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1. Desperation

The fort of Kadaloranadu was about to fall. It was under heavy attack from the forces of Malairajyam. The forces of Kadaloranadu were vastly outnumbered by the forces of Malairajyam. Nine of their divisions, consisting of horse cavalry, elephant cavalry, and some 20,000 foot soldiers were camped outside Kadaloranadu.Their victory appeared imminent. The battle’s outcome was now no longer a matter of conjecture. Only a miracle or divine intervention could save Kadaloranadu from the greedy grasp of Malairajyam.

King Nallarajan of Kadaloranadu huddled with his ministers and advisors. They had to decide whether to surrender to the invading forces of Malairajyam or fight to the end and die in glory. Almost to the last man, the advisors of King Nallarajan wanted to pursue the latter course, but King Nallarajan despaired over the massacre that would follow, and the hordes of innocent men, women, and children who would fall victim to the marauding forces of Malairajyam. It was a wrenching choice to be made between military glory and certain devastation of the entire populace of Kadaloranadu, or surrender and the possibility of perhaps losing his and his general’s heads but saving the people. This was the third siege mounted by the forces of Malairajyam on Kadaloranadu. The two previous attempts had been thwarted, thanks to the bravery and valor of Kadaloranadu’s proud military. Despite being outnumbered in men, horses, and elephants, and despite having suffered huge losses of men, cavalry animals, chariots and other war material, the fort of Kadaloranadu was defended with fury by proud warriors to whom death in the battlefield was the ultimate reward and the ultimate glory. The fort could simply not be breached. Malairajyam too suffered huge casualties. They had been rebuffed by strategy, ruse, as well as the sheer battlefield ferocity displayed by the Kadaloranadu forces. The Malairajyam forces had been worn down and compelled to retreat.

King Rakshasaputran of Malairajyam had ordered the beheading of his top generals’ heads on those two previous humiliating occasions when his forces could not take Kadaloranadu, so great had been his wrath at their inability to seize that much besought prize. His main military goal in invading Kadaloranadu was to take their three wonderful seaports, which supported a flourishing trade with places as far as the Arabian peninsula. The ports had contributed to the amazing prosperity of Kadaloranadu, which had beautiful palaces, market places, thriving pearl fishing villages, temples, roads, gardens, fruit groves, rich fields of paddy, and irrigation canals.

Before they came under Malairajyam’s rapacious notice, peace had prevailed in Kadaloranadu under the benevolent reign of King Nallarajan, and the people were happy and prosperous. The arts flourished. Temples, assembly halls, centers for the performing arts, and inns were built. Visitors converged from everywhere including such faraway places as China. Kadaloranadu came to be regarded as heaven on earth, or as close to that as a human kingdom could aspire to become. Travelers told of its wonders and poets sang of its riches. They also waxed eloquently about the might, wisdom, and generosity of King Nallarajan and his beautiful Queen Keshasundari.

The king was compared for his physical prowess to Indra, for his valor to Arjuna, and for his generosity to Karna. He was a consummate master of all the arts of war, including archery, swordsmanship, horse riding, elephant riding, and spear throwing. Enemies were as likely to be bedazzled by his resplendent form which shone like the sun, as they were to be overwhelmed by the ferocity of his skills in battle. Despite this, King Nallarajan was a pacifist who never attacked any other kingdom, big or small. He was a deeply religious ruler who surrounded himself with buddhists, jains, and hindus alike. In his reign, there were no religious tensions, and everyone got along well. He was known to reward artists and craftsmen with spontaneous gifts of handfuls of gold coins. Wise men were welcomed with great honors at his court, and received generous rewards of land and cattle. His fame had spread across the entire continent.

Just as famed was Queen Keshasundari’s beauty and kindness towards her happy subjects. The queen was a magnificent figure and her subjects thrilled to see her as though she were the very personification of a goddess. She was a stunning beauty in her glittering dresses, her gold and diamond ornaments, and her flowing hair, whose shimmering texture was likened by the poets to silk, whose jet black hue to that of the new moon’s night, and whose movement to the waves of the restless sea. Her voice drew comparison to the melodious calls of the koel birds and nightingales that wafted in with the cool breeze from the mango groves in the evenings. When she appeared before her subjects on her carriage drawn by a team of white horses, the populace bowed their heads, not so much in fear as in awe and reverential deference. To be in her presence became an honor, a fulfilment of life’s very purpose, and a God conferred blessing. She was even known to step down from her chariot to comfort any subject who beseeched her for her favors and her mercies during her periodic processions through the broad streets of Kadaloranadu. So compassionate was she that she was known to become tearful if she came to hear of the suffering of some town or village in her husband’s dominion. Such things happened due to periodic natural calamities like floods from the mighty rivers that watered the kingdom or the ravaging cyclones that blew in from the sea. She would prevail upon the king to send his envoys to see that the suffering of the people was immediately redressed.

