A Modern Tale Set in Ancient India
(A Long Story)
The swayamvara did historically exist in Ancient India as one of the means by which a young, unmarried woman found a husband for herself. In Sanskrit, ‘swayam’ means to do by yourself, and ‘vara’ stands for ‘bridegroom’ so quite literally it is a ceremony where the woman herself decides from among a number of suitors who it is that she wishes to marry.
Also, in the story one of the princes is shown to be wearing a blue rose. The beautiful blue rose does not actually exist in nature; however for the more practical-minded of my young readers, I should clarify that there exist other blue flowers that resemble miniature roses, and this similarity can be further enhanced. How? By using some folding techniques that don’t trouble the blue flowers a wee bit – and of course, some imagination!
Finally, a note on the vocabulary in this story which may appear to be too advanced for young readers. After a lot of thought, supplemented by solid advice from primary school teachers, I decided against ‘dumbing it down’. For very young readers though the story can be read aloud by a parent, who can explain anything that gets too difficult.
1. Princess Roopali Agrees to have a Swayamvara
Once upon a time, there was a princess called Roopali, which means ‘the beautiful one’, who lived in a far away land called Fadidad. This might sound as though it is close to Baghdad, but it is actually much further east, somewhere in the north of India.
The princess lived a little away from her parents, the king and queen, in a separate part of the palace, because she valued her privacy, like many of royal lineage. The princess used to paint all sorts of things and, as everyone knows, the creative artist needs her own space in order to express herself properly. So although she loved her elderly parents dearly and took care to greet them at least once every morning and once every evening, she lived alone with only her pet dog, Jhabroo, for company.
Most days in the afternoon and especially during the winter months she would step out into the garden that adjoined her royal residence with canvas, paint and brush. She would position her canvas so that she felt the warm rays of the afternoon sun caress her lovely face whilst she painted. And she painted and she painted, and each canvas when it was finished appeared more beautiful than the one before, and soon the walls of the palace were adorned with all her work.
The princess was of an independent spirit, and kept postponing the decision to get married, but eventually after months of quiet persuasion the king and queen wore down her resistance and she consented to have a swayamvara.
In the olden days, whenever a princess came of age, her parents would throw a party to which all the princes from neighbouring lands who were interested in marrying her were invited. During the course of the function, the princess would meet with and talk to all the princes. At the end of the ceremony, if all went well, according to the tradition, she would place a marigold garland around the neck of the prince she wished to be married to. This, then, was the custom of the swayamvara.
Although the princess agreed to have a swayamvara she was very clear in her mind that she would not settle for a compromise candidate.
‘If I chose a prince to marry,’ she whispered to Jhabroo, ‘it will only be because I am sure that he is deserving of me. And I of him.’
Jhabroo wagged his tail, as if in agreement.
Would Princess Roopali find the prince of her dreams?
2. What the Princess Wanted
The queen was extremely relieved when Roopali finally consented to a swayamvara, for every time there was a gathering of the royal relatives the question of the princess’s unmarried status was sure to crop up, and this would be followed by an awkward, embarrassed silence on her part. The king was also relieved, because he wanted a grandchild who would ultimately succeed to the throne.
They were both a little apprehensive, however, because Roopali made it quite clear that although she had consented to the swayamvara being held, it was entirely possible that she might not find a suitor whom she would wish to be her husband. ‘In that case, dear Papa and Mama,’ she said, ‘I will continue to live as I do now, with my best friend Jhabroo, and paint my pictures, until I find that special person.’
‘What exactly do you want in a man, my dear?’ asked the queen during Sunday breakfast, for the princess took care to share that meal with her parents. This was while she and the king were busy examining a list of eligible princes, together with other special invitees who would grace the occasion.
‘Well,’ said the princess. ‘He has to be somewhat good looking, for sure…’ She pursed her lips in thought. ‘He must also be willing to take on the responsibilities of a family.’
‘That’s not asking for much,’ said the king laughing. ‘I’m sure you will find many young princes who will fulfil those requirements.’
‘Are there any particular kind of looks he should have?’ asked the queen, because she herself was romantically inclined, and tended to favour tall, dark and handsome suitors.
‘Not really,’ said the princess, ‘just so long as he is reasonably good looking, has a loving heart, cares for the welfare of the common people and is strong and protective towards me.’ She thought for a while. ‘I suppose, though, that I wouldn’t much care for a man with a beard!’
The king and queen nodded their heads in sympathy and understanding. This was because during the past few years there had been a string of armed robberies, kidnappings and killings all over the kingdom and even beyond in other lands, and most of these were carried out by a gang of tough-looking bearded thugs. Thus, anyone who grew a beard was regarded with suspicion, and most decent men shaved off whatever facial foliage they might once have possessed.
