Devi, and six children—three daughters: Indumayi, Jyotirmayi and Tarinmayi and three sons: Ranendra alias baro (eldest) Kumar, Ramendra alias mejho (second) Kumar, and Rabindra alias sejho (youngest) Kumar. In 1904, citing gross mismanagement, the Bhawal estate was taken over by the Court of Wards. Meanwhile, the nationalist quarters and the print media in Bengal raised a big hue and cry at the takeover of one of the premier zamindari estates of East Bengal, as a colonial machination of control and an affront not only to the dignity of the Bhawal raj family, but of Indians in general. However, Rani Bilasmani, the mother of the Kumar's, successfully filed a lawsuit against the Court of Wards, won the case in 1905, whereby, the jurisdiction of the estate reverted back to the proprietorship of her sons, with the eldest Kumar Ranendra as the legal head of the family. The Board of Revenue, was not pleased with the verdict and bided its time.
Meanwhile, a great tragedy descended upon the Bhawal raj family. Rani Bilasmani died in 1907, of illness. In 1909, the second Kumar suddenly died in Darjeeling, amongst conflicting reports that he was both cremated and also that his dead body had mysteriously vanished from the cremation grounds, before being consigned to the flames. The matter would have ended there. But soon there arose unsubstantiated charges of a palace conspiracy and, dark family politics were hinted at. It was further alleged that the Kumar was poisoned by his own wife, Bibhabati, in connivance with her secret paramour, the family doctor. Soon strange news of a wandering sannyasi resembling the lost Kumar also started to emanate from various parts of India, complicating the already fluid situation. To make matters worse, the eldest Kumar died in 1910, probably as a consequence of his excessive drinking habits, followed by the death of the youngest Kumar in 1913. All three Kumar's had died childless. The Bhawal raj was now bereft of any legitimate male heir to the zamindari. In 1915, the Court of Wards under the Board of Revenue, went into action again and took over the management of the estate. Thus, the stage was set for a confrontation, which would increasingly take on a fervently patriotic, nationalistic and anti-colonial overtone against the British Raj.
However, powerful factions within the Bhawal raj family coalesced together to reverse the situation in their own favour. In this the youngest Rani Ananda Kumari Devi played a pivotal role. She adopted a boy, Ram Narayan Roy, as the new Kumar of Bhawal. Surprisingly, this move was endorsed by the British as is evidenced from the rare photograph shown here, where the Governor of Bengal on his visit to Dhaka in 1919, had himself “anointed” the boy-Kumar's eventual assumption to the guddi of Bhawal, as the heir-apparent and possibly later as the Raja. This rare visual document, remains very much of a mystery as it runs contrary to the avowed policy of the colonial government regarding the Bhawal estate. In hindsight I am inclined to believe that this was a subtle subterfuge or public relations ploy devised by the colonial government to appease not only senior members of the Bhawal raj by its tacit approval of the boy-Kumar, but also to “nip in the bud” the rising tide of Indian nationalism, especially, the virulently vocal Indian press, that had been vociferously denouncing the colonial government for injustices done to the beleaguered Bhawal raj family amidst their personal tragedies. However, all this would dramatically change the scenario with the miraculous appearance of a strange sannyasi, naked except for a loincloth, smeared in ash, with long matted hair, on the Buckland Bund near the Ruplal House in Dhaka in 1921. He bore a striking resemblance to the second Kumar of Bhawal. For months he refused to identify himself. In the meantime, his advent had aroused great curiosity and speculation. Later on, during his subsequent visits to the Joydebpur rajbari, the sannyasi was hugely welcomed and recognised by the tenant-farmers as their second Kumar. The tenants thronged in record numbers to the palace premises and started paying him his share of the rent, even before he was lawfully declared as the lost Kumar. Thereafter, supported by a powerful faction of the Bhawal raj family, thousands of tenant-farmers, sympathetic public and media, the sannyasi finally changed his stance. He claimed that he was indeed the lost Kumar of Bhawal, who being poisoned by his own family, was saved by a group of Naga Sadhus who had nursed him back to health. Meanwhile, he had wandered all these years throughout India with the Sadhus having lost his memory, until his arrival in Dhaka. Through all this unfolding high drama the widowed Rani Bibhabati adamantly refused to meet the sannyasi, declaring him as an interloper. However, the biggest loser from this sensational development, would be Rani Ananda Kumari, her adopted son and the palace coterie which had supported her. In the meantime, the saga of the Bhawal Sannyasi entered the mythical annals of Bengali folklore, especially in East Bengal in the form of ballad, jarigan, jatra, drama, novel, handbill and pamphleteering, even in the remotest areas of the countryside, in praise and support of his rightful claim as the second Kumar of Bhawal, now returned from the dead through divine intervention.
At last, on April 24, 1930, lawyers working for the claimant (sannyasi), supported by the sisters and elder sister-in-law of the Kumar, filed a declaratory lawsuit in the court of the first sub-judge of Dhaka district, claiming the name and property of Ramendra Narayan Roy against his widow Rani Bibhabati and other shareholders who were represented by the Court of Wards. The trial began on November 30, 1933. Both sides summoned an over abundance of witnesses (literally hundreds), whose statements were often contradictory. However, judgment was delivered on behalf of the plaintiff in 1936.
On October 5, 1936, the government filed an appeal against the judgment of the lower court in the Calcutta High Court, again in the name of the wards of the Court of Wards. The hearing began on August 14, 1939. On November 25, 1940, the Calcutta High Court upheld the verdict and the appeal was dismissed. In 1943, the colonial government in consultation with the lawyers representing Rani Bibhabati then filed for a leave to appeal against the judgment of the Calcutta High Court in the Privy Council in London seeking redress. However, the war and the German blitz in London delayed the hearing which finally began in 1945. After a prolonged hearing, the Privy Council in London also dismissed the appeal in its judgment in favour of the sannyasi, on July 30, 1946.
The next evening the claimant (sannyasi) finally declared lawfully as the second Kumar of Bhawal went to offer puja at a Kali temple in Calcutta, where he suffered a stroke and died two days later. His funeral rites were preformed on August 13, 1946. Divine retribution for an imposter? That is exactly what Rani Bibhabati and those of her ilk concluded. However, surprisingly a forensic report conducted on the dead body of the sannyasi confirmed that based on a detailed list of 21 physical identification data, a total of 19 attributes from that list were identical matches, between those of the sannyasi and that of the Kumar, an overwhelming statistical fact, indicating that the dead sannyasi was indeed the actual Kumar of Bhawal. The sceptics, however, remained unimpressed. All said and done, the truth of the matter which kept British India, particularly Bengal, spell-bound for two decades, and shall remain forever an enduring enigma for posterity.
Waqar A Khan is the Founder of the Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies.