1766 was arguably one of the most decisive years in the history of greater India, yet was one of those years that went down in recorded history as the least recorded. In the noise of the churn that was happening in the subcontinent, with several occupiers and defenders and conflicting narrative between the victor and the vanquished, no one document can ever be a correct representation.
While a deteriorating Mogul Kingdom in the north witnessed general lawlessness, the Portuguese and then the rest swarmed the shores of East and West India. With the Dutch, Portuguese, French, and English vying for trading rights, they came as traders, then as looters, and then finally, as occupiers for a bigger share of the wealth. Spice was lodestone and the three millennium of gold reserves…Into this melee on the Spice Coast enters Hydr, a warlord, a half breed in true sense. Dodgy and untrustworthy, his mission is to amass wealth.
Unknowing to this grand scheme of things, events occur as far away as Zanzibar, Oman, Venice, and some closer to home, in the mountains of Chitral and deserts of Thar and back alley of Calcutta, culminating in the still-unexplained death of three kings and billions of dollars’ worth of gold going missing.
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On the trek from Chitral to the lower reaches, ending up in Jalalabad and then onwards to cross the most significant of mountain paths, the Bada Jhan was contented. Coming down from the side of Safed Koh, or the White Mountains, to the Landi Kotal area for a pit stop at the Kos Minars, with the serai, or rest house, overlooking the splendid mountainside of juniper and birch, he had been waved on. Approaching the Khyber Pass, the Afridi clan had been dominant at that time. They were running the watering holes, the resting areas, and a booming animal market, apart from the toll they collected on whoever wanted to cross the Hindu Kush both ways. His coming was heralded as good luck for the Afridi's. The first to cross over, his coming perhaps meant that there was going to be a boom in collection for every caravan who came after him. The last time he passed by after the Kalash Festival in December, the place had been deserted, as Ahmed Shah had cleaned out the Afridi's and sent them scampering up the hill, establishing his own collection gates. It had not helped, for the collection was not much for a king; it was only enough for a tribe. Not much importance was given to maintaining the place so the Afridi's had regrouped and stormed the place, taking the Khyber Pass within a few hours and killing all the border guards and toll collectors.
As he looked back to see his entourage following him, he did a quick head and wagon count, which he knew was important in the last twenty-five years of his trip through this place. It was not ruled out that some of the stragglers in the Afridi clan would not let a wagon go or would even keep a woman and sometimes even a boy who caught their fancy. His daughter was riding alongside the big white man. His own bodyguard was riding slightly to the left to keep an eye on him as well as his daughter. He thought of his daughter with love and admiration.
The Bada Jhan had been different from the rest of his community, which had kept strictly to themselves. On one of his trips, the Jhan had seen a beautiful Brahmin Mohiyal girl and had requested her hand from the Hindu warrior clan who were the first to fight alongside the grandsons of Prophet Mohammed. They had been deeply in love, and she had accompanied him on several trips to the land across the Thar Desert for trading and festival. Twenty years back, she had become pregnant and stayed in Chitral to deliver the child. When he went back, he was greeted by the most beautiful child in the world.
Since the child was so big, the mother had died at childbirth of excessive hemorrhage. Refusing to marry even though there was pressure from the community, as he was the future Mehtar of Chitral, he had not taken a local wife, relying on the midwife to bring up the child under his supervision. She had grown up to be the most beautiful girl in the whole of Chitral, and as soon as she had called out in blood her arrival on the stage as a potential wife, the Jhan had started taking her with him.
Every year for Kalash Festival, in the month of Chowmas (winter solstice), a young boy who had just reached puberty is selected for his good looks and sent into the mountains to herd sheep and survive alone against the elements, mostly on sheep's milk. The following year, alerted by the noise of the festival, he comes down to a great reception, purified from the corruption of ordinary life. As usual, this year he was given an opportunity to look for any girl he desired to make love to, for the offspring was supposed to be a gift of God and is of high status. The boy who came down had — from among all the good-looking girls — chosen Jhan's daughter for her crafted mixed features of Chitral and the Mohyals.
