• The Eternal Farmer

    The Farmer

    ∫∫∫

    रोउँ त भने को सित रुने
    नरोउँ भने मन भरी पिर हुने
    चिन्ता बढ्यो झन्
    रोएको रोऐछ खुसी छैन मन
    रोएको रोऐछ खुसी छैन मन

    ∫∫∫

    A hill far away from Nepal Valley
    May 6, 1869

    He walked softly along the ridge of sprawling Mandre Daaँdaa. Walked to its southern edge, where the hill suddenly spilled down into a confused mass of bumps, slopes and wrinkles all the way to the Daraudi riverbed. From his hut three hills over, Mandre Daaँdaa had always looked like an elephant’s head in profile. But from here it looked very different… less permanent.

    He made his way slowly down the slope, one hand holding onto roots and shrubs lining the sides of the trail, the other often reaching into his patukaa for the khukuri to clear wayward bushes that blocked the almost non-existent trail. Sometimes he slipped on loose pebbles, but the kodali slung snugly over his left shoulder never moved from its perch.

    He made it to the bottom, where the hill gave way to the roaring Daraudi winding around what would be the elephant’s trunk before disappearing into other folds of other hills. The sun had already singed through the morning fog and was searing his back and neck. There was a lone cloud floating in the sky. He dislodged the kodali from his shoulder, threw it onto the soft sands of the riverbank, looked up through the shrubs and bushes fed by the river, up the slope and onto the elephant forehead of Mandre Daaँdaa looming over him. Not a single tree on the hill, only a few gnarled stumps which lined the edge of his plot along the right.

    The entire region, many hills wide, was part of Ramu Ale’s jagir. Two days ago, with a pressing of thumb prints onto paper containing mysterious words read out to him, this part, Mandre Daaँdaa, had become his to till. He knew he had gotten a bad deal. Ramu Ale’s ruthless negotiating powers had made him the richest dhokre in the village. But he had nothing to negotiate with, and had four hungry bellies to fill. The hill was now his to dig, and by God, he would dig.

    He turned around, took stock of the breadth of the Daraudi, ran his eyes along the shore, the sandy banks, the boulders nearer to where he stood, then continued his reckoning towards Mandre Daaँdaa, tracing a straight line towards the slopes and resting his eyes on the first tentative bulge of the hill — about knee-high — that separated the hill from the riverbed proper. All along this separation large rocks provided a natural buffer from the angry forces of the river. Good. He followed the rocky separation towards the left, and located the boundary of his plot, as had been pointed out by Ramu Ale: a small stream that cut an irregular groove into the sprawling hill and separated his till from that of someone else on the other side. There. He would start there.

    From his patuka he unhinged an ankhora and a pouch of makai, filled the ankhora in the river and hid the pouch behind a rock. He unwound the patuka and wrapped it briskly around his head. Legs wide apart, he raised the kodali high, and sliced the air in a clean, swift arc.

    Swoooosh: the blade bit earth.

    Swiiiish: his breath escaped through clenched lips.

    Bent down, still holding kodali, he tilted its handle outward. A bladeful of compact earth yawned out of the hill. Now aiming for the lower edge of the first wound on the hill, he raised the kodali high, sliced it through the air.

    Swoooosh the blade bit earth swiiiish his breath escaped.

    There was now a sliver of clear separation between the riverbed and what would be the first tier of his terraced hill.

    Shifting rightward one stride, he planted his legs wide apart again.

    raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift

    Beads of sweat collected on his forehead, trickled down, found the grooves of the many wrinkles which had already set into his thirty-year-old face, fell occasionally onto the metal of the kodali and gave off that sweatrusty smell he had known all his life. The smell of labor. Now the drops of sweat fell onto earth, disappeared. The lone cloud moved from over there to over here, but did not cover the sun.

    Before long, he had carved about forty hands sideways through the base of Mandre Daaँdaa. Where he made the cuts, what would eventually become the terrace always hugged the contours of the hill: now bending inward to follow a recess in the slopes, now curving out to accommodate a bulge. The initial tentative shaping of the many terraces he would have to carve out… perhaps even a hundred, depending on the folds of the hill higher up.

    Shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt for many more ghadis until he reached the other boundary of the plot: a sharp cliff of exposed rock which covered the right side of Mandre Daaँdaa and dropped sharply all the way down to the level of the winding Daraudi riverbed, probably the result of a landslide long ago.

    Next was the hard part, flattening the surface of the first terrace, and fixing the edge of the next terrace across the hill. He would do more leveling later, but for now he just scraped out the smaller bumps on the hill and loosened earth all over the first terrace layer. Then the wall of the next terrace up, this one a little higher than the first, about knee high, still hugging the now slightly changed contour of the hill, still going left to right until he reached the rocky cliff. Again he loosened earth at the surface of the second terrace somewhat, leaving the bulk of the work for another day, and started on the third terrace, carving the wall that would separate it from the second level, working from the edge of the stream towards the right.  

    Thus he went back and forth, sculpting the first hint of terraces on the hill as the morning wore on, stopping only for an occasional drink of water. Shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt.

    Sometimes he would strike rock with the kodali, which made him wince out of fear that the blade of his precious tool would be damaged beyond repair. But he was lucky that day. The kodali survived.  

    By the time the sun had climbed to its highest point in the sky, he had carved four terraces in winding symmetric layers… about a sixth of the way up the Mandre Daaँdaa massif. If our gods had happened to fly past Mandre Daaँdaa on their regular voyages through heaven that day, they would have seen the beginnings of an exquisite hand-carved masterpiece in the making, the contours of the terraces always respectful of the folds of the hills, not violating them but magically reinforcing the natural rhythms, each layer once created looking like it had always existed just so. Terraces crafted in perfect harmony with the undulations of nature. Crafted without the aid of manuals, crafted with no training other than intuitions handed down father to son all over the hills of this land seeped with the sweat, the दु:ख of fifty generations. But the gods did not fly over Mandre Daaँdaa that day. The beauty of the terraces went unnoticed, for he himself was too simple and too busy to notice it.

    Exhausted and hungry, he stopped, wiped his brow and walked slowly down the roughly hewn terraces to the riverbed, grabbed the ankhora from behind the rock, walked to the edge of Daraudi, dipped his head into the water to cool down, filled up the ankhora, drank it straight, filled another, drank that straight, and with a third fill of the ankhora, fetched his pouch of makai and walked along the river bed about a hundred steps to a tree with enough shade to cover him until the end of the meal. He unwound the pouch, sank his hands absently into the makai, grabbed a fistful, threw it into his mouth. He stared at the river absently: it was in constant turmoil as usual: angry, confused, destructive. He took occasional swigs of the water, and quite soon was searching through the pouch for the last remaining kernels of corn, either burnt black or unpopped and hard as rocks, but still a satisfying way to end the meal.

    Before forcing himself to stand up, he looked at the kodali that he had flung nearby. He remembered carving out the wooden shaft for the handle when the kami had handed him the newly forged blade. The handle used to give him occasional splinters in the beginning, despite his attempts at smoothing it out. But through constant use, it had become a smooth rod of ivory. It even glistened like metal when help up to the light, a result of constant contact with human hand and sweat. He shifted his gaze to the metal knob that firmly held the handle in place. For some reason, that knob was his favorite part of the kodali. The kami’s raw strikes around the knob were still sharply etched, the blows indiscriminately inflicted to force the knob into an approximate shape, but the kami had not spent too much effort on this part, for the knob had to exist to serve a function, but it did not need to stand out. Finally he traced with his eyes the roughly formed bridge that arched and connected the knob to the blade proper… also retaining signs of the kami’s strikes, but now more refined as the bridge curved downwards and opened up into a broad, firm plate, initially still dented somewhat and black with rust, but soon tapering into a smooth flat blade, the pure iron shining from constant use. And finally, the perfect, sharp edge at the biting end of the kodali, the one that would make contact with earth and feed his family.

    He looked up, checked the position of the sun, drank a final ankhora of water, climbed up to the fourth terrace and started digging again, slowly crisscrossing the side of the hill until the bones and sinews of his hands ached.

    shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt.  

    His mind wandered. He thought of the curse that had given him two daughters but no son. Thought of leaving and starting all over in Mughlan. Thought again of his failure to negotiate with Ramu Ale. He knew that half the share was the most anyone had ever paid to dhokres in his village. But he only managed to talk Ramu Ale down to six parts in ten. He had not really thought about how he was going to survive on the meager remains. But now he did, and it made him raised the kodali extra high. He even stepped up on his toes.

    Swoooossssh went the kodali. He collected all of his rage into one breath and spat it out. Swwwiiiissssh. The kodali dug deep into earth. He tilted the handle forward. The kodali did not move. Tightening his grip around the handle, he jiggled it with closed eyes and clenched jaws. The kodali did not move. He jumped up in the air, raised his leg, crashed his foot sideways onto the handle.  

    मेराठोक्नी !  

    The kodali finally gave way and toppled over, biting off a large chunk of earth. He toppled over also, crumpled and defeated with the pain, the heat, the shame. He gasped for breath. Small whines escaped from him. He sat there at an awkward angle, staring vacantly at the kodali, for almost one ghadi. Slowly, his breathing returned to normal, and the emotions drained out.

    He pulled the turban off his head, wiped sweat. Spat. Got up. And started digging again.

    Shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt shift raise swoooosh swiiiish tilt.

    When the sun had travelled well behind the elephant’s forehead, he squatted at the northern edge of the highest terrace he had dug, and surveyed the day’s work. Not bad. Two more days and he would finish outlining the terraces. Then would begin the more tedious work of leveling and tilling each layer. He would come with a few kodalos, bring his wife (if she collected enough syaula to last a few days) and also hopefully persuade Daaँdaa-Ghare Saila to come help him for a few days. If God favored him, the entire hill would be ready by Full Moon. Then it was all up to the rains. All this planning bolstered his spirits somehow. He still had a few good years left, had able hands, and was free of disease. He would survive somehow.  

    He turned towards the immense openness of the Daraudi riverbed. He traced the river to where it disappeared around the fold of the hill over yonder, traced above it layer upon layer of hill that rose in the background, out to the far distance where the snowy mountains were turning orange in the setting sun dotted by wisps of blue-red clouds. The vastness of the hills the mountains the sky caused a quick spasm in his chest. His spirits sank. He suddenly felt very small.

    ∫∫∫

     

    His Hut
    The next day

    He sat motionless on the ground face propped up with hands resting on bent knees. He stared ahead with vacant eyes towards the vast openness of the valley cut by the Daraudi river. The slopes all around him were strewn with boulders, rocks and dust that had just come hurling down from higher up the hillsides. To his left, his hut was now just a large heap of wood splinters, mud and straw. Faint smoke streamed out from the corner where the fireplace used to be. His legs were still shaking.

    दाइ, दाइ, तिम्लाई मान्द्रे डाडाँ बोलाछ ।

    As if in a dream, he heard these hazy words in a young boy’s voice from somewhere behind him.

    Slowly he raised his eyes, fixed them at the sky, but otherwise remained motionless. After some time, he managed to squeeze out a word for the boy:

    Why?

    The earthquake caused a landslide and wiped out the entire hill. It’s just empty open space now: nothing is left. We also lost five huts nearby… they simply slid down like pebbles all the way to the river.

    He continued staring at the sky. If he had turned his head right and looked beyond the ridge of the intervening hills, he would have seen clear blue sky, instead of the usual elephant head profile of Mandre Daaँdaa. But he did not look. In fact, he did not even notice the enormous dense cloud of dust that was quietly rising up from the valley below. The tears streaming down his face mixed with drainage from his nose and trickled down to earth. Earth that takes everything and gives so little back.

    The thick cloud of dust continued to build, rose up slowly but surely above the valley, rose up to cover the hill across the river, rose up towards the Eternal Farmer and eventually covered everything in blinding suffocating gritty dust.

    ∫∫∫

    Nepali lyrics excerpt from a song by Tiki Maya Gandharba, featured in the documentary The Mountain Music Project.  

  • दु:ख

     

    October 2, 1864

    Swayambhu Mahachaitya, Nepal

    Prince Trailokya reached the base of the hill stopped looked up traced the innumerable roughly-hewn stone steps lining both sides of the steep stairway that lead uncertainly up to Swayambhu Chaitya. Although invisible from where he stood, he knew that Swayambhu loomed on top of the hill, watching over the valley, tranquil yet shrouded in an aura of mystery. Beggars daemons spirits monks scowling gods lined both sides of the path, some carved of stone and others of flesh and bone. From where he stood it was difficult to discern which was which. Flickering memories of his first official visit to Swayambhu, now many years ago, passed through him. But the images were disconnected, blurred by time. They only increased in Prince Trailokya the sense of mystery emanating form Swayambhu.

    He started walking up the stairs with resolve, steadying himself on the occasional brush or statue lining the steep path. Jung Bahadur’s spy, masquerading as an umbrella-bearing servant, kept pace immediately behind him. The presence of Jung Bahadur’s men vexed him as always. But after so many years, he was almost getting used to their presence. His attention was temporarily diverted by the sight of a monkey on a nearby wall: it peeled a banana rather elegantly, and started eating the flesh with relish. The monkey looked Trailokya straight in the eye. Trailokya startled…

    How can this lowly animal have such deep, knowing eyes?

    Beggars of various ilk lining the paths wailed दुहाई… दुहाई … at Trailokya. Some had entire legs missing. Some brandished their arms, gnawed off from leprosy, mere stumps sticking out from shoulders. One woman grabbed Prince Trailokya’s legs with manic enthusiasm as he passed by, and shoved the face of a blind child directly at him. The child had चिप्रा around its eyes, semi-dry snot running down its nose. Trailokya wondered whether the woman was the child’s mother, and asked himself: would it be better if she were, or would it in fact be better if she were not?

    In the mean time, Jung Bahadur’s guard had managed to scold the woman away. Outwardly, Prince Trailokya kept a stony face as he had been trained to do, but this scene pierced deep into his soul and troubled him for some strange reason. He climbed up a few more flights of stairs in gloomy silence. Then remembering something he reached into the large sack carried by the bodyguard, and began doling out the appropriate amounts of rice and coins to the beggars, starting back with the intruding woman.

    Now at the top of the long flight of stairs, Trailokya paused in front of the enormous metal object that essentially blocked his path. Resting on a decorated pedestal, flanked by two fierce lions, this object appeared to be made of copper, and had bulbous arches which ballooned out on both sides from the center. Trailokya would have guessed it was a weapon of war, but the middle of the object, where the warrior would grasp the weapon if this were indeed one, was a large sphere and would have provided an awkward grasp.

    Why does this object, which I know nothing about, exude a sense of power and quiet confidence?

    Trailokya reminded himself to ask his royal instructors about it upon his return to the palace.  But now his attention was drawn to the main attraction that lay imposing in front of him… the formidable structure that drew in all pilgrims, the motif that could be seen from every corner of Nepal valley if only the supplicant were to look up towards the hills. An enormous dome that filled the sky. So enormous that he could not see the top from where he stood.

    Trailokya walked away towards the open space to the left so that he could see the entire dome.  He stopped, transfixed. Those sad, burdened, eternal eyes gazed serenely at him. At all of Nepal valley. Those tranquil knowing eyes that seemed to absorb all दु:ख and emitted but light. Whose eyes were they? What were they feeling? Why did the tika between the eyes spiral out like a swirling vortex? And why was the nose apparently shaped like the number one? Trailokya drifted through these questions for a long time, transfixed by the solemn gaze of the one that seemed to see all and know all.

     

    [To be continued….]

    ∫∫∫

    Image 1: Pata depicting the Swayambhunath complex. Late 17th century. 90 x 70 cm. Private collection, Paris. ]

    Image 2: Detail of the harmika from Swayambhu mahachaitya, depicting the eyes of Adi Buddha. Photo © Author. 

  • ہلکا ہلکا سرور

    نہ نماز آتی ہے مجھ کو نہ وضو آتا ہے
    سجدہ کر لیتا ہوں جب سامنے تو آتا ہے

    میں ازل سے بنداعشق  ہوں
    مجھ زہد  کفر  کا غم  نہیں
    میرے  سر  کو  ر تیرا مل گیا
    مجھے اب تلاش حرم نہیں
    میری بندگی ہے وہ  بندگی
    جوبہ قید دیر و حرم  نہیں
    مری ایک نظر تمہیں دیکھنا
    بہ خدا نماز سے کم نہیں

    ∫∫∫

    ना नमाज़ आती है मुझ को ना वज़ू आता है
    सज्दा कर लेता हूँ जब सामने तू आता है

    मै अजल से बन्दा-ए-इश्क हूँ
    मुझे ज़ोहद-ओ-कुफ़्र का गम नहीं
    मेरे सर को दर तेरा मिल गया
    मुझे अब तलाश-ए-हरम नहीं
    मेरी बन्दगी है वो बन्दगी
    जो वकाएद-ए-दैर-ओ-हरम नहीं
    मेरी इक नज़र तुम्हें देखना
    ब-ख़ुदा नमाज़ से कम नहीं

    ∫∫∫

    I do not care for prayers or rituals
    But I shall fall to the floor,  forehead to dust
    when you appear before me

    I have been a lover since time immemorial
    I do not worry about faith or sacrilege
    My weary head has found your doorstep
    I do not even care for heaven
    My devotion is not bound to the mosque or temple
    Just one sight of you, I swear,  is equal to prayer

    ∫∫∫

     

    Nepal Valley

    August 13, 1860

    Begum Hazrat Mahal bowed a little towards Jung Bahadur, offered a formal Mughal aadaab.

    Welcome Maharaj, to the humble milieu of Barf Bagh. Your royal visitation blesses our abode and incurs much debt upon us.

    Jung Bahadur was impressed once again with the grandeur of Hazrat Mahal’s language. He bowed lower, and responded as coached by his Farsi munshi: aadaab-o-taslimat to Nawab Iftikhar un-Nisa Begum Hazrat Mahal Sahiba. It is an honor to be in the presence of one who has shown not only the British occupiers, but all the men of Hindustan what it means to be brave. I hope everything is to your liking here at Barf Bagh. If not, please send me word and I will remedy the situation immediately.

    Hazrat Mahal noticed that Nana Sahab’s emeralds had already found a new home all around Jung Bahadur’s gaudy crown. They glistened in the soft light of her assembly room. She did not mind. In fact, she had long forgiven Jung Bahadur the small offense of having taken her own Awadh treasures. In its place, she was grateful for his larger kindness of opening up Nepal to her and the other rebels. It was, after all, because of Jung Bahadur that she had avoided the shame of having to bow down to the British dogs. She chose to ignore altogether his greatest offense of assisting the British during the Hindustani uprising. In the politics of survival, one has to be pragmatic and always take the long view.

