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Authors: Ariel Glucklich

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BOOK: Climbing Chamundi Hill
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THE MINISTER'S DEATH

Quite some distance on a well-traveled road going north used to be a state called Anga, ruled by a young king who was famous for his good looks and great valor. He would have made an excellent king but for one thing. As a young and unmarried man, the king spent most of his energy at the royal harem.
Little was left for administration and government. Fortunately, just as the ancient king of gods, Indra, had Brihaspati to assist him, Yashaketu enjoyed the wisdom and discretion of a great minister, Viveka, a Brahmin whose vision was always clear and expansive. It was the minister who ruled in practice, overseeing the life of a vast domain from a tiny office inside the palace.

One day, rumor reached the ears of Viveka that the citizens of Anga suspected him of coveting the royal throne. Why else, they whispered, would he serve day and night as the de facto ruler, while his master absented himself? It must be some conspiracy! That same day, the minister went home despondently and told his wife about the rumor.

“Why should you worry about rumors and false innuendos?” she asked sensibly.

“Because even a false rumor can hurt the innocent. Look at what happened to Sita when Rama listened to the whispers of his subjects.” What happened, she knew, was that the king got rid of her, sent her to the forest forever.

Viveka's wife was a realistic woman who was quick to acknowledge and respond to a genuine problem. She had a ready answer. “Why don't you pack your things and tell the king you are going on pilgrimage to the sacred rivers.” This was superb advice, for it would show the city folk that the minister lacked personal ambition and at the same time force the king to perform his duties.

The young king was not very enthusiastic about
the news, and he was still in charge. “You do not have my permission to go on pilgrimage, Viveka.” He said. “I need you here and order you to stay!”

That very same night, in pitch dark, the minister bade his wife farewell and slipped out of the city unobserved by the guards or even stray dogs. He traveled simply, like a pilgrim, visiting sacred bathing places in many lands, accumulating great merit. One day he sat down to rest in a Shiva temple in the land of Paundra, near the sea, when a wealthy merchant approached him. The sophisticated merchant, easily recognizing the bearing of a man of distinction, invited the minister to rest at his home. The two men quickly became friends, and a few days later the merchant suggested that his guest join him on a seafaring expedition to the Island of Gold, where he traded cloth for precious metals.

Viveka enjoyed the journey aboard the merchant vessel
Durgatta.
His stay on the island, under a warm sun, passed by lazily. However, on the third day of the return trip, the sails suddenly dropped lifelessly, and the ship came to a standstill. The sea looked as placid as a royal bathing tank at midday, but as a sailor tapped on his shoulder and pointed out to sea, the minister saw that the waves had started to gather up from every direction, amassing into a huge mountain of water that rose up into the sky, dwarfing the ship. The minister stepped back in horror, expecting the wave to crush the ship, but the merchant and the sailors remained perfectly calm. On the crest of the fantastic wave he saw a
wishing tree, adorned with gold, coral, and jewels shaped like flowers. Under the tree stood a couch, and on it was a beautiful young woman holding a lyre.

The woman gazed directly into the minister's eyes, picked softly at the strings of her instrument, and began to sing. “Man eats today the fruit he has sown in his previous life. This, even fate cannot change.” As soon as the little song ended, the woman on the couch, the tree, and the wave silently returned to the depths of the sea, the water calmly closing in on the apparition.

Viveka excitedly turned to quiz the other passengers. “Did you see that? Have I just seen the most beautiful woman in all of creation, or was it the goddess of auspiciousness, Lakshmi, herself?” But the others merely shrugged—to them the sight he thought miraculous was commonplace. The sailors told him that this fantastic sight materialized nearly every time a ship sailed by, and always vanished after the woman sang her sad song.

The minister suddenly felt overcome with a desire to return home. When the ship docked at port he thanked his host and asked about the shortest route to Anga. It had been months since the day he had vanished, and the king was thrilled to see his weary old friend. “Why did you leave me, good man? This journey of yours was a cruel thing for your mind to conceive, and it did no good for your body either…Well, I suppose it was fate, so how can I complain? Tell me, old friend, what did you see on your travels?”

