Trial by Fire
Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose’s account of the Anglo-Nepalese war;
Translated from Bengali by Dileep Karanth
(Exclusively from the translator for Nepal Matters )
“Gorkha army fought back with superhuman resolve”
In 1814, the British Government declared war on the Kingdom of Nepal. General Marney was dispatched to command the attack on Kathmandu. General Wood attacked the Tarai country from his camp at Gorakhpur. General Ochterlony was charged with subduing the forces of Amarsingh on Nepal’s western border. And finally, General Gillespie marched on Khalanga via Dehra Dun.
Thus Nepal was simultaneously attacked on four fronts. The Nepalese armies consisted of twelve thousand men in total. The English forces sent against them numbered twenty-nine thousand. It is not the purpose of this essay to enquire into the reason for the outbreak of the war; nor is it necessary for the reader to know it.
Just as it is not possible to test the purity of gold without first casting it into flames, man’s character can also be tested only by fire. In the hour of crisis, trifling earthly desires and attachments are swept away like cobwebs; the brave claim their freedom, and give expression to their true nature.
At the time of the declaration of war, a tiny army was stationed at a place called Khalanga in a frontier province of Nepal. The soldiers, who numbered only three hundred, were commanded by Balabhadra Thapa. The ancient fort lay in ruins, and there was a crying shortage of weapons and equipment. Some soldiers were armed with bows and arrows, or Khurkis, and some with antiquated guns. Until recently, the possibility of war had been distant; so the soldiers had taken up residence in the fort with their families. The women and children together numbered a hundred and fifty.
One fateful day brought the unexpected revelation that the English have declared war, and are marching upon Khalanga. Having heard the news, Balabhadra began to have the old ramparts of the fort repaired. Though the spectre of danger loomed large, the Gorkha general was encumbered by the presence of women and children, and hampered by the shortage of men and materiel – this at a time when the English general Mowbry advanced rapidly and laid siege with a force three thousand five hundred strong, complete with cannons.
Many are those who can fight a war when there is hope of victory. However, to fight a war in the face of certain defeat needs superhuman strength. Balabhadra had thought it an auspicious day when his lord had appointed him general and entrusted Khalanga to his command. But now a dark day had dawned, and his loyalty was to be put to a severe test. Before too long, the English army had surrounded the fort with a net of soldiers.
At midnight on 25th October, an English messenger delivered his commander’s ultimatum to Balabhadra. After a hard day’s labour, the Gorkha general had retired to bed, when the message arrived, bearing the words: “To accept defeat at this hour will not be inglorious even to a brave man. It will be better for the Gorkha commander to surrender the fort without bloodshed.” In response Balabhadra asked the envoy to convey to his master that the reply to the general’s message would be delivered on the battlefield the next day.
At dawn, the defiance of the Gorkhas was answered with cannonballs. The smoke from the cannon fire had barely dispersed when the English general attacked the fort with the full might of his forces. However, cannonballs could hardly shake the irrepressible resolve which was concealed behind the piles of stones. This mental strength found expression in a current that flowed from the general and inspired the rank and file. The flame illuminated not only the hearts of the soldiers but also those of the gentle ladies and the helpless children. The English forces were unable to capture the fort in spite of their repeated attacks. Finally, when hopes of victory had faded, they returned to Dehra Dun.
Soon afterwards General Gillespie joined General Mowbry’s forces, bringing fresh soldiers and more cannons with which to lay waste the fort of Khalanga. It was decided that the fort would be attacked from all four sides simultaneously, and after shattering the ramparts with cannon fire, the armies would enter the fort through unbarred gates.
At nine o’clock on the 26th this great offensive began. However, the English army tasted defeat and beat a hasty retreat. General Gillespie himself resumed the attack with three fresh divisions. A vast number of pieces of artillery belched fire at the same time, and hurled burning cannonballs into the fort.