    Because of your lavish patronage, we are not in want of anything here, she said politely to Jung Bahadur.

    lavish patronage… was she being sarcastic? Jung Bahadur flashed a suspicious look at her, straining to retain his composure. Hazrat Mahal’s large liquid eyes… accented by the confident sweeps of her arched, delicately re-shaped Mughal eyebrows and the strokes of gaajal that enhanced the curves and went a little too far towards the temples in an obvious attempt at maximizing what was already a natural advantage, before the sensual mounds of flesh that made up her eyelids took over… no, those eyes betrayed nothing.

    The vixen!

    Jung Bahadur continued, managing not to skip a beat: I hope Rani Kashi Bai and others of the royal Maratha entourage are also satisfied and in good health?

    And here I was, hoping that you could update me on the latest news about Rani Kashi Bai, the thought flashed through Hazrat Mahal’s mind. But once again, she decided there was no point in getting the supreme ruler of Nepal riled up… especially over that sordid affair.

    Yes, they are all well.

    The opening niceties were beginning to drag.

    This way Maharaj…

    Hazrat Mahal turned, showed Jung Bahadur the way to the mehfil in the manner prescribe for polite society: lowered arm, palm flat and tilted, five fingers pointing discreetly at the floor, body bent forward slightly, but not too obsequious. Thus she led Jung Bahadur to some seating cushions at the far end of the room.

    Jung Bahadur cast a sweeping glance through the room. She had transformed his dusty old palace into a grand Mughal gharaana… and in so little time… portraits in bright yellow and gold on the walls, paintings of peacocks, parrots, stylized trees. And big bold letters in the jumbled up Farsi script that had no structure or discernible order.

    He settled in. Dhir Shamsher was also present, of course, but nobody had really noticed him until now. Even Hazrat Mahal had given him but a half-nod upon his entrance. Khadga Singh sat discreetly behind Dhir, the Purdey pistol lodged safely within the folds of his uniform, as relaxed as he could force himself to be while looking out for the double threat of home-grown conspirators and Hindustani rebel malcontents among the assembled crowd that might desire to harm his Maharaja.

    Jung Bahadur noted the plates of fruits and nuts, the pitchers of juice laid out in front of him. The singing party was seated directly across, the central position occupied by a fat man with an exploding bushy beard and moustache. Jung Bahadur thought he did not look much like an ustad… perhaps a Mughal गाइने ? But he wore a solemn look and was quite richly dressed. To his left was a sarangi player, to his right a tabalchi, and to the far left, another man, thin and with the darkest skin of them all, without any musical instruments.

    The Begum was now seated, also facing the singing party. Around her gathered the female members of her household. The male attendants, along with some representative leaders of the Nepali Muslim community, were seated a respectful distance away in a cluster. But Hazrat Mahal herself was quite scandalously close to Jung Bahadur. She offered him an elaborate hookah in black and gold, its long pipe adorned with embroidered cloth near the mouthpiece. Jung Bahadur politely demurred. The Begum took another hookah for herself, and said to Jung Bahadur in a solemn, ringing voice so all could hear:

    I beg to introduce to the esteemed assemblage the Prince of Mysore, Sitara-e-Subh-e-Mashrik, artist of artists, the mashhoor Qawwal Ustad Maula Bakhsh Sahab, of the Baroda gharaana, who has graced us with his presence, despite the many hardships of traveling to our exotic mountainous locale.

    Maula Bakhsh offered aadaab politely to the assembly. Obviously, the fat man had some social standing, Jung Bahadur thought, and re-calibrating his attitude returned the aadaab handsomely.

    Maula Bakhsh looked to his right. Looked to his left. Nodded. The sarangi began. Hazrat Mahal did not recognize the tune but it drew her in. Lilting long motifs shimmered slowly into existence out of nothingness, but were still tentative, half-formed. Hazrat Mahal knew that they would find their full form within the unfolding words of shaayari, but for now just the music, and the sweet melancholic wait. The mood established, the sarangi wound down slowly, circling on a melody and growing increasingly quieter. Maula Bakhsh looked over, nodded. The sarangi stopped.

    Maula Bakhsh closed his eyes, and a deep, resonant alaap erupted from the core of his body. He started in the low scales

    आ…

    and looped higher with each new breath. The Begum had been swaying since the sarangi first started, and now the golden purity of the Ustad’s voice carried her forth to an ethereal level. She flew high as the Ustad surged up the scales. She swirled playfully as he came back down, always circling, always touching the right notes, before landing perfectly back on the home note.

     आ…                                      आ…
    हा…   आ…   आ…
    .. .आ…   हा…  

    Jung Bahadur found it all rather interesting, but the thought did cross his mind: I hope there is more than just आ… and हा… in the program today. After some time the Ustad raised his hands signalling stop, which was curious because nobody else was playing or singing. Some sort of ustadi andaaz, Jung Bahadur surmised. The actual song would probably start now.

    साक़ी की हर निगाह पे बल खा के पी गया…

    Waah! Waah!

    Jung Bahadur was surprised to hear this outburst from the usually tranquil Begum. He looked over. She was still swaying, eyes closed, a delicate frown on her face. He must have sung a good line… but Jung Bahadur had distinctly heard something about alcohol as well, which confused him. He knew the Begum was quite strict in her Musalman faith…

    …लहरों से खेलता हुआ लहरा के पी गया…

    Waah! Waah!

    Hazrat Mahal said again as she admired the subtle play on words that was possible only in her adopted language. She took another long drag on the hookah. What shaayari. She let Maula Bakhsh’s words float through her, repeated them with fervor. With every glance from the wine-giver, I stumbled and drank. Playing with the waves I weaved. And drank. What qalaam-e-fun! What playfulness! Subhaan Allah. Subhaan Allah.

    Now the backup singers were picking up the line.

    लहरों ∫∫∫∫ से खेलता ∫∫∫ हुआ ∫∫∫

    They played it back and forth. The first backup singer was in fact the sarangi player. He sang in short, high-pitched forays, notes darting like hummingbirds but landing, always landing back on the home note for the other singer to pick up. Through all this, his sarangi kept pace with the singing. Never faltered. Never skipped a note. The other backup singer, the one without instruments, glided like an eagle, but in low majestic notes, unhurried, in supreme command of his graceful voice, searching for widely undulating pathways that would no doubt in time lead to a glimpse of The One…

    लहरों ∫∫∫∫∫
    लह∫∫∫∫∫ रों∫∫∫∫

    The mystical communication between Maula Bakhsh and the backup singers tugged at the crowd. Invited them to join in. All succumbed willingly.

    Hazrat Mahal wondered how her guest was doing. She knew Jung Bahadur had a rudimentary knowledge of formal Farsi from his darbar munshis, and Parbatiya words were often rather similar to Hindustani… She looked over discreetly. Jung Bahadur was still paying some attention to the qawwali, but the fogs of stupor were starting to gather around him.

    She leaned over, and spoke close to his ear: Maharaj, you might have noticed the mention of the wine-giver and drinking in the qawwali. I beg you to note that the song is about spiritual ecstasy, and not the drinking of alcohol, which as you know is forbidden in Islam. The wine-giver is a veiled allusion to the Almighty, The One. And to become drunk is to fall in love with The One. We use the allegory of drinking thus in Sufiyana qawwali.

    Jung Bahadur smiled. Thank you for your generous explanation, Begum Sahiba. I understand.

    Jung Bahadur understood, but only vaguely. Meanwhile, the qawwali had progressed:

      पास रहता है दूर रहता है
    कोहि दिल मे जरूर रहता है
    जब से देखा है उन कि आंखो को
    हल्का हल्का सुरूर रहता है
    अब अदम का वो हाल है हर कदम
    मस्त रहता है चूर रहता है
    ये जो हल्का हल्का…

    A quick virtuosic turn of the sarangi, and the tabla came to life, also with a quick introductory flourish, and bolstered the familiar rhythm that tugged at Hazrat Mahal’s heart. The clapping now began, in perfect step with the tabla. The entire party save the Ustad clapped in unison. A crisp, dignified rhythm.

    Clap…Clap…

    ये जो हल्का हल्का

    Clap…Clap…

    Now the two backup singers added their voices … different moods different adaas all came together in one harmonious meld… syncopated by the clapping…

    ये जो हल्का हल्का

    Clap…Clap…

    Even Jung Bahadur felt the primitive tug of the rhythm, the precision and grace of the clapping, enforced by the tabla. Almost without knowing it, he started to keep a discreet beat: two fingers of his right hand tapping on his thigh.

    ये जो हल्का हल्का

    Clap…Clap…

    The hypnotic, repetitive waves of music were working their effect on Hazrat Mahal. She could feel the trance coming on. The clapping, a rejoicing with flesh, bone and sinew, kept the same rhythm as the beating of the human heart. A reaching out of the physical trying to emulate and to reunite with the mystical.

    She started moving to the music gently, in anticipation of the rapture she knew Maula Bakhsh would deliver later on.

    ये जो हल्का हल्का सुरूर है
    तेरी नज़र का क़ुसूर है
    के शराब पीना सिखा दिया

    The story had suddenly advanced. He had been accused of teaching us how to drink. The magical spell was cast. And it would only grow as the qawwali progressed.

    Jung Bahadur recognized some of the words, but most were frustrating and dense to him. Like suroor. He sensed there was a fancy meaning, but he could not… he would not be able to find out. This annoyance took him back to the foreign lands of Lanka, Egypt, Malta,encountered at the beginning of his now-legendary trip across the Black Waters ten years ago. Took him back finally to London. The Opera. Laura Bell. Alien worlds with people speaking confounding languages. Despite the translators in his service then, he had encountered words that would entice and tease but were categorically denied him. It was an annoyance, but did he really care? No. Jung Bahadur had already decided that if he spent his days enjoying shaayari, a Basnyat or Shahi would have lopped his head off long ago. So he was generally happy with the way things were. But it still bothered him, like a mild toothache that would not go away. Out of habit, he looked back to check on Khadga Singh, and relaxed a bit more when he saw that his faithful bodyguard was scanning the room constantly but discreetly for signs of trouble, just as he had instructed him to.

    The sarangi joined Maula Bakhsh for occasional quirky accompaniments: short, not theatrical, but full of quick, subtle musical genius. The voice flexed, the sarangi kept pace, climbed up and down the scale, seemed to anticipate the next turn of singing, pushed the boundaries of what the raag allowed, but elegantly arrived back to the center note again, just in time for Maula Bakhsh to begin the next line.

    सारा जहाँ मस्त
    मस्त…मस्त मस्त …

    The backup singers echoed:

    मस्त…मस्त मस्त …

    Must. Jung Bahadur surmised that the word referred to spiritual intoxication, based on Hazrat Mahal’s earlier explanation. The constant repetition of the word by the singers made him mind wander again. Took him to the Tarai jungle. He thought of the massive drives to corner and capture male elephants in heat … must… in the other sense of the word. It would be three more months before he could return to the pleasures of the jungle again. He was in his element there, chasing wild elephants while riding his faithful Jung Prasad. Or else face to face with a tiger, trying to shoot it point blank. The flood of memories from the Tarai suddenly made Jung Bahadur wonder: What am I doing here? A weariness dragged him down. He wanted to run away from this pretentious Mughal event. Away from the constant grating burden of his artificial royalty. Away from the oppression of this godforsaken valley. He missed the simple humility of the Tharu villagers, the smells of the jungle, the naked joys of hunting. The incessant conflict in Jung Bahadur between his comfortable opulence and his raw jangey character riled up in his memory the fated words of his father…

    …gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat…

    He clenched his teeth to drive the words out of his head.

    सारा जहाँ मस्त जहाँ का निज़ाम मस्त
    दिन मस्त रात मस्त सहर मस्त शाम मस्त
    खुम मस्त शीशा मस्त सबु मस्त जाम मस्त
    है तेरी चश्म-ए-मस्त से है ख़ास-ओ-आम मस्त

    यूँ तो साक़ी हर तरह की तेरे मयख़ाने मे है
    वो भी थोड़ी सी जो इन आँखो के पैमाने मे है
    सब समझता हुं तेरी इश्वागरी ऐ साक़ी
    काम करती है नज़र नाम है पैमाने का
    तेरी बहकी बहकी निगाह ने मुझे इक शराबी बना दिया

    Hazrat Mahal marvelled at the subtle ways Maula Bakhsh pushed the boundaries, using the very profane to describe the sacred. Marvelled at the grace of the words and the notes, so that he would always be immediately forgiven. Marvelled also at the implicit summons in the profane words to rise up and think of a higher meaning. Indeed, You have many wines in your tavern: Yeshu. Krishna. Muhammad. Guru Nanak. But Maula Bakhsh wanted to drink directly from the eyes of The One. What impudence! What devotion! Subhaan Allah.

    Meanwhile, in celebration of the verbal fireworks that had just erupted, the tabla picked up speed, kept a driving hypnotic beat, and echoed the clapping, so that the rhythm playfully bounced around between the tabla and the clappers. It was the two-beat dhuk dhuk of a racing heart: the first beat came from the tabla, the second from the clapping.

    है यूँ तो साक़ी

    Maula Bakhsh began again. Hazrat Mahal saw that the entire party was ready to go along for another repetition of the majestic couplet just introduced.

    यूँ तो साक़ी…

    The Ustad repeated. Hark! He was lingering. Something was being cooked up here. The sarangi player looked over, read the Ustad’s face, and slowed the sarangi considerably. The clappers kept up the rhythm, but much subdued. They were all waiting for direction…

    मेरे साक़ी…

    The sarangi meandered, the soft claps anticipated… Maula Bakhsh had not made up his mind. Hazrat Mahal frowned, the pleasant torture was becoming unbearable…she even set her hookah pipe down…

    …and then the release: voices, claps, tabla sarangi all unleashed in their full fury:

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

    Jung Bahadur noticed that some men seated behind Hazrat Mahal had gotten up and were weaving and spinning to the now insistent, frantic music. They looked like servants and lower-class guests of the Begum. But they appeared unburdened in their dance, keeping step with the clapping and the chorus of saaqi saaqi from the backup singers without any regard for the fact that their Begum, along with the supreme master of the host country, were sitting three steps away. Two women now got up and joined them. Jung Bahadur shifted his gaze to the Begum, trying to determine whether all these breaches of decorum were acceptable. But the Begum was lilting to the incessant repetitions of saaqi saaqi herself. Jung Bahadur looked around the room: no signs of alcohol, of course. This was the same kind of behaviour he had seen among the ascetics who flocked to Pashupati during Shivaratri. And also in the shamans he met back in Jumla and Dhankuta while growing up. Various modes of spiritual possession he never really understood, but respected from a distance.

    तुम्हारा हुस्न अगर बेनकाब हो जाए…

    If your beauty were to be unwrapped from its veil…Hazrat Mahal wondered how the Ustad was going to turn this new, obviously profane line around…

    तुम्हारा हुस्न अगर बेनकाब हो जाए
    हर एक चेहरा ख़ुदा कि किताब हो जाए
    शराबियों को अक़ीदत है इस क़दर तुम से
    जो तुम पिला दो तो पानी शराब हो जाए

    Hazrat Mahal no longer parsed the words, did not tease apart the meaning. She just opened up and let the words, the rhythm flow through her. Like water. Like wine.

    The harmony that enveloped the cosmos reverberated through her soul, carried forth in the voices of the entire bazm-e-qawwali.

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

    Amidst the swaying and dancing, Jung Bahadur noticed one of the men in the Begum’s party stand and approach the Ustad. It was in fact one of the pesky Kashmiri merchants from Indra Chok whom he had to deal with occasionally. The qawwal party played on, but in a suspended manner, to accommodate the merchant interruption. They did not seem to be bothered about it. The merchant lingered in front of the Ustad, brought out a leather pouch, grabbed a fistful of silver coins – probably athannis – and laid them one at a time on the carpet in front of the Ustad:

    One in the name of Begum Sahiba, One in the name of us Kashmiri Merchants, One for Nepal, and One for Hindustan!

    Waah! Waah! Waah! Erupted from all corners of the room. The Ustad was pleased, and offered a respectful aadaab to the merchant. The Begum smiled approvingly.

    Well played, Jung Bahadur thought, eyeing the Kashmiri merchant suspiciously.

    The qawwali picked up again.

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    लहरा के झूम…

    Bakhsh Sahab said suddenly. He paused, grabbed a towel to wipe off the sweat that had started to collect rather profusely on his face and neck. The worldly side-effects of focused devotion. The two backup singers sensed a small opening in the silence. They filled it immediately with a detour.

    झूम झूम… झूम झूम…

    Bakhsh Sahab had not anticipated this new direction, but he liked it. He indicated Continue with a motion of his hands. As he watched intensely in silence, yet in supreme command of the ever-evolving structure of the qawwali, the detour slowly blossomed into a new ecstatic motif, its end catching its gossamer beginning subtly, but catching it, and looping back, circling again and again, until there was no beginning and no end. A dizzying concoction that entranced all. Certainly a fitting tribute to the word jhoom itself. But in the end, as always with qawwali, a spinning whirling dervish in praise of The One.

    Hazrat Mahal closed her eyes again… Lehera ke jhoom… The new words made her recall her youth amidst the squalor of Lakhnau, before she became Wajid Ali’s courtesan, and long before she became his wife. I used to sing a song that started with the same words. But that old song was a hollow scaffold of dead conventions steeped in the morbidity of the tawaif-khaana, my sole purpose to sing five… six sessions a day to impotent Lakhnau nawabs with lost souls among stifling alleys and rundown shacks spittled everywhere with paan and the crushed spirits of little girls from the hills and plains of Nepal and Hindustan…

    … And here was Bakhsh Sahab, taking us closer to The One, in hypnotic circles and repetitions that wilfully drew you in. Hazrat Mahal returned from her painful past to the ecstatic present, and smiled at the aesthetic genius of Maula Bakhsh, who had stolen the initial words of her sordid song and fused it elegantly into his spiritual lament.

    So Hazrat Mahal jhoomed, surrendered and was subsumed into the divine blend of voice, clapping, sarangi and tabla.

    झूम झूम… झूम झूम…

    Jung Bahadur munched on the dates and cashews in front of him, and absentmindedly looked around the room. As he had cursorily noted upon arrival, the Begum had decorated the walls with elegant portraits in green and gold of men holding roses or spears… very similar to his own portrait by Bhajuman… over here some handsome swords with embossed Farsi letters… elaborate plates, blue and red and drenched in yellow… He liked the artwork, although sometimes it was too gaudy and cluttered. But it was again the complicated script of the text mixed in everywhere… vague scribbles that seemed not to follow any rules… that were completely, eternally hidden to him.

    Jung Bahadur noticed that the Begum was looking straight at him. He quickly collected himself, and directed his attention to the qawwali again. Good God, they are still stuck on the jhoom jhoom! So the old drunk with devotion routine had not ended. Forcing a smile, he bowed towards the Begum and mouthed silently: Waah! Waah!

    Hazrat Mahal returned the bow. She was not fooled.

