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The Treasures of the Sun God
By ARUN GUPTA
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Arun Gupta
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBOOK 1: SOUTHERN INDIA—SEVENTH CENTURY AD DESCENT OF THE GANGA
It was a cold day in Mamallapuram, a city in the south west of India. On this day the great Pallava king, Maharaja Narsimha Varman was going to unveil a colossal tableau depicting the descent of Ganga, the sacred river, to earth. The king had consulted with his priests to find an auspicious moment for this and the priests had chosen the day of Shiva Ratri. It was the annual night of offerings to Lord Shiva, one of the supreme Gods of Hindu trinity, the lord of destruction. Today was the night dedicated to Lord Shiva, the day of observing Shiva Ratri.
The king was known as a Mamalla, the great warrior which gave the city its name. The city overlooked the sea and the port of Mamalai, its most important port. Over the years the king had developed the facilities of the port that helped the city of Mamallapuram to establish trades, mostly by sea, with Romans, Chinese, Far East and other Indian kingdoms. Roman ships frequently sailed from Misr (Egypt) to Mamallapuram and then to Lanka and South-East Asia. Traders from faraway places had come to join the celebrations of Shiva Ratri; one of them was the Roman trader Marcus Coreonus.
Marcus had been trading with the Pallava king for the past fifteen years. He had delivered large boulders of granite which the king used for building temples, palaces and sculptures. The king had observed that erosion on granite was much less pronounced than it was on soap stone which had been used to build temples in the past. The king was in favour of using granite more and more and Marcus was happy to bring those in. Marcus always felt at home in Mamallapuram. There were a few roman colonies built by roman traders who had come and decided to stay back. Marcus knew them all. He also knew that that all the people residing in the roman colonies would join the celebration. Marcus strolled around the beach and came to a stop in front of a giant sculpture.
The covering on the sculpture had been removed in the morning by the king's order. Facing the port of Mamalai now stood a vast granite rock of about one hundred feet in length and fifty feet in height. The massive rock was sculpted by some of the greatest artisans who transformed it into a tapestry of life around the sacred river, Ganga. As the story goes in Mahabharata, sage Bhagiratha sat in reverent penance to bring Goddess Ganga to the world. Ganga agreed but warned the sage to make arrangements to contain the force of her descent. The sage then prayed to Lord Shiva to bear the force of her fall from heaven. The tapestry on the rock had hundreds of figures of men, women and animals turning in reverence towards the life-giving Ganga. The figures were all life size, natural and looked as if frozen in awe. The artists had ingeniously chiselled a deep cleft almost through the centre of the tableau. A tank placed above the cleft would pour water down the cleft at the end of the ceremony, representing the descent of Ganga.
The whole city was joyously waiting to celebrate Shiva Ratri. This included the visitors from outside. Royal invitations were sent out to the main traders at least a year in advance. On the day of Shiva Ratri, at dusk the king himself with his two wives would present their offerings to lord Shiva. The whole city would gather around and chant hymns with the king. Once the rituals were completed the king would decorate traders and scholars from foreign lands. The king had ordered that the city be illuminated with thousands of lights, at sun fall. The night would be filled with celebrations, dinner and entertainment.
Marcus strolled along the city. Shops with thatched roofs in the shape of small huts along the coast were selling fish, vegetables, fruits and milk. Also on sale were ornaments and small artefacts made of shell. To quench thirst there was abundance of green coconuts. A little inside the city, cloths of various types—rare cotton and fine silk, precious ornaments and jewels were sold from speciality shops which were either built with stone bricks or cut out of stone boulders. These shops were invariably protected by guards. Tsan Yun owned a shop in the heart of the city.
Tsan Yun was a Chinese trader who used to bring exquisite silk, printed cloth and curved elephant tusks from China for the king. He used the Silk route to India and then travelled down south. After several years of traveling, he decided to settle down in Mamallapuram. Marcus met him on one of his trading trips and the two became close friends. They were both aware of the significance of the Shiva Ratri celebration. They could not afford to miss it if they wanted to continue trading with the king.
Tsan Yun was in his shop when Marcus arrived. Marcus stood outside the doors of the shop when Tsan looked up and saw him. Both smiled warmly at each other. Tsan instructed his young apprentice to take care of the shop and rose to greet his friend. He opened the wooden door at the side entrance to the shop and climbed down to face Marcus and embraced him. In looks the two friends were very different. Marcus in his early forties was six feet tall with an athletic body, a tanned complexion and sharp European features. Tsan in his late forties was frail but healthy and looked distinctively Chinese.
-When did you come? I heard that your ship had arrived and was expecting you for quite some time. How are you?—Tsan asked.
-I am well my friend. I arrived a few days back. I had to settle things on my ship before coming to land.—Marcus answered.
