East Bengal’s famous ‘Pancha Pandavas’ were a set of five lethal strikers who played for the club between 1949 and 1953. They were arguably one of the most lethal strike forces in the history of the club as well as Indian football.
Inspired from the Hindu epic text of Mahabharata, this name was given to the five star forwards of the Red and Golds - Appa Rao, PB Saleh, P Venkatesh, Ahmed Khan and KP Dhanraj - all of whom hailed from Southern India.
Appa Rao came from Madras (now Chennai) and was the first among the ‘Pancha Pandavas’ to join the club in 1941. He was followed by Saleh in 1945 who hailed from Kottayam, Kerala.. The other three players Venkatesh (1948), Khan and Dhanraj (1949) came from the state of Mysore (now Karnataka).
Back in those days, Indian clubs used to play a 2-3-5 formation which featured five forwards. P Venkatesh and P.B Saleh used to feature on the right and left wing respectively. Ahmed Khan (in the photograph below) was the preferred left-inside forward while Appa Rao played as the right-inside forward. KP Dhanraj was the centre-forward of the team.
The emergence of the five star forwards helped East Bengal establish themselves as one of the powerhouses of Indian football.
During the Pancha Pandavas-era the Red and Golds won a total of 11 trophies. Three CFLs (1949, 1950, 1952), three back-to-back IFA Shields (1949, 1950, 1951), two Durand Cups (1951, 1952), one Rovers Cup (1949) and two DCM trophies (1950, 1952).
Other than domestic triumphs, East Bengal enjoyed success against international opponents too. Post India’s Independence, the Red and Golds’ first international match was against China’s Olympic XI which the Kolkata giants won 2-0 courtesy goals from Appa Rao and Saleh. They had also played a friendly match against Sweden’s FC Gothenburg in 1951 which they won 1-0 thanks to Saleh’s strike.
East Bengal’s first-ever international tour was during the World Youth Congress in Bucharest, Romania. The Kolkata giants played their first two matches against Lebanon XI and Austrian club Grazer SC which they won 6-1 and 2-0 respectively. Unfortunately, they lost to Romania in the semifinal 4-0.
Their impressive show attracted attention at the international level and they were invited to the USSR (now Russia) to take part in another tournament. They started the tour with an exciting 3-3 draw against local club FC Torpedo Moscow where Venkatesh had scored a brace. But unable to cope with the unbearable cold weather of the USSR, the Indian side lost their rest of the matches 9-1, 13-1 and 6-0.
Between 1949 and 1953, East Bengal scored a whopping 347 goals with the Panch Pandavas accounting for 260 of them which highlights the impact these man had on the club's fortunes in that period. In fact, Ahmed Khan was named East Bengal's forward of the millenium by the club.
The five great men from down south had undoubtedly a huge impact in laying the foundation of one of the greatest and most successful football clubs of Indian football.