The Bride of Keishna
Silence and solitude seemed to have cast a spell over the ruins of Chittor. There was only a sprinkling of tourists. Except for the Victory Tower erected by Rama Kumbh to immortalise his recovery of the fort from the Mughals (1326), the majestic hilltop hardly offered any impressive monument. No wonder one should find it drab unless its past remained vibrantly alive in one’s memory.
I sat on the verandah of the small Krishna temple of Meerabai. My guide who had also become my friend and philosopher, relaxed on the steps. A Bengali couple passed by, the husband bursting into a Meera bhajan: T have Giridhar Gopal alone, and none else’.
‘Look here, Babu, don’t scare Meerabai’s tender Gopal!’ his wife warned him.
‘No wife ever appreciates a husband’s genius!’ the-man lamented.
Meerabai’s life story had been diluted with legends but luckily not polluted, as had happened with the unlucky Radha, the other lover of Krishna’s. Meera is historical; Radha is mythical, rather post-mythical, emerging from the ecstatic experience of devotees belonging to the Bhakti discipline. A formation in the subtle world, Radha had never been a physical entity. Shesymbolised the psychic response to the Eternal’s call represented by Krishna’s flute.
Alas, what a farce to which the Krishna-Radha relationship has been reduced, thanks to our matchless romantic dispensations and thanks galore to the film industry!
Historians agree on the broad outline of Meera’s life, though they differ on her time. While the majority accept 1547 to be her year of birth, some trace it to 1498.
Meera, a child of Jddhpur, one day happened to witness a bridal procession. Aged four, she asked her mother, If a bridegroom for a girl is a\must, what about mine?’
‘Why? Gridhar Gopal is your bridegroom, of course!’ answered the mother in a lighter vein.
It so happened that a few days later a Vaishnav hermit spent a week in their house. He carried with him a tiny image of Krishna. He was unwell and he made the little Meera perform the rituals for the portable deity. Soon Meera grew so very enamoured of the image that she would put it on a cozy little bed by her side even when she went to sleep.
At last it was time for the hermit to move on. It was still dark when he set out for his next destination, lifting the image from the sleeping Meera’s bedside.
The first thing Meera did after waking up was to look for the image. Her face turned dark when she did not see it; she cried and refused to eat. Nothing would console her.
At dawn the hermit was seen approaching their house. He found his way to Meera’s room and, without a word,’ placed the image beside her. He had, in the courtyard of a distant temple, dreamt Meera’s tearful face in the early hours of the night. Immediately he had begun walking back.
Meera bathed the image in her tears of gratitude. It remained with her till its enshrinement in the temple.
‘What you see is an exact picture of the same image,’ the priest informed me.
‘But what about the image itself?’
‘It’s with the Maharanas,’ he answered apologetically.
Perhaps to leave that small but precious image exposed in a temple that enjoyed little protection would have been unwise. Several idols missing from neighbouring temples had
surfaced amidst proud private collections in the West.
‘I hope it is safe in the custody of the Maharanas,’ I said, looking at my guide.
‘Only as safe as the Maharanas themselves,’ commented my guide. ‘They, as well as everything they possessed, had always been unsafe. Think of Maharana Pratap!’
But there would be a time to think of Maharana Pratap. I sat checking my knowledge of Meerabai with the priest’s. I was not disappointed.
Meera had lost her father in her infancy. Her grandfather, although not a ruling prince, was a princely noble. Probably his relative, the old Maharana of Mewar, once passed through Jodh-pur, happened to see Meera, liked her immensely and proposed’ her marriage with his son, the young Bhojraj. The Maharana must have been gifted with a rare vision to be attracted towards Meera who, it is believed, was endowed more with a serene grace than any sensuous charm.
The Maharana’s wish was done. Soon thereafter Bhojraj ascended the throne. Traditionally a devotee of Kali, Bhojraj by and by turned to Krishna and built a shrine for Meera’s deity adjacent to his palace, though his actions were frowned upon by his kinsmen. He would refuse to check Meera’s weird propensities even when she would make a dash into the temple at dead of night, in a state of trance.
But the gentle and conscientious Bhojraj diedyoung. His younger brother, Ratan Singh, who succeeded him was equally tolerant of the conduct of Meerabai – who would sometimes pass a full day and a night at a stretch in the temple, singing, dancing or simply gazing at her idol, while curious crowds would gather around her.
Ratan Singh was assassinated and the throne was occupied by his younger brother – a very different character. Swearing by the dynasty’s dignity, he and his jealous sister cried a halt to Meerabai’s eccentricities. They even mixed deadly poison in her drink which failed to harm her – according to one of her most touching lyrics.