    In the meantime, Maula Bakhsh had rattled off the next line, taking even his singing party by surprise:

    लहरा के झूम झूम के ला मुस्कुरा के ला…

    He is singing my song! Hazrat Mahal realized in a flash as she heard the first full line of the couplet. This style of injecting a separate song into the middle of a qawwali performance was new to Hazrat Mahal, but she settled in to discover where Maula Bakhsh would take the song, her old dead song, now a divine mystery again, an unopened book. She closed her eyes, and readied herself for an extended, nourishing detour.

    लहरा के झूम झूम के ला मुस्कुरा के ला
    फूलों के रस मे चाँद की किरणे मिला के ला
    क्यूँ जा रही है रूठ के रंगीन ये बहार
    जा इक मर्तबा इसे फिर वर्ग़ला के ला
    कहते है उम्र्-ए-रफ़्तार कभी लौटती नहीं
    जा मैकदे से मेरी जवानी उठा के ला

    Then back to the original refrain, the original harbinger of rapture:

    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी
    मेरे साक़ी साक़ी मेरे साक़ी

    Meanwhile, Jung Bahadur was trying very hard to suppress a yawn. He grit his teeth, pursed his lips, but unfortunately the tedium of the afternoon was too much for him. He inadvertently yawned with his mouth wide open. Tears of lethargy welled up in his eyes.

    As spontaneously as it had started, Maula Bakhsh decided to end the detour by raising his hands emphatically: STOP!

    The qawwal party was in suspended animation. The sarangi lingered softly again, waiting for the next musical hook. The clapping was subdued in anticipation, as before. Maula Bakhsh closed his eyes, frowned in concentration as he mapped out the next trajectory of the qawwali. Having resolved on a course, he launched another verbal assault:

    तेरा नाम लूँ…

    The backup singers recognized the path ahead and quickly picked it up. The sarangi player enacted his mercurial vocal magic in the high notes again:

    तेरा∫∫∫∫ ना∫∫म लूँ ∫∫∫∫

    The other singer cut in, descended deep in resonance, majestic, slow-moving. But the transition did not jar. The first singer trailed off, yielded the stage gracefully, no ego, now only extending the melody on his sarangi. In fact, as the eagle sailed low in the eternal landscape of raag and alaap, the sarangi player occasionally joined in to bolster the verbal transitions, and supplemented the melody. The gliding eagle moved through vast landscapes in the lower notes. The hummingbird made quirky forays into the sky. A quick somersault here, a rapid saragama ascent there, before diving down to meet the other voice, and together continuing the saga, a flowing river of many currents now very near its destination. What coordination. What divine mirth.

    This collective offering to The One caused the physical world to recede for Hazrat Mahal and many others in the audience. Only pure musical notes remained. They left Jung Bahadur and his party behind and wafted gently into the cocoon of the qawwali, into the present, conscious of the here and now, savouring the music note by note. Time stopped flowing.

    तेरा ∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫
    तेरा ∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫

    Hazrat Mahal floats through the gossamer web of qawwali thus spun, and allows it to lift her up tumbling swaying spinning in abandon. In her around her she sees the same patterns as in the loops of qawwali… the swirls of pine cones fondly picked up on the लेख high above her childhood village of Kavre… the intricate mandals she had encountered within the mysterious smells of Patan alleys… the dazzling muraqqas of Lakhnau depicting the sun resplendent in its manifold brilliance… the sensuous unfurled petals of a lotus. All idealized circles that twirl, that seem to record the passage of this मिथ्या called time and yet, in their symmetries, remain the same at each instance: timeless, motionless, perfect. Circles that gently proclaim through their unmoving centers: in many there is One. Circles that whisper of the Eternal Uncreate, where there is also no space no time only love.

    Was that a glimpse of The One?

    Maula Bakhsh is silent while all this transpires. Now he joins in, on the off-beat, with the hypnotic repetition:

    तेरा नाम, नाम, नाम, नाम, तेरा नाम

    …But something is wrong. The rhythm seems to be off by a half-beat… Hazrat Mahal feels this in her soul. It is out of phase like a carriage pulled by two horses in misstep. The strain builds, almost pulls Hazrat Mahal out of the conscious present that she has just entered. She opens her eyes. Is the qawwali lapsing into chaos? But the tabla and sarangi players and clappers are undaunted and carry on with their original beat, themselves deeply mesmerized. But after a few moments, Maula Bakhsh, still singing teraa naam in a loop, begins to register his off-rhythm with the clapping of his own hands. His beat clashes starkly with the rhythm of the tabla and the clappers, and confirms Hazrat Mahal’s suspicion: he is off. But suddenly, in one virtuosic turn, Maula Bakhsh executes a double-clap, stops singing for a half beat, and effortlessly brings the singing and the clapping back into synchrony again. So this was all intentional: that wobbling rhythm, the introduced strain: a masterful revolt, a pretension of breaking away from order before the eventual succumbing to the rhythm of nature, a reunion with the humming of the universe, registered and kept time to by the beating of each human heart, fragile, ephemeral, but also eternal because it is the same dhuk-dhuk pulse of the entire universe.

    The subtle shades of meaning, the magical powers hidden in a mere couplet of delicately arranged لفظو … all this only possible in Urdu, her dear, adopted language. The words flowing out like graceful sculptures in marble – supple yet strong – from the Ustad’s mouth, but really originating in the depths of his soul, the very core of his consciousness, which, of course, was the same core within herself now accepting the rapture. Hazrat Mahal is fully intoxicated. Water has indeed become wine.

    तेरा नाम लूँ ज़बाँ से तेरे आगे सर झुका लूँ
    मेरा इश्क कह रहा है मै तुझे ख़ुदा बना लूँ

    Meanwhile, Jung Bahadur, very much ensnared in the tentacles of space and time, was finished with the mehfil. Only the knowledge that it was extremely impolite to leave in the middle of a qawwali had kept him seated. But… what was this… He noticed the Ustad motion with his hands: wind it down. The clapping and the music became subdued. All eyes were again on the Ustad, probably anticipating some sort of finale. Jung Bahadur was relieved: his agony would be over soon. He forced himself to pay attention. The Farsi in the next few lines was easy, which helped. The words seemed to be those of a spurned lover. Jung Bahadur wondered whether the lover was in fact a stand-in for a spiritual devotee. He was picking up on this thing.

    मेरे बाद किस को सताओगे
    मुझे किस तरह से मिटाओगे
    कहाँ जा के तीर चलाओगे
    मेरी दोस्ती की बलाँए दो
    मुझे हाथ उठा कर दुआए दो
    तुम्हे इक क़ातिल बना दिया

    क्याबात!
    Despite himself, Jung Bahadur yelled out in enthusiasm. He also seemed to have leaped up a little from his cushion. The song had made a culprit out of god, for having seduced us mortals! Jung Bahadur was impressed with the stark boldness of the words. He had never heard anything quite like this before.

    Hazrat Mahal turned gracefully toward Jung Bahadur, bowed low. She was genuinely pleased that at least some of the magic of sufiyana qawwali was rubbing off on Jung Bahadur. She took another satisfying draw from the hookah, and ruminated on the final devastating lines from Maula Bakhsh. What audacity! She was grateful and proud of the fact that this sort of playful language was allowed in the Sufi tradition. She was grateful too of Maula Bakhsh sahab for having executed this sustained offering of devotion so superbly.

    Jung Bahadur regained his composure. The sudden rush of understanding had still not left him. His heart opened up. He offered a dignified Waah! Waah! Waah! to the Ustad.

    The Ustad offered an aadaab, and in his supremely confident style, landed the large qawwali ship deftly into the docks with a slow, majestic finale.

    ये जो हल्का हल्का सुरूर है
    तेरी नज़र का क़ुसूर है
    के शराब पीना सिखा दिया

    Jung Bahadur briskly collected himself together and stood up. Hazrat Mahal could see that Jung Bahadur was strained and fatigued, despite his recent outburst of enthusiasm. He did sit through three ghadi of singing, she thought not unkindly. As a final peace offering, she addressed him in high Urdu:

    हम तो सूफ़ियाना अंदाज़ कि पैरवी करते हैं
    सूफ़ियाना चिश्ती ख़यालात मे इस्लाम जैन इसायत और हिन्दू धर्म
    हर एक मज़हब कि इज़्ज़त रहति है
    पैरव-ए-मस्लक-ए-तस्लीम-ओ-चिश्ती मे एक हि खुदा कि इबादत होति है

    As before, Jung Bahadur did not understand all of this. But he understood enough. And his newly acquired British sensibilities dictated that he smile politely and offer gratitude for the entertainment and hospitality.

    You have expressed yourself elegantly, as always, Begum Sahiba. On behalf of myself, my brother, my entourage and my entire country, I thank you for inviting me to this magical mehfil.

    ∫∫∫

    Jung Bahadur decided to take the shorter south gate route back to his palace, along the banks of the Bagmati. The sun was setting behind Chandragiri. The sky was turning pink. Jung Bahadur walked briskly as usual. Dhir Shamsher followed his older brother with light steps: the qawwali had also suited him quite well. Khadga Singh scrambled up to Jung Bahadur, and asked politely: They say the Begum is actually a Parbatya, Maharaj. Do you think that is true?

    Shut up! Jung Bahadur said quickly but quietly. The nawabi opulence of Barf Bagh lingered on around him. Truth be told, he was feeling positively Mughal inside.

    The emerald grapes hanging in a row from his crown danced merrily as he walked. His mind wandered back to the day he had seized these treasures from Nana Sahab. The Shiromani emerald was quite a catch! The thought should have brought him pleasure, but it brought him mild annoyance instead. Now his always restless mind jumped to his secret trysts with Kashi Bai… inside one of the very houses he had just passed by. Now he thought of his uncle, murdered in cold blood under orders of the Darbar by… himself. And finally, inevitably… the Night at the Kot. Suddenly all the deeds that had paved the way to his becoming Sri 3 Maharaj came flooding back. With them came the words of his father that had haunted him all his life:

    …gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat…

    He looked up in exasperation. The sky was now blood red, the ominous colour that enveloped this confounding valley on most autumn days before the onset of complete, total darkness. From his vantage point on the good side of the Bagmati, he could see naked children from Patan playing along the other bank, shamelessly exposing their bare, sunken ribs. He also saw Jyapus trudging back from the fields, their bone-eroding weariness palpable even from afar. Jung Bahadur walked faster. His perpetual scowl returned. The baubles of emerald on his crown jangled more awkwardly, hit him on his forehead with an annoying pitter patter.

    Jung Bahadur was now completely free of his transient Mughal pretensions. He scurried towards the darbar and blurted out to Khadga Singh:

    हैन, त्यो पर्वत्या नै हो, बुझिस् खड्गे ?

    ∫∫∫

    Dedicated to Anup Pahari for introducing the author to the magic of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan amidst the autumn leaves of Lancaster, PA twenty three years ago.

    Select lines from Ye Jo Halka Halka Suroor, Qawwali performance by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party. Amalgamated lyrics by various artists: Jigar Moradabadi, Abdul Hamid Adam, and others.
    Photo I: Detail from the Shah Jahan Album, Rosetta Bearing the Names and Titles of Shah Jahan, India, ca. 1645, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, cat. 250A.
    Photo II: Details from Padshahnama plate 10 : Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies (8 March 1628), by the artist Bichitr, Royal Collection Trust, UK.
    Photo III: Upper right: Shamseh, Unknown artist, First half of 17th century, Golestan Palace, Iran. Lower Right: Mandal of Manjushri Dharmadhatu Vagishvara, The Rubin Museum of Art. F1996.15.2 (HAR 455). Other Photos: © Author.

  • कलिला राजकुमार, गहन षोज

     

    बिक्रम सम्बत १९२१ आश्विन्  वदी ३

    हनुमानढोका राजदरवार, नेपाल

     

    गुरुज्यु मा दर्शन् टक्रायाँ ।

    दर्शन वलेट महाराज। हजुर का गाथमा सदा सुख, शान्ती र समृद्धी रहोस् । हजुर आफ्ना पुर्षासरी चक्रवर्ती राजा बनिबक्सनु हवस् । अत महाराज, कालिदासको रघुवंश पाठ कंठ गरिबक्सन भया ?

    गर्याँ, गुरुज्यू । तर… आज अर्कै कुरा जान्ना मन् थिया ।

    बिजयराज बुढा को पुरानो बानि, सोधने कुरा सोधी पाठको तम्तयारी तिर लागि सक्या थिया ।  आसनी मा पलेटी मारी पाण्डुलिपिका डोरी फुकालिकन पाताहरु फैलाया । आफ्ना अगाडी आधा चन्द्राकार रुपमा सजाया । सिलायेका ग्रन्थ हरु पोकाबाट फुकाल्या । अनि आफ्ना लुगाका  कुनाहरु पलेटिमनी कोच्या … एसरि पाठको तयारी मा लागेका बिजयराज लाई सदा अदपमा  बसने, पाठ पढने वलेट महाराज त्रैलोक्य बिक्रम शाहको नौलो जवाफले अलमल पार्या । अनि टक्क रोकि कन राजकुमार लाई गमेर हेर्या र बोल्या ।

    हुकुम् महाराज ।

    आज गौतम बुद्ध का बारे जान्न मन् गर्याँ ।

    गौतम बुद्ध… हवस्  महाराज । तर पहिले रघुवंश सकाऔं । महराजले बीस पाता पनि कंठ गरीबक्सेको छैन। प्राचीन संस्कृत काब्य शैलीको बढिया नमुना हो यो… अनि यसपछि कौटिल्य को अर्थशास्त्र । नजर हवस्, ऊ ताहाँ टुलु टुलु हामी लाई हेरेर बस्या छ ।

    तर पैले गौतम बुद्ध का जिवनी जानिबक्सने हुकुम् भया ।

    बिजयराजले राजकुमारको बोलिमा अडान देष्या । गुरुलाई “हुकुम्” जस्ता कडा लबज् चलायाका किं अर्थ लागछ  बिजयराजले सहजै बुझ्या । कहिल्यै अफूलाई “बक्सने” नभन्ने राजकुमार ले अहिले भन्या को भेद पनि बुझ्या ।  

    लौ त भनी बिजयराज ले आफ्नो बानि अनुसार पाठ पढाउनु अघी तान्ने लेघ्रो तान्या र षुरु गर्या…

     …अँ∫∫∫अँ सिद्धार्थ गौतम कपिलवस्तु राजघराना मा जन्मेका हुन् । इन्ले भारत राज्य को गया मा पिपलको रुख मनि निर्वाण प्राप्त गरेका हुन् । यसपछी इनि गौतम बुद्ध कहलिए । षासमा चाहिं इनि श्री विष्णु भगवान का रूप हुन्। आगौं साल विष्णुपुराण औ भगवतपुराणका पाठ पढता इनका बारे महाराजले धेरै जानी बक्सने छ । अहिलेलाइ यति भनौँ, इनि विष्णु भगवान का अवतार हुन्… वामन, परशुराम, राम, कृष्ण, अनि इ गौतम बुद्ध, त्यस् पछि कल्की।

    तर गुरुज्यू… सिद्धार्थ गौतम को जिवनमा के के भया ? उनले के के सोच्या ? हिजो म सिम्बु डाँडा गएथेँ । ताहाँ एक बौद्ध भिक्षु भेट भया । बहुतै ज्ञानी भिक्षु रहेछन ति, पंडित गुणानंद नाम का । गुरुज्यू ले नाम सुन्न भा छ ?

    अहँ, छैन ।

    उही अमृतानंद पन्डित… रजिडन्ट हज्सनका हितैषी… का छोरा रहेछन । जे होस्, इ पन्डितले भन्या, सिद्धार्थलाई सबै पुगिकइ थिया ।  जमान स्वास्नी । घर परियार । काषको वालष छोरो । भविषेको पाकेको राजगद्दी । तर एक दिन इ सबै छाडी बन पस्या । फकीर भया । शिर मुडाया ।

     हो। एस्तै गर्या थ्या, इनले।

    तर क्यान गुरुज्यू … क्यान एस्तो गर्या ?

    खै… इनि बालष काल देषी बैरागी पाराका थिया होला । कसइको एस्तै हुनछ राषी मा, ललाटे लिषितं । भाग्येमा लेखे अनुसार इन्ले एक दिन बेरामी मानिष देष्या । अनि बूढी आइमाई देष्या । अनि मरेको मानिष…

    इ सबै हिजो मलाई पंडित ले सुनाया । तर क्यान गुरुज्यू, क्यान त्यागे सब? उनी ता म जस्तै थिया । राजकुमार । म ता इ सबै त्यागेर जाने सोचन पनि सकन । उन्ले छाडे ।  क्यान?  कसरि?  रातको भरमा दर्बार त्यागदा उनले क्या सोचे ? उनको मनमा क्या कुरा षेल्या?

    विजयराज जवाफ दिनु अघि निकै बेर गमे ।

    वलेट महाराज, इ सबै गहन सवाल हुन् । सबैको जवाफ, सबैको भेद श्रीमद्भागवत गीतामा षुलेको छ। गीतामा सबै कुराको सार छ । महाराजलाई गीता अठार बर्ष नाघिबक्से पछि , आगौं साल सुरु गरुँला सोच्या थ्या। तर अब एसो गर्न्या । रघुवंश बिचैमा टुंग्याई एक साता…

    बिजयाराज का बचन बिचमई टक्क रोकन्या गरि युवराज त्रैलोक्य ले आफ्नो हात उठाया । हत्केला  बिजयाराज का मुष तिरै पर्न्या गरि राष्या ।

    पुराना गुरुषलकका, दिक्षा गुरु मानिराष्या लाई एसरी अपमान गर्या बिजयाराजलाई पचन ता नपच्या। तर बिजयाराजले आजसम्म इ सतिले सरापेको दर्बार भित्र  धेरै नाटक देष्या, धेरै कुरा सिष्या । आफना रीस राग आफई मा राषन सिक्या ।  तेसईले अहिले इ कलिला राजुमार का माथि नषनिया। मुष बंद राषी बस्या ।

    यता युवराजले फेरि भन्या…

    हन गुरुज्यू ।  मलाई गीता पढ़न्या मन् छैन ।  मलाई सिद्धार्थ गौतमले किन घर परियार दर्बार छाड्या बुझन मन छ ।  दुधे बालष छोरो छाडेर कसरि जान सक्या? श्रीमान् का जिमिवारी कसरि चटक छाड्या? गद्दी, राजकजका जिमिवारी, पुर्षाले जितेका जोडेका ढुंगा लाइ कसरि त्यागन सक्या?  त्यागदा कसरि मुटु दरो बनाया? … कि उन्को मुटुनै थियेन ?  उनले अफनो जिमिवारी लत्याएका हुन् त ? क्या सिद्धार्थ गौतम इ जगतका सबैभन्दा लुच्चा अहंकारी बुद्धि मक्किएका कम्जोर …

    युवराज त्रैलोक्य बिचमा एकाएक रोक्या । उनको दम बढेका थिया । स्वा सवा गर्या । कान हरु रात राता बनाया । इ सब विजयराजले नजिकबाट हेर्या । राजकुमारका  हविगत उनलाई अनौठो लाग्या । तर अलि अलि माञाँ पनि लाग्या ।

    रिसानी माफ़ गुरुज्यू , अब आजको पाठ बन्द गरन्या । 

    एति भनी युवराज आफनो रघुवंश पुस्तक का पाताहरु बटुल्न थाल्या । बटुल्दा उनका हात थर्थर कापेका थिया। अनि उठेर बिजयराज लाइ हतार्ले दर्शन् गर्या, फनक्क फिर्या  । गम्भिर अनुहार लिई, जति बाकी रह्याको राजसी ठाँट थिया जमा गरी कोठाबाट हिन्या ।

    फनक्क फिर्नू अघि बिजयाराजले राजकुमारको मुषमा धेरै ठुलो दुष देष्या ।

    बिजयराज सोचमा डुब्या । सुस्तरी पाठका पुस्तक पाण्डुलिपि बटुल्न थाल्या । सबई डोरीले बाँधी थन्को लगाया । अनि लोहन चोक माथि दोस्रो तलामा रहेको इ कोठा का झ्यालबाट बाहिर हेर्या ।

    क्यान सबै त्यगिकन गया?