In secret, Rakshasaputran lusted as much after Queen Keshasundari as he did after the sea ports of Kadaloranadu. He had never seen her, but the accounts of his spies who infiltrated into Kadaloranadu from time to time, had fueled his unseemly desire for Queen Keshasundari. He had sent an artist in disguise to the court of King Nallarajan. This fellow, known as Oviamedhai, had the gift of capturing in his mind’s eye any person’s features and physical attributes in an instant. All he needed was one brief glance, and he trapped in his brain the minutest details of what was before his eyes with total clarity and precision. Some even believed that to be seen by him was a curse, and that he actually stole a part of the soul of whatever it was that he cast his eyes upon. According to them, it was not a matter of just superior memory but some secret power of abstraction that took from the very nature of whatever or whoever he chanced to be looking at. This was taken to be true, as Oviamedhai was always ordered to appear before King Rakshasaputran with his face covered in a blackened sack. Later Oviamedhai could render this mentally stolen image in shocking precision, on a mural in dazzling colors or as a stone sculpture that seemed to come alive and move. He had created a portrait of Queen Keshasundari at the behest of Rakshasaputran as well as produced a life-size image of her, cut out of solid granite, for display in the King’s secret garden. Every day, Rakshasaputran stood transfixed before the likenesses of Queen Keshasundari that Oviamedhai had created for him. Every day his desire for the destruction of King Nallarajan and the capture of Kadaloranadu’s ports as well as the hand of Queen Keshasundari grew in intensity until it had become an unbearable ache, and an unstoppable obsession.

King Rakshasaputran epitomized the exact opposite of everything King Nallarajan represented. He was a cruel and unjust a ruler with a sadistic bent that he never failed to display whenever a chance arose to do so. He constantly attacked nearby kingdoms without provocation. Unfortunately, fate favored him with many a victory. He tortured his enemies in the many prisons and underground dungeons that littered his mountain kingdom. Under his rule, the once affluent and prosperous kingdom had become pitifully impoverished. Its gardens were overgrown with weeds, and scorpions, snakes, and other dangerous creatures overran them. Expenditures on the military far outstripped other spending in his belligerent kingdom. Makers of swords, arrows, chariots, wheels, spears, and tools of torture received the King’s constant patronage. The populace was taxed heavily, and some farmers had to surrender their entire years’ produce just to pay those taxes. The more he conquered, the less wealthy his kingdom became, as good and just people fled his kingdom and sought refuge in other nearby lands.

Yet, Malairajyam had known better days under his predecessor on the throne, King Shantaswaroopan. Shantaswaroopan had signed a peace treaty with Kadaloranadu, and given his daughter Keshasundari in marriage to King Nallarajan to ensure that their neighboring kingdoms would coexist in peace forever. There were constant cultural exchanges between the two kingdoms. Although Malairajyam never attained the opulence and glory enjoyed by Kadaloranadu, it was a happy and prosperous land. Heavily forested, its main industry was the logging of timber. Wood sculpture was a highly developed art in
Malairjayam in the days of King Shantaswaroopan. Their artisans worked on many of the construction projects going on in Kadaloranadu and left their artistic imprint on Kadaloranadu’s history. The intricately carved gates and temple doors that gave entrance into many of Kadaloranadu’s magnificent buildings were the work of Malairajyam’s talented wood carvers. Unfortunately, Malairajyam’s furure was to be changed in a single cruel instant.

Rakshasaputran, who had been a minor general under King Shantaswaroopan, had seized the kingdom by a daring but reprehensible act of treachery. He had murdered the old king while he was praying in his private temple in the palace. He had then thrown Shantaswaroopan’s sole heir, Crown Prince Gunasheelan into a dungeon. Nothing was heard of Prince Gunasheelan again. He was rumored to have died of self-inflicted starvation in one of Rakshasaputran’s many prisons. The loyal subjects of King Shantaswaroopan grieved the loss of their former king and later his son, the handsome and wonderful Prince Gunasheelan, but what could they do to oppose their new king, whose power and greed grew by the day and the minute? Like all oppressed people, they suffered in silence, praying and hoping that someday God’s closed eyes would open, justice would prevail, and peace and prosperity would return to their tortured land. Rakshasaputran annulled the peace treaty and put Kadaloranadu on notice of his military intentions. The former friendly neighbors became bitter enemies almost overnight. On this third and most desperate siege, King Rakshasaputran led the charge himself, cutting down his enemies like an elephant mounted reincarnation of Yama himself. Inspired by his ferocity, his troops fought like demons, cutting a horrible swath of death and destruction in their wake. Kadaloranadu soldiers, brave and determined though they were, could not arrest the relentless advance of their enemies under their King Rakshasaputran’s command. They saw the futility of opposing him and scattered in disarray. Horses raised their forelegs and neighed piteously in terror, disoriented elephants sank to the ground like collapsing tents under the volley of arrows Rakshasaputran showered on them.