The ramparts of the fort – if they could be called that – could not withstand this onslaught, and the cannonballs brought heaps of stones crashing to the ground. The beleaguered Gorkha army’s fortunes were now dwindling. However, at this moment a wondrous sight manifested itself. The breaches in the wall seemed to fill up, in the twinkling of an eye. The Gorkha women closed the gaps with their own delicate persons. Such a sight had never been seen anywhere else on earth. The womenfolk of Carthage had made bowstrings out of their own hair. But the erection of ramparts using human bodies was without precedent in history. Nor was this a mere wall. Not only had frail bodies unaccustomed to hardships turned rock-hard, they had also become potent weapons of destruction.
By this time General Gillespie had advanced with the intention of storming the defences once and for all, but his chest was pierced by a bullet, and he lost his life. The army that followed in his heels was cut down by bullets and arrows. The remnants of the army retreated to Dehra Dun.
After this defeat, a new army from Delhi, which included much heavy artillery, was sent into battle. On the 24th of November, this army attacked Khalanga afresh. This time the cannons raised a continuous barrage of shells on the fort. Mere contact with the ground caused the shells to shatter into a hundred pieces, and spread the ghastly shadow of death in all directions. All these days of fighting, there had been a semblance of fair competition between warriors on the two sides. Now it was an all-encompassing death running riot, sparing not even the infant at its mother’s breast.
The siege of Khalanga had by then lasted for a month. Victuals and comestibles had been exhausted. Weapons of war had now been almost completely spent. Even in the face of these odds, the warriors had not lost heart. With the intention of finishing off their moribund enemy, root and branch, the English army continued to launch attack after attack upon the besieged fort. But the Gorkha army fought back with superhuman resolve. When their ammunition ran out, they fought with bows and arrows. When there were no arrows left, they used stones to destroy their enemies. Even this time, the battle brought victory to the Gorkhas. The English army was ordered to return to Dehra Dun, for there was no hope of capturing the fort.
In the meanwhile spies brought the English camp news that there was no drinking water in the Khalanga fort. The Gorkha warriors had been drawing water from a stream near the outskirts of the fort, under cover of darkness. Shutting of this water supply would compel their thirsty foes to capitulate. The waters of the stream were dammed. The great torture visited upon the fort’s defenders can only be imagined. Cries of ‘water, water!’ sprang from the lips of the injured and dying men, women and children – cries that would be silenced only with the advent of death.
The plight of their lionhearted foes dangled an invitation to the English, who hoped to reduce them to shackles. A net of soldiers had now completely cordoned the fort on all sides. Troops were massed especially at all the exits from the besieged fort, which were subject to vigil day and night.
The Gorkha soldiers had originally numbered three hundred. Only seventy had survived after a month’s fighting. For four days they did not touch so much as a drop of water. They endured thirst and starvation in silence. While they bore these privations without complaint, the cries of the women and children became increasingly insupportable. The horror could only end if the fort were surrendered to the enemy. But to lay down their swords at the enemy’s feet was unthinkable as long as they still breathed! And while there was no way out as long as life lasted, what kind of release could death possibly bring? The iron cordon surrounding them drew ever closer. Here and there on the cordon, the terrifying form of cannon could be discerned. Were these warriors fated to be trapped inside this cordon? No, they would rather momentarily quicken their fleeting life with one last burst of action!
Suddenly at midnight the gates of the fort flew open. Doors that had remained stubbornly shut when pounded with cannon and threatened with bayonets had now swung open voluntarily, and set seventy warriors intent on self-sacrifice free. Moving as ominously as a dark monsoon cloud, in a compact formation like a clenched fist, they fell upon their teeming foes. With their swords they cleared a path in front of them, and disappeared in a flash.
At dawn the next day, the English army entered the fort abandoned by the Gorkha warriors. The soldiers’ jubilation turned into sorrow at the sight they beheld. Was this a fort or a graveyard? A terrible conglomeration of the living, the dead and the grievously injured! In the arms of a dead officer lay half-hidden a crying four-year old. A little further away lay the body of a woman, both of whose thighs had been blown away by a cannonball. Not far from it were scattered disembodied arms and legs. Here and there, children drenched in blood were sprawled on the ground, in the throes of death. From all sides rose piteous cries calling out for water.