    क्या जटिल सवाल । हुन त विजयराज लाइ एस्को मामुली जवाफ थाहा नभयाको हन ।  तर विजयराज को सूक्ष्म तर्क गर्न सकन्या, शास्त्रार्थ गर्न रमाउन्या बुद्धि ले यो सवाल जब जब गहिरो  सँग पहल गर्न षोज्या, तब तब उन्ले केहि नभेट्या ।  वेद वेदान्त उपनिषद पुराण काहीँ पनि इ कुरा कोटयाका नपाया ।  कतै कतै बुद्ध लाइ विष्णु अवतार मानिएको पाया ।  काशी मा फेला परेको एक पाण्डुलिपि मा ता ञाहाँसंम भनेको पाया कि बुद्ध मानिष लाइ वेदको पथ बाट भड्काउने बदमाष हो रे । तर उनले क्यान सबै त्यगिकन गया?… इ कुराका भेद काहिँ नपाया ।

    येका येक विजयराज इ सवाल-जवाफ बाट थाक्या । षास कुरो गरउ भन्या लहरो तान्दा पहरो जान्छ भनेजस्तइ कलिला राजकुमारका इ गहन षोज हरु ले कोट्याउँदा विजयराज गर्ल्याम् गुर्लुम् भया । कुनै कुरामा हार्याको जस्तो देषिया । सत्र बर्ष देषि यो अभागी दर्बार भित्र जंगबहादुर का छायाँ मा बसी राजगुरु बन्ने ढोंग गर्न्या बाट पनि उनी थाक्या ।

    बिजयराज अझ झ्यालबाट बाहिर हेर्या हेर्यै थिया । बुढाको कूप्रो ढाड, अहिले झन् कूप्रो भया ।

    बाहिर भंगेरा र परेवा हरु दर्बारका टुँडाल र खोपा हरु मा भुर्भुर गर्दै थिया ।  ईन्का मसिना कपास सरी भित्रि प्वाँखहरु बेला बेलामा झ्याल भित्र उडी सुस्तरी बिजयराज अगाडि भइँ को फारसी गलैंचामा षस्या ।  बाहिर आकाशमा ससाना गोला बादलका भुवाहरु दशैँताका को डुब्दो घाम को रंगले बलेर हलका सुनौलो देषिया ।  इ सब मन् हर्ने दृष्य देषी नरमाउन्या नेपाली मन् काहाँ होला र ?  बिजयराज पनि रमाउन्या थिया।  तर आज इ देषीकन उनका मन नियास्रो नै रह्या ।

    केहि पछि विजयराज पाठको आसनीबाट बिस्तार उठ्या ।  उनका मुषमा नयाँ इरादा देषिया ।

    जंगबहादुर मरोस् बाँचोस, मलाइ मतलब छइन । यो पापले कमायाको राज्ये आफइ सम्हालोस् ।

    ∫∫∫

    पण्डित विजयराज पाण्डे आफना राजगुरु र धर्माधिकार मान पदवी जागीर षानगी इ सबई त्यागी करिब दुइ मैन्हा पछि बिक्रम सम्बत १९२१ मार्ग वदी ११ का दिन श्री काशी बास चल्या ।

    ∫∫∫

    तस्बिर: बिक्रम सम्बत १७६२-१७६३ मा काठमान्डुमा बनाइएको, गौतम बुद्धका जिवनका प्रमुख दृश्यहरु झल्काइएको, बहा-बही हरुमा बिशेष चाड पर्व हरुमा प्रदर्शन गरिने बिलन्पौ को एक सानो भाग।
    समर्पित साथी कुल थापामा: २४ बर्ष अघि पाटनको अक्ष्येश्वर महाबिहारको प्रांगणमा लेखकलाई बौद्धमार्ग चिनाए वापत ।

    यो कथा को अंग्रेजी संस्करण यहाँ पाइन्छ ।

  • The Profound Quest of the Young Prince

    October 3, 1864

    Hanumandhoka Royal Palace, Nepal

     

    Darshan Gurujyu.

     May health, peace and tranquility always be preserved in your गाथ. May you become a true chakrawarti ruler like your forefathers. So tell me, Walet Maharaj, did you memorize the sections of Kalidas’s Raghuvamsha that I had assigned?

    Yes, I did, Gurujyu. But… I wanted to ask you about something else first.

    Bijayaraj had already started settling into his longformed ritual of preparing for a teaching session. He untied and unbundled his manuscripts, arranged them in a half-arc on the ground, his reach to the manuscripts determined by the likelihood of having to quote a line from the specific manuscript during the lesson. He folded the edges of his robe and shawl under himself. He optimized his position on the comfortable cushion so as to minimize discomfort and strain on the back. He was in the middle of this habitual bustle when he was caught off-guard by Prince Trailokya’s unusual response.

    He paused and looked up with mild curiosity at the Prince.

    Yes?

    I want to learn more about Gautam Buddha.

    Ahem… Gautam Buddha… Of course, Walet Maharaj! But first we need to finish the Raghuvamsha. You have hardly memorized an eighth of this crowning example of Sanskrit poetry. After that, Kautilya’s Arthashasthra… see, it is just sitting there, looking at us…

    But I want to learn about Gautam Buddha first.

    Bijayaraj sensed the firmness in the Prince’s voice.

    Well, then. Let’s see. Siddhartha Gautam was a Prince born into the Royal Palace of Kapilvastu. He attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree in Gaya, and started being called Gautam Buddha. He is in fact the ninth reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. When we cover Vishnu Puran and Bhagwat Puran next year, we will go into ample details about this. But for now, it is enough to note that he was a reincarnation of Vishnu. Vaman, Parshuram, Ram, Krishna, Gautam Buddha, Kalki.

    I want to know the details of Siddhartha’s life and thinking before he attained enlightenment. Yesterday I went to Swayambhu Nath, and there met a Buddhist banda who was very learned… Pandit Gunananda. Do you know him?

    No.

    He told me he was the son of the famous Amritananda, close friend of old Resident Hodgson. At any rate, this Pandit told me that Siddhartha had everything that he could have wished for. A young wife. A newborn son. A future as a king. But one day he just left it all and went to the jungle. Became a fakir. Shaved his locks off.

    Yes, that is accurate.

    Buy why, Gurujyu? Why did he do that?

    Umm… perhaps he was of a बैरागी nature from birth. Some people are like that… their temperament fixed by their birth Rashi. Once, during the course of his usual walks about town, and over several days, he encountered individuals in different stages of human misery: a sick man, and old woman, a dead man…

    Yes, yes, the Pandit told me all this already yesterday. But why, Gurujyu? Why did he leave it all behind? He was just like me… a Prince. I cannot even entertain the notion of leaving all of what I have behind. But he did it. How? What was going through his mind as he walked out that palace door under cover of darkness that fateful night?

    Bijayaraj thought for a bit before responding.

    Walet Maharaj, those are very deep questions. And the answers to them are in the Gita, which holds the answer to all questions. My plan was to introduce the Gita to you in a few years, when you would be eighteen. But perhaps I will put the Raghuvamsha aside and start with the Gita immediately…

    The Prince raised his right arm and placed the palm out in front, facing Bijayaraj.

    Bijayaraj was immediately offended by this rude gesture. But he had learned not to betray his emotions too easily in this wretched Darbar. Especially at this naïve child. He remained silent.

    No Gurujyu. I do not want to read the Gita. I want to know why he left. What of his responsibilities as a father? As a husband? What of his duties as a future King? How could he disregard all this and simply leave? Did it not break his heart? Or was he callous? Maybe Siddhartha Gautam was the most selfish, wretched weakling who…

    The Prince trailed off. By now he had worked himself up so much that he was quite severely out of breath. His ears had turned red. Bijayaraj looked inquisitively at the Prince, but also with a tinge of sympathy. He could not think of a ready answer to the Prince’s queries.

    I am sorry, but we will need to end today’s lesson now.

    With that, the Prince swiftly collected the leaves of his Raghuvamsha manuscript with trembling hands, raised himself and left the room, with as much dignity as he could muster. Bijayaraj noticed that there was real anguish in his face.

    Slowly and absently Bijayaraj collected the scattered manuscripts, tied them up and packed them away. He looked out the palace window.

    Why did he leave?

    What a question! Of course, he had the inkling of an answer. But every time his hungry analytical mind had wanted to investigate the question deeply, he had been stymied by lack of material. He never found any text among the trove of Vedic and Puranic manuscripts that addressed the nature of Siddhartha Gautam’s quest. There was a lot of ambivalent material about him being a Vishnu avatar. An obscure manuscript he had unearthed while at Banaras even stated that Buddha was a deluder of men who led people away from the path of the Vedas. But there was no material describing his motives.

    Suddenly, Bijayaraj was too tired to even think about this question. In fact, with a sudden caving-in of self-confidence triggered by the Prince’s seemingly childish questions, Bijayaraj realized that he was too tired to carry on with this seventeen-year old charade of playing the Raj Guru in the shadows of Jung Bahadur’s empire.

    He kept looking out the window. His shoulders had hunched up more than usual. Absently, he noticed the pigeons and the sparrows flutter across the window, occasionally depositing small underfeathers which wafted dustily onto the richly carpeted palace floor. He noticed the fluffy clouds over yonder, and the late afternoon sky, turning that subtle golden hue typical of Dashai season. But all this did not warm his heart like it used to do before.

    Bijayaraj got up slowly. A new look of resolve was upon his face. Jung Bahadur could go to hell.

    ∫∫∫

    Pandit Bijayaraj Pandey resigned from his positions as Rajguru and Dharmadhikar on  BS 1921, Marga Badi 11 (January 22, 1865 CE) and moved permanently to Banaras.

    ∫∫∫

    Dedicated to Kul Thapa, who introduced the writer to the magic of Buddhism twenty-four years ago on the grounds of Aksheswor Mahavihar in Patan.

    Image: Detail of a Bilanpau (long painted scroll) depicting scenes from the live of Gautam Buddha, created in Kathmandu 1705- 1706 CE. 

    An English version of this story is available here.

  • Kaliyaadaman

    Hanumandhoka Palace, Kathmandu

    May 18, 1840 

    Laccho tiptoes down the many stairs of the tall tower that is quickly becoming her favorite place in the vast palace complex. Her new Banarasi saree chafes at her waist and neck as she walks. But she is quickly getting used to the pain. Now at the ground floor she peeks out from behind the large carved door into the enormous courtyard standing between her and her destination. Instinctively she reaches into her mouth and feels the loose front tooth that has been wiggling for many months now. Three weeks ago when she left Dharza Gurwa, Amma had told her to keep working the tooth. Otherwise a new one would grow behind it deformed and yellow, and she would no longer be a fit bride for the darbar.  So she pushes and pulls at the tooth.

    It has just stopped raining, after an unrelenting downpour that had lasted two days. She can hear the collected water trickle down from the thousand roofs into the hundred courtyards that surround her on all sides. It is not an unpleasant sound:

    कल कल कल कल

    From the safe hidingspot behind the door, the courtyard looks empty. No Bajai in sight. No guards. No old men with long noses and large tikas on their foreheads looking down sternly at her. Good.

    She breaks into a run… lookstraightdonteventhinkandnobodywillseeyou… quickly enters the second smaller courtyard through a low door darts through the courtyard to arrive at the smallest courtyard yet which contains the object of her fascination.

    Her chest heaves from the quick sprint. Her heart pounds. There it is… the giant scary serpent at the back end of the courtyard. Two weeks ago she had seen it for the first time when Bajai had given her a rather hurried tour of the palace complex. Bajai had breezed passed this courtyard, pointing absently towards the serpent and mumbling something about a very old sculpture and the name Kaliyaa. Back then, Laccho had noticed the mound of snake coils but nothing more: in fact she did not remember if there was one snake or a whole pile of them. Now she advances slowly toward the sculpture taking in every detail while trying to make her breathing as quiet as possible.  She traces the contours. The wave of coils vanishes over here… reappears here… it is indeed a single enormous serpent. The slippery slimy skin the distinct scales the many many coils wound up every which way below the strong body and finally the head, almost Godlike in appearance. But she notices now that a man is trying desperately to break free of the snake’s coils on the left and on the right a woman is buried deep in the many hideous coils wound around her. With folded hands, the woman pleads: someone, anyone: please rescue me!

    Laccho makes up her mind: this is an evil snake ….. She follows the contours of the snake’s chest… head… crown… and finally the 1 2 3 4 five hoods spread out impressively behind its head. The undersides of the hoods, usually hidden from view, are now exposed completely in the fully unfurled state. They are decorated with beautiful faint lines like the folds of a human palm but much more patterned. Despite her fear she reaches out to touch the mesmerizing patterns…

    हिस्स्स्स्स्

    With a terrifying hiss the snake shrinks away. Rolls and waves of skin crawl past each other, become more tightly wound, more threatening. Laccho springs back in fright arm on chest mouth agape. But she cannot run away altogether. Frozen in fear she looks  at the snake’s eyes… They are completely still. In fact quite calm. In awe she looks down at the rolls of coils the glistening skin. Every part of the snake is unmoved. It is a stone sculpture after all she says to herself, and immediately feels silly about having to remind herself of this. And yet she could have sworn…

    The sudden shock not entirely out of her she draws close again. Hesitating she touches the skin delicately: on first contact it is surprisingly cold. The recent rain mixed with the green moss makes the snake’s body more slithery, more real. Below the slipperiness she can feel the firmness of the sharply cut scales. They feel brittle and yet fold beautifully into the skin, following every curve of the snake’s coil without sticking out at awkward angles. A part of her still expects the snake to rise up and sink all five fangs into her arm. Slowly she moves her hand through the coiled mass, runs her fingers through the majestic body, up to the intricately carved crown on the serpent’s head, feels the delicate lines and tiny bumps of the hoods’ undersides, and finally rests her fingers at the tiny foot of the little boy who is standing lightly but with supreme confidence above all the snake.

    The little boy smiles gently. His foot which Laccho had just touched rests upon the snake’s head. The other is balanced gracefully on the snakes broad shoulder. With one hand the boy grasps a hood. He is not worried about being bitten. Laccho feels like he is trying to discipline the snake with a flick of a small towel, which he holds in his other hand. He is a chubby boy. Almost naked, playful, mischievous. After he is done with the snake, he might very well go into his mother’s kitchen and steal some butter.

    Laccho’s face becomes serious. She has made up her mind: this is Krishna. Her Krishna from home. Krishna in his Bal Gopal form. Krishna causing all sorts of trouble and stealing the hearts of everyone around him. Gazing at his supremely confident face, she knows that the snake is going to be subdued.

    Laccho closes her eyes, brings her palms together in a namaskaar. Hey Krishna. Hey Basudev. Please rescue this poor man and woman from the coils of the snake. Please take care of Amma and Baapu and everyone else in Dharza Gurwa. Then please rescue… please stay with me at all times. You are all I have in this strange country. She furrows her brows, bows down a bit more. Small hints of tears well up below her closed eyelids. After a few moments, she opens her eyes and gazes again at Krishna’s tranquil face. She feels a little better inside.

    Laccho turns away slowly to make her way back to the ladies quarters where she shared the smallest darkest room with Ramkali ever since arriving at this palace together with her.  On the way is a long, dark hallway that always smelled of dust and wetness. She enters this windowless passage with her mind still full of Krishna. Before today, whenever she thought of the small courtyard she had just left, the snake would come to her mind. But now all she can remember is Krishna’s tranquil face. The snake seems irrelevant somehow.

    Suddenly, she notices at the far end of the long hallway, against the backdrop of complete black, a shape in pure white floating slowly toward her. As it draws near she can make out that it is an old man floating lightly in the air, his feet dangling several arm’s lengths above the ground. He is wrapped in an unblemished white shawl. He wears no hat or turban, and his head is full of untidy gray hair. Now he looks down and asks:

    बिटिया, तोहर नाव कि बा ?

    He knows my language!

    Although taken aback at suddenly encountering Bhojpuri, she answers obediently: Laccho.

    The old man smiles.

    How old are you, बिटिया?

    Seven.

    The old man frowns softly, floats down a little, reaches out and caresses her gently on her head.

    What is the red stuff on you neck?

    The old man seems to not know what Laccho is talking about. Stretching his neck and making a longish face he feels around his neck with one hand, locates the rather nasty gash, and gets a flash of recognition in his eyes.

    Oh, this? Don’t worry. It’s just a small keepsake from the time I worked for this darbar.

    OK, Laccho says slowly. The hideous cut she can now clearly see does not look like a small thing. And she definitely knows what dried blood looks like. She can see many trails of it running from the cut well into his chest and body. His white shawl however is spotless. At least the old man is not bleeding any more, she consoles herself.
    Well, it was an honor and a pleasure to meet you बिटिया. I hope we can become friends?

    Laccho looks up. The old man had kind eyes. He is still smiling, but Laccho imagines that if she says No, he will immediately burst into a fit of crying.

    Sure, she says kindly.

    Thank you!

    With that, the old man bows low, turns around, and starts floating away.

    Wait! Laccho cries out. What is your name?

    The old man pauses. Turning only his head around, he whispers his name softly before floating away into darkness:

    My name is Bhimsen Thapa.

  • Rain

    रजितसुगतमुकुटमणिचरणं निर्जितनिखिलविबुधनशरणं।
    . . .
    इति श्रीमहाराजाधिराजराजेन्द्र श्री २ कवीन्द्र-जयप्रताप मल्ल देव विरचितं वृष्टिचिन्तामणिर्नाम स्तोत्रं सम्पूर्ण।।

    ∫∫∫

     

    June 16, 1841

    Nepal Valley

    It started yonder, over the slopes of Chandragiri. Our Chandragiri, whose central bulk resembles a majestic elephant head when seen from parts of our valley. Pluffywite clouds, scattered about but only yesterday, colluded over the elephant head of Chandragiri, doing कानेखुसि in a language we did not understand. Soon they gathered into large imposing masses. The wind picked up. The clouds swirled northward. They gathered moisture, gathered purpose, darkened in color, became a single impenetrable slab by the time they arrived over Thapathali. In time, the mass stretched outward, reaching for the surrounding hills and beyond. Soon it loomed densemysterious over all of Nepal, in shades of blueblack,fringed in deep gray. A pregnant promise. A hint of malice. It was only midday, but the dense cover made us think it was two ghadis after sunset. If we had aspired, we could have easily touched the thick molasses swirling over the valley with our bare hands.  But we never did. 

