Chapter 1: Durgeshnandini

At the end of summer in the Bengali year 997, a solitary individual was travelling on horseback from Bishnupur to Mandaran. Observing the sun preparing for its decline to the west, the horseman spurred his steed into a faster gallop. An enormous expanse of land stretched out before him; who knew, if a violent thunderstorm were to strike in the twilight, crossing the terrain would then prove considerably difficult, for it offered no shelter. No sooner had he traversed that vast stretch of land than the sun set; indigo clouds gradually enveloped the night sky. So impenetrable was the darkness that shrouded the horizon that riding appeared hazardous. The traveller stumbled along, the road only occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning.

Presently, the summer thunderstorm broke with a deafening roar, accompanied by torrential rain. Losing his bearings, the man on horseback no longer knew which way his destination lay. Slackening the reins, he allowed his horse to proceed at will. After they had travelled aimlessly for some time, the stallion lost its footing when its hoof encountered a solid object. A flash of lightning at that instant provided the traveller a momentary glimpse of a large white structure. The horseman leapt to the ground surmising that it was a building. He realized immediately that his mount had missed its footing on impact with the stone staircase of the edifice. Aware that shelter was close at hand, he released his horse and stepped carefully on the flight of stairs. Another flash of lightning revealed that the building before him was a temple. Skillfully negotiating his way to its small entrance, he found the door barred; feeling his way about with his hand, he concluded that it had been locked from within. The traveller wondered curiously who at this hour could possibly have locked the door of a temple in such a remote area. But with the rain assaulting him furiously, it did not matter who was within. The man hammered on the door with all his strength, but no one appeared to open it for him. His inclination was to kick the shutters open, but he desisted from going to such lengths lest this imply sacrilege towards the gods. Eventually the timber panels, unable to withstand his mighty blows for long, were praised loose. As soon as he entered the interiors of the temple, the young man heard a muffled cry. Almost immediately the lamp that had been flickering faintly went out with the entry of the storm. The entrant could see neither the humans nor the idol of the god within. Aware of his predicament, the intrepid youth only smiled wryly, and then bowed reverentially in greeting to the invisible deity in the sanctum. Rising, he called out in the darkness, ‘Is there anyone in here?’ No one answered, but he heard the jangle of ornaments. Concluding that it was unnecessary to waste words further, he reinstated the door in its original position to keep the storm at bay and, placing his own body against the breach, repeated, ‘Pay attention, whoever you may be, I am fully armed and have stationed myself by the door. Do not interrupt my repose. If you dare, and are a man, you shall face the consequences; if a woman, go to sleep in peace, for as long as a Rajput retains his sword and buckler, not even a blade of grass can pierce your feet.’

‘Who are you?’ a feminine voice asked from somewhere within the temple.

‘From your voice I gather that it is a lady who wishes to know,’ answered the traveller in surprise. ‘How will it benefit you to know who I am?’

‘We are frightened,’ came the response from the heart of the shrine.

‘No matter who I am,’ replied the youth, ‘it is not our custom to reveal our identity to maidens. But ladies need fear no harm while I am in their presence.’

‘Your words fortify us,’ answered the woman. ‘We were all but dead with fear all this while. My companion is still faint. We had arrived here at dusk for the ceremonial worship of Lord Shiva. Afterwards, when the storm descended upon us, our maids and servants abandoned us and vanished we know not where.’

‘Pray do not worry,’ the young man assured them, ‘rest now. I shall personally escort you home at daybreak tomorrow.’

‘May the Lord protect you,’ responded the woman.

The night had half elapsed, the rainstorm abated, whereupon the youth said, ‘Please be bold enough to wait here by yourselves awhile. I shall visit the village nearby to procure a lamp.’

At this, the woman said, ‘There is no need to go as far afield as the village, sir. The guard of this temple lives close at hand; the moon is out, you will see his cottage as soon as you step outside. He always has a stock of lamps in his home’. At her bidding, the young man stepped out and found the temple guard’s dwelling by the moonlight. Arriving at the entrance of his house, he awoke the owner, who was too fearful to open the door. The guard observed the intruder from the confines of his home and when close inspection did not yield any signs of the visitor being a bandit, and the lure of lucre in particular proved impossible to resist, he opened the door and lit a lamp.

Returning with the lamp, the traveller now saw a white marble idol of the god Shiva in the centre of the temple. Two solitary women were visible behind the idol. The moment she saw the light, the younger of the two bowed her head, drawing a veil over her face. On observing the diamond-studded bracelet around her bare forearm, her intricately embroidered attire enhanced with jewels as well as royal patterns and motifs, the traveller felt certain that this young woman belonged to no ordinary lineage. From the relative lack of embellishments in the other woman’s garments, he surmised that she served as a companion and maid to the younger woman, although more accomplished than maids usually are. She appeared to be approximately thirty-five years of age. It was not difficult to realize that his conversation had been conducted with the older of the two women. He also noted with surprise that neither of them was dressed like women of the region—both were attired like ladies from the west, that is, not from Bengal but from greater Hindustan. Placing the lamp at a convenient spot, the youth approached them. When the light played over his figure, the women realized that the stranger could only be a little older than twenty-five. His physical stature might have seemed disproportionate on another person; but he was so broad of chest and his body so well sculpted that his height in fact added a divine comeliness to his appearance. His tender charm was as appealing as—or even more than—that of green shoots newly born after the rains; his armour was of the hue of young leaves of spring, his sword was slung in its sheath from the girdle at his waist, and he held a long spear. On his head was a turban, with a solitary diamond on it; from his ears dangled pearl earrings; a bejewelled amulet hung around his throat.

At first glance, both the women and the man felt desirous of learning one another’s identities, but none wished to be uncivil enough to be the first to enquire.

By Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Translated from the Bengali)

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