Shiladitya, Rajkahini: Abanindranath Tagore’s tales of the Rajputs

Long before Shiladitya’s birth, when the last king of Kanaksen’s lineage was still ruling at Ballavipur, there was a great tank in that city whose waters were said to be very sacred indeed. This was known as Suryakund or the Sun’s pool. An ancient priest lived in the vast temple dedicated to the worship of the Sun god that stood beside the pool. He had neither family nor friends to give him respite from his labours. The fiercely pious old Brahmin lived all alone in that Aditya temple by the azure blue waters of that great tank, just as the sun to whom he directed all his prayers burns alone in the sky that is without limits. He was terribly lonely. Everything that had to be done in the temple was his alone to perform – from the lighting of lamps to the ringing of the great bell and the offerings of fire at dawn and dusk – he did it all by himself without the assistance of servants, followers or other monks. Each day he would light all the tapers of the heavy brass candelabras to pay homage to the Sun god; each evening he would raise his ageing arm to ring the great bell of the temple whose shape was like the crown of a demon king and each night he would pray that he would find a companion to whom he would bequeath the entire responsibility of the temple and be rid of his worries.
 
The Sun god fulfilled his devoted servant’s wishes one day. At the beginning of the month of Poush when dense fog darkened the land and the sun had set for the day a sad faced woman, a daughter of a Brahmin came and stood before the old priest as he was painfully shutting the enormous iron gates that protected the temple like the great armour on Bhima’s chest. Her clothes were tattered but her beauty was great despite it. It was as though a star had fallen from the skies and was seeking refuge within the temple to escape from the cold. The priest noted that she bore all the signs of good fortune although she was a widow.
 
He asked, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
 
The Brahmin girl then folded her palms together like a pair of delicate lotus buds and said, ‘Lord, I seek shelter. I am the only child of the Brahmin Devaditya, the Veda scholar of the land of the Gurjaras – my name is Subhaga. My countrymen cast me out after deeming me unlucky as I was widowed on the very night of my marriage. Lord, I had a mother but even she is no more. Thus I seek shelter.’
 
The old Brahmin answered, ‘Oh unfortunate child, what happiness can you find with me? I have neither food nor clothing; I am among the poorest of the poor for I do not even have friends.’
 
Even as he spoke these words aloud, a voice seemed to whisper to him – You are unfortunate and forsaken by all. Give this child a home and befriend her. The Brahmin thought of giving her shelter. But he also worried that after eighty years of caring for the temple on his own he was even thinking of giving away the responsibility of the temple to someone he hardly knew. But as he hesitated, a single ray of light appeared in the western sky, passed through all the gloom of the dusk that surrounded them and fell on the girl’s pitiful face. It was as a sign from the Lord Aditya – this is my handmaiden. Oh most devoted follower of mine, give this child shelter so that I may have this unfortunate widow care for me for the rest of her life. Then the Brahmin priest folded his palms in respect to the Sun god and allowed the widowed daughter of the Brahmin Devaditya to take shelter within the Sun temple.
 
Much time has passed since then; Subhaga has learned to do all the duties of the temple on her own. The only thing she cannot manage with her delicate hands is to lift the enormous brass candelabra when it is lit. That is a task that the old Brahmin must still perform twice each day. One day she observed that the old Brahmin seemed broken in spirit and body and that the great candelabra shook in his withered hands. She went to the markets of Ballavipur that day and bought a small candle stand which she gave to the old priest and said, ‘Father, perform the evening prayers with this candle stand.’
 
The Brahmin smiled a little and said, ‘The lamp that was lit in the morning must be used to perform the rites in the evening as well. Put this one away, we will use it tomorrow morning and greet the new day with a new candelabra.’
 
That day at noon when the world was all ablaze with sunlight, the Brahmin initiated the girl into an incantation to the Sun, one that would summon the Sun god to his devotee and the use of which more than once in a lifetime meant certain death. Then at the conjunction of day and night, the Brahmin’s life ebbed away like the fading out of the candelabra flames in the darkness of evening, the sun set in the west plunging the world into night and Subhaga was alone once more.
Aban art
(Aban Thakur)
 
She spent the first few days weeping for the old man. After that a few more days went in clearing the weeds that had sprung up around the temple with her own hands and planting flowering shrubs and fruiting trees. Then she turned herself to cleaning the mossy walls of the temple and decorating the stone with paintings of vines, leaves, flowers, birds, elephants, horses, stories from the fables and pictures of historical happenings. After that was done, there was nothing more left for Subhaga to do. She wandered among the fruit forests and flower gardens on her own. Then one by one, fruit began to ripen on the boughs and flowers blossomed at their feet; first one butterfly and then another were followed by flocks of birds and finally by groups of little children. The butterflies sipped the nectar from only one flower at a time and the birds pecked at one or two of the ripe fruit. But the children pulled all the flowers out of the beds, took even the unripe fruit and broke the very branches on the trees. Subhaga said nothing at all to any of them and bore all this with a smile. Her days passed without care, watching the groups of children in their colourful clothes playing on the green grass around the trees.
 