But Meerabai decided to leave the dynasty in peace and departed for Vrindaban and thence to Dwaraka. The kingdom of Mewar, so sing the bards, was engulfed by several crises and the people held the dynasty’s deplorable conduct towards Meerabai responsible for it. There is the widely known story of a delegation led by the Rajguru to Dwaraka to persuade the ascetic queen to return home; but Meera, instead, disappeared inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Dwarkadhish temple.
Akbar attacked Chittor in 1567. The Rajputs defended the fort under the leadership of Saindas and Jaimull. After a day’s battle Jaimull, with a burning torch, was supervising the repair of a wall when, it is believed, Akbar himself killed him, shooting from an early variety of gun he had learnt to handle. The next day Saindas was killed in a direct confrontation with the invaders.
The women of the fort made a bonfire of themselves –johar, once again. The last battalion of the defenders of the fort, numbering about one thousand, who were left with no weapons, got torches lighted by flames from that mass pyre and let themselves loose like an avalanche of fire on the enemy throng below the hill. They got killed to the last man, but not before destroying a big chunk of the Mughal army.
The last luminous flicker in the history of Mewar -Maharana Pratap – dazzled a million imaginations with his uncompromising heroism, but could not reclaim the fort of his ancestors.
‘How was Chittor, sir?’
It was my chauffeur, while negotiating our descent from the height.
‘Not easy to answer!’
‘You may not answer. But I know that you loved it. I have driven here a hundred times; I would be happy to drive another one hundred times.’
He waxed profusely sentimental, lamenting the present state of the Rajputs, as we drove along.
We were passing through a crowded bazaar. Some young men stood right at the centre of the road, talking and laughing, refusing to budge even though the car was about to touch them. The chauffeur hooted and one of the young man stepped aside, as if taken aback and, in the process, delivered a two-syllable epithet, offensive but widely popular.
My chauffeur stopped and put the car in reverse gear. Closer to the offender, he demanded an unqualified apology in a voice ominous and louder than the whole bazaar’s.
The situation would have been different if the offender were alone. But he had a half dozen-strong team behind him. He at once assumed the role of their captain and banged on the car, daring my chauffeur to do what he could.
I was the solitary sepoy behind my captain. T’m a Rajput’s offspring!’ he announced and, in the process of getting down from the car, removed his wristwatch and handed it over to me, signalling his readiness for action and his expectation of my moral support.
I, too, got down and tried to tell my captain that his adversary did not mean offence, that his exclamation was a mere reflex utterance and that he would have uttered the phrase, so endearing to so many, even if his own father or grandfather were in the driver’s seat.
‘But am I not a Rajput lad?’ he snubbed me. There was nothing to suggest that there were no Rajputs among his opponents. Besides, there was no assurance that a half-dozen non-Rajputs could not crush one Rajput.
I tried to pacify the teams. What ushered in peace, I realised, was not my argument, but their pity for my desperately spoken weird Hindi.
The chauffeur took back his wristwatch with a short thanks and resumed driving.
We both had fallen silent. ‘In which direction is
Haldighat?’ I asked, to break the uneasiness.
He slowed down. ‘So, we go there!’
‘Oh no. I must reach Udaipur in time for my meeting.’
‘Why then did you ask me about Haldighat at this particular spot?’
‘What do you mean?’ I looked out while turning the question back to him. We were at a crossroads, an arrow left showing the way to Haldighat!
‘You are destined to see Haldighat. It is my task to see to it that you’re not late for your programme.’
He turned the car to the left.It was in a winter night of 1967 that I had set out for Jaipur for the first time. An official of my hosts, my escort to the Delhi Railway Station, assured me that he had got me the best available compartment, an AG first class (of the pre-ves tibule days). Soon, as the train began to roll, I began wishing that he had been less kind, for the airconditioner competed with the temperature outside with a vengeance for proving its teeth.
After a prolonged tossing on the berth and under a blanket both of which appeared to have become sheets of ice, I had just managed to fall asleep when desperate knocks on the door woke me up. The train had reached Jaipur and the representative of my hosts was beating in the bush to locate me at that unearthly hour.
I was embarrassed. But a greater embarrassment awaited me. At the exit, I failed to produce my ticket, despite repeated search of my pockets and briefcase. The ticket-collector stood sporting a stoic stance but probably enjoying my plight. Fortunately, a higher officer came to -my rescue. ‘There were only two passengers in AC first class; I checked their tickets and am sure of their bona fides,’ he asserted, and I was escorted out.
