Rabindranath Tagore’s Hero Poems


[While Tagore wrote extensively on philosophical exchanges between significant characters from India’s great epics, such as the Karna-KuntiSamvad, the vast compendium of his poetry is essentially reflective and non-historic.  He did, however, write a few tribute poems dedicated to heroic figures from India’s medieval years, including the Sikh hero, Banda Singh Bahadur, and the Maratha chief, ChhatrapatiShivaji.  In this sequence, I will present translations of these highly-regarded poems.]

  1. The Valiant Prisoner

(A translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, BandiBir, addressed to the Sikh Hero, Banda Singh Bahadur (1670-1716))

Translated by:             Monish R Chatterjee© (April, 2018)


By the shoreline of the five rivers of lore

Tying their flowing tresses in topknots-

Verily have the Sikhs awakened at Guruji’s call

Unshaken, fearless.

Sounds of Hail to Guruji! from a thousand voices

Echoed across the skies everywhere

Awakened anew, a Sikh reborn

Gazed transfixed upon the Sun of a New Dawn.


AlakhNiranjan!”  Rose the great chant,

Breaking all bonds, shredding the last strands of fear.

Next to their mighty chests, ecstatic the swords clang

Punjab roars today as one mighty lion, “AlakhNiranjan!”


That momentous day is arrived

A million hearts bereft of anxiety

Freed from all bonds or indebtedness

Life and death- both serfs at their feet

Their minds burdened not with care.

Upon ten shorelines flanking the rivers five

A momentous day is arrived.


Within the palace walls in Delhi, meanwhile

Repeatedly the Badshah awakens from fretful trance

Whose voice is that which stirs the heavens

And breaks the quiet stillness of the night

Whose flaming torches- those, which touch

And light up the vast forehead of the sky?


By the shoreline of the five rivers

Did the swirling waves of martyrs’ blood

Rush forth in free flow?

Did a million birds break free from caged hearts

And taking flight in flocks, rush homeward bound?

The valiant ones anointed their mothers’

Foreheads with their blood sacrifice

By the shoreline of the five rivers.


Mughals and Sikhs, in a life-or-death battle

Each gripped the other’s throat

In a deathly embrace.

As a bloodied raptor, reeling from venom

Engages in a deadly struggle unto death

With a fanged, hooded serpent.

In vigorous battle that day, Hail to Guruji!

Roared the Sikh warriors


Even as maniacal Mughals athirst for blood

Chanted their battle cry.  Presently, at the Fortress

In Gurdaspur, Banda fell prisoner at last

To the Turani soldiers.  Like a caged lion, they

Shackled him and took him away.  At long last

The valiant Banda was taken captive

At Gurdaspur Fortress.


Marching at the fore the Mughal legions

Raising a dust storm in their wake

Holding aloft severed Sikh heads

Impaled upon the tips of spears.

Sikhs seven hundred bring up the rear

Their chains clang in the air

Teeming throngs crowd the royal thoroughfare

Windows filled with curious onlookers-

Hail to Guruji!  Roared the Sikhs

Eschewing all fear of death

Together the Mughals and Sikhs raised

Dust clouds over the streets of Delhi.


There was a rush to the frontline

Who would first offer his life at the altar

A rush to the frontline.

As the daylight faded, rows of captives

In the grips of the executioners

Chanting Hail to Guruji!a hundred heroes

Eagerly lay down a hundred heads.

A week later, the Mughal killing spree

Having exacted the price of seven hundred

Heroic lives, the Kazi deposits in Banda’s arms

Banda’s one young child.


“Must slay this child,” came the Kazi’s mandate

“Without mercy, with your own hands”-

With that, shoved the child into his lap

The youthful prince, arms in shackles

Banda’s one young child.

He uttered not a word; gentle and calm

Banda drew the young child unto his vast chest.

But for a moment upon his head

He placed his loving right hand

And but once he planted a kiss

Upon his scarlet mantle.


Thereafter, the valiant one withdrew from

Its sheath his battle-tested kripan

Gazing upon the child’s face, whispered

Hail to Guruji! in his ear.  “Fear not, my child!”

Said the father.  The radiant rays of fearlessness

Lit up like a flame in the child’s youthful

Body.  The great hall trembled with the child’s

Voice as the hero’s son began to sing-

Hail to Guruji!  I fear nothing,” as he

Gazed upon his father.


Banda thereafter wrapped his left arm

Around the child’s neck

And with his right, in one swift move

Thrust his dagger into the child’s chest.

Saying Hail to Guruji!the child fell to the dust-

Silence befell the vast hall.

Red-hot tongs in hand, the executioner

Then ripped the flesh from Banda’s body

Without flinching the valiant one gave up

His life, uttering not a single sound of distress.

Speechless, the spectators closed their eyes

Silence befell the hall.


As is true of all imperial and colonial occupations throughout history, the history of the Mughal dynasty in India (its heyday between 1526-1707, beginning with Babur Shah and ending with Aurangzeb), which had its better moments in terms of communal integration (especially under Akbar (1556-1605)), but also exceedingly dark times rife with persecution and destruction of many regional and ethnic enclaves in India, was also dotted with brutal repression and territorial conquests.  These conquests, and resistance to them, were accompanied by examples of betrayal, disloyalty, and treachery which undermined many resistance movements across the vast sub-continent.