Then came the rainy season – with dark clouds, the flicker of lightning and the rumbling of clouds as they fought in the sky. This was followed by the sword sharp east wind that cut a swathe through Subhaga’s beloved garden and severed every flower from its stalk and every leaf from the trees till all was laid bare. The flocks of birds vanished before that wind, the broken wings of butterflies littered the ground like shed petals and the children scattered to come back no more. Subhaga sat by herself in the streaming rain and thought of her lost parents, the cruelty of her in-laws and the handsome smiling face of her husband on the night of their union and she wept. As she wept she thought to herself, ‘Alas! How will I bear the rest of my life, living like this in a friendless land.’
 
Her enormous doe eyes filled with tears. She looked to the east and to the west; she looked to the north and to the south and saw darkness in all directions. She remembered another night just like this one, rain drenched and dark when she had sought shelter in this very temple. Tonight was just as dark and the winds howled just as they had on that night around the vast empty temple but the Brahmin priest who had taken pity on the unfortunate, abandoned Subhaga in her misery was no longer here. Her tears fell like rain in the darkness. She then closed all the doors to the temple and sat down to worship. Afterwards she sat in meditation before the statue of the Sun. Gradually her eyes focused and the sibilance of the storm and the clashing of the clouds seemed to recede till all was calm once again. There was no more pain or hurt in her heart. The darkness within her had been banished by the brilliance of the sun. Subhaga began to utter the invocation that the old Brahmin had taught her, fearfully and slowly. The words left her lips and the earth seemed to wake from its slumber and Subhaga heard birds singing, flutes playing and the sounds of happiness on the air. Then a deep solemn rumble shook the sky, the world was flooded with light, the stone walls and iron gates of the temple seemed to melt away before her and the Sun god appeared with the heat and splendour of a million fires seated upon a luminous chariot drawn by seven green horses. No human can bear that luminous glow.
 
Subhaga hid her face in her hands and cried, ‘Forgive me Lord, save me for the earth is burning as I speak!’
 
The Sun said, ‘Fear not, fear not! Ask me for a boon!’ As he spoke, his light began to grow fainter and fainter till one streak of light remained, glowing in Subhaga’s hair parting like the mark of marriage that is made with vermilion.
 
Then Subhaga said, ‘My Lord, I have neither husband nor child, I am a forsaken widow, I am terribly alone; let it be that I do not have to live on this earth for one more day; let death come to me and let me farewell all my troubles at your blessed feet!’
 
The Sun god said, ‘Daughter, no boon can cause death, death comes from a god’s curse. Ask for a boon.’
 
Subhaga bowed down to the Sun and said, ‘If you must, then give me a son and a daughter so that I can raise them. Let the son be as fierce as you and the daughter be as beautiful as the moon.’
 
‘So be it,’ said the Sun as he slowly disappeared. Subhaga fell asleep soon, her clothing spread beneath her on the stone floor. It began to rain as it had never rained before.
 
When dawn light entered the temple, Subhaga seemed to hear the sweet songs of two little birds in the garden that she had once planted and which was now fallen into disrepair. As the golden light of day touched her eyelids, she woke and tried to gather her clothes to herself but she felt a weight upon them. She looked to see that there were two babies lying on it. The Sun’s boon had worked and Subhaga now had two children as beautiful as the gods themselves. She named them Gayeb and Gayebi as they had been born in the secrecy of the temple without the knowledge of others.
 
She brought Gayeb and Gayebi outside the temple’s walls. The sun was rising in the east and the moon was setting in the west. Subhaga saw how Gayeb’s face glowed golden with the aura of the sun while the glow of moonlight seemed to wash out of Gayebi’s hair. She knew then that Gayebi was not meant for this world for too long.
 
When Gayeb grew older he began to go to school and Gayebi stayed at home with their mother and learned how to work in the temple. She was as quiet and meek as her brother Gayeb was strong and courageous. Gayebi had many little play mates who came to seek her company but the boys at the school were all tormented by Gayeb. Eventually they decided on a plan. They said, ‘Gayeb is better than us at studies and stronger than us at play. Let us make him our king and we will be his subjects. Then he will not be able to torment us anymore.’
 