-You know Marcus, I think this time you will receive the honour from the king. All said and done you have played a very important role for this kingdom. You have helped its culture flourish to astonishing levels. Such superb arts and crafts would not have been possible without the type of stones that you brought. History will remember you, Marcus.—Tsan spoke.
-Tsan, after so many trips to India, I have started to believe that I was destined to do this work. I do not know if I will be remembered but surely such art will be treasured and appreciated by the world over the ages.—Marcus replied.
-It is nice to see you, Marcus. Now, tell me how long will you stay here this time?—Tsan asked.
-My journey takes at least two full moons. Then it takes about three full moons to sell all my goods. This time I am here to honour the king's invitation. So I do not have much to sell here. I plan to leave after the ceremony.—Marcus answered.
-I understand. I sometimes wonder, Marcus. You have been doing this year after year for so many years, now. Don't you get tired? Wouldn't you like to settle down?—Tsan asked.
-Yes Tsan, you are right. I have been doing this for the last fifteen years.—Marcus answered.—You also came here as a trader. When did you land here first? How did you settle down?-
I started coming here twenty years back. But you see, I have settled here for the last fifteen years.—Tsan replied.
-That is a long time to leave home. Don't you miss your home in China?—Marcus was curious.
-Of course I do. But this is my home now. Sometime back I felt restless and I wanted to settle down. I could not withstand the silk route journey any more. Then it happened, fifteen years ago when I was honoured by the king as the royal trader. I received land to stay, where I built my home. I was offered a maid by the king. I married her. She is my wife of fifteen years. The apprentice you saw in the shop is my son, my child. I have no children in China.—Tsan looked content and peaceful.
Tsan continued.—Marcus, it is already midday. Let us have some lunch at the market. Once the ceremony starts we will not get anything to eat till it ends.—Tsan started walking to the market with Marcus following him. They sat on a stone bench under a palm leaf shade. They ordered rice, yogurt and fish. Dessert was sweet water and fruit pieces of young green coconuts. Slices of the outer skin of the coconut served as spoons.
Marcus was still intrigued.—I still cannot fathom how you located this place. This is not on your silk route, nor are you a sea trader.-
Tsan smiled.—You have been in touch with history, Marcus. A very famous Buddhist monk from my country came to India sixty years ago. His name is Xuan Zang. He used the silk route making his way to see Nalanda, the seat of Buddhist learning. He continued his journey down south and reached Kanchi, the capital of the Pallava kingdom. He gave a very detailed account of this route. I came with a team of Chinese traders and used his book. The Pallava capital had shifted to Mamallapuram when I arrived. But it was not difficult to find the trail.-
-I had always used the same sea route.—Marcus said.—I start from Misr stopping at Arikamedu and Kozhikode before coming here. I have always been surprised to find the demand for stones and shaping tools by the kings. Of course they also like to have fine cotton from Misr, gold ornaments, jewel stones and chariot wheels. Overall the trade has been good and I have learnt it well. But honestly Tsan, I don't know how much longer I can do it.—Marcus looked tired.
They continued eating their lunch. Tsan smiled at his friend to cheer him up.—Don't despair. Who knows, the king may offer you many maids, money and land to take care of the rest of your life. with roman tools and the king must have noticed it.-
Marcus laughed.—I am a man of the sea. The ship is my home. I don't think I can live on land for the rest of my life.-
The two friends got up. The sun was no longer angry. It was hovering a little over the edge of the sea. A cool breeze blew from the sea to the shore making the heat more bearable. In a few dandas the ceremony would begin. Both Tsan and Marcus started walking towards the ceremonial ground.
Facing the auspicious tableau, mats made of dried coconut leaves had been spread over two areas in hundreds of rows, keeping the mid area reserved for the king and his court. It was cordoned off by barriers made of iron spears buried deep into the sand and tied together by ropes forming a chain. The subjects would be able to see the king but would not be able to come close or touch him. The barricade continued till the front of the tableau.
A large curved stone bench, six foot long, was set up facing the mural for the king and his queens. A table of low height was set between the bench and the mural. It contained flowers, fruits and other offerings, placed on it. Facing the royal bench, on the other side of the table, a plain stone bench was placed to seat the royal priests while they performed the rituals.
As Marcus reached the general worship area, two young men arrived, wearing white shirts and white sheets tied around their waists. Each carried a flute like instrument called Nagaswaram. The instrument was three feet long and one inch in diameter. It was made of a dark wood and had a mouthpiece at one end. Its other end opened into a metallic horn that glimmered like gold. They seated themselves on the two sides of the offering table facing the tableau and each blew into the mouthpiece of his instrument. This was the call for the subjects to gather for worship and to start the procession of the king's court. In all these years of travelling to Mamallapuram, Marcus had never witnessed a public ceremony so lavish and he was enjoying every bit of it. As he marvelled at the throngs of people who had gathered for the ceremony, Tsan explained the significance of all the different elements that were put in place for the ritual.