The minister skimmed over the details of his pilgrimages, which he did not expect the king to appreciate, and then proceeded to the description of the sea journey and the huge wave on which the young nymph sang a mysterious song especially for him. “The wave just stopped in mid-flow, higher than your palace, and suddenly a tree appeared in its crest, blinding me with the brilliance of its gems. But above all else, the maiden on the couch was clearly the most beautiful woman in all of existence, although her voice was as sad as the end of youth.”

“Tell me more. I want to hear everything!” exclaimed the king in excitement. And, as the minister repeated every detail over and over, the king fell in love in a deep, oddly nostalgic way. When Viveka finished speaking, the king sighed. “If I don't take her for my wife, I shall die—this is certain!”

He ordered the weary minister to take over the affairs of the state yet again because he would soon be departing in search of his love. The minister's protests fell on deaf ears. Yashaketu was already busy disguising himself as an ash-covered, long-haired ascetic, so he could travel without the commotion that usually surrounded a famous king. The very next day he left Anga.

Following the minister's directions, he came upon a hermit called Kushanabha, who recognized the king and told him how to find a ship that would take him to the Island of Gold. The king had to cross three mountain ranges and ford raging rivers, but in time he arrived at the seashore. It was his first
glimpse of the sea, which was animated like a living creature, he felt, eager to show him to his destiny's fulfillment. A kind merchant named Lakshmidatta invited him to sail aboard his ship, and they set off for the Island of Gold.

Halfway to the island on a calm sea, the waters rose up again, cresting into a huge wave. The king saw a woman so lovely that he vowed to make her his wife. His love only deepened when their eyes met, and she began to sing her sad song about action, fate, and rebirth.

“Yes,” he thought, “she's singing about us! Our love has been ordained by fate. We are destined to be united in love.” He extended his hand toward the woman, when suddenly the mountain of water silently sank to the ocean floor. The king was left gazing at mere surface. “She's a nymph!” he exclaimed, then yelling out to the sea, “Protect me and grant me my beloved,” he jumped off the side of the ship.

The merchant Lakshmidatta watched the water settle back behind the plunging man. Overcome with sadness and guilt that his guest—an ascetic—had perished, he contemplated throwing himself overboard as well. But then a voice from heaven rang out, “Do not despair, good merchant. The man who jumped into the water was Yashaketu, king of Anga. In a former life he was wed to the nymph who rides the wave—he shall now obtain her hand in marriage again and return to his throne.”

And, indeed, the king did not perish. Deep beneath
the ship he kept swimming downward, until he saw the glow of a magnificent city. Marble palaces and temples covered with gold and lined with precious stones stood on the ocean floor, crisscrossed with broad boulevards extended as far as he could see under the deep sea. As he moved closer, searching for his beloved, the king noticed that the city was completely deserted. He entered empty houses and searched in the back alleys, feeling himself surrounded by a gloomy silence. Finally he walked between two rows of formidable pillars into a vast hall of a white marble palace. At the center was a jewel-studded couch, on which lay a figure covered with a green shawl lined with golden embroidery.

The king gently pulled the cloth back, revealing the moonlike glow of the nymph's pure face. She opened her eyes. There was an instant of recognition, before she leaped off the couch and lowered herself at the feet of the royal figure. The king gently raised his beloved, and they exchanged a long glance of deep mutual recognition.

Then they recounted their stories. King Yashaketu learned that his beloved was named Mrigankavati and that she was the daughter of a king who inexplicably exiled her to this desolate place. “I have no idea why he sent me here, and so, every day I rise up to the surface to mourn my fate. It must be some karmic sin for which I am atoning,” she told the king with a sad voice.

The king took hold of her hands and offered her consoling words from the bottom of his heart. Then
he proposed marriage. “I know we were husband and wife in a previous life. Marry me and I promise to stay with you forever.”

“I shall marry you,” she answered, “but you must agree to one condition. Four times a month, on the eighth and fourteenth of each fortnight I must leave you for one day. You must let me go then; I promise to return.”

