Sita: Warrior of Mithila, Page 3Amish Tripathi
She struggled fiercely as a Lankan came forward, holding a neem leaf in his hand. It was smeared with a blue-coloured paste. He held the leaf tight against her nose.
As darkness began to envelop her, she sensed some ropes against her hands and feet.
Ram … Help me …
And the darkness took over.
38 years earlier, North of Trikut Hills, Deoghar, India
‘Wait a minute,’ whispered Sunaina, as she pulled the reins on her horse.
Janak, the king of Mithila, and his wife, Sunaina, had travelled a long way to the Trikut Hills, nearly a hundred kilometres south of the Ganga River. They sought to meet the legendary Kanyakumari, the Virgin Goddess. A divine child. It was believed across the Sapt Sindhu, land of the seven rivers, that the blessings of the Living Goddess helped all who came to her with a clean heart. And the royal family of Mithila certainly needed Her blessings.
Mithila, founded by the great king Mithi, on the banks of the mighty Gandaki River, was once a thriving river-port town. Its wealth was built on agriculture, owing to its exceptionally fertile soil, as well as river trade with the rest of the Sapt Sindhu. Unfortunately, fifteen years ago, an earthquake and subsequent flood had changed the course of the Gandaki. It also changed the fortunes of Mithila. The river now flowed farther to the west, by the city of Sankashya. Ruled by Janak’s younger brother Kushadhwaj, Sankashya was a nominally subsidiary kingdom of Mithila. To add to the woes of Mithila, the rains had failed repeatedly for a few years after the change of Gandaki’s course. Mithila’s loss was Sankashya’s gain. Kushadhwaj rapidly rose in stature as the de facto representative of the clan of Mithi.
Many had suggested that King Janak should invest some of the old wealth of Mithila in an engineering project to redirect the Gandaki back to its old course. But Kushadhwaj had advised against it. He had argued that it made little sense to spend money on such a massive engineering project. After all, why waste money to take the river from Sankashya to Mithila, when the wealth of Sankashya was ultimately Mithila’s.
Janak, a devout and spiritual man, had adopted a philosophical approach to his kingdom’s decline in fortune. But the new queen, Sunaina, who had married Janak just two years earlier, was not the idle sort. She planned to restore Mithila to its old glory. And a big part of that plan was to restore the old course of the Gandaki. But after so many years, it had become difficult to find logical reasons to justify the costly and difficult engineering project.
When logic fails, faith can serve a purpose.
Sunaina had convinced Janak to accompany her to the temple of the Kanyakumari and seek her blessings. If the Child Goddess approved of the Gandaki project, even Kushadhwaj would find it difficult to argue against it. Not just the Mithilans, but many across the length and breadth of India believed the Kanyakumari’s word to be that of the Mother Goddess Herself. Unfortunately, the Kanyakumari had said no. ‘Respect the judgement of nature,’ she had said.
It was a disappointed Sunaina and a philosophical Janak, along with their royal guard, who were travelling north from the Trikut Hills now, on their way home to Mithila.
‘Janak!’ Sunaina raised her voice. Her husband had ridden ahead without slowing.
Janak pulled his horse’s reins and looked back. His wife pointed wordlessly to a tree in the distance. Janak followed her direction. A few hundred metres away, a pack of wolves had surrounded a solitary vulture. They were trying to close in and were being pushed back repeatedly by the huge bird. The vulture was screaming and squawking. A vulture’s squawk is naturally mournful; but this one sounded desperate.
Sunaina looked closely. It was an unfair fight. There were six wolves, weaving in and out, attacking the vulture in perfect coordination. But the brave bird stood its ground, pushing them back repeatedly. The aggressors were gradually drawing close. A wolf hit the vulture with its claws, drawing blood.
Why isn’t it flying away?
Sunaina began to canter towards the fight, intrigued. Her bodyguards followed at a distance.
‘Sunaina …’ cautioned her husband, staying where he was, holding his horse’s reins tight.