Against Jhan's protest within the community, the boy had made love to his daughter for almost three days. Jhan rescued his crying daughter, but the shaman had said that he should be happy for the reward the young boy must have placed in the girl's womb. An expectant community and an intensely worried father, knowing the faith of this girl's mother, waited.
When after a few weeks there was heavy bleeding and then the menstruating started, the community was aghast, for it had never happened before. The girl turned into a legend, someone even the gods could not seed! As she grew up, she became the strong, independent woman who played a far greater role than the menfolk during the annual migration.
On each side of the connecting ridge were the sources of two small streams, the beds of which formed the Khyber Gorge. This narrow gorge formed the Khyber Pass. Peshawar, which was the westernmost frontier of the Marathas only a couple of years earlier, was back in the hands of the powerful Pashtuns Durrani clan. Travelling from Jalalabad, The Khyber Pass began about ten miles towards the east, outside the city of Peshawar. The route through the Khyber Pass constituted one of the major means of access to Central Asia. At an altitude of two thousand meters, it was still cold, and the Jhan knew well enough to reach the safety of the lower reaches as early as possible. The ground, he had heard from his father, was not very stable, and while nothing had happened to him, his father's words nagged him.
The long march had made the group bone-weary. The weather was holding up, and the sudden, extreme cold was over now. They had climbed down a major portion of the ravine, and approaching the pass past Landi Kotal, they had hunkered down for the night. Peshawar was perhaps another two hours away, but the cold was too harsh for them to continue.
Adam Weishauft was a tough man. Lumbering at six feet four inches, anybody would like to have him on his side. But his size could not save him from the ploughing he got in the midst of a whore controversy, which weighed heavily on Adam when his father, the immigrant millionaire, was caught in the act at a popular brothel. This brought disrepute to the business. Well, actually his mother, Sarah, was more distraught by the harm to her social standing. That had prompted Adam to move away from his former plush life in London and head east.
Adam did not let the controversy stop him from trading linen and wool in Rome and Venice. He particularly liked Venice, where he could unwind. This was a better option than the whore-hunting upper-class locale of Paris, where even the most innocent of pursuit could be construed as 'no good'. His musing was varied, for he liked to be as up to date as possible and had definite opinions on cricket and the American Revolutionary War.
Another motivating factor to leave was when the news came that he would be enlisted for the war efforts in America. Not to be bogged down by the Crown, his love for apothecary and alchemy in his spare time had prompted him to finally sell his business and continue east with an objective of figuring out the Wootz steel formula.
Crossing through Jerusalem, where he had debtors to collect money from, he had travelled through Jordan, Aleppo, Damascus, and enjoying the hospitality of The Pasha of Baghdad, he aimed for an exploratory overland route to India from Basra. Basra imported goods from India and the Gulf states: cotton fabrics and shawls, rice, sugar, lead, and tin. And from Muscat it imported slaves, African ivory, Arabian coffee and copper. Goods were also imported by land from the north, in particular Aleppo, including gold and silver thread, rose water, jewelry, tobacco and dried fruits. Goods reaching Basra from Persia included horses, pearls, carpets and wine. Sitting at the confluence of such myriad trade, the British station in charge was at pains to explain to Adam the difficulty of his trip and the ease of boarding a dhow from Dilmun to Muscat. He could then take one of the trading ships and land in Madras or Calcutta. Between a boring sea voyage and an adventurous land trip, Adam chose the latter. Well versed in apothecary, he was a traveler. Nature and people intrigued him, and alchemy was his second love.
When he had reached Venice, it was his chance encounter with an alchemist that made him truly interested in something that he knew could make a lot of money for him: the trick of finding the right mix of steel to get the best blade.
The trip from Aleppo to Baghdad and then to Basra had taken its toll. He hoped the overland trip to Shiraz would be of much more relief, and then would travel to Bam and Kandahar from there. But the turn of events led their caravan to Herat, and he had to cross the mountain to Kabul.