    The soul-scorching bare heat of the direct sun was gone, but a sweltering stickiness still lay heavy in the air. Our perennial crows and sparrows were unusually quiet. The galli dogs roamed restless, also in silence. Indeed the entire valley was quiet. A tense quiet, as if the animals the trees the hills the gods were waiting.

    Then

    मिलिक्…मिलिक्…

    झिलिक्क

    Angry slivers of lightning flared over Mangal Bazaar, Tudikhel, then Kirtipur. The light rushed off to the hills, made the peripheries of Nepal glow incandescent for fleeting moments: now Phulchoki, now Nagarjun and now Kakani lit up in turn with an unnatural light, penetrating the otherwise all-encompassing darkness. 

    The briefest of silences ensued. Followed by

    ढड्याङ्…ढड्याङ्…

    ढड्याङ्ङ्ङ्ङ्ङ्ङ

    Suddenly, no human or animal was in sight. All of us yielded the valley to Nature, for this was a time for Nature to assert herself – her Peacock Dance – and us mortals stepped aside in stupefied awe. We huddled inside our brickhouses. The dogs and cows found shelter in the nooks of our temples and paatis. The birds snuck deep inside the temples and trees. The majestic fury of lightning and thunder continue for many pals. A celestial game of tag: the lightning flash darts, the thunder catches up, the lightning flash swerves, the thunder responds, having echoed back from the hills. 

    Then another silence. This time a more relieved silence, like the silence at the end of a fierce war. But still pregnant if that is possible. The theatrics of Nature had not satiated us. Having shaken us, it had somehow increased our anticipation.

    In utter silence, then, the dark gray clouds scurried hither. The deep blue clouds slithered yon. The silence made the performance more intimidating…almost demonic.

    The third and final act started slowly. The first few tentative drollops landed randomly on the vegetation behind our houses, causing a loud haphazard clatter that had no rhythm to it. The pitter patter bent the long corn leaves in unnatural angles. The fragile soybean leaves shook occasionally on contact. It was a reunion dance, but the plants seemed to be offended that the initial steps were so awkward.  The twirlyswirls of the lahare cucumber clinging to the garden walls mostly stayed out of it and just swayed in the breeze. In front of our houses, the large splats broke up into a hundred small droplets on hitting the parched tiles and bricks of our chowks and temple squares. The droplets created temporary scars where they fell, but warmed by the stored heat of the brickwork, evaporated quickly into nothingness. This first contact of water and earth did leave behind a more lasting gift: a subtle organic smell of soil roused by the moisture, the smell of dust not yet turned to mud, permeated the air. A smell dearly familiar to all of us.

    In time the pitter-patter grew louder, more frequent, and picikingupspeed quickly reached a crescendo as Indra appeared, soared swiftly across the sky, and slit the clouds open with his vajra. And lo, the heavens poured down upon us. Nourishing rain fell in massive diagonal sheets of gray onto Nepal. The Purna Kalashas had been overturned, spilling the contained Soma freely. Now even mortals could partake of it. Soma, replenisher of the dry, parched earth. Soma, agency of sustenance, nourisher of grain, ensurer of harvest. Soma, elixir of the heavens, shared without reserve with mortals for but a precious few months of the year. 

    The unrelenting downpour washed away the sweltering moist heat smothering all of Nepal. In its place came a gentle breeze. It was not exactly cold, but the steady wind and permeating wetness somehow got to our bones. It even caused the more fastidious of our bent elders to pull out siraks and blankets from storage, and cocoon themselves within.

    The rain fell on the vegetation. The initial hesitancy on first contact exhibited earlier by the leaves was gone. Now the leaves the branches the flowers all swayed in abandon in unison to the swooshing chorus of pitter-patter:

    झुम झुम झुम झुम 

    झम झम झम झम

    The rain fell on our galli dogs, who meandered around the streets, before curling up into balls anywhere it took their fancy, heads tucked snug under flanks, soon sound asleep, as unmoved by the drenching rain as they were earlier moved into hiding by the thunder.

    The rain fell on our pigeons. They stirred, flew about desultory among the temples and squares, got drenched. Changing their minds, they returned to the temple struts, rafters and eaves, shook their bodies violently, succeeded partially in warding off the water, then stared vacant from their perches with frazzled feathers and spiky necks. The crows and sparrows remained in hiding.

    The rain fell on Singu hill, where the eternal eyes of Swayambhu gazed serene. Swayambhu, the self-existent, of flame, of crystal, who had seen so much and had forgiven us all, with utter, utter compassion.

    The rain fell, too, on our rain gods,whom we had beseeched to send us rain. It fell on Pashupati, whom we had lustrated with holy water last month so he would cause rain. It fell on Matsyendranath’s chariot, which we had pulled into Jawalakhel just last week. It fell on all the subterranean serpents and their king, Karkotak, to whom we had already paid the proper homage. It fell too on the statues of Indra, original ancient god of rain. We might have ignored him somewhat in the last few centuries, but we would for sure worship him in a few months time – with a festive entirely to his name, we would like to point out.

    The rain fell on the courtyards of our bahas and bahis, our tols and gallis, our sattals and patis. The rain washed away the accumulated dust the feces the cow droppings the rotting rice from our rachhans. We were grateful for this. 

    But along with these the rain also washed away, little by little, the silay that joined the bricks of our temples and houses. It washed away the rich nurturing soil from our terraced fields. Little by little, it clawed on our statues and temples, sculpted miracles in wood metal stone. And little by little, it washed away a bit of ourselves, in rivulets and streams trickling through our gallis first, then collecting in our chowks, pouring off into Manohara and Tukucha and Nakkhu, before gathering momentum in the unified torrents of Bagmati and Bishnumati at Teku. The willing swirling waters then carried it all, all away to Balkhu, to Chobar, and finally out of the valley through the swirling waters past Karyabinayak and through the hills towards Ganga, towards Kashi, and for better or for worse, as it always has and as it perhaps always will,  always, always, towards India.

     

    ∫∫∫

     

    Jung Bahadur looked up at the rain. When was this useless downpour going to let up? He was itching to get some exercise out in the open but the rain had kept him indoors for days. He looked sideways at Putali Nani, who lay languid upon his chest, exhausted. Damn, her face was bewitchingly pretty… it got him every time.  But now she lay sound asleep, mouth slightly open, her foulish warm breath hitting him repeatedly on the neck and assaulting his nose… hints of garlic and onions. Jung Bahadur twitched his shoulders instinctively. This caused Putali Nanu to slide off his chest and slump clumsily onto the carpet. He let her be. Instead, he thought about the Darbar gossip she had shared earlier. He did not give a damn about feminine gossip, but it often contained nuggets of information, some of them useful. The Senior Rani’s recent tantrums, running off to Pashupati one day and to Hetauda the next… perpetual threats and constant ultimatums, perhaps she has truly gone mad. And Surendra, such barbarism, such lunacy at eleven years of age. He makes my life living hell when I am in service, but I can handle it and I will make sure I get something out of it. But now he is turning on his newlywed wife. How could he throw her, a child of eight years, into the pond?… and that too for the second time? And that spineless Rajendra allows all this to happen under his nose… maybe even encourages it. How can a country run like this? To hell with the whole lot of them! The next Bhimsen Thapa is coming soon, to wrest control from this weak Darbar and rule with an iron fist. I just need to find him, align myself to him, and rise as he rises…

    Surendra looked up at the rain. From his balcony above Mohan Chowk, the evil dark clouds appeared very low in the sky. The rain fell down in fearful dark torrents. Surendra slowly shifted his eyes towards the top of Basantapur tower. Vulture be gone… vulture be gone… Sonofawhore! The vulture was still there, perched menacingly above the gajur. Now, sensing Surendra’s presence, the vulture slowly turned its neck and stared with sunken evil eyes directly at him. It would soon stretch its naked pink neck, spread its ugly wings, and scoop down through the courtyard to pick out his eyes. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod. Up above, the entire celestial weight of the sky was coming down on him, lower and lower, unrelenting, pressing down upon his head, shoulders, chest… The pressure was becoming unbearable. He tried to move, but was gripped by fear. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod. Beside him, someone was standing with folded arms, pleading with him about something. Vaguely he caught a few words: nightfall… Her Royal Highness… pneumonia… forgive and forget… Was that a real person speaking? Was it an apparition? But he had no time to decide. He was going to be crushed under the weight of the entire sky soon,  crushed like a bug, blood splattered everywhere. Or the vulture would pick at his eyes and his brains through the holes in his skull. Or Bhimsen Thapa’s ghost would come and try to “talk some sense” into him again. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod.

    Brian Hodgson looked up at the rain. The reading room at the Residency was a perfect roost to take in the sweet melancholy of these Monsoon rains. He was worried about the Nepal Durbar. News of our recent losses in China seemed to have rekindled the dormant Goorkha Spirit. The Rajah talks openly about alliancing with Punjab and the Persians against us.  For all his feebleness, the Rajah does have a handsome grasp of Asian affairs and of the most fitting chess move that places his Durbar at the next position of optimal advantage… If only he would put his domestic affairs in order and control the Senior Rani and Heir Apparent. The Rajah believes he is playing a sound game of chess in the domestic front too, but he fools himself. Ere long, some knight will leap out unexpected and checkmate him at his own game. Has be forgotten already the hard-earned lessons of the Bhimsen Thapa tragedy?

    Laccho looked up at the rain. The raindrops hit her directly on the eyes and it hurt, so she looked down again. The water in the pond lapped dangerously around her shoulders. She had to stand fully straight so that it did not get to her chin or into her ears. At the same time, she was trying very hard not to lose her foothold on the slippery bricks underneath: the bricks were smooth, and the soles of her feel could feel a layer of moss along the surface, which made the bricks even more slippery. One false step and I will slip, and drown. The water had wrinkled the tips of her fingers a long time ago. It was not exactly cold, but she was beginning to shiver. हे दइब! I don’t understand why this is happening. They told me everything would be better after the wedding. They said I was going to be a queen of this awful country someday. So why is he treating me like this? And why does Ajima not come to rescue me? Why does the Senior Queen not come? Isn’t she from Gorakhpur too? How could she stand by and let that beast do this to me? Someone, please come in through that courtyard and save me before night comes. The darkness is sure to confuse my balance and kill me… she looked up cowering towards the dreaded Basuki Naag on top of the massive pole in the middle of the pond…Or maybe that serpent will… They say it sometimes leaps out of the pole and swallows small children under cover of night…

    Dhan Sundar looked up at the rain. Very good. He smiled. If it continues like this for a few days, the fields will be ready for transplantation exactly on Ashar 15. He thought of the merry march to the fields, his brothers sisters uncles cousins neighbors in-laws shouting laughing all the way, the terraced fields lying serene, brimming with water, the sky reflected clearly on the undisturbed surface of each terrace, the soothing feeling of wet mud squeezing in between his toes, the croaking frogs and chirping crickets, the drinking,  the open flirting among young and old. He thought of the song his father-in-law was sure to sing during sinaajya.  In anticipation, he started humming it himself:

    भा पिल झाय ला जि बोना याने ला
    मन जा चिव लिसे ओल ह्नम
    आयाले भाजु हाय सिःनाज्या नि ओने
    ज्यामियात बजि नके मा नि ह्नम…

    ∫∫∫

    Opening Sanskrit text: The first and last lines of  Vrishti-Chintamani, a charm of rain in 34 stanzas by King Pratap Malla, from a copy in the Cambridge University Library collection.

    Closing Newari text: Excerpt from a sihnajya (rice transplantation) song, published in Songs of Nepal: An Anthology of Nevar Folksongs and Hymns by Siegfried Lienhard.

  • A Little Bit of Blood

    रोउँ त भने को सित रुने
    नरोउँ भने मन भरी पिर हुने
    चिन्ता बढ्यो झन्
    रोएको रोऐछ खुसी छैन मन
    रोएको रोऐछ खुसी छैन मन

    ∫∫∫

    [Laccho, a young girl plucked from her home in Dharza Gurwa, a small town near Gorakhpur in India, is being groomed as a future wife to the Crown Prince of Nepal.  Crown Prince Surendra, a petulant, vicious, mentally unstable young man physically tortures everyone in the Nepal Darbar, Laccho included. Ajima, an aged menial, has been assigned as Laccho’s caretaker. She is Laccho’s one source of solace in an otherwise hostile, foreign environment. In this episode, three months after Laccho’s introduction to the Darbar, Ajima walks a fine line as she tries to determine exactly what has happened to Laccho, while being careful not to expose Laccho prematurely to the inevitable grim realities of a young girl’s life at the Darbar.]

    August 10, 1840

    Hanumandhoka Royal Palace

    Ajima Ajima Ajima….

    Laccho came screaming towards Ajima. Ajima cupped Laccho’s little face on her palms, looked into her eyes, said tenderly:

    Yes, Maicha? What happened?

    Laccho’s face was full of fear. Her pupils darted back and forth. They failed to make some meaningful contact with Ajima’s eyes.

    Yes, my love?

    Th…there was some blood…

    Where? Show me quick…show me!

    Ajima suddenly turned serious… a frown had developed on her usually kind face.

    D….down….there.

    Where? Where?

    Ajima was frantic.

    There.

    There?

    Yes.

    Maicha, how much blood was there?

    Laccho looked up. Hints of tears appeared around her eyes.

    I don’t know… Maybe this much?

    Laccho made a little O with her fingers.

    Show me!

    I threw it away!

    Laccho realized she might have made a mistake. Perhaps Ajima would not be able to help her at all without looking at it. Deep sobs welled up within her, and came out in long wailing bursts that wracked her body.

    It’s OK, Maicha. Of course, you had to throw it away… And did you…did he…I mean did the Yuwarajdhiraj… was the Yuwarajdhiraj with you last night?

    Yes.

    Did he… touch you?

    Ajima was now downright stern. Laccho wished she would change back to the usual kind Ajima she knew. She whimpered hesitantly, full of fear of having definitely done something wrong:

    I don’t remember! Maybe… yes. He was screaming like a madman as usual.

    Maicha, think carefully and answer me… did he touch you?

    Through her sobs and tears,  Laccho thought hard for some time.

    Yes.

    Show me where, exactly!

    Laccho had given up all hope. She knew instinctively that this was all very bad, and that it was all her fault. Slowly, she touched her wrists, her left shoulder, and finally the right side of her face:

    Here, here, and then he hit me here.

    That’s it? …… Where else?

    Laccho did not understand why Ajima continued to be so harsh. Timidly she said:

    Nowhere else.

    So he did not… You and…

    Ajima struggled to complete her sentence.

    What? Ajima… I don’t know what you are trying to ask!

    Laccho burst out into another bout of crying. She wanted to answer Ajima’s questions. She knew Ajima was trying to help. But her fear of not knowing what was wrong added to her frustration with Ajima’s questions, and she sank into a deep state of helplessness.

    Why is all this happening to me?

    Suddenly, for some reason, Ajima’s face softened. Her eyes resumed their usual kind gaze. She caressed Laccho’s cheeks. Tears welled up in her eyes, and fell freely down her wrinkled ragged familiar face. Softly she asked:

    Is this the first time you have found blood, there?

    Yes.

    Laccho still did not understand. She did not want to understand. She just wanted to cuddle within the manyfolds of Ajima’s bosom and be enveloped by her eternal smell of sweat mustard hay oil baby-vomit chiura smoke and yesterday’s garlic. Sniffing, Laccho wiped her nose like any other eight-year old would, and settled deeper into Ajima’s bosom.

    Ajima curled herself around Laccho. She made a warm cocoon for this precious child, her dark-skinned child from far away. She smelled Laccho’s hair. She rested her cheeks on the curve of Laccho’s forehead. Her tears fell in slow solitary drops, made Laccho’s hair wet. Laccho did not mind.

    ∫∫∫

    Nepali lyrics from a song by Tiki Maya Gandharba, featured in the documentary The Mountain Music Project.

  • Lawrence on the Fall of Mathabar Singh

     

    18th May, 1845

    Minister’s confidential Subadar came to me yesterday saying that the Raja and his son were quarrelling and that Matabar Singh was in trouble. The subadar repeated that he was specially desired to informed me. As I had twenty times before done, I simply heard what the man had to say and gave a salam in reply. That night the Minister was murdered

    It is said that he was sent for twice or thrice during the day and made excuses for not going. Some say that the Raja twice went to his house and was not admitted. This I doubt, but there have been occasions when, the Raja went to him and the Minister hearing he was coming, stepped out at a back door. I know of no new cause of offence given by the Minister. Since December he has virtually usurped all authority, but all respect was paid to the raja who never seemed more satisfied than during the last two months: most probably putting out his blandest countenance when he had determined to strike.

    It is marvelous that Matabar Singh, who was so full of the danger of his own position, who had so often dwelt on it, and who had armed himself with so many security bonds, though he knew their worthlessness, could, yet, bring himself to believe that the Raja was satisfied. The very last time I had any conversation with Matabar Singh, I asked him what the Raja thought of all his innovations and whether the Raja was satisfied? “Much please,” was the reply, “he is very happy and amuses himself in the Palace running races with the Heir Apparent.”

    There can be no doubt that the Raja had long made up his mind perhaps, indeed, only allowed Matabar Singh to return to Nepal to murder him; but was long cowed by his bold spirit, until latterly, having given his victim full swing, the latter disgusted the soldiers and chiefs and left himself unsupported. In this durbar, Matabar Singh was as a lion among a pack of curs, every man trembled before him; they all bark loud enough now. The Minister was a dangerous man, but he had very good points: much energy and considerable ability. It would be difficult to find such another man in Nepal.

    The new Barracks he was building, if a monument to his folly, is also so of his skill and energy. In a fortnight much rough ground had been levelled and twenty three large Barracks nearly completed. I have nowhere seen so judicious and economical a system of working, nothing was lost. Instead of digging holes for earth for kutcha bricks, the rough ground was levelled, the earth used for bricks, and a perfect level left where there had been only inequalities. Not a water carrier was employed, but in all directions, drains were cut and streams trained as required. All else was done with similar method and skill. Nepal has indeed lost her right arm; and blind will be the Minister who takes his place.