The princess was highly sensitive, abhorred all acts of violence and quailed from looking at even paintings depicting violence. She would never consider doing one herself. Her portraits showed happy, smiling faces; the landscapes she painted often showed glorious sunsets and sunrises. Over the months as these terrible incidents continued unabated she came to dislike the very idea of a beard.
‘I seriously doubt there will be any bearded princes present at your swayamvara,’ said the king, ‘although this cannot, of course, be completely ruled out. We have to invite all the princes from neighbouring lands; otherwise it would seem most discourteous. Of course, my dear, you are entirely free in your choice of husband, and can reject anyone who might have a beard.’ He paused for a moment and then continued. ‘Given the barrage of robberies and murders that have taken place all over the world by these bearded villains, I doubt there is a prince anywhere in the civilised world who still sprouts a beard.’
However, as things turned out, the king would be in for a surprise.
3. Will You Come Wearing My Favourite Blue?
And so preparations began in earnest for the swayamvara. The royal cooks got busy preparing all kinds of delicacies and snacks for the distinguished guests who would attend the ceremony. Incidentally, all the food was vegetarian, for although the princess accepted that other people were meat-eaters she did not want to be speaking to a prince who had just finished devouring cooked animal flesh on such a solemn occasion as the swayamvara.
The Fadidad Times came out in an especially long parchment edition the weekend before the grand ceremony that provided brief biographies of all the eligible princes who were expected to attend the ceremony. It gave the history of their royal houses, the past relations between the kingdom of Fadidad and the kingdom the particular prince hailed from, and very many other details that a curious public was anxious to devour.
At last the great day arrived. The princess spent the better part of the morning painting a glorious sunset, and as she put the finishing touches to the landscape she thought to herself, ‘Will I find my true love tonight? Will he show himself clearly, and will I know the moment I set eyes on him that he is my true love, or will he come disguised?’
Later that afternoon she took help from the royal maids in looking through thirty-odd dresses from which she was to select her evening attire. Now you might think from the small number of dresses displayed for her selection that the princess was simple and averse to luxurious living, but you would be wrong in thinking this. It is true that only thirty dresses were laid out for her to look at, but the princess certainly possessed many more dresses than that. The fact of the matter was that all these dresses were blue!
The princess loved all shades of blue, and she always wore a blue dress or sari on special occasions. For instance, she wore blue on all her birthdays, which were celebrated throughout the kingdom, and sometimes she even thought that she would like to be married in blue instead of the traditional red. In any event, all thirty blue dresses were taken out and after much deliberation she finally chose a silk sari for the evening’s ceremony.
As the princess finished tying the sari, she couldn’t help wondering what the prince of her dreams would wear to the swayamvara.
‘Will you be wise?’ she murmured to herself, ‘and will you be daring? I don’t have a clue. And will you come wearing – my favourite blue?’
The princess entered the hall where the swayamvara was being held soon after it started, once all the distinguished invitees, including eligible princes from various regions, were admitted.
A swayamvara usually lasted for only a fairly short time. For some reason lost in antiquity it was not considered auspicious for the ceremony to last more than three hours. It was required to begin exactly three hours before sunset and could not continue once the sun had set. All the royal astronomers had been set to work on finding out the time when the sun was due to set, and they worked backwards to find out the right time for the start of the swayamvara. Other than this there were few rules that needed to be observed. The princess did not have to choose a suitor and could reject all the princes if she did not find one that met with her expectations. It was, however, necessary that she should interact with all the princes who were there to seek her hand, even if the conversation lasted no longer than thirty seconds.
Indeed it was somewhat inevitable that the princess would spend little time with many of the invited princes. This was because there were fifteen princes assembled at the gathering, and it was only natural that she would want to spend the maximum time with those princes whom she was considering might be suitable to be her future partner. Furthermore, the princess believed in sewa or ‘service’ and was truly concerned that the guests should be well looked after. Soon after the swayamvara commenced, she took upon herself the responsibility of guiding the waiters and waitresses about the place while supervising the serving of refreshments to ensure that nobody was neglected. This meant, of course, that she wouldn’t have much time to spend with even the princes whom she was drawn to, and desired to know better.
Today it may seem very strange that the princess could make a decision affecting the rest of her life based on only a few minutes acquaintance, but this was considered normal by people who lived long ago.
The king and queen sat upon their thrones and did not mingle in the gathering, although, of course, they were free to do so. A queue formed in front of them consisting of people who wanted to pay their respects. Many of those waiting to have a brief meeting with their royal highnesses were the parents or those closely related to the princes who had gathered to woo and seek the hand of the princess.