After thirteen days of fierce battle, his forces reached the outskirts of Kadaloranadu’s fort. Leaving a field of maimed bodies behind him, where blood flowed like a river in spate, and where men lay groaning and wailing in the throes of death, and where injured animals ran hither and thither in utter confusion, Rakshasaputran ordered his troops to rest for the night. There was practically no resistance coming from Kadaloranadu’s fighters now. It would be easy enough
to take the prize in the light of the following dawn.

He cast off his sword and shield, and threw himself on the bed in the royal tent, and immediately fell asleep, his twelve highly trusted lieutenants standing guard over him as he gathered his strengths. He began to dream of Queen Keshasundari, delicate as a flower, dressed in a white robe as translucent as the early morning fog that was sometimes seen in the mountainous forests of Malairajyam. As though in a drunken swoon, she was wrapping her luscious form around his strong, muscular, blood soaked body, giving herself completely to him. Her heavy sighs mingled with his racing breath.

2. Do the Stars Lie?

Just as King Nallarajan conferred with his advisors as to the right course to follow in this dark and desperate hour, Queen Keshasundari was being given a bath by a bevy of tearful female attendants. News of the imminent fall of Kadaloranadu had reached their ears, and the queen had asked her attendants to remove all her ornaments and fineries. Her whole body burned, as though on fire. An attendant gathered her hair, twisted it loosely into a rope, and knotted it up high on her head. Her heart shuddering at the thought of the almost certain capture and beheading of Nallarajan, his generals, and military advisors, the distraught queen slid into the cool pool in her palace to ease the burning in her body if not her soul. In his previous conquests, which were many, Rakshasaputran had been known to perform his cruel executions in full view of the humbled king’s consorts, usually over their cries and pleadings for mercy. Even the lotus flowers in the pool seemed to have sensed the approaching doom, and had drawn themselves into drooping buds. The water, scented though it was in everyday fashion with rose petals, smelt to the queen of blood and the decaying bodies of the faithful soldiers who had laid down their lives in yonder fields in the service of Kadaloranadu. Tears filled her eyes and her heart felt as if it would burst.

With none to turn to, she mentally invoked the royal deity to come to her country’s succor, for who else could avert the fate that was about to befall them but Kailasanatha, Lord of the grand and towering Temple of the Crashing Sea, built by King Nallarajan’s father and predecessor on the throne, nearly half a century ago. She hoped fervently that the Deity would hear her plaintive cry for help over the roar of the sea, where He stood vigil, watching the surf and foam hurling themselves against the jagged, black rocks. The bell of the Shiva temple a little distance from her palace sounded just then. Who could be about at this hour, ringing bells at the temple? She puzzled over that for an instant, and in the very next instant felt as though a thunderbolt had struck her. Surely, this was a sign that all hope was not to be given up. Surely, there was some way out of this horrible predicament.

Suddenly, she remembered Dheergadarishi, the royal astrologer. She knew Deergadarishi had not been part of the King’s Privy Council in the last few days. His failure to predict last year’s devastating cyclone had made the king wonder about his astrologer royal’s abilities. Dheergadarishi would have been ordinarily advising the King at that very moment, but his credibility had been damaged even more by his seemingly failed prediction of the outcome of this present war. He had confidently asserted that King Nallarajan would emerge victorious from this latest siege, but after day after day of losses, and after the tide of the battle had turned clearly in favor of King Rakshasaputran, the Kadaloranadu king had become deeply disappointed with his royal astrologer. He had therefore not bothered to include Dheergadarishi in his emergency council. The queen, however, set great store by his prognostications. After all, he had correctly predicted, as recently as the last rainy season, both the size of the paddy harvest and the impending pregnancy of one of her royal companions and also the gender of her yet unborn child. She had tried to reinstate the astrologer in the King’s good books again, but the king had begun to wonder seriously if old age had started to blunt the astrologer’s instincts and ability to read the signs accurately. He had, therefore, relegated him to a secondary status.

The palace astrologer and fortune teller was immediately summoned to the Queen’s chambers. He wasn’t to be found at his residence but someone claimed to have seen him climbing laboriously up the hillside where the Shiva temple stood from whence the Queen had heard the chiming of the bells. They found him there and gave him the queen’s urgent summons. Dheergadarishi arrived, breathing heavily from the exertion. He was a heavy man, with a perfectly round face, who had no hair but for a small tuft at the back of his head, and whose forehead as well as body were smeared with holy ash. He carried in his hands, a bundle of palmyra leaves, a pair of brass dies, and a small copper vessel filled with cowrie shells. Dheergadarishi himself, puzzled more than hurt by this cool response from the king, had gone to the Shiva temple to meditate and pray. In his mind, he was convinced he had read the omens right, exactly in accordance with the shastras of which he was an acknowledged master. It was his bell ringing that Queen Keshasundari had heard while taking her bath.