    ∫∫∫

    Excerpt from Resident Henry Lawrence’s Nepal Diary, 1 Oct 1843 – 14 Oct, 1845, archived at The British Library as MSS.Eur.F85.96. The extensive grammatical and nomenclature mistakes in the manuscript, probably introduced during copying of the original diary, have been corrected. To the best of our knowledge, this material is previously unpublished. The diary entry makes an intriguing new suggestion that on the day of Mathabar Singh Thapa’s murder, he was summoned repeatedly to the Darbar.

    Portrait of Mathabar Singh Thapa from the National Museum, Nepal. Photo uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Manoguru. CC BY-SA 4.0.

  • Uku Baha Salabhanjika

    Salabhanjika (One who breaks the branch of a Sal tree) gracing a figural strut from Uku Baha (Rudravarna Mahavihar) in Patan. Radio-carbon dated to 690-890 AD.

    ∫∫∫

    Image from The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving:  A Reassesment by Mary Shepherd Slusser, Fig 40 (p. 47). Available at http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/SULANT.html

  • A Cosmological Love Story

    lo she leaves again

    until we meet again

    singing

    the silent song

    of the eternal uncreate

  • A Drink of Water

    August 1, 1837
    Jumla

    What shall we do, Baba? Where shall we go? Nepal? Muglan?

    Don’t know yet, son. Let me mull it over. If we go to Nepal, we will be cut. The Pandeys are screaming for Thapa blood right now.

    Jung Bahadur had grown up in the presence of his father’s quiet dignity, something that seemed to come naturally to the hereditary Kaji. But after the family lost everything in the wake of Bhimsen Thapa’s fall, Jung Bahadur had seen his father rapidly dissolve into a broken man: shoulders slumped, eyes staring at the ground, wide and lost. Jung Bahadur’s mercury suddenly shot up.

    Baba, what happened to all of your selfless service to the Palace? You cut Sher Bahadur Shahi and avenged Rana Bahadur’s death. That was not loyalty to the Thapas. That was loyalty to the Palace. Shouldn’t that count? Why are we being dragged down with the Thapas? Where is the King when we need him? Where is God? What good was all of your “merit earning”? The bridge you built at Pashupati…the four hours of worship every day…the feeding of beggars along Bagmati…All that and now look at us! Look at you!

    Calm down, son. This Palace has a short memory. Right now, they just see us as extended Thapa clan. We rose with the Thapas, and now we must fall with them. In the end, the only winner in Nepal is the Palace. No matter how strong or weak it is. Look at your great-uncle Bhimsen. He was the most powerful man in all of Nepal for a while. Even the King dared not speak against him…yet he died like a dog in the end. We, on the other hand, are servants of servants. After your great-uncle’s fall, I have come to realize that no matter how piously I try to live my life, no matter how confidently we call ourselves Bhaardaars and show our historic ties to the Palace, we are gnats. It is written in our karma: we are gnats and we will always remain gnats. Never forget that. We are gnats.

    ∫∫∫

    March 28, 1876
    Deurali (a small village between Bhimphedi and Kulekhani on the southern route to Nepal)

    Jung Bahadur jerked the reins of his horse, turned back and said to Khadga Singh Gurung:

    My water-skin is empty. Get me some water.

    Khadga Singh looked back, fidgeted.

    Maharaaj, the minders seem to have fallen behind. I will immediately send someone to fetch them. In the meantime…Maharaaj…we appear to be out of…

    Jung Bahadur shot him an incinerating look. But the ensuing words were soft.

    Let it be. I will find some on my own.

    Leaving the devastated Khadga Singh behind, Jung Bahadur whipped his horse leftward and off the main path into a small, almost invisible trail. Just as he disappeared into the thicket, Dhir Shamsher and the rest of the elite hunting party galloped up behind Khadga Singh.

    What happened? Where is Maharaja? Dhir asked briskly.

    He went alone….Maharaja wanted some water…the minders were not here…his water skin was empty…

    OK, OK, Dhir stopped the semi-coherent blabber from Khadga Singh.

    Go after him, fast. Take the rest of the Aath Pahariya bodyguards with you. The rest of the party, stay here with me.

    Dhir Shamsher was not going to go running after his brother. Not any more.

    Jung Bahadur swooshed out his Wikishan sword and deftly sliced off the shrubs and branches that came in his way. He was looking for  a stream, but soon he saw through the thicket a thatched rooftop, smells of human habitation, and cow-dung. He set his horse on amble. As Jung Bahadur approached the homestead, the smell of cow-dung grew strong. The wood smoke in the air make it almost tolerable. The miserably small hut now fully in view was slightly tilted to one side. Mud plaster on the walls had peeled off in many places exposing sickly smallpox scars. On top of that, straw bundles from within the walls had broken through the smallpox holes into radiant fragments exploding out at various lengths and awkward angles. The entire facade thus had a wounded and defeated appearance.  Looking down, Jung Bahadur noticed  a thin trench that ran out from a hole on the side of the hut towards the courtyard, made a turn, passed through where he stood, and drained off into the hillside. It was obviously meant to be a sewer around the courtyard, but done so halfheartedly that it resembled a child’s running of a stick through dirt in play. A fly buzzed past and settled on Jung Bahadur’s neck. It did not bother him.

    …gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat

    Jung Bahadur noticed that Khadga Singh had scurried हस्याँङ् फस्याँङ् to the scene, and now lay motionless immediately behind him, trying to subdue his outofbreath panting.

    There were two wretched children playing in the courtyard. They had short, dirty tunics on their bodies, and tattered trousers.They were completely covered in filth and looked more animal than human. Jung Bahadur was disgusted. One appeared to be a boy of around six, the other perhaps his younger sister, perhaps three. The older boy played, and the little girl followed him around. Sometimes the boy did stop to play with the girl: she looked happiest at these times. Suddenly the boy, who was facing away from Jung Bahadur, bent over to grab a pebble. His butt-cheeks, dusty and scarred, now peeked through two large holes in his trousers directly towards Jung Bahadur. Jung Bahadur violently looked away, twitched his torso, and jerked his shoulders to adjust his epaulettes. The epaulettes suddenly felt heavy on his shoulders.

    A man came out of the smallpox hut with a bored look of curiosity, meaning to check on the new arrival in his courtyard.  Khadga Singh ran over and whispered something into the man’s ear. The man’s face broke into a wide smile of joy. Head cocked slightly forward and to the left, he raised his right hand and absently started scratching the back of his head in the manner so familiar to us Nepalis. But he did it through a dirty, tattered and ridiculously small cap that was sort of in the way. The end effect was that the cap clumsily moved around as he scratched back and forth. The cap finally ended up in such an awkward angle that it make him look more pitiable than comical.

    Just then, Jung Bahadur’s bodyguards broke in loudly through the thicket, swords swishing metal on metal armor scraping and lined up neatly behind Jung Bahadur, all looking severe. By this time, the import of what was transpiring had partially and vaguely sunk  into the man’s head. His face froze into a tortured contortion of pain, fear and the grin from earlier that didn’t quite go away.

    Khadga Singh whispered something else into the man’s ear. Still in coma, the man looked to the left, to the right, then to the left again with dazed eyes, and managed to point weakly to a homemade chair of sorts in the nearby shed. Khadga Singh grabbed it, and squeezing out every bit of dignity he had trained for in the Palace, rushed to Jung Bahadur and seated him upon it.

    Khadga Singh hurried back to the man. More whispering ensued. An ankhora was procured from within the hut. Khadga Singh filled Jung Bahadur’s water-skin to the best of his abilities with the contents of the ankhora. Jung Bahadur took a deep draught of water. The cool, freshmineral taste was good. But it did not make him feel any better. As he drank, Jung Bahadur heard some bustling from inside the smallpox hut. A clang of pots and pans mixed in with other kitchen sounds. Soon a trail of water trickled through the hole in the wall, and inched along like a scared earthworm through the ridiculous sewer circling the courtyard. Jung Bahadur tried to pay no attention and looked straight ahead towards the man. As the trickle of water advanced and passed through Jung Bahadur’s chair, it riled up the half-rotten grains that had accumulated in the sewer from previous days. The distinctive sick-sweet smell of rotting grains rose up directly into Jung Bahadur’s nose. Instinctively Jung Bahadur looked down. He expected to see rotting rice grains. Instead he saw rotting millet. They eat dhindo here! 

    The recent death of Siddhiman Singh… the eight balls of opium last night… and now the goddamn dhindo… all this addled Jung Bahadur’s head…

    … gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat gnat

    Jung Bahadur shot up from the chair and with one move, mounted his horse. Everyone around him snapped to attention. Khadga Singh knew that there was going to be one of those episodes now.

    You! Come here! Jung Bahadur thundered at the man.

    Jung Bahadur was shaking with rage. To stabilize himself, he tightened the reins of his horse with one hand, and grabbed the hilt of his Wikishan sword with the other.

    The man slithered towards Jung Bahadur, his hand still scratching his head, face still grotesquely fixed with the grin, more dead than alive. He had heard mythical tales of Jung Bahadur cutting the heads of many, many people in Nepal, all of them very much more important than himself.

    When the man was a few hands away from the horse, he looked up.

    Fill up those holes with mud and cow-dung!

    Thus screamed Jung Bahadur, face red with rage, a shaking finger pointing unsteadily at the smallpox marks on the hut.

    With that, Jung Bahadur whipped his horse around and galloped off. Only a cloud of dust remained.

    The man realized that he really did not understand any of what had transpired on his courtyard that day.

  • A Gift of Gaajal

    April 19, 1843
    Thapathali, Nepal

    Ganesh Kumari came into the room slowly, balancing the large nanglo so that it would not topple over and spill all of what goes into making gaajal. She positioned herself directly in the path of the slanted rectangle of sun flooding the room, crouched down, gingerly placed the nanglo on the floor, and crouching further, eased herself onto the sukul, palm of left hand pivoting her movements. A soft thasssa escaped from her throat as she settled into a paleti. The sun was directly on her back. It was unclear whether the small victories up to that point annoyed her or satisfied her. With the same spirit, she arranged around her the spices and assortment from the nanglo, picked from different nooks of the kitchen. Directly in front of her she placed the large copper diyo.

    Searching within the folds of her infinitely spacious patukaa she fished out a tear of white muslin and spreading it across her palm, deposited upon it one spoon fenugreek one spoon carom seeds one spoon Bhimsen camphor. Next a dribble of mustard oil to the point where it smothered the mixed concoction, but did not drip down through the muslin onto her hand. A gentle massage of the oilyglob with her fingers to ensure consistency. A gathering of the four ends of the muslin to form an imperfect turgid tube, a twirlywhirl of the cloth ends on the muslin-heavy side so it resembled a lamp wick, a placing of the entire lump onto the copper diyo so the tiwrlywick faced out, like the suffering end of a regular oil lamp. She is fully engrossed in her work. She transitions to the present.

    Tongs fetch a glowing ember from the makal in the center of the room. The wick carefully touches the ember and encouraged with soft blows of air, catches fire. Excess oil already dripping from the wick now falls straight down in tiny blobs of flame and oil that end their lives as black splotches in the already dirty sukul.

    Then comes another diyo, which when turned upside down and tilted almost completely covers the first one, but for a small opening away from the flame,  for obvious purposes.

    The flame burns long, stilldrippingoil, but then grows quiet, and soon starts beating a subtle rhythm to the slow seeping supply of oil from the masala mixture forming the body of the turgid tube. The flame with each gentle waving deposits a waft of soot onto the overturned diyo, fed by flame, lifted by heat, a magical transformation from ethereal flame to dark smoke to black soot, floating gently into existence. The softest whiffs of something created out of nothing. The strands of soot grow. At least one ghadi passes.

    Ganesh Kumari realizes that the salty warmth of the sun has slipped away from her back and is now gracing the sukul several hands away. She leans forward slightly, finds a pivot and twists her buttocks once, twice, thrice. Her back is in the sun again. What’s happening this year? Early Baisakh and the mornings have still not warmed up.

    If she lets the soot collect unattended for long, it will come crashing down under its own weight and smother the flame. Every once in awhile, then, Ganesh Kumari gently lifts the top diyo, looks at its underbelly. When there is enough of the tangled mesh to collect, she scoops it out gently with her fingers and transferred it to a brass plate, careful not to let whiffs fly away in waste. 

    When a sizeable pile of soot has collected in front of her, she quashes the flame, fishes out some butter and adds a dollop to the pile. She picks up a conch shell and with the smooth side rubs the mixture patiently into a fine black gaajal that occasionally shines like silver powder.

    Someone is here. Her concentration broken, she slips out of the present.

    She looked up as Jung Bahadur entered.

    You’re here already, Babu.

    I’m coming straight from the Resident’s. Mama took me and Kulman sasura along. We wanted to feel out the Resident.

    So?

    It’s hard to read the Resident. He gave his standard answer of staying out of darbar affairs. But I know he is pleased to see Mama return.

    What does Mathabar say? How is he?

    Mama has already grown out his moustache to Prime-Minister-size. He gives out expensive gifts to just about anyone who comes by to visit. But he’s still living out of the hut in Kalanki…insists that he won’t move into Nepal proper until the Thapa name is cleared.

    Mathabar said the right thing. Otherwise how is Bhimsen Bua’s troubled soul going to find peace? But when will all this end? When will Nepal go back to normal? Have they cleaned up Baag Darbar for him?

    No. Mama can only occupy Baag Darbar after his property has been officially restored. He will live here with us in the meantime…that is, when he is ready to leave the hut. I am trying to work through Surendra to commit the Raja into making assurances for Mama.

    The Pandes are shit scared. They will likely be all cut. Debi Bahadur is going to be cut with them. I will try to save him but it is too early to broach the topic with Mama.

    That Debi Bahadur…Who had asked that idiot to open his mouth against Kanchi Rani? The backing of Jethi Rani made him careless then, and he will surely pay. Abhaagi mora…Do you best to save him.

    Ganesh Kumari was layering fingerfuls of the gaajal into a small surmadani that Jung Bahadur’s father had bought in Kashi.

    Here, give this to Mathabar tomorrow. Tell him it is for his newborn. Will cure eye sores and reduce chipra.

    Why hurry? I will give it when all is settled. It’s not like Mama’s household is starving for gaajal.

    Ganesh Kumari wiped away the gaajal in her hands. Her son’s rude responses to ordinary questions. The instinctive twitching of his torso when annoyed. Signatures of her first-born, so dear to her since his childhood for its innocent impatience and bristling bravado. She noted with sadness that they were now increasingly tinged with arrogance and a little bit of cynicism.

    Look Babu. You are already a Kaji. You are manager of Kumari Adda! …

    Ganesh Kumari realized that a tone of admiration was suddenly creeping into her voice despite herself. She dialed it back.

    …You know how to play power a lot better than this old woman. But listen. Money your Mama has lots of from his timber contracts. Followers he has lots of as you saw already. What he needs is afno maanche. In good times and bad. Never forget his goon to you. Let him call you Jangey if it pleases him. It is only a name…he says it with love. Always make sure he sees that you are his blood. If you do that, he will never betray you. And you can rise with him. This gaajal is not chakari. It is a gift for family. Blood, after all, is blood.

    ∫∫∫

    Epilogue: Exactly two years and one month later, Mathabar Singh Thapa was shot dead by his nephew Jung Bahadur, under orders from King Rajendra.

  • Dibya Upadesh of Sorts

     

    ∫∫∫

     

    Late 1849
    London, England

    “If you want to earn a good name, you must let go of greed and adopt compassion. If you see idle men in need of help, don’t make them pay court to you, rather get some work out of them. If it will please the masses, don’t hesitate to kill even your own son. Forget about jealousy and anger, forget about wealth, and make moves that please the largest section of the population. Don’t hesitate to add good men to your inner council: given them status, but don’t chase after status yourself. Make your countrymen, as well as foreigners, believe that you mete out justice fairly, and that you see everyone as family. If you have to lie in the course of politics, do it by deluding the masses so they remain happy. It will then be easy to remain Prime Minister. Otherwise, there will be trouble. If you do anything that makes the people unhappy, you will face real danger real fast.

    You might say that I have written too much. But I am just writing what I have seen. Look at the situation and do what seems best.

    You write that you have done the pajani for the troops. If you have dismissed men merely to save money, they will give you the same bad name that they gave Badri Narsingh. If you have dismissed men for actual faults, then you have strengthened your sword. If you dismiss kamis, sarkis, damais or karmis, your position will be compromized and the magazine will be damaged. Do not dismiss even a single one of the kotes, pipas, jamadaars, khalaasi jamadaars or pipa khalaasis. Dismissing them is unwise. They do a lot of work and eat little. Let it be auspicious.”

    [Excerpts from a letter by Jung Bahadur to Bam Bahadur, his brother and acting Prime Minister of Nepal while Jung Bahadur was on an official visit to Europe.]

    ∫∫∫

    Image of original letter reproduced from Janga Gita by Kamal Dixit, Jagamba Publication, 2040 VS. 

  • Daaphe Chari

    हिमचुली त नाकमा फुली
    हिमचुली नाकमा फुली
    र ठम् ठमै डुली माया मा भुली
    लेखाको डुनि र एकबारे जुनी
    लाएको कली र ओठमा नली
    सासु कि छोरी नि भोखले मरी
    कठै नि बरि नि एस्तै चाल परी
    कर्नाली भेरी सम्झाउदा खेरि
    मन आम्छ कोरि कस्कि यो छोरी
    मुरली चरी भोकले मरिछ
    को देख्छ बेदना हो चरा
    मीरा चरी हो मेरा डाफो
    को देख्छ बेदना हो

    ∫∫∫

    September 22, 1840
    Basantapur Darbar, Nepal

    Four…Five…Six…Seven…Eight. Laccho counted the victory over each floor as she climbed her way up. She paused at the  bottom of the stairs that lead up to the  buईँgal. She looked at the small opening cut into the ceiling, undecided. She could already hear the sound of rain hitting the rooftops. She did not like the dark shadows up there.  But it was always quiet and nobody bothered her. So she climbed the stairs, swinging both arms to make sure the cobwebs criss-crossing did not touch her face and itch afterwards.

    The last bent plank on the stairs squealed like a hurt animal when she stepped on it: CREEEEEEEEAAAAAAK. She looked up quickly into the corners of the buईँgal to make sure she had not startled the ghost of Bhimsen Thapa.  But there was no movement in the shadows. The dark thick curtains lining all windows were also still. Bhimsen Thapa was somewhere else today. The buईँgal smelled a little bit like incense, a little bit like firewood, a little bit like old dust. But all mixed together.  She crossed the room, set aside the curtains that covered the south window, sat on the nearby bench, looked out the window that Ajima called ga jhya. It had been four months since she came to this strange country and strange palace. That is …. sixteen weeks. Being this high up still made her feel very strange, as if she was flying but would fall at any minute straight down to the stone pavements nine floors below. The scenes of madness on those streets over the last few days still haunted her. What she remembered made the little pain in her heart come back. She did not know how to make it go away, so she looked up into the sky.

