The year 2017 marked the double centenary of one of the biggest revolts ever seen in eastern India and one which was quelled with great brutality. The Paika Bidroha or the Paika rebellion of 1817 was a massive uprising against the British East India Company and it shook the foundation of British control in the region.
The Paikas were the landed militia in service of the zamindars (landlords) in Odisha. Comprising of people of different castes, they helped the zamindars maintain law and order and received land grants in lieu of salary. They performed the duties of policemen in peacetime and served as army in times of war. In 16th century CE, Mughal chronicler, Abul Fazl wrote that there were around 1,00,000 Paikas or ‘Sipah-i-Zamindari’ in Odisha.
The Paika Bidroha of 1817 was a massive uprising against the British East India Company
Till 1803, Odisha was under Maratha rule, however after the second Anglo-Maratha War, the Marathas were forced to cede most of what is today’s Odisha to the British East India Company. In the following year, the ruler of Khurda, a kingdom near Puri, Raja Mukunda Deva II revolted against the British. This was significant, as Rajas of Khurda are considered to be the hereditary custodians of the Jagannath temple at Puri and hence enjoy great social prestige across Odisha. The revolt was however, put down, the Raja of Khurda taken prisoner and the British rule firmly established there.
This was followed by a policy of repression against the Paikas. They lost their traditional position in the society and their lands were taken away. It appears that the British did not have a very good opinion of the Paikas, as Andrew Stirling, an 19th century British writer who chronicled Odisha in his book ‘Orissa: Its Geography, Statistics, History, Religion and Antiquities’ wrote
In addition to losing their estates, the Paikas were also heavily exploited by the revenue collectors under the British. This led to simmering discontent among them, creating a tinderbox that only needed a spark. That was provided by Jagabandhu Bidyadhar Mohapatra Bhramarbar Rai, popularly known as ‘Bakshi Jagabandu’.
In addition to losing their estates, the Paikas were heavily exploited by the revenue collectors under the British
Bakshi Jagabandhu, was a ‘Bakshi’ or a hereditary Commander-in-Chief to the Rajas of Khurda. In June 1814, the great commander lost his estate when it was taken over by the British and was almost reduced to penury. For almost two years, he lived off donations from the local people. He was advised to fight in courts for his property, but he was stoic and said he did not believe that justice would be given to him by foreign courts.
Almost like Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857, leadership and greatness was thrust upon Bakshi Jagabandhu. In March 1817, four hundred Kandha tribesmen, one of the numerous tribes in Odisha, crossed over from dense jungles of Kandhamal district, into Khurda and declared a revolt against the British. Suddenly, Khurda was up in flames. Paikas under Bakshi Jagabandhu rose in revolt against the British and destroyed all the government buildings in Banpur in Khurda district. The British magistrate fled to Cuttack with great difficulty and sent a desperate message to the Government in Calcutta-
By the time this SOS reached Calcutta the revolt had spread to the sacred town of Puri. The Priests of the Jagannath temple at Puri openly declared the end of the British rule and joined the rebels. The British had fled to Cuttack, where they regrouped.
Hundreds of Paikas were hung and shot along with large number of the priests of Jagannath temple
While the Paikas were brave warriors, they were quite ill-equipped to fight the heavily armed British soldiers. There was a large British pushback and by April 1817, they had defeated the thousand strong but ill-equipped Paika force and recaptured Puri. The Paikas retreated into the thick jungles of Odisha and carried out guerrilla warfare for several years. After successive defeats, the Paika leader, Bakshi Jagabandhu, surrendered to the British in 1825 and lived as a prisoner in Cuttack till his death in 1829.
The revolt was crushed with great brutality by the British. Hundreds of Paikas were hung and shot along with large number of the priests of Jagannath temple. The British Government established a commission under their representative Walter Ewer to investigate the causes of the revolt. The commission firmly blamed the exploitative and harsh policies of the government for it.
The British government did not take any steps to improve the situation. Just 10 years after the Paika revolt, Khurda would see another Paika revolt, this time in Tapang town, under the leadership of Samanta Madhaba Chandra Routray. This too was quickly crushed by the British.
Today, 200 years later, the memory of the Paika revolt is being revived in Odisha and it is being used as a potent political tool to build regional pride.
Cover Image – Bakshi Jagabandhu/Wikimedia Commons
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