Suryavamshi – A Bharat Where Bengal Celebrates Valiant Rajputs

Suryavamshi: The Sun Kings of Rajasthan by Abanindranath Tagore, adapted and translated by Sandipan Deb has made available to English reading audiences a gem from Bengal. 

About Raj Kahani Abanindranath Tagore's book on which this book is based, Deb says: 

“Raj Kahini is one of the most beloved Bangla books ever written. Almost anyone who can read Bangla has either heard of it or read at least a bit of it. It's also interesting that all Bengalis love a book which is about the kings of Chittor, more than a thousand miles away from Bengal. That tells us something about the idea of Bharat.”

With nearly three decades of experience in media, Sandipan Deb's journey as an editor and writer reflects a diverse and impactful tenure. From founding and editing magazines to leading teams in prestigious organizations, his expertise spans both traditional and digital platforms. His roles as Editorial Director of Swarajya, Editor of The Financial Express, and Managing Editor of Outlook showcase his leadership and editorial acumen. 

Additionally, his contributions to literature, including a critically acclaimed novel, and  role in editing the 175-year memorial edition of The Times of India highlight his literary prowess. Suryavamshi came into being by accident but is a book to awaken India.

Why did you choose Raj Kahani, Shri Abanindranath Tagore's book for translation.  And adaptation. What does your adaptation add to the original?

I began translating the book literally by accident! I had fallen down the stairs of my home and broken my collarbone—also serious hip injury. So I had to lie in bed or walk with a stick for more than two months. I needed to keep my mind busy, so I just started doing this, without any thought of getting it published etc.

I don't think I've added much to the original, which was perfect in many ways. My aim was to bring this wonderful work to people who had no access to the original book.    

He was an artist of great eminence. How is this reflected in Raj Kahani?

Abanindranath's painterly vision is present all through the book. The stories are extremely visual. Vivid descriptions of every event—colours, the sun and the moon and the stars and skies and light and darkness and changing seasons—for me as a translator, it was a big challenge. The language too is very nuanced. In fact that's what makes the book so special. Abanindranath described himself as a person who "writes pictures" {"Aban Thakur, chhobi lekhe"). That's totally correct. You can actually imagine and see as you read—from Padmini's beauty to terrible battles where thousands die. 

The book is about the Surya Vamshis of Rajasthan. The Rajputs have always been celebrated for their courage and valour and this brings their stories to people in a beautifully dramatic way. Which of the stories particularly inspired you?

Abanindranath picked up a few stories from The Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan written by Captain James Tod, an East India Company officer who was an amateur historian and anthropologist. Each story is actually just a paragraph or two in Tod's book, and those paragraphs are quite dry and boring. Abanindranath added his own extraordinary creativity to bring it all alive. But many of the stories do not have happy endings. Several of the heroes are very flawed human beings and do all sorts of wrong things. That makes Suryavamshi/ Raj Kahini quite a rare type of book—written originally for children, but not giving them an unreal rosy picture of the way the world works. Heroes make mistakes and they have to pay for their mistakes. 

Was it normal in those days for a Bengali writer to write about another culture?

I don't really think that's ever been an issue for Bengalis. For example, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya's first novel Durgeshnandini (and the first Indian-language novel in the modern sense) is set during a period of Mughal-Pathan wars. Saradindu Bandopadhyay, one of the finest and most popular Bangla writers of the 20th century (he created the detective Byomkesh Bakshi!) wrote several historical novels that were not set in Bengal. He goes as far south as Golconda! He also wrote a series of short stories about Sadashiv, a young boy in Chhatrapati Shivaji's army. It's important to understand that books like Suryavamshi/ Raj Kahini were not just books, they were part of a big national project. They were written to revive the idea of Bharat as a great nation, to awaken Indians to the stories of its courageous heroes and heroines. It's also very important to note that women play a very significant role in many of the stories—they inspire and often guide the men to the right and moral path.   

How does history and purana work in this book? 

Abanindranath certainly brought in a strong element of the Divine into these stories about warrior kings and queens (he himself was a Brahmo Samajist but understood the importance of Hindu mythology in our consciousness). The gods are always there somewhere and it's very interesting (for me) that many of the stories don't have happy endings. Bappaditya (Bappa Rawal) never finds peace even though he is the emperor of a vast territory, Prithviraj is the most handsome and bravest man in Rajputana but his rash arrogance brings about his downfall. The gods know what is right and what is not, like in the puranas. And the gods too are not perfect beings :) That is the beauty of Hinduism.