Suddenly, using the distraction of the vulture with another attack from the left, a wolf struck with lethal effect. It charged in from the right and bit the bird’s left wing brutally. Getting a good hold, the wolf pulled back hard, trying to drag the vulture away. The bird squawked frantically. Its voice sounding like a wail. But it held strong. It did not move, pulling back with all its strength. However, the wolf had strong jaws and a stronger grip. Blood burst forth like a fountain. The wolf let go, spitting parts of the severed wing as it stepped back.
Sunaina spurred her horse and began to gallop towards the scene. She had expected the vulture to escape through the opening the two wolves had provided. But, surprisingly, it stood in place, pushing another wolf back.
Use the opening! Get away!
Sunaina was speeding towards the animals now. The royal bodyguards drew their swords and raced after their queen. A few fell back with the king.
‘Sunaina!’ said Janak, worried about his wife’s safety. He spurred his horse, but he was not the best of riders. His horse blithely continued its slow trot.
Sunaina was perhaps fifty metres away when she noticed the bundle for the first time. The vulture was protecting it from the pack of wolves. It was lodged in what looked like a little furrow in the dry mud.
The bundle moved.
‘By the great Lord Parshu Ram!’ exclaimed Sunaina. ‘That’s a baby!’
Sunaina pressed forward, rapidly goading her horse into a fierce gallop.
As she neared the pack of wolves, she heard the soft, frantic cries of a human baby, almost drowned out by the howling animals.
‘Hyaah!’ screamed Sunaina. Her bodyguards rode close behind.
The wolves turned tail and scampered into the woods as the mounted riders thundered towards the wounded bird. A guard raised his sword to strike the vulture.
‘Wait!’ ordered Sunaina, raising her right hand.
He stopped in his tracks as his fellow bodyguards reined their horses to a halt.
Sunaina was raised in a land to the east of Branga. Her father was from Assam, sometimes called by its ancient name, Pragjyotisha, the land of Eastern Light. And her mother belonged to Mizoram, the land of the High People of Ram. Devotees of the sixth Vishnu, Lord Parshu Ram, the Mizos were fierce warriors. But they were most well known for their instinctive understanding of animals and the rhythms of nature.
Sunaina intuitively knew that the ‘bundle’ was not food for the vulture, but a responsibility to be protected.
‘Get me some water,’ ordered Sunaina, as she dismounted her horse.
One of the guards spoke up as the group dismounted. ‘My Lady, is it safe for you to …’
Sunaina cut him short with a withering look. The queen was short and petite. Her round, fair-complexioned face conveyed gentleness to the observer. But her small eyes betrayed the steely determination that was the core of her being. She repeated softly, ‘Get me some water.’
‘Yes, My Lady.’
A bowl filled with water appeared in an instant.
Sunaina locked her eyes with the vulture’s. The bird was breathing heavily, exhausted by its battle with the wolves. It was covered in blood from the numerous wounds on its body. The wound on its wing was especially alarming, blood gushing out of it at a frightening rate. Loss of blood made it unsteady on its feet. But the vulture refused to move, its eyes fixed on Sunaina. It was squawking aggressively, thrusting its beak forward. Striking the air with its talons to keep the Queen of Mithila away.
Sunaina pointedly ignored the bundle behind the vulture. Focused on the massive bird, she began to hum a soft, calming tune. The vulture seemed to ease a bit. It withdrew its talons. The squawking reduced in volume and intensity.
Sunaina crept forward. Gently. Slowly. Once close, she bowed her head and submissively placed the bowl of wa
ter in front of the bird. Then she crept back just as slowly. She spoke in a mellifluous voice. ‘I have come to help … Trust me …’
The dumb beast understood the tone of the human. It bent to sip some water, but instead, collapsed to the ground.
Sunaina rushed forward and cradled the head of the now prone bird, caressing it gently. The child, wrapped in a rich red cloth with black stripes, was crying desperately. She signalled a soldier to pick up the precious bundle as she continued to soothe the bird.
‘What a beautiful baby,’ cooed Janak, as he bent his tall, wiry frame and edged close to his wife, his normally wise but detached eyes full of love and attention.
Janak and Sunaina sat on temporarily set up chairs. The baby slept comfortably in Sunaina’s arms, swaddled in a soft cotton cloth. A massive umbrella shaded them from the scorching sun. The royal doctor had examined the baby, and bandaged a wound on her right temple with some herbs and neem leaves. He had assured the royal couple that the scar would largely disappear with time. Along with the other physician, the doctor now tended to the vulture’s wounds.