"Dheergadarishi," said the queen, "night is here, and we hear that it is only a matter of hours before Rakshasaputran’s bloodthirsty hordes will penetrate our meager defenses, to enter our palaces, to plunder, to pillage, and to rape. Such a dark hour as this, our Kadaloranadu has never witnessed. What do you see in the stars, Deergadarishi? Do you see the death of your king? Do you see the humiliation of your queen? Do you hear the wails of the widows? Do you hear the terrified cries of the children? What is to come? What are we to do? Is there any way to protect our honor other than by way of suicide?"

Dheergadarishi asked leave to sit down on the floor before the queen, facing the west. Then he cupped the brass dice tightly in the palm of his right hand and rotated his cupped palm in front of the queen, first in a clockwise direction, then the other way. Then he flung the dice on the ground. Eyes closed, he asked her to call the number. "Nine," said the queen.

Now Dheergadarishi dipped his hand into the copper vessel and produced a handful of the cowrie shells. He threw these before the queen, and bid her to only count the ones that had fallen with their cracked sides facing up. "Nine again," said the queen. Dheergadarishi drew a palmyra leaf from the bundle he had brought and ran his eyes quickly over the secret script inscribed on it.

Dheergadarishi said in a clear voice, "Oh, great queen, providence continues to smile on this great land of ours. No harm can come from the confluence of nines – the nine planets are speaking to us in whispers. Victory for Kadaloranadu is certain."

This was like music to the queen’s ears, but a small part of her did wonder if the astrologer were slowly losing his grip. She was about to address a question to him, when she saw him assume the lotus pose and begin breathing deeply, his eyes closed. Then he seemed to fall asleep. In this state he remained for half and hour, then his breathing subsided. He entered first a trance-like state, and then a deathlike state whereby his breathing seemed to have altogether stopped. His tuft stood erect and pointed straight upward like the tapered husk of a peeled coconut. The minutes turned to hours. As dawn began to break, Deergadarishi’s voice was heard faintly. It seemed to be coming from deep inside a well, and not from the lips of the stiffly seated but soundly sleeping Deergadarishi.

The voice sang:

"Six of a tamed heart and six again
Can undo what twenty thousand demons have wrought
The dweller of the dungeon
by fate’s fickle hands
Shall the mountain throne attain
Men can die by the touch of snakes,
If not their venom
Victors shall die with the salt of blood on their lips
The vanquished shall live to taste the salt of joyous tears
All is settled as the spinning planets spell
When Kailasanatha stirs at the edge of the roaring waves
Hence, look to the morrow
Without sorrow."

Except for the last two lines, the song made no sense to the queen or to any of her attendants. Presently, Deergadarishi awoke, and rubbing his eyes asked what had happened. The queen, who composed beautiful poetry herself, repeated the song she had heard.

Deergadarishi smiled. Just then the sound of trumpets was heard from the distance. An attendant came running into the queen’s chambers.

"May this tongue rot that has to bring you this wretched piece of news. The King’s Council has decided to surrender! The fort is to be turned over to Rakshasaputran immediately!"

Deergadarishi smiled again and rose to his feet. Everything was going exactly according to his prognostications! Then he walked backwards, facing the queen until he had reached the door. Then he turned sideways, quickened his steps, and was quickly out of sight. Despondency engulfed the queen’s chambers. Wails were heard from the chambermaids. Then they began beating their chests as though a royal death had occurred in the palace.

3. Humiliation

Rakshasaputran sat on a makeshift throne in the middle of the battlefield. Behind him fires still burned here and there, their thick smoke rising into the orange sky. The sun was rising. Before him, head bowed, stood King Nallarajan and his generals, all of them bound in chains. On one side stood Queen Keshasundari, accompanied by her attendants. On his other side stood his twelve trusted generals.

"Oh, great king," mocked Rakshasaputran, "you have shown wisdom in choosing to surrender. But you have choices yet to make. Pray, how do you and your vanquished generals choose to die, by this sword whose hunger for Kadaloranadu blood is still not satisfied, or by being trampled under the feet of my elephants who want to celebrate their victory by stomping on the heads of you and your entourage?"

King Nallarajan said nothing and fixed his stare at the ground before him. He couldn’t bear to look at the tearful queen and her screaming attendants.
A man with a blackened sack covering his head entered the assembly. A little while before, Rakshasaputran had sent for Oviamedhai to be brought to the assembly. His intention was to have him look at the scene of the beheadings that he shortly expected to unfold and then have him create a grand mural of the scene for his palace back in Malairajyam.