He had spent some time in Khorasan, Bamian and Kabul, painstakingly documenting and drawing his trip, and now was in Chitral in Kafiristan. In his previous port of call, if it had not been for his deportment and his dress, he would have easily passed as a well-fed upper-class Pathan, but here he blended well with his European looks. As a naturalist, he was not yet influenced by Darwin but was curious.
Adam shrugged and shook himself out of the reverie. Something stirred in the bush. Adam opened one eye to look around. His entire entourage were fast asleep. Surely a fox in the bush coming to grab a few leftovers from last night's dinner was not all that was awake. He rolled to his side and, cradling his head in his palms, looked towards Laksha, who was sleeping on the other side of the fire, which was now reduced to embers.
After his cross-continent trip, Adam had ended up in Hunza Valley. He had arrived from the west of Bashgal Valley in early July of that year. He was at first shunned by some people but had found refuge with a man with dyed flaring red Mehdi on his beard, a worshipper of Mitra the sun god, with the horned ram and snake as the symbol; and the governess with the bright red, yellow, and green headgear and dress in black background; and the heavy necklace which stood out among the ladies in the community. There was also the curious way the women tied their hair to the front. These European-looking people had been living in isolation for two thousand years and had integrated into the Hindu culture. He had spent some time there before starting off with the Bada Jhan before the winter became heavy, moving onto the lower reaches.
He had encountered the interesting festival of Kalash, the rituals, giving a lot of importance to a particular coniferous tree. He was told that it marked the end of fieldwork and harvest for the year and involved much music, dancing, and the sacrifice of goats. He, being an outsider, was considered impure and uninitiated and admitted only after they purified him by a waving a fire brand and undergoing a special fire ritual involving a shaman waving burning juniper branches on his face.
It was there that he had met Laksha, the sweet nineteen-year-old who was extremely fair, with green eyes and a disarming smile, and he knew immediately that she would be his life partner. Saying it to anyone was inviting instant death off-course. But sometimes nature and circumstance have their own mysterious ways of working. Her father, a chieftain and a trader, was taking the long journey to the desert plains to sell his ware and collect money he had lent from his last few trips. Adam, never one to say no to an opportunity to discover new places, found multiple advantages, for he was to travel with the gypsies who often crossed over to India in their wide movement which often took them up to Spain on one end and to the deserts outside of Jaipur on the other. He would thus learn about them. Bada Jhan was taking his family with the gypsy group until they crossed over to India. Adam was ecstatic; with fewer people to contend with when he was going to pop the question, he knew a wait of another few weeks was all there were between his desire fructifying. Already attracted to Laksha, the Jhan's daughter, he had heard of the ritual she had gone through 5 years back with amazement from the caravan's chief guide.
With fighting going on between the Shah and the Sikhs, nobody was above suspicion. So, whichever troop men you were waylaid by, endless explaining with some goodies were usually exchanged. For some, it was dried fruits which they carried in abundance; for some, it was the Malida sweet. Some did not trust the food they carried in case of poisoning, for the gypsies were not a very trustworthy lot, as they could woe allegiance to anyone on the way. For an outsider, the Jhan's thirty-one-plus group was small and had more women and old men. The couple of young people in the group did not look like much of a threat except the bodyguard; the caravan in-charge; and the big guy, who did not look like he belonged anywhere in the group. As a recipient of admiring looks, Laksha was impressed, her batting eyelids and coy smile made Adam go red, and she loved to see the stranger turning vermillion every time they met, be it from a distance. She knew she was going to enjoy more and more on the trip, as they would be thrown together more than in the usual village life.
Seeing the shallow breathing of Laksha as her blanket raised gently up and down, he had slipped into his Spartan mattress a little farther, with lots of amorous thoughts of her, and it had really not helped as he fought to hide his desire for some time until he had to get up in the pretext of taking a pee behind the escarpment which protected the group from the chilly winds coming off the Pamir Mountains. When you have guilt, you may think that others are perceiving with suspicion the most innocent move you make. His exit behind the bush and the louder than usual sigh was of no concern to the group, who had to take rest before they set forth that day on the long trek ahead. He came back and slipped back into his mattress again, noticing that there was stirring on the bodyguard's side too.