Then they all lifted Gayeb onto their shoulders and danced about with him. While Gayeb looked around happily from the elevation of his new seat, a little boy cried out, ‘I am the King’s priest. I want to anoint him with a special prayer.’
 
The boys then placed Gayeb on a mound of earth. Gayeb was sitting just like a king on that earthen throne when the little boy drew a mark on his forehead and asked, ‘Gayeb, we know your name but nothing of your parents, what are their names?’
 
Gayeb answered, ‘My name is Gayeb, my sister is Gayebi and my mother is Subhaga. Of my father I know nothing.’ He did not know that the Sun god was his father. He could not say his father’s name and hid his face from his friends. The boys all laughed at his discomfort and his face burned bright with shame. He then kicked the earthen throne till it lay evened with the ground, hit the chubby cheeks of the children till they swelled up even more and trembled with anger as he strode home to the temple.
 
At the temple Subhaga had just been showing Gayebi how to do the offering of fire to the Sun god with a little brass lamp; Gayeb arrived like a tornado and struck the lamp from her hands. The solid brass cracked upon hitting the stone walls and a black stone plaque bearing the mark of the sun fell from the wall.
 
Subhaga cried, ‘Have you lost your mind? You insult the god by destroying the offering?’
 
Gayeb said, ‘I do not want to hear about the gods or the Sun! Tell me, whose son am I? Or I will drown your precious statue in the tank outside!’
 
Even though the statue was so huge that the Pandava Bhima himself would not have been able to lift it, Subhaga looked at the enraged Gayeb and worried that he might do the unthinkable. She clasped his hand quickly and said, ‘My child, calm yourself and sit down and do not insult the Sun god with such words! Why do you need your father’s name? I am your mother and Gayebi is your sister, what more do you want?’
 
Gayeb wept and asked, ‘Then am I impure, fallen, beyond redemption, lower than the very dust or the beggar who crawls upon it?’
 
His words pierced Subhaga like an arrow and she covered her face as she sank to the ground. She thought, ‘Lord, what have you done? How will I comfort this angry child, how will I bring him around? Gayeb and Gayebi are not fallen, they are not impure, they are the children of the Sun and purer than everyone else, but who will believe this?’
 
She thought of invoking the Sun once more but when she remembered that it would lead to her certain death the mother in her wept at the thought of abandoning her two young children and leaving this world forever. She said, ‘Child, let it be, forget all this and let us go to another land. Know that the Sun himself is your father.’
 
Gayeb shook his head in disbelief. Then Subhaga saw that there was nothing more to be done. She said, ‘Close the doors to the temple, you will see your father very soon but know this, you will lose me forever at the same moment.’
 
Tears ran down her face. Gayebi said, ‘Brother, why do you wish to hurt our mother?’ But Gayeb paid no heed to her and closed all the doors to the temple. Subhaga took her children by the hand and sat down in meditation before the statue of the Sun. The invocation that she had once uttered alone in this temple without fear in the hope of inviting death seemed to halt on her tongue today as her mother’s heart filled with apprehension and pain. The Sun god appeared before them, flooding the temple with blood red light as he revealed his terrible aspect.
 
Subhaga asked, ‘Lord, whose children are Gayeb and Gayebi?’
 
The Sun said nothing. His enraged glare reduced Subhaga’s beautiful body to a pile of ashes. Gayebi cried out for her mother. Gayeb asked, ‘Where is my mother?’ The Sun said nothing and pointed at the mounded ashes. Gayeb understood that his mother had died. Anger and sorrow made his eyes glow and he picked up the stone plaque that had fallen from the wall earlier and threw it at the Sun with all his might. The stone hit the fiery crown on the Sun’s brow and burst into flames as it fell away. Gayeb fell unconscious as this happened.
 
When he came back to his senses after a very long time, the Sun god was gone and only Gayebi waited by his side. Gayeb asked, ‘Where did the Sun god go?’
 
Gayebi pointed at the black stone plaque and said, ‘Here is the Adityashila. If you throw this at your enemies they will surely die. The Sun gave this for you to have and said that you are his son. From today you shall be known as Shiladitya or Sun of stone. Your line will rule the world as the Sun dynasty and whenever you call for them, the seven steeds of the Sun will draw his chariot out of Suryakund and bring themselves to you. The chariot is known as the Saptashwaratha. Take the Adityashila and the Saptashwaratha and come back after you have vanquished all the other kings of the earth.’
 