Then Rakshasaputran turned toward Queen Keshasundari. "Oh, great queen, behold your husband who stands manacled and unfit to protect your honor. But you are fortunate that I am here to protect you and to share my throne with you. All you have to do is to indicate your consent by word or action, and you shall have all the riches of my kingdom at your disposal."

The queen said nothing, but her Chief Maid of Honor spoke. "You vain and miserable incarnation of an offal eating jackal! Our queen, and indeed all of us, would sooner choose to die right here than to become your concubines."

Rakshasarajan looked at the row of women with his eyes spewing flames. "Who was it that spoke?" he shouted, "let her step forward and face us if she has the courage to do so." The Chief Maid of Honor stepped forward from the row of attendants and faced the king with defiance.

"Murattukaattaan! Show this insolent woman the consequence of addressing the king of Malairajyam and the conqueror of Kadaloranadu in this disrespectful manner."

The soldier named Murattukaattaan, a fierce looking savage with a huge moustache and red bloodshot eyes, sprang forward with sword unsheathed. Before anyone could grasp what his intentions were, he seized the Chief Maid of Honor by her long hair and hacked it off at the neck. A collective gasp arose from Queen Keshasundari and her attendants.

The shocked Chief Maid of Honor was rendered speechless for a moment, but her defiance was unabated. "You dog, you licker of discarded food, you brainless brute, you foul refuse pile, who smell of rotted corpses, do you think you can silence us by just cutting our hair? We have come here ready to have our heads cut off." Murattukaattaan leapt at her. He swung the sword through the air, as if he were going to cut her head. The sword blade almost touched her neck, as it cut an arc in the air, slicing down dangerously close to her. "Go ahead, cut my head," dared the Chief Maid of Honor, her voice charged with contempt.

"Eventually, but not quite yet," Murattukaattaan let out a howl of laughter, and grabbing hold of a section of the Chief Maid of Honor’s hair, he pulled it straight up. Then he cut it in half. The crowd roared in approval, as did Rakshasaputran. The soldiers in the front rows unsheathed their swords, and raising them above their heads, clicked them together in a gesture of scorn and menace towards the woman. "Perhaps you like this better," chortled Murattukaattaan, cutting another clutch of hair off of the Chief Maid of Honor’s head and throwing it at her face. The woman’s beautiful hair was already pitifully disfigured, as Murattukaattaan cut sections of her hair off with his sword. Then he sheathed his sword and produced a dagger. Grabbing fistfuls of the woman’s hair, he mercilessly hacked away at it with the dagger.

"Do we have a barber here" he yelled, "who can rid this woman of all her hair better than I can?"

There was no response. He shouted and repeated his question, indicating he was serious. A figure stepped forward meekly. "I am a barber of Malairajyam who
volunteered to go to battle for our good king."

"And a good thing you did too," said Murattukaattaan, "here, shave this woman’s head. Teach her a lesson for defying our mighty king. The barber took the proffered dagger and advanced toward the Chief Maid of Honor. Holding the dagger in his left hand, he ran its edge on the palm of his right hand to test its sharpness. A thin red line of blood appeared on his palm. Satisfied that the weapon would serve for his purpose, the barber stepped closer. The woman was restrained by two of Rakshasaputran’s soldiers, who held her arms tightly from either side. The woman squirmed and kicked ferociously. A third soldier grabbed both her legs and she was wrestled down to the ground. After some struggle, the woman came to terms with the futility of resisting. As she crouched down, someone emptied a big buffalo skin bag full of water over her head. Drenched, the Chief Maid of Honor lay still, curled on the ground like a small animal being tortured by cruel children. Soon she felt the barber’s hands massaging her wet hair. Then she felt the cold dagger gliding up on her neck. She didn’t resist as strong arms turned her over on her other side. Cold steel slid under silken tresses and began its grim work of cleanly separating hair from scalp.

Soon it was over. The brute soldiers released their hold and the barber withdrew quietly. Another water bag was emptied on the shaven head of the Chief Maid of Honor. Wet, humiliated, she shivered under the caress of the cold wind that began to blow across the battlefield. Coils and little bits of her wet, black, cut off strands of hair clung to her ankles, her slender wrists, her shapely breasts, her graceful neck, and her broad forehead. Tears streaming from her eyes, and her heart pounding within her chest, she spat in the direction of Rakshasaputran.

"You vile son of a wolf and hyena, you blot on the masculine gender, you call yourself a ruler? What kind of ruler are you, you cockroach, you carcass gouging field rat, that would standby and witness the humiliation of a defenseless woman?"