    The rain fell on and on and on, so hard it came down slanted, and made very loud noises on the roof above like someone was throwing small stones. The wind blew in often but it passed through her softly at the very last moment. The air was not too warm. The air was not too cold. It brought in a mysterious sweet smell of oil incense wet metal cowdung from the city around her. In faint waves through the rain, she heard someone singing a miserable song, accompanied by a sad wailing sound that reminded her suddenly of the sarangis from her childhood. She jumped up, walked to the window, leaned a bit onto the latticework, but not too much because she did not trust the windows yet. She looked down and saw, along the porch of the elephant stables, a beggar. He was holding a little instrument that looked like a squished-in sarangi, and was singing the sad song with his eyes closed, looking up.  He was not in the rain, but because of the wind, he was surely getting gusts of rain every time the wind passed by. How long would it take before he was completely wet? As she listened, she realized that the song was not  sad, but was making her sad on the inside because it reminded her of home and the village singers who used to sing around the large pipal tree. There was nobody around in the rain to give the beggar any rice or coins. Laccho watched him for some time, got up, walked slowly towards the east window. Looking out, she saw that the field they called Tudikhel was completely empty of the usual crowds and full of big dirty puddles of rain.

    A wave of loud thunder rolled through the sky. She felt its power inside her chest. The impossibly deep rumbles came down to  earth, and were now rolling through the valley, getting louder as they came towards her. Laccho clutched tightly at the wooden bar of the window so that the thunder did not sweep her away as it crashed through the palace …BOOM…she felt it pass through her heart and onto the chowks behind, towards the newar town and now growing quieter it climbed the hills in the distance and finally left Nepal far to the west. She waited for another wave of thunder, but it was just the rain now. She cast her eyes down towards the palace garden. Jalashaya Narayan was sleeping calmly in his pokhari and did not mind the raindrops hitting him hard and splashing off in bursts around him. But the goman guarding over Basuki Naag Pokhari  was as fearful today as he was four months ago, when she first saw him.The goman looked real enough to suddenly lunge at her and swallow her whole without any warning.  He stood tall, his large hood full of real bumps of fearful skin, too scary for her to even go near the pond. At night, she often looked at the crack under the door of her room to make sure he did not crawl in when he thought everyone was sleeping.

    Laccho looked up towards the thickgray clouds. They looked like enormous solid slabs of rock. Maybe she could climb up on them, maybe from the top of Bhimsen Tower, and walk and walk for many days to the south. Maybe the clouds were connected all the way over, and she could walk to her house in Dharza Gurwa. I would skimp all the way home, watching the rain fall below me all around, but I would be dry because I would be above the clouds. Laccho decided this was a silly idea, and glided softly back down towards the buईँgal, then lower onto the streets lining the elephant stables, then flew towards Kumari Temple. That is where She lived. She hovered outside the window of the temple hoping to see Kumari again. Laccho had seen glimpses of her in between the chaos and confusion of the last few days: the three eyes, the red dress. But Kumari had always looked calm as they carried here here and there in a palki, surrounded by devils and monsters swirling and screaming around her. What did she eat? The red tika and abir that people offered her? Maybe that is why she is so red all over. Laccho thought of blood, lots of blood. Did Kumari ever think of blood? Did she get afraid?

    Not finding Kumari, Laccho continued on down the street towards Ajima’s Maru tol. Behind her the beggar was still singing, scraping on the strange, dirty sarangi and making it cry all the while. He did not seem to care that it was raining so hard. Perhaps he is completely wet by now. Perhaps he is a madman. She wondered what he was singing about. Probably Ramayan or Mahabharat, since he had been singing for so long and only Ramayan and Mahabharat are that long. She walked a bit further. The enormous temple ahead of her impressed her as it had every time she had floated by here before. It looked like a giant hen sitting down, with her wings spread over Maru and guarding it like a mother. The vegetable shops around the temple had packed up and gone home because of the rain. But the jogis with their strange ears were huddled together in between the giant beams of the temple.

    She stared at the jogis and the jogis stared back at her. Frightened, she weaved her way back and floated back up to the buईँgal. Buईँgal. Buईँईँईँईँgal. She liked the word Ajima used for the attic. She looked towards the sky again through the lattice window, her forehead pressed against the bumpy wood.  The rain fell on and on and on. She wondered how those floating dark clouds could hold so much rain. How much longer would it last? Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed along the corner of the roof eight pigeons pressed tightly together, their neck feathers spiky and wet because the rain made them clump together. They looked back at her with scared round eyes. Nearby, from the corners and edges of the roof, the collected rain was falling in long drops all the way down, nine floors down to the street level. She wanted to follow the drops on their long journey with her eyes. She pulled her head away from the lattice window. A soft pain hovered on her forehead. Running her fingers through, she noticed that her forehead had inherited the patterns of the window, probably in light scars of red. She did not want to follow the drops on their long journey any more.

    Down below, the beggar was still singing his sad song.  Three dogs were now gathered around him in a circle, and pretending to sleep, heads tucked under their hind legs, but otherwise also not bothered by the rain that kept falling on and on. I wonder why …

    CREEEEEEEEAAAAAAK.

    Laccho startled.  But even before she turned, she knew who was at the top of the stairs.

    Ajima!

    Hail to Sri 5 Maharani Punya Kumari Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah, Ajima said solemnly, then broke into a wide smile, showing all five black teeth. Her wrinkles even hid most of her smallpox marks. The tuki dangling from her ears danced in the dark light of the buईँgal.

    She raised her arms towards Laccho ready for embrace. Laccho ran and disappeared into Ajima’s bosom. Ajima’s familiar smells of sweat mustard hay oil baby-vomit chiura smoke and yesterday’s garlic enveloped her.

    How is your Nepali coming along, Maicha?

    Little, little, it exists.

    Ajima smiled. Make sure  you don’t miss your lessons.

    Why didn’t you come for so many days? And why didn’t you bring Maiya today?

    Maiya has been touched by Cold. And we never bring sick children into this darbar, ever since the time of…anyway…you asked why I didn’t come. Remember, I told you before leaving: we would all be busy with Yenyaa for five days. So much work, so much merriment!

    But I thought it was horrible. There were elephants and fierce looking monsters down there in the chowk. Thousands of people screaming and swaying for days like mad-men, and loud music that gave me a headache. They were even drinking daaru from a demon’s mouth, right over there near the palace door! Why don’t they worship Ram, Shiva and Guru Gorakhnath like we do back home?

    Ajima chuckled.

    One day, I will tell you all about it. But listen, Maicha. I heard that your wedding day has been fixed for Jeth Shuklapanchami next year! You will be a real Maharani after that… By the way, who is older, you or the other girl?

    I don’t know.

    The wrinkles on Ajima’s forehead deepened for some reason. She held Laccho tighter in her bosom, ran blacknail fingers gently across Laccho’s hair, lingering the most around her temples. Laccho was happy.

    After your wedding, you must make the Maharajkumar bring your father here. Jethi Badamaharani did the same many years ago when she got married. Did you know she is from Gorakhpur, near your home town?

    ∫∫∫

    Nepali excerpt from the folk song Daaphe Chari, word and music by Jhalak Man Gandharva.

  • Return to The Uncreate

     

    नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् |
    किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ||

     


    कामस्तदग्रे समवर्तताधि मनसो रेतः प्रथमं यदासीत् |
    सतो बन्धुमसति निरविन्दन् हृदि प्रतीष्या कवयो मनीषा ||

     

    ऋग्वेद मण्डल १० सुक्त १२९           

    The nonexistent did not exist, nor did the existent exist at that time. There existed neither the airy space nor heaven beyond.
    What then moved back and forth? From where and under whose protection? Did water exist, a deep depth?

    Then, in the beginning, from thought there evolved desire, which existed as the primal semen.
    Searching in their hearts through inspired thought, poets found the connection of the existent in the nonexistent.

    Rig Ved X.129

    ∫∫∫

    इदमित्था रौद्रं गूर्तवचा ब्रह्म क्रत्वा शच्यामन्तराजौ | …
    कृष्णा यद गोष्वरुणीषु सीदद्दिवो…



    महे यत्पित्र ईं रसं दिवे करव त्सरत्पृशन्यश्चिकित्वान् ।
    सर्जदस्ता धृषता दिद्युमस्मै स्वायां॑ देवो दुहितरि तविषिं धात ||…


    प्रथिष्ट यस्य वीरकर्ममिष्णदनुष्ठितं नु नर्यो अपौहत् |
    पुनस्तदा बृहति यत्कनाया दुहितुरा अनुभृतमनर्वा ||…

    …मक्षू न वह्निः प्रजाया…

    ऋग्वेद मण्डल १० सुक्त ६१/मण्डल १ सुक्त ७१     

    Here is a Rudra myth which he produced with his mental powers…
    When the darkred cows of dawn came and rested with the black cows of night…

    … noting the caresses of Father Heaven upon Usha, The Archer stealthily crept up on him with his bow.
    The Archer boldly shot an arrow at Father Heaven just as he was placing his seed in his own daughter…
    Discharging the seed, the manly one pulled away…
    …Like a bull in a contest he threw off foam. Heedless, she went away, hither and yon
    Right away, like a chariot-horse, came the pitter-patter of offspring…

    Rig Ved X.61 and I.71

    ∫∫∫

    स भूरिति व्याहरत्सेयम् पृथ्विआभावध्भुव: इति |
    तदितमन्तरिक्षमाभावत्स्वरिति सासौं द्यौराभावत् ||

    शतपथ ब्राम्हण ११.१.६.३

     

    Prajapati uttered bhu and the word became Earth. He uttered bhuwa, it became Intermediary Space. He uttered swa, it became Celestial Sky.

    Satapatha Brahmana XI.i.6.3

    ∫∫∫

    Some day in the 1860s
    Nepal and environs

    She came North like lodestone drawn to magnetic core. Through the scatterhuts of Tarai. Came in through Bichhakhori, Dhukuwabaas, stayed a night at the tuhuro taharo in Hetauda, then to Bhimphedi, paid nothing in custom duties at Chisapani Gadhi. Passed Gorkhali men with handsome mustaches swaying regal elephants, little bridegirls in hiding in reds inside dolis Magars Tamangs Gurungs Newas carrying enormous loads up and down steep trails, no shoes to feet. Sherpas on their long journey from the mountains down to Gaya and back accumulating merit. Kashmiri merchants returning to Indra Chok with the year’s supply of churaa potey blankets small mirrors tiny dreams for little girls of Nepal. Further up the hills, where the moisture condenses refreshing upon sun-starked faces, makeshift chortens appeared. She re-stacked them with rocks from streams, visualized all the Buddhas. After the derelict mines of Tama Khani, She decided on a whim to turn towards Chitlang and forego the shorter route to Nepal through Pharping, jealously kept secret by the current ruler (the child that he is).

    The steep climb to Thankot was as difficult as before. But when She took the last unforgiving step onto the ridge, Nepal opened up in front of Her just as She had remembered it. Ganesh, Dorje Lhakpa, Langtang, Gauri Shankar like fatherly giants embraced the valley from the North, and simmered yellowgold in the late afternoon sun. A few gray clouds nestled among sharp folds of the mountains deposited snow softly on the slopes: fururururu. Wiping sweat off with patukaa, She collapsed onto a rock and surveyed Nepal.  A lazy breeze started from the familiar mountains, gathered momentum as it rolled through the valley, and spilled wanton over the ridges of Thankot.  With it came the densemystic aromas of Nepal that triggered a thousand different associations in Her. The smoky holiness of the oil-lamps in the temple outside Her childhood window. The eternal sweet semi-rot in the dark alleys behind her house. The pungent rust on that Tibetan lock dulled by constant touch of skin and sweat.

    Refreshed, Her eyes descended from the valley rim and traced the imperfectly perfect terraced fields lovingly carved into hills by bare hands. Fields that fused into the landscape as if they had existed before man. Fields repeating in swirls and cascades further and further down the slopes, until they reached deep into the settlements sprawled below. There, the houses and shacks bunchedup in three careless groups. Patan, Kathmandu and Bhadgaun over there, all glowing deep baked red in the waning sun. And rising regally above them the sharp gold temple roofs and white stupas with eternal eyes, relics of an enchanted culture crushed to submission by later invaders, and yet standing majestic.

    She got up, brought Her palms together above Her head. Namaskaar.

    I am ready.

    She let go of Her fears.

    She dived headlong into the valley. Buoyed by warmrain currents, She looked left towards Swayambhu. Swayambhu’s eyes gazed serene. But She looked away singed with a vague feeling of collective guilt from her country’s neglect of him somehow in these later centuries. She floated a bit hurriedly towards Pashupati. She landed softly on the nearer bank of Bagmati, rested awhile on a severe bed of stone before being moved to another bed of stacked wood. She accepted a few drops of the sacred water, allowed Her hair to be unbraided, spread out.

    She let go of Her body.

    She floated up again, much lightened now, buoyed by heat of flames, swirling smoke ashes dust towards Patan.

    Looking down at the valley from here, She noticed a pattern: terraced fields carved into terraced hills mirrored the terraced steps leading to terraced temples beside terraced water tanks dotting every tol of the valley. Who were the artisans responsible for all this? They had become completely drunk with the natural terraced rhythms of the valley, and had let the fever flow through their hands and onto their shaped places of worship and living. By creating, they had offended Nature. They had cut at her very slopes and mounds. But they had atoned for their sin by the very products of their offense: divine offerings that gently blended in and out of Nature. What drove them to create so? In mirroring, were they simply borrowing? Or were they conveying a deeper message? Something settled quietly, comfortably inside Her as the harmony seeped in. She felt again that tug at Her consciousness.

    Come here.

    Look. In here.

    But even in Her lightened state, She did not yet see.

    Patan emerged. She glided down, looked upon a group of Newa girls walking towards Bagmati bridge to the North, carrying plates of flowers rice sweets, a respectful distance behind the men with their dhimay drums bhusyah cymbals pwaga trumpets and dhunya poles spinning whirly dervy to the music.  She decided to alight and walk with the girls, each adored with devilish slim eyes, set in piercing black  and white within sensuous eyelids swollen just so, seductive flowers stuck to finecombed hair parted through the middle and pulled tightly back into thick braids, no feminine sindur yet — except for a little red tika on the forehead that alas opened the door already — wafting aromas of tori ko tel and pure youth, wrapped in sari and patukaa, a blend of white, red and black. She smiled at this accidental blending of the satwa rajat tamas colors. The girls smiled back at Her.

    They can… see me… Perhaps the colors were not accidental at all?

    After crossing Bagmati bridge, She left the girls to their procession and kaane-khusi, and turned left to follow the banks of Bagmati, pulled along by that gentle tug, now growing stronger. Passing Tripureswor, Pachali Bhairav, then northwards following Bishnumati, a slight right passing the venerable Maru Sattah sitting derelict yet grandfatherly, welcoming all seekers, kings to kanphatta yogis, then crossing the border between warring  Yangal and Yambu, towards the opulent palace complex of the Mallas, today occupied by the former invaders who had now been invaded upon by the new ruler. She approached, made Her way through the thick crowd that had gathered for Yenyaa, passed the unfortunate Kot on the left, circled the large irregular courtyard once in the good direction, now passing Taleju Mandir, which tonight would be graced with the presence of the other Blood-Devi, the fiery woman who was also a virginyoung girl. Now politely ignoring  Pratap Malla’s frivolous inscription in fifteen languages, now peeking inadvertently inside the Hanumandhoka gate (because we Nepalis have this relentless curiosity towards our Kings), now towards the exposed Swet Bhairab, fierce and benign, granting his annual Darshan. Now smiling at the small Indra confined in ropes really for his grave offense against Nepal long ago but ostensibly for his much smaller offense of stealing flowers in more recent times, while people around him celebrate a jatra apparently in his name. She was pulled towards the tall yahsim pole at the center of it all. She had arrived. The heart of Nepal Mandal. Indra Dhwaja. Axis mundi. The center that remains unmoved as the mandal turns. The sense of peace within swelled immense. She looked at the townsfolk, now shaking shouting eyes out of focus dancing singular around the yahsim pole.

    She looked at the vaguely familiar temples from her childhood surrounding Her on all sides, their terraces stacked towards the sky. Temples risen from the ground with a clean symmetry straight through the middle, reaching a consummation at the tip of the gajurs all pointed upwards. Then over to the hills with their own carved terraces stacked upwards before being overwhelmed by the natural contour of the hills, also tapering upwards. All  around Her a symphony of symbols rising, pointing up, urging mortals towards a meaning. But what? Lingering on the gajurs, She imagined them as inverted purna kalashas, containers of amrit, of Soma itself, collected from the heavens. By inverting them, the temple artisans perhaps wanted Soma to spill down to earth, through the temple sanctum. But Soma is myth. What does spill down every year from the heavens is rain… Rain brings life. Could Soma be… Did the artisans know?

    The tug at Her consciousness now intense, almost painful without being so. She still did not understand but the answer welled within. But… what is that? On the struts supporting those roofs: man and woman coupled. Two men pleasuring a woman. Man and animal… in a temple?

    Suddenly, a long thin bamboo tube appeared from the mouth of Swet Bhairab. The crowd now in complete frenzy blended into a flurry of bodies and roars. Liquid gushed down freely from the tube into welcome mouths reaching out from the whirlydirvy  of humanity.

    Yes, Soma is water is wine is all.

    Again, She looked up at the yahsim pole, brought Her palms together above Her head. Namaskaar. The nerves at the tips of Her fingers tingled in union with their mates on the other… hand.

    She was ready.

    She let go of Her mind.

    She floated up the pole, towards the sky. Higher and higher into the heavens. Upward. Backward in time. Inward. Beyond Yangal and Yambu, which fused into one, then to none. Beyond Buddha and now even beyond Shiva. Beyond male and female. She was blessed with a darshan of Ardhanariswara. Yab and Yum in tight coupling. Now further up. 

    Further back.

    Further in.

    Beyond me and you. Beyond the living and the dead. Further beyond, back towards the very beginning passing Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswar.

    Beyond bhur bhuwah swa, the first words. Beyond Prajapati’s desire, and then beyond the first thought. She became the golden egg, undivided. She became the doe at Dawn, Usha. She became The Archer, Pashupati himself in his old guise of Rudra, advancing furtively towards Prajapati with bow and arrow, trying to stop the cosmic violation that was about to transpire. Rudra shot his arrow. It pierced Prajapati. The arrow caused an effusion of seed from Prajapati. The arrow caused time to flow, forward. At this cosmic moment, She had a choice: go forward and become the doe again, the Dawn of this universe. Or go back. She chose to go back. She became Prajapati. Further back. Further in.

    She went beyond ॐ. 

    She suddenly felt an eternal stillness. She had arrived at the Uncreate.

    The nothingness that does not negate. The emptiness that is not meaningless. The void that is utter eternal throbbing peace.

    At that moment, She became That.

    तत् त्वम् असि.