The king agreed easily—it was a small price to pay for happiness. The two wed themselves to each other by a mutual declaration of love, in the manner of
gandharvas,
or celestial musicians.

The abandoned city at the floor of the sea was their home, but despite its desolation the two lovers were happy. One day Mrigankavati told her husband that the time had come for her to leave him for the day. “Do not follow me, my darling. I shall be well. And whatever else you do, stay out of the crystal pavilion; it holds a pool that leads to the world of humans. If you fall in there, you shall not be able to return.” Having given these instructions, the nymph departed.

However, the king was not content to stay behind. Brandishing a sword, he quietly followed his wife, when suddenly, to his great horror, he saw a huge demon descend swiftly like a nocturnal predator and inhale the woman into the bloody abyss of his mouth. In an instant his wife was gone! The king exploded in a violent rage, roaring like an army of demons. He swung his weapon and decapitated the monster with one blow. Instantly, his rage gave way
to mourning as he stepped back and observed the torso where his beloved had perished. But then, before his very eyes, the demon's chest began to move, then tore open from within. Out of his enormous heart emerged Mrigankavati, completely unscathed and miraculously lovely.

The two lovers ran toward each other, but then the nymph stopped and exclaimed, “I remember! I remember everything!” She told the king that she was the daughter of a celestial king who had one day cursed her. “I was away at Shiva's temple worshiping my Lord and lost track of time. By the time I returned, my father was furious. It was then that he cursed me: ‘Just as I was swallowed whole by hunger, so will you be swallowed by a demon four times a month!' Then he promised that I shall be freed from this curse, and from my exile, when a king named Yashaketu slew the demon.”

The king was thrilled. “Now we can return to my world and live happily among my people,” he cried in joy.

“No, my dear. That is not possible. Now that you have freed me from the curse, I am to return to the celestial world where I belong.”

“But what about our love? Our marriage?”

The king tried to change her mind, but it was useless. He had been wrong about his fate after all; he was doomed to return alone. But in a flash, a course of action became clear in his mind. He begged his wife to stay with him for one week before returning to her celestial home, and she readily agreed. They
spent six days together, drinking from the sweet cup of desperate love. On the seventh day, the king led his wife into the pavilion on some pretext, then embraced her tightly. Before she could fathom his intentions, the king threw himself into the pool, his gateway back to the human world.

A moment later the king and the nymph emerged out of the pool in the palace garden at Anga. Members of the court, servants, and guards came running to greet their ruler, who proudly showed off his new wife. A thunderburst of cheering and clapping of hands accompanied the young couple as they floated into the fabulous palace. The minister heard the commotion and came out of the modest office from which he ruled the kingdom. He lit up in joy at the sight of his master and humbly approached to pay his respects. But suddenly a white pallor descended on Viveka's face. He stopped, and his bearing turned distant and thoughtful. The king failed to observe this as he gleefully displayed the maiden from the wave as his new queen. Viveka, more perceptive than anyone else in the hall, saw that the young woman was shivering with sadness.

“You are indeed the woman from the wave, the celestial nymph.” He bowed lightly. “Why do you look so sad?”

“I am sad, wise minister. Because of love I have now lost the power to return to my heavenly home.” Her eyes moistened as she spoke.

The king turned in disappointment, but quickly composed himself. “Don't cry, my beloved,” he said,
smiling happily. He tightened his embrace around her shoulders.

That night the minister returned to his home in silence. Skipping dinner, he went directly to bed, where, a short time later, his wife found him dead of a broken heart.

I had stopped walking before the old man finished the story. Now I suddenly became aware that my feet were turning sensitive; the stone slabs were particularly coarse at this point. Off the path was a cluster of weeds that looked soft, but I only half noted them. The story had almost completely absorbed me.

“Now, my young friend,” the old man turned to face me, “why did the minister die? Let us assume for a moment that this story is a riddle. Show me what you can do.”

BOOK: Climbing Chamundi Hill
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