The sun was turning from its golden brilliance to a mellow orange as it continued descending slowly from the horizon into the ocean. As the music grew louder, the royal procession made a grand entrance with the king and his queens on elephants, surrounded by an army on horses and led by the royal priests and armed guards on foot. The music faded as the procession halted. The elephants were guided into seated positions to allow the king and his queens to climb down and enter into palanquins. The bearers lifted the palanquins and carried them to the royal bench while the crowd chanted and saluted their venerable king and queens. After the palanquins were placed by the royal bench, the king and his queens got down and faced the crowd and waved.
The king was tall, had dark complexion and a well-toned body. He wore on his head a crown made of gold and studded with gems. His hair was long and curly and fell on his muscular neck and shoulders. He wore a cream silk cloth wrapped around his waist and an orange shawl (uttariya) draped over his shoulders and upper body. His arms and neck were adorned with jewelled gold ornaments. He carried a sceptre with a handle made of exquisitely carved ivory. The queens were young, fair, fragile and beautiful. Their long black locks ran down their backs elaborately decorated with flowers and jewels. they wore red silk saris running from their navels down to their feet, wrapping their waists. Their firm breasts were covered by red cloth made out of soft Misr cotton and tied in the back. Another single piece of transparent silk drape ran around their necks and fell over the breasts. The drape was held in place by a string of pearls clinched around the waist above the navel. The queens were elaborately dressed with gold ornaments and jewellery made of precious stones and pearls.
They proceeded to the front of the royal bench from the left so that the queens were always on the left of the king. They took their seats on the throne, the king first and then the queens facing the mural, with their backs to the subjects. A line of guards stood behind the king and the queens. The royal priests took their seats facing the king and the queens and began the rituals. They chanted hymns which the king and his queens repeated. At the suggestion of the priests they gave their offerings of flowers dipped in sandal wood paste, fruits, milk and cloth to lord Shiva. The priests chanted hymns in praise of lord Shiva thanking Him for bringing Ganga to earth.
The sun sank further into the ocean and the sky seemed to lose its hue. The ceremonial ground started gleaming from the fires that burned brightly in lanterns placed all around. The end of the ritual was marked with the release of water from the reservoir on top of the sculpture. Water rushed through the crevice of the sculpted tableau signifying the heavenly descent of the river Ganga.
The king and the queens turned to face their subjects and took seats on the royal bench in front of them. After the royal family had settled down comfortably, the king spoke.—My subjects, today is a very important day for us. Today we are blessed by Lord Shiva and by the divinity of Goddess Ganga. This is a good omen that spells that we are going to flourish, our country will flourish and you, my subjects, will flourish. We shall never run out of food, shall never be without a roof over our heads and our temples will always be open for our Gods to bless us. The whole world will bow to our strengths and wisdom. My forefathers built beautiful temples in Kanchi and now we are building bigger and more beautiful temples in Mamallapuram. But we must remember one thing. We should never forget our friends who have helped us in our achievements. Today I want to name one person in particular, a roman businessman without whose help we could not have created such a divine mural. His name is Marcus.—the king paused and then called.—Marcus Coreonus, please come forward.-
Marcus stepped forward and bowed in front of the king. The king stood up and looked at him.—Marcus, you have supported us for fifteen years bringing in special stones and tools that we have used to build our temples, our palaces and our city. In appreciation of your contribution I reward you with land near my palace where you and your family may live happily for as long as you choose. You also may have as many wives or maids and you may select them from my queens' courts. It is time for you to settle and have peace and happiness.—the queens smiled as the king continued.—In addition, you will receive twelve chests full of jewels, gold ornaments, gold and silver coins and utensils, precious stones, finest Chinese silk and a box full of necklaces made of Gaja Moti, the unusually large pearls. The chests are made of the same stone that you brought for us and these are shaped by the tools you trained us with. The chests have been loaded onto six chariots which are also yours. You may take these wherever you desire. Now tell me is the royal decree to your satisfaction?-
Marcus was delighted.—Your majesty, it is a great pleasure and a great honour. I gracefully accept your gifts. These are beyond my expectations and satisfaction. But I have a royal favour to ask.—Marcus stopped to take his breath.—I am a person of the sea. I do not see myself living here and starting a family. I request your permission to allow my friend Tsan to take care of the land, chariots and maids. I also request your permission to allow his son to choose a wife when he is old enough. I would like to take your other gifts of treasure to my ship, of course, if you permit.-
Excerpted from The Treasures of the Sun God by ARUN GUPTA Copyright © 2012 by Arun Gupta. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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