From that slightly angled way he had his head up, he could use his elbow to swing his head, showing he was adjusting his posture, thus not clear to a perceiver that he was staring at the most beautiful girl in the world. This loose holding of the lower arm was a mistake, for he slammed face down on the ground. He tried to get up, but he could not find his foot holding. He could hear screams in the background. From smashing his face on the ground and having a bleeding nose, his eye had started watering with the impact. Still unsteady, he looked around for the only one he cared for. The second wave, which came within one minute of the first jolt, did several things.
First it took him off his feet again as he lurched forward, and then it let the overhang of the escarpment come down clearly onto two of the four caravans. The third, which Laksha was lying beneath, had its wheel in the air as the large stone which had come crashing down on to the harness lifted the rest of the axle into the air, letting the contents come crashing out. He fell, rolled, got up, fell again, and rolled, singeing his arm as he rolled from the embers which were now strewn about. Gathering Laksha in his huge arms, he rolled again towards the open area. The chaos was indescribable. Then it stopped and complete silence descended on the group. The last pot which made its way out of the Caravan fell with a loud clang startling him. Fear, terror, and shock are just some of the many emotions which can bewilder you and stunt your reaction, this group was contending with all these emotions at the same time.
As the group looked around them in the still darkness lit by the stars and the new moon on 11 January 1766, the scale of disaster from the earthquake hit them. They peered around, the scout counting the number of heads. Out of a group of thirty-one, there were only seven. The rest were all missing. Then the wailing started, starting with sobs, and then as the loss sunk in, it took their bodies and shook them. Aghast, Adam looked on, his first experience of a severe earthquake. He had never experienced anything like this. Taking his jacket off and covering her, he then ran towards the place which only a few hours back had been such a great area to pitch camp because it provided wonderful protection against the elements. There was not much he could do. With his big frame, he tried to push at the rocks which had fallen on the caravan, which was a futile exercise. He looked at the caravan with its wheel up in the air. Surely there was something he could do, but what? The neighing and the bleating on the other side distracted him, and he turned. The Jhan's bodyguard was walking towards Laksha from the pen. Bhairava moved towards them as if to protect what was now left of the reduced group. With his knowledge of staying with them for some time and his knowledge of the language he had come to love along this trip, he caught a few words he understood. All the sheep and horse were intact, he gathered, as they had bolted a few seconds before the earth tremors hit; twenty sheltered under the escarpment were presumed dead and four missing. Laksha took this information in, the only change being the whitening of the knuckles clutching the jacket lapel the white man had put around her.
Excerpted from "Land of Seekers"
Copyright © 2017 Triveen Nair.
Excerpted by permission of PartridgeSG.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Khyber Pass, 9,
Chapter 2 Zanzibar, 23,
Chapter 3 Calcutta, 31,
Chapter 4 Jamalpur, 43,
Chapter 5 Asansol, 47,
Chapter 6 Patna, 57,
Chapter 7 Muscat, 67,
Chapter 8 Socotra, 77,
Chapter 9 Chunar, 93,
Chapter 10 Palghat, 103,
Chapter 11 Multan, 111,
Chapter 12 Uch, 119,
Chapter 13 North Kerala, 135,
Chapter 14 Udaipur, 153,
Chapter 15 Surat, 157,
Chapter 16 Agumbe, 167,
Chapter 17 Ullal, 177,
Chapter 18 Calicut Suburbs, 187,
Chapter 19 Madikeri, 203,
Chapter 20 Mysore, 217,
Chapter 21 Calicut, 229,
Chapter 22 Bekal Fort, 247,
Chapter 23 Lakkiddi, 265,
Chapter 24 KadaamPuzha, 277,
Epilogue: Lanka - Kataragama, 281,