Balabhadra and his seventy companions took shelter in the fort of Jyotgarh. The English had laid siege to it as well, but had been unsuccessful in securing it. Later Balabhadra became General of the Army and took command of the Jathak fort. At the end of the war of Nepal, Balabhadra saw that his country had no further need of his sword, and with his loyal companions joined Ranjit Singh’s Sikh army.
During this period Ranjit Singh had been busy with the Afghan War. On one occasion one of his armies had been attacked by a numerically superior Afghan force. Most soldiers fled to save their lives, but only seventy men did not desert the battlefield. This small platoon faced the enemy, and held the ranks like an immovable mountain. They had stood together braving many a danger in the past. On this day, officer and soldier made one last stand. Cannons roared, and mountain and valley reverberated with the sound of thunder. One by one, gaps appeared in the row, but the row itself did not disperse. Seventy corpses lay at last in eternal slumber. A shooting star had fallen to the earth and attained lasting peace.
The English forces which captured Khalanga razed the fort to the ground. Only a rude heap of stones now marks the site of the former fort. Complete desolation reigns over the scene of the horrific battle. Storms may rage on this side of death, but there is eternal serenity on the other. It is as if some peaceful soul had descended onto the battlefield and filled the hearts of the victors with pathos.
The English raised two monuments at the site where the bodies of victor and vanquished merged together into dust. They are visible to this day. One stone slab commemorates General Gillespie and the English soldiers who laid down their lives in the fighting. Not far from it is another stone slab bearing the words:
This memorial has been erected in honour of our valiant enemies: Balabhadra, General of the Khalanga fort, and the gallant army under his command, who gave battle with little regard for their lives, and died to a man in the face of Afghan cannons without knowing fear.
Translator’s Comments: The translator craves the readers’ indulgence for the lack of standardization in spelling proper names. Acharya Jagadish Chandra has spelled the name Khalanga as Kalunga (possibly because he was using source materials in English.) I have retained the text’s original spelling for other place names such as Jyotgarh, Jatak, etc. The name of the General Marney (Marley?) introduced early in the story has been changed to Mowbry later in the text. The dates mentioned are also from the reprinted text, and may differ slightly from those in the original edition of Abyakta.
Finally, it is possible that the back-translation (into English, from Bengali) of the words inscribed on the monument may differ somewhat from the actual tribute paid by the British to General Balabhadra.
Editor’s Note ( from Pragyata.com): This story by Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose first appeared in the monthly “Dasi” (ed. Ramananda Chattopadhyay) in its May 1895 issue. Along with his other non-scientific papers and articles, it was published in 1922 as part of the book Abyakta (http://www.jcbose.ac.in/publication ). The book was received very well, and has been reprinted several times by different publishing houses. This translation is based on the text printed on pages 61-66, in the latest edition from Dey’s Publishing (September 2009, Kolkata).
I thank my many Bengali friends – Ujjwal, Arup, Prabhakar, Shubhro, Aniruddha and Shubhalakshmi (Pune), Swarup and Anirban (Austin (Texas)), and Anindita, Somaditya and Arnabdyuti (Fayetteville, Arkansas) for teaching me their mother-tongue.
Mr. Ratnakar Sadasyula reintroduced the legacy of Acharya Jagadis Chandra Bose to me by writing his article: The Enduring Legacy Of Jagdish Chandra Bose
Two scientists who have themselves contributed to the volume Remembering Sir J C Bose (https://www.amazon.com/Remembering-Sir-Bose-Iiscpress-wspc-Publication/dp/9814271616 ), Dr. Virginia Shepherd (University of New South Wales) and Dr. D P Sen Gupta (I.I.Sc. Bangalore), helped to put me in touch with the authorities at the Bose Institute. Dr. Dipankar Home, chairman of the Bose Institute publication committee, confirmed that the book Abyakta was no longer in copyright, and encouraged me to undertake my translation project.
Finally, my colleague Dr. Madhumita Banerjee, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, helped me with the translation wherever my dictionary proved inadequate.
This translation by a non-native speaker of Bengali would not have been possible without their assistance. I am grateful to them all.
Feature photo courtesy: Wikipedia
This piece was first published on Pragyata.com
Nepal Matters for America, 05/11/2018