The king and queen looked relaxed and were all smiles, but actually they, and especially the king, were both anxious that everything should go off well and that their daughter would find the prince of her dreams. The king wished to have a grandson as soon as possible, so that the question of who would succeed the princess after she died would also be settled. While he hoped that the princess would end the grand ceremony by throwing a garland around the neck of her chosen prince, he nevertheless knew that his daughter might prefer to defer her choice by a day. If this were the case, on the day following the swayamvara the princes would once more gather in front of the king, the queen and the princess, and the princess would then put the garland around the head of the prince she had chosen.
There were many reasons why in the past princesses often resorted to a postponement of the decision by a single day following a swayamvara. It might be because the princess wanted to talk over the matter with her parents; it was perhaps because the astrologers needed the time to match the charts; or it could be that the princess was unable to choose between two or three equally eligible and attractive princes.
As was the custom, each of the fifteen princes wore a rose in the buttonhole of his tunic so that he could be distinguished from the other men in the gathering.
Once the princess had issued instructions to the kitchen and those serving refreshments, she glided along the marble floor of the huge hall of the royal palace with a bright smile on her lips. She made polite but brief chit chat with some of the more distinguished and elderly guests at the gathering, as well as with the small children of some of her relatives who accompanied their parents to the event. They let the princess pass by without forcing conversation on her for they knew that the sun was rushing to meet the skyline and that she was on the verge of making one of the most major decisions of her life.
Although the princess looked calm from the outside, inside she was excited and even nervous. Although she would be studying and watching the princes carefully, it felt as if she herself was undergoing an examination.
5. The Princess Meets the Princes
While Roopali talked to the ordinary guests, out of the corners of her eyes she espied several of the rose-button-holed gentlemen and as she looked at them she quickly made some assessments. She counted fourteen princes present at the gathering, and out of this number she was at once able to exclude eleven of them as not worthy of further consideration, based purely on how the two of them would look, while giving their morning darshan at the palace balcony to a viewing public.
Thus, the princes who were shorter than her or the same height as she was were immediately rejected, and here it should be noted that the princess was of above average height. Although she possessed a singularly unprejudiced temperament, and did not judge people based on their looks or appearance, the princess had a strong sense of royal propriety. She wanted a man who stood at least a couple of inches further away from the ground than she did, and she also wanted someone who was not too fat. Some of the princes did not meet with these simple requirements. The princess was clear that while good looks were not very important, equally they were not unimportant, and given the choice she would not accept a short or corpulent partner.
Quite often, people assume that princes and princesses are bound to be good looking people, but they are very wrong in their assumption. Anyone closely connected with royalty knows that there are ugly princes, short princesses, princes who are scarred, and princesses who lisp. God and nature have not made any special provision for princes and princesses that might make them in any way more appealing or attractive as human beings than the rest of us. Indeed, it would be fair to say that often they seem to be below average in terms of their physical and mental accomplishments.
Thus, based purely on certain basic physical requirements, (and the princess was not at all demanding) there were only three princes who merited further consideration. There was, of course, the missing prince whom she had not as yet been able to spot. No matter. She would spot him sooner or later. Meanwhile she resolved to attend rapidly to the eleven gentlemen she’d decided were ineligible by granting them between thirty seconds to two minutes each of her time, so that she would have more time for those whom she deemed worthy of greater consideration.
The short and portly prince from Ikkabad, whom Princess Roopali approached first, flattered himself that he had been first chosen because the princess was drawn to him most of all. His broad smile vanished and his face lost colour, however, when in the middle of his lengthy self-introduction that was full of self-praise, the princess quickly excused herself and went over to a slender but equally short prince, who was the heir apparent to the kingdom of Sherpabad.
The princess was more patient with the Prince of Sherpabad because he was an interesting man and was able to talk well. She gave him all of two minutes, the maximum time allotted by her to those princes she deemed not worthy of her. She broke away from him rather apologetically, even though his conversation, and a story he began to tell her was absolutely fascinating, as she had already concluded that he did not meet with her minimum height requirement. This prince had in fact rehearsed his speech for several weeks until he was absolutely sure that what he said would rivet her attention to him.
The other nine princes each received short shrift, for the princess went through them all remorselessly, the way she rapidly prepared her colours. She would hold forth her hand to them to kiss during the introduction and then barely a minute later each was dismissed and sent to sulk in the corner. Of course some of the princes pretended that it didn’t matter that the princess did not see fit to speak longer with them, and others fervently hoped that she would return to them a little later to engage more fully with them. This was certainly the case with the Prince of Sherpabad, who was convinced that the princess would come back to him to find out the end of the tale of suspense he had begun telling her.