Once in the guesthouse, I remembered the resting place of my precious ticket – my hip pocket. I tried to go a bit philosophic over the situation, but could not proceed beyond the truism that a person with an unreliable memory had no right to own a hip pocket.
Years later, glancing through Raymond Chandler’s Farwell, My Lovely, when I read, ‘She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket’, I remembered having felt the ticket-collector’s frown in my hip pocket, and the chilly sensation it caused in that already chilly morning at the guest house. On my return journey I happened to run into the officer and very cordially offered to him the lost-and-found property. This time he visibly frowned. Alas, there is a time for everything: a time to love and a time to die and a time to produce your ticket.
‘Your first engagement, a talk at the women’s college, is at nine,’ I was informed.
‘What do you mean by first? Do I have a second engagement?’
‘Second and third – at the University after lunch and, for the members of the staff, in the evening. Your train back to Delhi is at midnight.’
Even then I did not give up all hopes of stealing a few glimpses of the city. There would be a couple of hours available to me after the first meeting and before the lunch. But after the talk, the kind Principal refused to release me without entertaining me to tea, despite my several sighs of despair and wistful glances through the window at the pink buildings. Alas, when at last the tray arrived, there was only time enough to reach the guesthouse for lunch.
The university teachers who joined me for lunch were friendly and in good spirit. But as soon as we began our walk towards the lecture theatre they showed a tendency to fall behind and talk among themselves in whispers. They put up a grin if I looked askance. I was mystified but kept my curiosity in suspended animation.
I found them reverting to their happy and courteous mood when they led me to our guesthouse for some rest before the next meeting.
Finally, I had to observe, ‘My dear friends, pardon me if I’m wrong, but the whole lot of you appeared to have grown suddenly gloomy, on your way to the lecture theatre, as if you were being led to police custody!’
‘Indeed, we had our trepidations. Yours was the first speech in English in some years without protests from the champions of Hindi,’ they explained. ‘What a relief!’
It was a moonlit night and, even after the third meeting, it had not been too late for me or my kind friends to brave the cold for some rambling. We stood, before long, in front of what is known as Hawa Mahal, a name which must grow most inviting in the summer. The five-storeyed palace with curvilinear roofs and beautiful domes is remarkable for its semioctagonal windows, screened by perforated stones through which queens and concubines, princesses and their maids used to witness festive processions on the streets. Today tourists on the streets witness the windows sans the twinkling eyes behind them.
‘This was built by Sawai Pratap Singh, the grandson of the city’s founder Sawai Jai Singh II,” said a friend.
‘Is Sawai a synonym of Maharaja?’ a lecturer new to Jaipur asked.
‘It is a funny suffix for a ruler, but obviously not so funny according to 18th century values. When Jai Singh ascended the throne, he was only thirteen. He met Aurangzeb and the latter was so impressed by the teenage ruler that he exclaimed ‘Sawai’ – one and a quarter! That is to say, the boy Jai Singh was more than even a full grown man. Jai Singh’s entourage took it as an honour and the word became a dynastic title,’ the professor of history explained.
‘Do you call it merely funny? It’s ridiculous when you remember the character of its author!’ commented one of his colleagues. ‘I wish the Maharaja did without it!’
Jai Singh II (1699-1744), no doubt, was a scholar and a seeker. He created Jaipur, the city bearing his name, after a thorough study of the plans of some of the Western cities as well as the Indian Shilpa Sbastra. He then shifted his capital from Amber to the new site.
He established the five famous observatories – at Jaipur, Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura in an era when hardly any Indian prince had any time to devote to astronomy. Of them the ones at Ujjain and Mathura have disappeared. The one in Delhi is most widely known, but the observatory mostly made of marbles at Jaipur, is larger than that and more sophisticated too. Jaisingh had secured the services of Xavier D’Silva, a widely acclaimed Spanish astronomer, but to make the project relevant to the Indian situation, he enrolled the talents of Samarat Jagannath of Maharashtra and Muhammad Sahi of Delhi.
Jai Singh’s political ambitions, however, overshadowed his scientific quest. In ancient India, a king inspired by an urge to become the king of kings, let loose a horse which was to be followed by his army. The horse would wander as it pleased and if it returned to its owner unchecked by any other ruler, the former’s claim to superiority was established. Jai Singh had the weird whim to revive the tradition, the Aswamedha Yajna.
Todd does not think that Jai Singh’s horse wandered far, for had it entered the deserts the Rathors would have thrown it into their stables. Nevertheless, Jai Singh celebrated the triumphant return of his horse and performed a Yajna and erected a statue of the animal.
Jai Singh was conspiring with Peshwa Baji Rao to snap any tie of allegiance to the Mughals when death overtook him in 1743.