    ∫∫∫

    No Time
    Brahma

    she reveled in the uncreate. she was free of sin guilt desire courage. she was free of freedom. she looked inward and saw outward. she smiled at the deceit of humans who had learned to separate the two. gently she sifted through questions she already knew the answers to. if it was indeed the perfect state why was the perfection of eternal uncreate violated? why did father look with lust at usha at dawn? why did krishna frolic with the maidens so?

    at that time when time had not begun the universe erupted forth with a big burst. out of an excess of creative potential. out of love. of a desire for generation rather than stasis. the first lusting the first cosmic violation. the big burst of love created space. created the amusing delusion of time. the universe grew. tiny bundled of energy vibrated in loving memory of the recently departed uncreate. some bundles collected together shared their vibrations and formed air metal water.

    she reveled in the uncreate. she became the uncreate. she became krishna his mouth wide open the universe contained within. she was filled with tender love for this rock that hill the tree over there all filled with a tiny sprinkling of the uncreate. every bit of matter in the universe carrying seeds of the uncreate from the original big burst. so the universe expands the memory dims yet always nudges at the answer. the gravity of original oneness pulls all matter back. pulls us back too. tugs gently at these bundles of energy still vibrating aeons later with the faint memory of the original uncreate. trying to unite us all back into one.

    come here.

    look.

    in here.

    now i am here.

    now when i meet you i will not harm you invade you posses you be afraid of you for when i harm you i harm the eternal uncreate within you. which is the eternal uncreate within me. for smiling i know she knows we are all one.

    she marveled at the ancient sages who had thought through the origin story and had sealed it in wellformed hymns of the rig ved and what followed afterwards. stories of father-daughter pairs. prajapati-usha. brahma-gayatri. stories glowing with the fervor of original love and yet heavy with the catastrophe of cosmic violation. stories that were therefore cast as catastrophes of social violation. stories also inspired by the cosmic drama acted out in the early morning skies every day as the darkred cows of dawn came to rest with the black cows of night and furtive sirius crept up on orion as he was lusting after alderbaran. paradoxical stories told using aged fathers and young daughters with utter disregard to the flow of time for time had not begun. stories that recognized the further paradox of eternal perfection violating itself and so weaved in shiva in his original form of rudra creeping up on father heaven in a doomed effort to stop the impending violation of perfection. complex stories that were ultimately pure thoughts emanating from the ancients sages. thoughts that were acts of creation much like the one the ancient sages had commemorated in their hymns. out of nothing something had been willed into existence. in the cosmic story. but also in the stories of the rig ved and what followed afterwards. by their creative powers the ancient sages had paid homage to the eternal uncreate but had also encroached upon the realm of the uncreate by themselves creating. the hymns carried the dual story of rebellion and devotion intimately entwined and superbly crafted.

    she reveled in the uncreate. she saw the universe once created suffer its own laws of physics. the vibrating bundles of energy grouped together into colonies. colonies began to move eat make copies of themselves. some moved to land. much later each colony developed a curious habit called self and a curioser habit called ego. the maya of original love decayed into the maya of shackles. the collection of cells used ego first for survival then for innovation and finally for dominance. the tentacles of maya grew. ensnared the universe. suffocated it. like an erect tree that withers and disintegrates into the very ground from whence it sprang, all succumbed to the arrow of time — none other than rudra’s stillairborn arrow from the beginning. weary the universe closed its eyes breathed out and went back to sunya. to eternal peace. to the eternal uncreate.

    the white satwa of creation had blossomed into a ruddy rajat life and ended with a black tamaasha.

    she also knew like the ancient sages that the myth did not stop with one cycle of creation. the uncreate the throbbing excess potential wanted to create again. wanted to love again. so the father looked askance at usha the dawn at the dawn of a universe again. out of the eternal stillness burst forth a miniscule entity and shot upward. another miniscule entity of the opposite kind shot downward. the act of love thus ruptured peace and engendered seed. or in another modern myth the vibrating mbrane of shiva kissed the vibrating mbrane of shakti. at the kissingpoint of violation another big burst another opening up of space another myth of time another universe. expand. dissipate. breathe out. back to sunya. repeat.

    she reveled in the uncreate. the matrix of creative potential energy pulsating with all realities. she lived through infinite repetitions of creation. the infinite energy of her tapas uncurled hidden dimensions which now lay resplendent before her. she traveled joyously through these new dimensions. she walked backward inside the times of each universe. she danced with prajapati who was herself and father heaven and also his daughter usha. she imagined multiple universes bubbling up at the same instance with their own myths of time. feeling playful she bent the universes into arcs. she brought two together facing outward and had them exchange histories. she joined and looped all the universes back onto themselves creating a bouquet of fractals that sprouted new leaves that looped back over and over and did not end. she immersed herself onto this unending cosmic fractal pattern and danced in multiple universes at the same instance forever.

    she became nataraj.

    every cell in her a universe. every breath in the original big burst. every breath out a collapse and return to the uncreate. 

    she reveled in the uncreate. playing childlike with the universes she picked up that one over there entered its unique manifold found a small milky galaxy floated over to a pale star then to a vibrant blue planet with patches of brown and oozing pregnant green decorated lightly all over with soft tuffs of gentle white. she singled out a valley crested with whitesnow mountains and laced languidly with bounteous rivers and dotted with towns in the shape of sacred mandals. she had arrived again in nepal. the terrace temple steps into terrace roofs leaping to terrace hills teasing into one. she saw again the satwa rajat tamas colors in the saris of the newa girls blending into one. the tall yahsim pole during yenyaa reuniting the egg-halves of heaven and earth into one. the same yahsim pole that had initiated her journey into one. the temples their rigidly defined central axes emulating the axis mundi pointing to one. temples with an inverted vase on the roofs pouring down soma to the profane earth from the one. the same roofs with an open portal at the top making easier the reverse journey into one. 

    she marveled at the art of the newas who had taken the complex threads of their ancestry to create a fabric that was uniquely of the valley. One thread looped in the wet rice plantations of the yellow river basin to the north. another thread pulled on traces of matrikas ajimas and dakinis from the very soil and ancient underground of the valley. but the defining thread in the weave was the memories of the ancient sages from the south. out of this complex thricetwined fabric they had crafted offerings all through the valley to deities who were but intermediaries to the eternal uncreate.

    but she saw that the newas had gone further. like the ancient sages before them the newas looked at the eternal cycle between blissful stasis and creation and wondered

    what about me? how do i leave my mark in this unending drama?

    and so knowing their own cosmic impermanence they strove for permanence. defiantly. inspired by the natural architecture of the undulating hills around them they created art of unearthly beauty primarily as an homage to the uncreate but also as a personal if doomed statement of rebellion. the boisterous craftsmanship of the temples meandering leisurely into artful eaves and roof corners verging on the carnal and sometimes blatantly so. flirtations with diagonal spaces that violated the rigorous vertical order of the axis mundi — and yet did not stray far by paying central respect to it. the further mischief of the overturned kalash pouring down soma a bold original creation elegantly fusing the divine and the worldly. the exuberant dances and the wanton jatras dedicated to the uncreate but in the excesses of their execution the grisly skulls the gratuitous reds loudly tipping  the scales towards this side their side our side the human side the drunken imperfect here and now which after all is very far from the eternal uncreate.

    thus had the newas carved out a wedge in the cosmic cycle of stasis and creation and populated it with bold shapings of wood stone metal clay fine paint ink using bare hands. works of art dropped like utter lonely anchors over millennia in this puny universe ultimately doomed to extinction with the next breathe out. but knowing this they had still created. these flickering beacons of original thought of hope for mortals struggling to find a connection from the sad here and now to the eternal uncreate.

    this bittersweet newa homage to the uncreate was writ loud across nepal. they wanted to make sure the messages were heard. distinctly. so that aeons later if a stranger came to nepal valley and looked around at the hills the terraces the temples the obscene couplings the wanton dances the yahsim pole they would hear resonating through all of the valley:

    look

    up there

    in here

    ∫∫∫

    English excerpts of the Rig Ved based on The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. An English Translation by S. W. Jamison and J. P. Brereton, Oxford University Press, 2014

    Satapatha Brahmana translation from Satapatha Brahmana According to the Text of the Madhyandina School, Part V, translated by J. Eggeling, Oxford University Press, 1882.

     

  • They Come for Laccho

    Part I: Official Letter from Magistrate of Gorakhpur to Brian Hodgson, East India Company Government Resident in Kathmandu, concerning the search party sent to procure brides for the Nepal Durbar

     

    B. Hodgson Esqr.

                                                                                           Resident at

    Katmandhu

    Sir,

    I have the honor to inform you that Oomakanth Upadhya and Kol Kesree Pundit with the other members of the mission having completed their arrangement for procuring brides for the family of the Rajah of Nepaul, have applied to me for leave to return to their country with the two brides who have been selected[,] one of whom will be accompanied by her father Down Singh a Zemindar Simeyt of Mougul Tighra and the other it is proposed shall be attended by Kishon Kishore Chand[,] Rajah of Gopalpur.

    I have assented to their application pending your sanction, and no objection whatever existing, I trust you will sanction their proceeding.

    Zh. Gorruckpoor

    Magistrate’s OFfice

    The 2nd April 1840

    I have the honor to be

    Sir

    Your Most obedient Servant

    [signed]

    Magistrate

    ∫∫∫

    Part II: Unofficial Letter from Magistrate of Gorakhpur to Brian Hodgson concerning the same

     

     

    My dear Hodgson

    I am at last able to give you some specific information respecting the party sent from Nepaul into this district to provide brides for the Royal Family. During the months they have been here, they have engaged with more than a score of the reputable local families and with signally bad success. Oomakanth Upadhyaya and Kol Kesree imagined that they could have several to court them, instead of they having to propitiate the opposite parties. And with all their shrewdness they have been cruelly told. The hostility shewn by our zemindars  to the  mission, and the narrow escape we have had more than once from recourse to blows by either party, have made it very apparent that alliance with the Goorkha is not coveted. In fact  it is looked upon as disgraceful in point of caste, and a matter of ruin in its after consequences. However at last after endless changings one young lady has been obtained, a Simeytin, a daughter of Dowon Singh of Tighra – a douceur  of 8000 Rs. I understand settled this matter – but not before one of the family averse to the match had run off with the young lady some 50 miles. The other bride was to be got through the intervention of Kishon Kishore Chand, Rajah of Gopalpur. This person is a fine looking man with good broad shoulders who has run through all his property and with the reputation of being a capital shot has the reality of being irretrievably  involved – Perbhoo Chand is a mean kinsmen of the Rajah who is inferior in pedigree to the other Rajahs of the district. Having no family. He [“The Rajah?” in pencil mark] nominated his brother’s daughter, and I believe shewed his musalchees daughter, a pretty girl of 10, instead of his niece a confounded old spinster of 25, and got four thousand Rs out of the Upudya at starting. This came out and since then he (the Rajah) has been beating up amongst his relations for a  substitute. One was chosen from Mebur Rai’s house at Benee, who walked across the Gopur, another at Beesar Rai’s house, who has shut his doors entirely, and now one at Durj Gurwa, which may turn out acceptable though I doubt it.

    Oomakanth forever worn thin with his “search after brides” declares that this is the last attempt, and he applied formally for leave to proceed with the one Dolah, if the other fails or else with both. You will get my official letter by this post. Respecting the Gopalpoor Rajah’s going (provided a bride be got) to the hills, there is not that I am aware of any ground of objection whatever. Perhaps it may help him to get his head above water. With the Tighra Dolah the young lady’s papa will go.

    I am sorry I have not been able to get you any information from the late Souba about Bootwol. He promised to give me a[?] very full and interesting detail in reply to my (or rather your) questions. But his factotum which he sent with his elephants and a lot of money to Fyzabad, took himself and his charge quietly off and  the Souba has been not of his mind every since.

    I hope yet to see you keep your post. This Chinese outbreak  if our ministers could have been a little smarter would have been settled by this time. I apprehend lapse of time in preparation will do more to excite the Nepaulese to ideas of our weakness than a temporary repulse – Oomakanth was curious to know what was going on, and let me learn that the hill men were watching the prospect  of events. He was rather disappointed when I told him the history of teas  cured in the Alecste taking their Bogue, and bringing their batteries about their ears, and seemed to acquire new ideas altogether from an exhibition of our relative commercial positions. He had no idea of tea drinking being a matter of national interest and like many perhaps most others for the first time learnt that it was not a case of Lord Auckland & the Company & Governor Lin, but of Great Britain & British India & China.

     

    Yrs. Very faithfully

    [signed]

    April 2d, 1840

    Gorruckpoor

    ∫∫∫

    Part III: They Come for Laccho

    March 29, 1840
    Dharza Gurwa, A small town near Gorakhpur
    India

    लछ्छो…ओ लछ्छो…घरे आव बिटिया। मिहमान आगल बा।

    Laccho paused in her play with Ramkali around the bel tree, and handed over the two baby goats she was carrying in her arms to Ramkali.

    Here, you keep on teaching Tutar and Butar how to speak our language. Amma is calling me.

    Laccho ran towards the house. As she turned the corner, she stopped dead on her tracks. An ELEPHANT was resting quietly in front of her house! It was slowly munching on some straw that had been placed on the ground. It’s impossibly large ears were moving slowly but constantly, back and forth, back and forth. She also noticed three men lazily sprawled under the banyan tree…probably caretakers of the elephant.

    Afraid of startling the elephant, she walked slowly on tiptoes towards the house, carefully pivoted around and entered the front door, and bolted again to be as far away from the elephant as possible. In the courtyard, she ran straight into a stern man with a very serious face. He had on a very funny black hat. His moustache was rigid and quivering. It scared her.

    Amma stepped forward.

    Laccho, why are you fooling around like a little girl? Cover your head properly, and arrange your sari. These are the guests from the palace of Nepal.

    Amma motioned politely towards the rest of the party that were behind the stern man. There was one other man, wearing a similar black hat, and with a forehead filled with lots and lots of tika, both yellow and red. Then there was a woman, old and frowning. She had an enormous bulge at her belly, around which there was a tightly wrapped white cloth. Must be some disease that made her stomach swell.

    Paapu was also present, sitting on the corner chair, looking dignified.

    Please sit, sit, it is an honor… but a humble abode… Amma bustled and fussed over the guests.

    The party settled into chairs arranged around the courtyard that morning for the visit.

    The stern man took out a pouch of leather. Here is the…um, gift.

    Paapu got up and took the pouch. He started to look inside, but then decided against it. He carefully put it on the nearby table, and did not look at it for the rest of the conversation.

    The old woman started talking. Very loudly and in a raspy voice like a croaking frog. She did not look happy.

    Why so hot here in the plains? We been to every honorable Rajput house in Gorakhpur in last month… in this intolerable heat. I have an old ailment of baath in this leg, walking is very difficult as it is, and with the heat… And the mosquitos…THIS big…How do you peoples survive here?

    The old woman was speaking Hindustani, but Laccho noticed that she sometimes used the wrong words and she spoke funny too. They probably speak another language where they come from, Laccho thought.

    The old woman paused to take a deep breath. She put her hand inside the white cloth around her belly and dug around quite freely through her bulge.

    …so that is not a diseased swelling after all…a traveling bag!

    The old woman fished out a towel from her bulge. She started wiping her forehead and neck. She turned to the man with the tika full of forehead. She mumbled in her own language, trying to be as quiet as possible:

    Not even some water…what is this?

    Laccho could make out the word water. Amma bustled again. It looked like Amma also figured it out.

    Where are my manners? In this excitement I forgot all about….I will be right back.

    The old woman turned a knowing eye to the stern man. The stern man did not respond.

    The old woman kept going…

    We used to have many good luck with brides in Gorakhpur in the past. Even Her Majesties the Senior Queen and Junior Queen, as you probably know, were from here. In fact, the Senior Queen is your own relative, or so I have been communicated. Even this time, we were expecting many good candidates. Many promises were made to us by the reputable peoples of Gorakhpur. But we was disappointed…so disappointed. And the humiliations we had to go through in some reputable houses!

    Ahem!

    With that, the stern man straightened himself in his chair, and shot a look at the old woman. The old woman stopped talking, flatted her lips in a sulking grimace, and looked down sideways.

    So, Chand Ji…the stern man continued, looking towards Paapu.

    …as you know, we have been sent here by Kishan Kishore Raja Ji. Yes, we have had many misunderstandings with him until now, and many false starts, some rather… disappointing, but he is Rajput Royalty and as emissaries of another Rajput Royal family, we continue to have complete faith in his judgements. We have been led to believe that your girl will be an ideal bride for His Royal Highness, Sri 5 Crown Prince Surendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. If the …um, arrangements are satisfactory to you, let us proceed to the inspection so that we can take the conversation further.

    Laccho noticed that Paapu touched the leather pouch just for a moment, without looking at it, as the stern man was speaking. She also noticed that the stern make spoke Hindustani much better than the old woman.

    Let us proceed, Paapu said.

    Laccho noticed that Paapu had said very little today. That was unusual.

    The stern man looked towards the old woman, and nodded.

    The old woman got up, smiled quickly, returned to her frown, and advanced towards Laccho.

    Come, my child, let me look at you closely. What number is your age, dear?

    Eight.

    Very good. Come inside for a little moment with me.

    The old woman placed both hands on Laccho’s shoulders and guided her out of the courtyard and into the house. Amma was ahead of them, and once inside, she pointed out where the woman’s room was for the old woman.

    Some time passed.

    The old woman appeared from within the house, and brought Laccho into the courtyard. She announced to the small gathering, smiling ear to ear:

    We are very happy to have such a beautiful and healthy girl as the future Queen of Nepal. She is without any blemish whatsoever! The girl is now our Dola!

    Both of the men seemed relieved. The stern man twirled his moustache. The quieter man with the forehead full of tika even smiled a little bit. The old woman had even stopped frowning.

    The stern man said to the tika forehead, who was poring over several documents sprawled on his lap:

    So, Pandit Ji, what does the Dola’s birth chart say about an auspicious day for the wedding?

    Sambat 1898, Jyestha Shukla Pakshya, Dwitiya is the best day …that is, just about a year and two months from this day.

    Wonderful! That will give us enough time to train the Dola, said the old woman.

    The stern man spoke again:

    Chand Ji, it appears we can settle matters. Is our proposal agreeable to you?

    Yes,  Upadhyaya Ji, it is.

    As Paapu said this, he now finally looked at the leather pouch sitting on the table, for quite a long time, and then looked down towards the mud floor of the courtyard.

    It is decided, then, the stern man said.

    We will come in a week to take the Dola away. Please prepare for the long journey appropriately. Of course, we will let Kishan Kishore Raja Ji accompany the Dola to Nepal. There might be an opportunity for him to stay on in Nepal with the girl if the Nepal palace decrees so. Congratulations, Chand Ji, and welcome to the hallowed inner circle of the brave and legendary Rajputana Nepal royal family!

    ∫∫∫

    Letters from the British Library, London. India Office Records: Kathmandu Residency Records, Nepal. Misc. Letters Received Apr-Dec 1840 Pt. 1. FF. 1-243. R/5/100