Unfortunately for him the princess was too strong willed to be held by tall tales from short suitors. Moreover, she had already managed to guess the end.
6. Prince Pan from Panidad
Having finished her obligatory interaction with the princes already deemed unsuitable, the princess instructed a waiter to carry refreshments for two white haired, venerable citizens who stood empty handed. Then she stopped at prince number twelve, Prince Pan, the Prince of Panidad.
She stopped to talk to him, not because he was any the less in comparison to prince number thirteen and prince number fourteen, but because she felt immediately attracted to him. He was handsome, well built, and carried a courteous air of sincerity about him. Panidad was not a big kingdom in comparison to, say, Akkabad, or even Sherifabad, but the princess was not seeking a marriage of empires. Her own kingdom was the largest in the region and she felt no need to join hands with someone simply because their family ruled over a large territory.
Prince Pan on his part had secretly loved the princess for a long time, and was therefore delighted beyond words that she spent more time with him than she had until then spent with any other prince. He took this to be a sign of her interest in him, which indeed it was. Prince Pan spoke to Roopali concerning some of his ideas about how a ruler should reign, including what should be done about the dreaded menace of the current spate of robberies undertaken by bearded gangs. Although she found some of his ideas impractical, she was nonetheless impressed.
Conscious that time was running on and that she had two, or perhaps three, more princes to attend to, she took her leave from Prince Pan with a twinge of regret and hurried on.
He is the one, she thought. I’m sure – he is the one.
‘I will come back to him,’ she determined, ‘once I am done with the rest of them.’
There would however be an obstacle to this union that she could never have foreseen.
The Bearded Prince
7. The Royal Astrologer Issues a Warning
She advanced in the direction of prince number thirteen, who was Prince Ash of Ashkabad, when she was stopped midway towards him by an elderly gentleman dressed in robes with signs of the moon and stars painted on them. She recognised him immediately as the court’s royal astrologer. Pundit Shiv Shankar was well known throughout the kingdom for his ability to forecast future events, and she was certain that being fully aware of the limited time at her disposal, he could have stopped her only for a good reason.
‘My dear,’ he began. ‘I am so sorry to interrupt your movements even briefly, and I see that you have been quite taken up with Prince Pan…’
The princess’s eyes flashed fire at him for this invasion of her privacy, but the pundit held up his wrinkled hands to remonstrate with her.
‘Forgive me, my dear,’ he said. ‘I would not take the liberty of speaking to you like this were it not for the fact that your parents, the king and queen, thought fit to consult me as to the astrological compatibility of all fifteen princes with your Royal Highness.’
‘And…’ said the princess, who was unaware that her parents had consulted with the Royal Astrologer, although now that she came to think of it, it made perfect sense that they would wish to do so out of concern for the future happiness of their beloved daughter.
‘And, my dear,’ continued the old man, ‘I have to say that I have matched the charts and there is absolutely no problem in you marrying any of the princes assembled here today, with the single exception of…’
‘Yes?’ said the princess apprehensively.
‘Prince Pan, my dear,’ said the old sage. ‘It is my duty to advise you against considering him as a possible husband, for if you marry, either he or you is sure to die within one year of so doing.’
‘Oh!’ exclaimed the princess. She was momentarily stunned, but recovered after a few moments. She held the astrologer in high regard, and she knew that her father the king had immense faith in the old man. If such were the astrological forecast, despite her own personal doubts about whether anyone could tell the future by looking at the stars, she would transfer Prince Pan’s candidature from the eligible to the ineligible category. She owed this much to her father and to the general public in Fadidad who had great faith in astrology.
‘It’s not a problem, Pundit Shankar,’ she said politely, but was at once struck by a new thought. ‘You say that this prince is not suitable for me, based on astrological compatibility, and you say I will not have a problem regarding astrological compatibility with any of the other fourteen princes gathered here?’
‘That is correct, Your Highness,’ nodded the old man.
‘Well, I am sure I am not equally compatible with all the princes, so would you be kind enough to tell me which prince I would be most compatible with in your understanding? Astrologically speaking, I mean.’
‘I understand,’ said Pundit Shankar. ‘Well, I have to say that your sign and stars match best with those of Prince Ash, whom you have not yet met.’
‘Thank you for your advice,’ said the princess. ‘Rest assured that I shall pay due respect to your views, at least with regard to a perceived crisis in the marriage, and the death of one of the partners would certainly be a major disaster.’ She paused. ‘The public should not be made to suffer on account of a mismatch.’
The Royal Astrologer bowed and moved aside.