Tearful but undaunted, the entourage of Queen Keshasundari applauded her outburst. Their defiance fueled Rakshaputran’s anger even more. "Shave the head of every woman but the queen," he shouted, "Let an example be set today. Let it be understood that it is not the place of a woman to speak before the king, let alone hurl curses at him. Let it be seen what fate awaits those who brave our wrath." The women stiffened. A crowd of soldiers closed in on them. Every one of Queen Keshasundari’s attendants was led away, kicking and screaming. Water bags were emptied on them as the crowd of soldiers led them to the center of the field and forcibly arranged them in a circle. The place was rent by derisive laughter, catcalls, and hoarse voices hurling insolent remarks at the women. The crowd became totally wild. Trumpets were sounded in discordant cacophony. Drums were beaten as a gang of monkeys might beat them, without rhythm, beat, or cadence. Some soldiers tossed stones and whatever small objects they could find into the center of the circle of woman being readied for their humiliating head shaves.

The lone barber, poor fellow, realized that all eyes, especially Murattukaataan’s and Rakshasaputran’s, were riveted on him. Fear gripped him and made him tremble. He steadied his hands with an effort. He worked rapidly, shaving each woman’s head as quickly as his hands would move, as she was forcibly held down by strong soldier arms. The handle of the dagger felt slippery under his wet, bleeding hand, but he wielded the weapon with caution so as not to hurt the women whom he secretly applauded in his heart even as he discharged the horrid duty to which he had been unexpectedly entrusted.

An hour passed this way. The chorus of catcalls around them was deafening. All pandemonium seemed to have broken loose. One after one, every woman had been forcibly rid of her long, flowing hair. The ground around their feet became thickly carpeted with their shorn off hair. Each woman drew strength from the fortitude shown by her sister in suffering. Each looked at the other, and they stroked each other’s shaved heads in a gesture of giving comfort and support. Though the tears flowed freely from every woman’s eyes, their courage was not subdued in the least. Pride welled within their sobbing hearts even at this moment of utter humiliation. They stood up in unison, and defiantly faced away from the king, turning their backs on him. The sound of hand claps mingled with the clangor of chains was heard from Nallarajan and his manacled companions, as they tried to clap their chained hands together and stomped their chained feet.

Even as he applauded the brave women, Nallarajan’s heart was being torn by guilt and remorse. He blamed himself for this day of ignominy. He closed his eyes and prayed to Lord Kailasanatha to forgive him for having brought his Queen’s entourage to this sad pass.

Suddenly, the sky grew dark. Bolts of lighting lit up the sky. Then thunder struck, somewhere near by. The ground shook. Thy rain fell in large, slanting strngs of water drops. Against the light of the sun which still shone through the black clouds, the falling rain looked like a volley of silver arrows being thrown down from the heavens. Just then, there was a stir from the direction of Queen Keshasundari. She had seized a dagger from a soldier who stood near her, totally stunning him by the speed of her movement. Caught in the frenzy of the
moment, and completely distracted by the spectacle of the mass head shave that had taken place a little distance from him, the man had let his guard down. Another soldier shouted urgently and tried to grab the dagger from her hand, but it was too late. The Queen had taken hold of her own hair and pulling it tightly down, she had firmly drawn the edge of the blade just above her hand which was tightly gripping the knotted hair. The dagger cut cleanly through the clutch of hair, knot and all. She held her cut off tail of hair high above her head for all to see.

"My dear attendants, do not grieve the loss of your hair. I am prepared to join you in your hairlessness, in complete solidarity with you. No one can subdue the fire of pride and valor that burns in everyone who calls Kadaloranadu their home, be it man or woman. Weshall show these mangy dogs, these illegitimate claimants of my beloved Malairajyam, what we are made of."

Rakshasaputran was aghast. He watched with his mouth open, as the queen brandished the rope of hair over her head, twirling it above her head like a whip.

"Oh, foolish queen, what have you done? Why have you cut off your most beautiful hair? How often have I dreamed of running my hand through them! Someone please bring Queen Keshasundari’s hair to me. Let me feel its softness. Let me run my fingers through them."

As she ended her rousing exhortation to her companions, the queen had hurled her hair into the crowd. It fell at the feet of the figure with the blackened sack covering its face. He bent down and picked it up.

"Allow me, great King," said the figure with the blackened sack over its head in a muffled voice, "allow me to approach you with the Queen’s hair."

"Yes, Oviamedhai, yes," said the king impatiently, "bring it to me."

The figure with the blackened sack moved forward taking rapid strides toward the king. He held the hair by both ends and it hung like a loosely fastened rope from his two outstretched hands. King Rakshasaputran held out his right hand. Instead of giving the hair to the king, the figure with the blackened sack, threw it over the king’s head. Quickly stepping behind the king, the figure tightened the noose of hair around Rakshasaputran’s neck. Before anyone could realize what was happening, the figure tightened and tightened and tightened the noose, such that
Rakshasaputran could not breathe. His eyes rotated in their sockets, but the figure with the blackened sack held the king tightly pinned by locking his legs around his and pressing his body firmly against the king’s.