‘Where will you be, my sister?’
‘Lock me inside the temple. I will live on the fruits of its gardens and the water of Suryakund till you return from your battles. Then take me to the palace with you.’
 
Overjoyed, Gayeb sealed his sister within the temple and went off to fight the other kings of the earth with the Saptashwaratha and his Adityashila. Gayebi swept the ashes of Subhaga into the waters of the tank and lay down on the stone, crying for her mother and brother.
 
Late that same night, when there was not a star to be seen in the sky nor a single light to be seen on the earth, the temple of the Sun god shook with a great clanging noise. Then half of the temple began to slide into the earth, taking with it the enormous statue of the Sun and the beautiful Gayebi. She tried so hard to escape. She clawed at the glass smooth walls of stone to pull herself up but it was of no use. She called piteously for her brother before it all ended and everything went dark.
 
Many days had passed since then. Gayeb had roamed the world on his Saptashwaratha defeating the kings he met with an army of soldiers he gathered along the way. He eventually returned to Ballavipur, killed the ruler there with the Adityashila and began ruling with the help of his old school friends, some of whom were now his ministers and generals. He drove away all the useless old employees of the previous king. He married Pushpavati, the princess of the Chandravati kingdom to the sound of much ululation and the blowing of conch shells. Then, when he had finally decided to rest in the marble sleeping chambers he had a dream. The night was dark and there were no sounds to be heard, the golden lamp at his head had nearly gone out and the person who waved a fly whisk over the sleeping king had fallen into a deep slumber themselves when the king dreamed of his little sister, her sweet face looking at him as a voice seemed to call from where the temple stood, ‘Brother of mine! Oh, brother of mine!’
 
Shiladitya woke with an anguished cry. It was dawn and he immediately mounted his chariot and rode to the Sun temple with his soldiers. There he found that the iron gates of the temple which had always guarded it like the armour of Bhima had become covered in vines and leaves over time. Shiladitya tore at them with his bare hands and finally opened the door. A swarm of bats flew out into the daylight after being released after all this time. Shiladitya entered the temple and found a great gaping darkness where the statue of the Sun had once stood, hiding everything like a curtain. He called, ‘Gayebi, Gayebi, where is Gayebi?’ The darkness echoed back, ‘Gayebi, Gayebi, where is Gayebi?’ Shiladitya then called for torches to be brought. By their light he saw that the northern quarter was empty and half of the temple seemed to have descended into the underworld along with the statue of the Sun god. The only things that remained were the seven horse heads of black stone, rearing from the earth like the hood of the great serpent Vasuki. The room where he had once played as a child with Gayebi, where the two had listened to their mother tell them stories of the Gurjaras and fallen asleep in her embrace was no longer there. The room that had once housed the brass candelabra which was as tall as a deodar sapling was gone as well. He stood at that great gaping maw and called for his sister. But his voice echoed in the deepest recesses of the earth till it disappeared into the bowels of the earth. He sighed and returned to the royal temple.
 
That same day the metal smiths in the king’s employ began to cover the enormous temple with a thick sheet of gold. Shiladitya did not establish any other gods within it. The seven horses remained as they were, half awake at the opening to the other world. Shiladitya had marble carved out of the mountains and that marble was used to create platforms all around the great tank of Suryakund.
 
Whenever there was a call to war, Shiladitya went to the banks of the Sun pool and worshipped the god of the solar disc. The Sun god would then send his very own chariot drawn by seven great horses rising from the waters to Shiladitya’s aid. When he rode in that chariot, he was invincible in war. But in the end a treacherous minister in the king’s cabinet, one whom Shiladitya had both trusted and loved greatly betrayed him. The minister had been the only one in the whole wide world to know that the waters of the Sun pool provided the war chariot drawn by seven great horses each time there was a battle.
 
When a horde of uncivilized barbarians known as the Parad came from Shyamnagar by the banks of the Indus to attack Ballavipur, the traitor colluded with them for a few pieces of gold and desecrated the sacred waters of Suryakund with the blood of slain cattle. When Shiladitya sat by the side of the pool on the day of battle and prayed to the Sun, the chariot failed to rise from its blue waters; he called out again and again to the seven horses by their seven names but the waters stayed as still as ever. Despondent, the king took his own chariot into battle but he was slain in the end. After a day of fighting, both the sun and his favourite child faded away. The infidels crushed the golden temple at Ballavipur and sacked the city before they left.
 
 
Shiladitya,
Rajkahini
Abanindranath Tagore
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This entry was posted in A Good Thing, History, Indigenous history, Mythology, Our history, Tagore, Translated Fiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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