That distant era is gone, but everything is fresh in my memory even today. When life takes so many sharp turns, you remember every move because you are attentive then, careful and watchful. My life was like that.
I lived in Indirapuram, the glorious city of the old Mahabharata period. The city that was no more magnificent now, the city that had lost its old glory after plunder and destruction caused by thousands of years of invasion. But it retained some part of its magnificence and was still one of the important cities. Born in a wealthy family, I considered myself a destiny’s child. My father, a famous merchant, travelled to far off places to sell spices and brought with him artifacts from other countries. Hearing him tell stories of distant lands and people, I would sparkle with a strange mysterious glow.
Mother told me that I looked even more radiant than moon. When I visited bazars, I saw men stare at me, making me both nervous and happy at the same time. With the exception of kings and queens, I lived a life that only a few could dream of.
One evening, father was utterly joyous. On the dinner table, he said, “I received a marriage proposal for Damyanti today. The groom has a flourishing business. Our Damyanti will lead a happy life.”
Mother told me later on.
“Do you know he stealthily followed you up to our home? He had seen you in Meena Bazar.”
And that made me think about the man. What made him so curious about me? I appraised myself before mirror for hours. Something awakened in me and I longed to meet the man.
Finally, the day came. Our house dazzled with lights of every color. Rich merchants, traders, and nobles from every part of the country attended my marriage. My husband Dhanwant Kishore was a gentle heart, romantic, poetic and passionate. Like my father, he travelled extensively and narrated me the secrets of the other world and gifted me items that I adorned in my room carved with fine marble and precious stones. Two years passed away in a dream and I was a sixteen year old girl now.
One summer, Dhanwant had gone out on business. I was alone. As I woke up that morning, I went to the porch to see the first ray of dawn. A loud commotion broke my attention. Near the gate I saw my husband’s co-travellers and slaves who accompanied him. I saw everyone, but not Dhanwant.
Malikarjun, his close aide, looked downcast. His gloomy face made me shudder. As he came over to the porch, he said, “Damyanti, how unfortunate of me to pass you this sad news. Dhanwant is no more. Our cavalcade was attacked by a band of robbers, and they killed him.”
Hearing that, my heart stopped. How eagerly I had awaited him? And Malikarjun says he is dead. How easy for him to say so? I didn’t believe him until I saw Dhanwant’s paled body. His usual exuberant face looked disturbed as if wanting to tell something. I was shattered by that first blow that life gave me.
In those times, a pious lady was supposed to die with her husband on the funeral pyre. That gave her respect in society. How absurd it seems to me now? The respect and name that the dead cannot feel and see. I loved Dhanwant, but I wasn’t willing to die. But I was provoked by everyone around me to take the difficult step and join the band of those immortal ladies who flunged themselves on the burning pyre of their husbands.
I was taken to a place near Yamuna where I was supposed to burn with my dead husband. I was adorned in a white Saree and a fragrant oil was smeared on my body which would help me burn quickly. My mind was blank. How everything had changed. My parents were sad at this unfortunate turns of events, but their mouths and hands were stitched by the powerful thread that bound society. Nobody came to my rescue. In fact, they sang the songs of glory because I was willing to die like a sati.
But destiny had something else in store for me. A day before Hindu warriors had denied submission before the new king which made him furious. He ordered that all infidels be killed. As the final rights were being performed, a band of Mughal warriors came and killed all armed men and took me with them.
Why I was not killed I didn’t know until I found myself in a large palace. The palace bursted with beautiful ladies. All decked in fine jewellery.
I got to know later that it was Suleman Shah’s harem, a leading man in the king’s army. We were 300 in total in that beautiful palace surrounded by a beautiful garden with fountains. It was guarded by 50 footsoldiers. Outside the palace was a small bazar where we went in the evenings to see a variety of precious items being sold by merchants from distant lands.
On my fifteenth day in the palace, Suleman Shah visited me. I was told of his coming in advance and I was supposed to be adorned in the best of clothes and jewels. Along with me were servant ladies who too were adorned in fine clothes and jewellery.
I wasn’t prepared for this. As he came, he offered me a rose flower and then garlanded me with an ivory necklace with a blue gemstone studded in it. He was tall and sturdy. He looked at me from his large impassive eyes that sought momentary peace from his violent life.
It seemed I became Suleman’s favorite because he visited me every fortnight.
Nargis said, “You are the lucky one. He hasn’t visited many us for a year now.” But how could Nargis know what luck meant. My luck had deserted me that very day when Dhanwant was bit by the serpent of time.
In the following days, I felt within that palatial structure a sadness that the best of jewels couldn’t hide.
Nargis said one evening as we walked in the bazar. “Life looks so exciting in younger days, but as we grow old, we are left like old clothes.”
But destiny had something else in store for me. I didn’t have to wait for the old age to come in that palace. War ravaged the city and all the footsoliders that guarded our palace ran for their own safety.
I was again a captive. This time taken away by a band of ruthless robbers. But by that time I had learnt the art of seducing men. My beauty which I had become aware of always worked in my favor.
From the splendid palace, I was suddenly transported into a jungle with tall trees and wild bushes. But I soon adjusted to this rough terrain as it was better than the doom I was about to meet on the burning pyre. The leader of the robbers was Hindu. He wore a turban and big moustache. His face was stern and determined. I spent my next 2 years in the jungle with this band of hooligans who stole all the items of luxury, but they themselves spent a dull life. How strange!
One day as I waited for the gang to return, I saw a group of holy men passing by. I told them about my misery and asked them to help. They gave me a robe to hide and allowed me to join them.
We walked for hours. Evening had approached. And my feet suddenly stopped when I saw that we were passing by Indirapuram. A strong desire engulfed me to run to my house and share my misery with my parents. But I hesitated. What would the neighbors ask me? Will my family accept me? I was a defiled woman now who was taken away as captive by a Mughal and then by robbers.
Dark was setting in. I asked the group of holy men if I could stay with them.
“Lady, we are holy men in search of God. You’ll be a distraction in our quest for truth. No matter how much we may be willing to help, you have to find your own path.” One of the holy men said.
“What truth do you seek?” I asked.
“The finer understanding of this world. The God that runs this world.” He responded.
“Have you found him?”
“We are on the journey.” He said.
And with that he departed blessing me by keeping his hand over my head.
Of all men I met, here was a group that didn’t want anything of me, so I decided to follow their way of life. I spent my remaining life near the Yamuna river. I realized that my beauty that I was proud of was an enemy to an unguarded girl. I soiled my clothes and wore unkempt hair so no Mughal or a robber could see my face. Or anyone who knew me from my previous life as Damyanti.
I lived on that Yamuna bank on a hut for the rest of my life, living the life of a woman who had left everything. People from nearby villages came and gave me alms. I lived for several years at the same place and died peacefully.
The place is converted into a temple now, built by the same people who wanted me dead over the burning pyre. Even robbers and warriors who pass by bow before the temple imagining me to be a godly woman who knew the secrets of the world.
(Narrated by a ghost who once lived in flesh and blood in 16th century India)