‘She’s probably just a few months old. She must be strong to have survived this ordeal,’ said Sunaina, gently rocking the baby in her arms.
‘Yes. Strong and beautiful. Just like you.’
Sunaina looked at her husband and smiled as she caressed the baby’s head. ‘How can anyone abandon a child like her?’
Janak sighed. ‘Many people are not wise enough to count life’s blessings. They keep focusing instead on what the world has denied them.’
Sunaina nodded at her husband and turned her attention back to the child. ‘She sleeps like an angel.’
‘That she does,’ said Janak.
Sunaina pulled the baby up close and kissed her gently on the forehead, careful to avoid the injured area.
Janak patted his wife’s back warmly. ‘But are you sure, Sunaina?’
‘Yes. This baby is ours. Devi Kanyakumari may not have given us what we wanted. But she has blessed us with something much better.’
‘What will we call her?’
Sunaina looked up at the sky and drew in a deep breath. She had a name in mind already. She turned to Janak. ‘We found her in a furrow in Mother Earth. It was like a mother’s womb for her. We will call her Sita.’
Sunaina rushed into Janak’s private office. Reclining in an easy chair, the king of Mithila was reading the text of the Jabali Upanishad. It was a treatise on wisdom by the great Maharishi Satyakam Jabali. Shifting attention to his wife, he put down the text. ‘So, has the Emperor won?’
It had been five years since Sita had entered their lives.
‘No,’ said a bewildered Sunaina, ‘he lost.’
Janak sat up straight, stunned. ‘Emperor Dashrath lost to a trader from Lanka?’
‘Yes. Raavan has almost completely massacred the Sapt Sindhu Army at Karachapa. Emperor Dashrath barely escaped with his life.’
‘Lord Rudra be merciful,’ whispered Janak.
‘There’s more. Queen Kaushalya, the eldest wife of the Emperor, gave birth to a son on the day that he lost the Battle of Karachapa. And now, many are blaming the little boy for the defeat. Saying that he’s an ill omen. For the Emperor had never lost a battle till this boy was born.’
‘What nonsense!’ said Janak. ‘How can people be so stupid?’
‘The little boy’s name is Ram. Named after the sixth Vishnu, Lord Parshu Ram.’
‘Let’s hope it’s lucky for him. Poor child.’
‘I am more concerned about the fate of Mithila, Janak.’
Janak sighed helplessly. ‘What do you think will happen?’
Sunaina had been governing the kingdom practically singlehandedly, of late. Janak was spending more and more time lost in the world of philosophy. The queen had become increasingly popular in the kingdom. Many believed that she had been lucky for Mithila. For the rains had poured down in all their glory every year since she had come to the city as King Janak’s wife.
‘I am worried about security,’ said Sunaina.
‘And what about money?’ asked Janak. ‘Don’t you think Raavan will enforce his trade demands on all the kingdoms? Money will flow out of the Sapt Sindhu into Lanka’s coffers.’
‘But we hardly trade these days. He cannot demand anything from us. The other kingdoms have a lot more to lose. I am more worried about the decimation of the armies of the Sapt Sindhu. Lawlessness will increase everywhere. How safe can we be if the entire land falls into chaos?’
A thought crossed Janak’s mind. Who can prevent that which is written by Fate, be it of people or of countries? Our task is but to understand, not fight, what must be; and learn the lessons for our next life. Or prepare for moksha.
But he knew Sunaina disliked ‘helplessness’. So he remained silent.
The queen continued, ‘I did not expect Raavan to win.’
Janak laughed. ‘It’s all very well to be a victor. But the vanquished get more love from their women!’
Sunaina narrowed her eyes and stared at Janak. Not impressed by her husband’s attempt at wit. ‘We must make some plans, Janak. We must be ready for the inevitable.’
Janak was tempted to respond with another humorous remark. Wisdom dictated restraint.
‘I trust you completely. You’ll think of something, I’m sure,’ smiled Janak, as he turned his attention back to the Jabali Upanishad.