Of all the territories and potentates which offered the stiffest resistance and challenge to the Mughal incursions, the three most significant were the Marathas in the South, and the Rajputs and (slightly later) the Sikhs in the North-West.  The valiant Maratha leader, ChhatrapatiShivaji, and a whole series of Rajput kings including Rana Pratap and other legendary warriors, established a history of inflicting defeat and humiliation upon the Mughal invaders into their realms.

Since the time of the establishment of their religion (as an amalgamation of Hinduism with other reformist influences) by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the Sikhs in India’s Punjab province became known as a highly disciplined and martial community with strong adherence to their identity and territorial integrity.  The story of the Sikh hero, Banda Singh Bahadur, whom Rabindranath Tagore commemorates here, is centered around his assuming the discipleship of one of the most celebrated Gurus of the Sikh Takht- Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708)- the 10th Guru since Nanak.  Guru Gobind Singh’s life story is every bit as larger than life as that of Banda, the hero of this narrative poem.  Gobind Singh’s father, the highly revered Guru Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam (part of the dark history of proselytizing faiths) when Gobind was only nine.Gobind Singh established much stricter militancy into the Sikh way of life by introducing the five Ks as symbols of their martial discipline as Khalsas, and before long had a vast retinue of dedicated followers.

What is most ironic about Banda’s story is the fact that by the time of his rise to adulthood, the Mughal dynasty had been seriously weakened by the sectarian and fanatical rule of Aurangzeb, who essentially dismantled all the integrative efforts of his grandfather Akbar, during whose considerably more enlightened reignthe empire had reached its zenith.Perhaps it is not difficult to understand the considerably more brutal actions by the rulers in Delhi, post Aurangzeb, since the foundations of the empire had been greatly shaken by Aurangzeb’s sectarian rule, and there was desperation in the attempt to keep it from collapsing.

Most interestingly, Banda was born a Minhas Rajput in Rajouri, Jammu- and went by the name Lachman Dev.  In his youth, following a hunting expedition whereupon he witnessed the death of a doe and her writhing fawns, he turned into an ascetic, and commenced the life of a sadhu invested with the name Madho Das.  For several years, he practiced austerities in a hermitage by the Godavari river near today’s Maharashtra.  It was at this stage that Madho Das made the acquaintance of Guru Gobind Singh, who happened to be traveling through the adjoining area with his entourage and in the company of the Mughal emperor of the time, Bahadur Shah.  Upon extended conversations with the Guru, Banda was induced to embrace the Sikh way of life, dedicated to bringing justice to the oppressed and tyrannized people of Punjab, specifically under the tyrannical governance of Nawab Wazir Khan in the Sirhind district.  When Guru Gobind’s efforts to find favorable intervention from the emperor failed, and his mother and two young children were savagely killed, he deputed the newly-anointed Banda Singh Bahadur (where the word Banda literally stands for a servant- here implying servant to justice) and five Sikh warriors to begin a campaign of militant resistance, around 1708-09.

Before long, Banda had gathered around him a sizable group of fierce fighters, and in the years following his initial deployment, he exacted a great toll upon the oppressors and tyrants, wresting from the regional territorial usurpers several fortresses and recovering considerable embezzled treasuries.  Not surprisingly, Banda’s relentless aggression and associated success made him an avowed enemy of the Mughals and their vassals.  Finally, after a long drawn out siege at the fortress in Gurdaspur, despite many pleadings by his devotees to escape the siege and regroup for another battle, Banda chose to face the tormentors with his fellow warriors.  Thereafter, these seven hundred prisoners were marched to Delhi where they were visited upon by the most gruesome and vicious death by the executioners of the reigning Mughal of the time, Farrukhsiyar (1685-1719).

Tagore’s poem commemorating Banda and his heroic force, which is incomparably gripping withrhyming metaphors to valiance, is essentially self-explanatory, and I believe does not require further explanatory elaboration.  The associated brutality, one must remember, is characteristic of most colonial and imperial conquests anywhere in the world (including, and rather often greatly exceeded by, the blood-drenched history of European and Euro-American colonialism to this day), and clearly exemplifies the savage barbarity humans are capable of – a beastly characteristic which would give pause to any poet and idealist wishing to see the dawn of a higher human civilization centered upon camaraderie and brotherhood.Finally, it must be mentioned that the moving memorializing by Tagore of their hero contributed to a bond of kinship between Bengal and Punjab (a bond shared even more in view of the wounds of partition suffered by these two provinces, which resisted the British colonial occupation of India most valiantly).

Dr. Monish R. Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in applied optics, has contributed more than 120 papers to technical conferences, and has published more than 60 papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, in addition to numerous reference articles on science.  He has also authored several literary essays and four books of literary translations from his native Bengali into English (Kamalakanta, Profiles in Faith, BalikaBadhu, and Seasons of Life).  Dr. Chatterjee believes strongly in humanitarian activism for social justice.


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