Sun and fire worship is at the core of our Vedic civilization. It is also at the heart of most polytheism. What are some of the core values we can see through the stories?

I am not a very "religious" person, in the sense that I don't often visit temples or perform rituals. But I am absolutely proud to be a Hindu and can't even imagine being anything else. I also find our polytheism beautiful. How can you not love both Saraswati and Lakshmi? How can you not adore the fat-bellied Ganesh with one broken tusk? As a Bengali, I am thrilled by the story of Ma Durga defeating Mahishasura and I am also nearly brought to tears when I know the other story—that these are the four days in the year when Parvati comes and stays with her parents and has to go back. Which faith in the world has a god like Shiva—a man with some drug and anger management issues who is also the most reliable in the history of the universe? Polytheism is the core of Hinduism and it's a truly wonderful thing. 

I know a bit of physics, so I know that the sun is a ball of very hot gas (mostly hydrogen) s and fire is a state of matter called plasma, but that doesn't make the sun or fire any less magical for me. 

As a mainstream journalist, how do you see books such as this finding a place in the narratives that are shaping us today?

I really don't know the answer to that. But what worries me about what I see around me is that our children (most of them from entitled English-educated backgrounds) don't know much about our heritage and history. And it's not limited to children either, because our education system has consistently fed us with half-truths and in some cases complete lies. Everyone knows about the battle of Haldighati where Akbar is supposed to have defeated Rana Pratap but hardly anyone knows about the battle of Dewaiir where Rana Prataf defeated the Mughals and took 36,000 soldiers as prisoners. It's a uphill battle. Very uphill.

Please could you share with our readers your journey as a writer. From financial journalist to literature, what makes you most excited when it comes to writing. 

I started off as a business journalist because that was the easiest way for me to get into the world of writing—after all, I had an MBA degree. But I got bored pretty quickly of writing about CEOs and financial strategies etc and expanded my horizons to all sorts of areas, from cinema to cricket and social issues and technology (I try to stay clear of political stuff as much as I can). I wouldn't be alive if I wasn't writing. It's really my life blood. And I'm obsessively careful about writing. I can write some 800-word piece in an hour and then I'll spend eight hours going over every word. And I'll read it again the next day and decide that it was no good and that I had missed so many mistakes and errors :)  

Excerpted from Suryavamshi: The Sun Kings of Rajasthan by Abanindranath Tagore, adapted and translated by Sandipan Deb. Tagore’s Raj Kahini has been one of the most beloved Bangla books for over a century.

It was night and the utter blackness seemed to have swallowed the whole world, as if the sun, the moon and the stars had all died. Now began the Jauhar of twelve thousand magnificent Rajput women at the temple of the goddess-empress, at the great cremation ground of Chittor. 

Right in front of the temple, standing at the mouth of a dark tunnel, Rani Padmini, the most beautiful woman in all of Chittor, started her chant to Agni, the god of fire. ‘O Agni,’ she said, ‘O sacred radiant one, come! Let the darkness of this world be banished by your light. O Agni, the most fierce of all gods, come. You are strength for the powerless and support for the powerful. Come, terrifying one, and take away all our fears and regrets and give us shelter. You, defender of our honour, rescuer of us from all our woes, you, the flame divine, you are the final redeemer of our lives who will liberate us from all shackles and attachments.’ 

Padmini fell silent. Twelve thousand Rajput women danced around the well of fire and sang: ‘He who saves our honour! He who protects us from evil!’ And then, with a great roar, thousands of flames, as if in a state of primal ecstasy, burst forth from the tunnel under that well. The night itself seemed to tremble and shudder in the face of that intense light. Along with the twelve thousand Rajput women, Rani Padmini plunged into the well. In the blink of an eye all the lovely faces, all the sweet chatter, all the innocent laughter in every home in Chittor turned to ashes.

A cry rose from deep inside the heart of every Rajput man: ‘Hail the queen, the most virtuous of all!’ Even Alauddin, reclining in his tent at the bottom of the mountain, could hear it. He immediately ordered all his troops to prepare for battle.

The next day, as soon as the sun rose, Rajput soldiers came down from the mountain of Chittor like a monsoon torrent, shaking the earth with battle cries that invoked Lord Shiva, and fell upon the Pathans with a terrible force.

The Tartar soldiers of Alauddin were no match for the axes of the Ekalinga troops. In a matter of moments they were overpowered and fled for their lives. The Badshah kept sending in new forces, but every effort of his failed – it was like trying to build a dam out of sand to stem a mighty river in full spate.