While the rest of India was suffering the aftershocks of Dashrath’s defeat to Raavan, Mithila itself was relatively unaffected. There was not much trade in any case to be negatively impacted. Sunaina had initiated some reforms that had worked well. For instance, local tax collection and administration had been devolved to the village level. It reduced the strain on the Mithila bureaucracy and improved efficiency.
Using the increased revenue from agriculture, she had retrained the excess bureaucracy and expanded the Mithila police force, thus improving security within the kingdom. Mithila had no standing army and did not need one; by treaty, the Sankashya Army of Kushadhwaj was supposed to fight the external enemies of Mithila, when necessary. These were not major changes and were implemented relatively smoothly, without disturbing the daily life of the Mithilans. There were mass disturbances in the other kingdoms though, which required gut-wrenching changes to comply with the treaties imposed by Raavan.
Sita’s birthday had been established as a day of celebration by royal decree. They didn’t know her actual date of birth. So they celebrated the day she had been found in the furrow. Today was her sixth birthday.
Gifts and alms were distributed to the poor in the city. Like it was done on every special day. With a difference. Until Sunaina had come and toned up the administration, much of the charity was grabbed by labourers who were not rich, but who were not exactly poor either. Sunaina’s administrative reforms had ensured that the charity first went to those who were truly poor and needy; those who lived in the slums close to the southern gate of the inner, secondary fort wall.
After the public ceremonies, the royal couple had arrived at the massive temple of Lord Rudra.
The Lord Rudra temple was built of red sandstone. It was one of the tallest structures in Mithila, visible from most parts of the city. It had a massive garden around it — an area of peace in this crowded quarter of the city. Beyond the garden were the slums, spreading all the way to the fort walls. Inside the main garba griha, the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, a large idol of Lord Rudra and Lady Mohini had been consecrated. Seemingly in consonance with a city that had come to symbolise the love of knowledge, peace, and philosophy, the image of Lord Rudra was not in his normally fierce form. In this form, he looked kind, almost gentle. He held the hand of the beauteous Lady Mohini, who sat next to him.
After the prayers, the temple priest offered prasad to the royal family. Sunaina touched the priest’s feet and then led Sita by the hand to a wall by the side of the garba griha. On the wall, a
plaque had been put up in memory of the vulture that had valiantly died defending Sita from a pack of wolves. A death mask of its face had been made before the bird was cremated with honour. Cast in metal, the mask recorded the last expression of the vulture as it left its mortal body. It was a haunting look: determined and noble. Sita had made her mother relate the entire story on several occasions. Sunaina had been happy to oblige. She wanted her daughter to remember. To know that nobility came in many a form and face. Sita touched the death mask gently, reverentially. And as always, she shed a tear for the one who had also given her the gift of life.
‘Thank you,’ whispered Sita. She said a short prayer to the great God Pashupati, Lord of the Animals. She hoped the vulture’s brave soul had found purpose again.
Janak discreetly signalled his wife, and the royal family slowly walked out of the Lord Rudra temple. The priests led the family down the flight of steps. The slums were clearly visible from the platform height.
‘Why don’t you ever let me go there, Maa?’ asked Sita, pointing at the slums.
Sunaina smiled and patted her daughter’s head. ‘Soon.’
‘You always say that,’ Sita protested, a grumpy expression on her face.
‘And, I mean it,’ laughed Sunaina. ‘Soon. I just didn’t say how soon!’
‘Alright,’ said Janak, ruffling Sita’s hair. ‘Run along now. I have to speak with Guruji.’
The seven-year-old Sita had been playing with her father in his private office when Janak’s chief guru, Ashtaavakra, had walked in. Janak had bowed to his guru, as was the tradition, and had requested him to sit on the throne assigned for him.
Mithila, not being a major player in the political arena of the Sapt Sindhu anymore, did not have a permanent raj guru. But Janak’s court hosted the widest range of eminent seers, scholars, scientists and philosophers from India. Intellectuals loved the Mithilan air, wafting with the fragrance of knowledge and wisdom. And one of the most distinguished of these thinkers, Rishi Ashtaavakra, was Janak’s chief guru. Even the great Maharishi Vishwamitra, Chief of the Malayaputra tribe, visited Mithila on occasion.