"Rakshasaputra! The end of your life is near. This coil of hair choking your throat may well have been a cobra come to bite you and fill your veins with its lethal venom. May it be a cobra whose mere touch kills you! It is only fitting that you should die thus, by the stranglehold of my beloved sister’s hair! Her whom you intended to dishonor with your disgusting and shameful dreams of lust. If you still wish to be spared, make a sign to your henchmen to keep their swords sheathed and to not make a movement. Two thousand of my men have circled this assembly. Escape is impossible. Contain your men. And do it now!" Gasping for air, Rakshasaputran, tried to nod his head all around. The figure in the blackened sack gave him just enough slack to do this, holding on tightly to the hair.

A hush fell on the entire assembly. No one moved. No one, except the twelve "trusted" generals of Rakshasaputran who stood a short distance away. "Well done, Prince Gunasheela!" their chief cried addressing himself to the figure with the blackened sack. We expected to see your sword action today, but this is equally impressive. Thank you for ending the rule of this cruel tyrant. Many a time we came within an inch of hacking his body to pieces as he slept in the royal tent these past thirteen nights, but our high birth and our sense of hindu dharma kept us back. We couldn’t bring ourselves to attack a sleeping king. We waited for the correct opportunity to engage him in a moral fight, but it never came. Our just conduct was obviously wasted on this heartless tyrant, who has shown no shame in presiding over the shaving of the heads of these defenseless women. Their bravery and valor impresses us immensely. It also puts us to shame. We should have severed our allegiance to Rakshasaputran the day he began this ill-intentioned and ill-timed campaign against Kadaloranadu, just as Queen Keshasundari severed her own hair minutes ago, but cowards, we followed him like helpless sheep. Yet, you have come in the nick of time, exactly as planned, to release us from the clutches of this monster, who is a black mark on royalty everywhere."

The figure with the blackened sack removed the sack. "Prince Gunasheela!" Everyone gasped! How could it be, hadn’t Prince Gunasheela been killed ten years ago by Rakshasaputran? "Yes, my loyal subjects, it’s me Prince Gunasheelan. Rakshasaputran held me in a dungeon and declared me as dead. I bided my time because I always knew my time would come some day. How could it not when the prognostications of Dheergadarishi of Kadaloranadu had made that so clear to me. It was Dheergadarishi who sent a spy to Malairajyam to mobilize a coup against Rakshasaputran while he was away at war. He also came up with this ruse for me to take Oviamedhai’s disguise and appear here today without being questioned or stopped. I am here to humbly fulfil Dheergadarishi’s prediction. No, no, Rakshasaputran, you can’t escape, ha, ha, you didn’t think I’d be that easily distracted, did you?

Foiling the sudden lunge Rakshasaputran attempted in an effort to throw off his captor, Gunasheelan tightened the noose some more. The color drained from Rakshasaputran’s face. His tongue hung out of his mouth like a dog’s, dripping saliva on the ground.

"No, no, do not kill him, Gunasheela!" It was King Nallarajan who spoke, "Let us not return violence with violence. It behooves us to treat him as a disgraced King, and not in any other way. Let our council of the wise decide the appropriate punishment to be meted out to him for his crimes against humanity."

"Oh, great King Nallarajan! All that I have heard about your magnanimity is true. You are truly one in a million among rulers. Soldiers, free the King and his generals immediately. Let the kingdoms of Malairajyam and Kadaloranadu sign a peace treaty for eternity right this very minute. Let us combine our resources so that we can face any greater future enemies with our combined strengths."

The mood of the soldiers changed at once. To the last man, they all fell to the ground, and prostrated themselves before the shaven women first, then towards King Nallarajan whose manacles were being hastily removed. To misguided men of good hearts, remorse can come easily, when the light of truth and justice are shone before them, as Prince Gunasheelan and King Nallarajan were doing at that moment.

(Note: Thus it was that King Rakshasaputran escaped death on that incredible day where the future of a nation was recast in a mere blink of an eye by either the extraordinary play of fate or the inscrutable will of the divine, and who could tell which it was? The tyrant was subsequently banished to Mosquito Island, some distance off the coast of Kadaloranadu. There he languished in chains for six months before contracting what we now know to be a fatal case of malarial fever. With him ended one of the worst phases of Southern India’s otherwise glorious and largely peaceful history.)

4. A Tradition is Born

The miraculous turn of events sent a wave of excitement throughout Kadaloranadu and Malairajyam. First the war dead were given solemn funerals. The injured received immediate medical attention. Then, on the first night of King Nallarajan’s triumphant return to the throne, fireworks lit up the sky. An explosion of joyous celebration followed. King Nallarajan and Crown Prince – soon to be crowned King – Gunasheelan of Malairajyam rode together in procession through the main streets of Kadaloranadu. The populace danced in the streets. Melodious music punctuated by drum beats and trumpet calls filled the air. Feasting went on nonstop for fourteen days. Cattle and gold coins were given away to the families of the war dead. King Nallarajan accepted an invitation for a state visit to Malairajyam during the following month. The joy of the long-oppressed people of Malairajyam knew no bounds. They delighted in the knowledge that collaboration between their two kingdoms would now bring untold prosperity to their neglected cities, their barren fields, and that their wonderful but languishing cultural institutions would burst again with creative endeavors of every description.