The princess was upset at this turn of events but she tried her best to hide her feelings and moved on steadfastly. Would she find a prince amongst those whom she had not yet met who would be at least of the calibre of Prince Pan? And if she didn’t, would she then not be forced to say that she had not found anyone suitable? For now she could not settle for anyone whose personal appearance and qualities did not equal the profile of Prince Pan, even if their horoscopes matched perfectly.
8. The Bearded Prince Annoys the Princess
Having decided to reject Prince Pan in line with the advice of the Royal Astrologer, our somewhat dejected princess walked towards prince thirteen, or rather Prince Ash, when she suddenly noticed prince fifteen, whose name was Prince Regis. He was dressed as a prince, but instead of a red rose he wore a blue rose in his buttonhole, which was probably why the princess was unable to spot him until now, because she’d been looking for a red rose. Moreover, Prince Regis, the Prince of Nawadabad, wore a blue tunic, her favourite colour. The dark Prussian blue rose in the button hole of his stylish sky-blue tunic made the prince stand out amongst all the other princes.
She now realised that he had been watching her interaction with the Royal Astrologer with an amused expression on his face, and for some reason this angered her. But the reason why she immediately knew that this prince was not for her was because he sported a beard. It was not a full beard, but covered his chin completely. She was reminded at once of the bearded villains spreading unrest and disquiet throughout the civilised world, and she thought that the prince displayed remarkable insensitivity to the feelings of those traumatised by the actions of those hooligans.
Bearded or not, she would have to grant Prince Regis the courtesy of a minimum thirty-second interaction (should she might reduce this to fifteen?) before she rejected him, together with the twelve suitors who preceded him. She therefore decided to forget about Prince Ash for the time being and turned towards Prince Regis with a view to dismissing him quickly.
But as she neared Prince Regis, he seemed to notice something or someone in the gathering and quickly strode away from her. She knew that he knew that she was approaching him, and so she was very angered indeed. No matter she said to herself, she would deal with him soon enough.
9. The Astrologically Compatible Prince Ash
She once again moved towards Prince Ash, who was patiently waiting for her. He was the prince whom the Royal Astrologer deemed most astrologically compatible with her after consulting his charts. Although this undoubtedly influenced her as she stood next to him, she noticed at once that while the prince was slim and of reasonable height, his constitution seemed delicate. He swayed slightly as if he could not stand properly and coughed in between talking to her, thus confirming her fears that this was a prince who would need caring for and looking after, rather than a prince who would protect and look after her. Even so, she continued to talk to him, because his kind and gentle manner touched something in her. While they conversed, mainly about the weather, Roopali ruminated about his suitability. It was true that she wanted the man she chose to be her husband to be special in every way, but physical strength was not everything, she reminded herself, and muscles alone did little to promote a happy marriage.
All of a sudden, in the middle of their conversation Prince Ash’s face lost colour, and his eyes grew round and appeared to bulge. His speech slurred; he frightened her. He seemed to be unwell, and the princess was momentarily at a loss as to what she should do, when from behind the shadows cast by a pillar, a thin, gnome-like figure emerged beside her and took charge of the proceedings.
‘You have forgotten to take your medicine, Your Highness,’ he said sternly to the prince. ‘Please take a seat and I will administer it to you.’ The gnome-like figure turned to the princess, who was speechless. ‘I am truly sorry for this intrusion, Your Highness but the prince sometimes, though rarely, experiences fits, and must immediately take medicine for this.’ He proceeded to escort Prince Ash to a chair and, uttering soothing noises and settling him down, took out a small bottle from his pocket and quickly popped two black pills into the prince’s mouth. Prince Ash’s face slowly gained colour and his eyes became normal, though his speech remained slurred and unintelligible.
The princess now stood at a distance watching all this, together with some of the other guests whose attention had been drawn to what was happening. She felt genuine concern for Prince Ash, but was hardly in a position to attend to him right now. Besides which, he had his own personal physician at hand. She glided away, a trifle distraught, but keenly aware that sunset and the closure of the swayamvara were not far off.
No, she told herself as she moved away in search of the next prince, Prince Ash, gentle, kind and considerate though he seemed from his demeanour before the fit overcame him – was definitely not for her, despite the Royal Astrologer’s prediction. It was fortunate for her that his ill health had manifested itself – infrequently though the fits might occur according to his physician – for she might otherwise never have known of his ailment.
Dismayed at the thought that she had rejected thirteen of the fifteen princes present at her swayamvara, Roopali was nevertheless someone with great strength of character, and she sashayed on regardless towards prince number fourteen, who was Prince Amri from Amrikabad.
Continued to Next Page
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