The common women of both Kadaloranadu and Malairajyam happily had their heads shaved to mark their solidarity with and admiration for the valor shown by the brave companions of Queen Keshasundari at the Assembly of the Surrender of Rakshasaputran, as the event had come to be known. The royal women of Malairajyam, the counterparts to Queen Keshasundari’s entourage in that former rival kingdom, had their hair cut off at the neck to mark their respect for the Queen of Kadaloranadu and there was a tacit decision not to grow their hair until the Queen’s own hair had returned to its former length and glory. But to their surprise, and in some cases, delight, Queen Keshasundari decided she liked her hair the way it was, and even though she missed the hair garlands and hair jewelry she used to wear before, she found a new sense of freedom in her short hair. She explained her decision saying that keeping her hair short was a way for her to constantly remind herself and her subjects that abundance and prosperity were never to be taken for granted, and, after all, had Kadaloranadu not come dangerously close to losing both?

(Note: Centuries later, in tracing the history of the bob, ill informed historians would attribute it to Western women like Louise Brooks, while the real truth, if the historians would only care to check their facts, is that Queen Keshasundari popularized this look in in ancient Southern India, in a kingdom whose glories have long since been lost to antiquity. But this is nothing new to Indians, whose forefathers are the original inventors of such innovations as the airplane, atomic energy, extra- terrestrial travel, etc., that are described in astounding detail in their texts going back to Vedic times, even though later Westerners have been given undeserved credit for these developments.)

Dheergadarishi was reinstated to the King’s Privy Council. Not only that, the King offered him all the land he could cover in a day’s walk. Poor Dheergadarishi, who was of big stomach and heavy breath, could walk only a distance of 7 miles on that day, but even that amounted to a huge increase in his wealth. He was not a man of the world, anyway, and so received this bounty in true humility, and at his death many years later, he bequeathed even this modest property to the Guild for Fortune Tellers that had been set up under his tutelage.

On the morning of the Assembly of the Surrender of Rakshasaputran, the granite figure of Kailasanatha at the edge of the sea had miraculously spun itself around by 145 degrees so that it no longer faced the sea, but instead seemed to be looking in the direction of the battlefield where Rakshasaputran had been defeated. Modern day seismologists would theorize an earthquake may have caused this strange and inexplicable phenomenon, but in Kadaloranadu lore, the event was unquestioningly accepted as the fulfilment of the prediction presaged in the poem Dheergadarishi had sung in a trance in the queen’s chambers on the eve of the Assembly of the Surrender of Rakshasaputran.

Prologue

Oviamedhai who had been bound, gagged, and thrown down a hill in Malairajyam by the plotters who had planned the overthrow of Rakshasaputran, walked for nine days to reach Kadaloranadu. He turned out to be not a bad fellow at all. The rumors of his secret mystical powers proved to be totally false. Once they got to know him, the people of Kadaloranadu saw what a funny and pleasant man he really was. He received a commission from King Nallarajan to paint a mural of the Shaving of the Queen’s Entourage at the Assembly of the Surrender of Rakshasaputran. He recreated the scene entirely from eyewitness accounts and the accuracy of his rendering would forever compel breathless admiration for his fantastic powers of imagination and immense artistic skills. Each woman’s eyes glowed proudly and brilliantly in the gold fringed painting created by Oviamedhai, and the dawn’s light reflected beautifully on their bald pates. Oviamedhai had outdone himself on this final work of his. He died quietly in his sleep the day after he completed the last brush stroke on his master work and received a funeral with full state honors. The mural, instead of being a scene of the humiliation of the King of Kadaloranadu as Rakshasaputran would have had it, became revered as a shrine to the extraordinary bravery of that country’s beautiful women. In the decades and centuries that followed, throngs of worshippers lit lamps and left flowers and offerings of rice, mango, coconut, and bananas at the mural, historians tell us, which were distributed to the poor and the sick every day.

This priceless treasure of ancient S. Indian art would, alas, be carried off section by section by future invaders from England, to eventually enhance the Indian art collections of the British Museum, and thus forever lost to our great country. After many years, fearing damage to the delicate vegetable dyes, the Museum authorities would move the entire mural to a dark, climate controlled, basement storage area, where it would be periodically inspected by Indologists but never put on public display again!

Unless some team of ragtag cricketeers comes along to win back our lost mural through a Lagaan style match against the Curator’s Eleven of the British Museum, I’m afraid we modern day Indians are never going to see this extraordinary piece of artistry by Oviamedhai of Malairajyam.

THE END


 

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