Vilvalan looked down and smirked at the skinny young man who said he wanted to participate in the archery contest. But before the day was out he was sure to be surprised.
Day 23, Month of Chaithra, CE 1749, Devanahalli (near present day Bengaluru, Karnataka)
The archery competition was about to begin.
Under the scorching sun, in a vast field, there were signs of other sports having been conducted; races, javelin throwing, wrestling matches — for, who wouldn’t want to exhibit their talents to Sarvadhikari Nanjaraj, the Controller of Revenue and Finance of the Government of Mysore? Of course, it was well known that his gracious lordship much preferred archery to any sport and as he was more in charge of military expeditions than his brother Devaraj, these days, garnering his attention would mean a great deal of respect, to begin with, and then … well, who knew where that would lead?
And so, the good people in and around Devanahalli participated in the games with a great deal of enjoyment. There were special competitions for the locals, but the real treat would be when members of the army exhibited their talents. Some, especially, were touted to be extraordinary with their swords, javelins, bows and arrows.
“Look, rub the horse down, will you?” A short, stocky man commanded a skinny young man, standing by the games enclosure. “I’m due to participate in the archery contest, and I need my horse ready right away, for afterwards.”
The skinny youngster shook his head. “My apologies, but I can’t — I’m due to participate in the archery contest as well.”
The stocky man looked him up and down. “Your brother Shahbaz might be the head of your detachment, but that doesn’t make you any better, boy. Do as I say. You’re just a volunteer — not even handpicked to be a soldier.”
The ‘boy’ shrugged. “I’ve no objection to rubbing down your horse — but the rules do allow any soldier, voluntary or otherwise, to participate.”
The stocky man’s face twisted into a sneer. “So you wish to pit your skills against me, the stalwart Vilvalan, do you?” he stepped closer, menacingly.
All the young man did was bow quite low, and move towards the archery registration centre, to add himself as a participant.
Soon, it was time for the contest to begin. The grounds cleared; archers began to gather, the young man among them. A great commotion occurred at one end of the viewer’s podium — Lord Nanjaraj himself appeared, resplendent in silks and jewels, occupying pride of place on an ornamented throne.
A frisson of excitement ran among the assembled archers. They took their places, bows and arrows at the ready. Boom! And the contest began!
Round after round went on: with different distances, in different groups, pitting people with various skills against each other. Through it all, Vilvalan came through with ease. So did the young man, watched keenly by his Lordship Nanjaraj. When the last five archers moved to the final round to much applause, the guest of honour leaned to his aide, and whispered some instructions. Within minutes, they were announced to everyone assembled.
The final round
“Archers! For the last round of this contest, a row of sandbags have been placed roughly a 1000 metres from here. Your arrows must hit that row. The one who wins this, wins the entire competition!”
A loud murmur arose. Hit a target — however big it was — 1000 metres away? Impossible! Three archers actually walked away in a huff, much to everyone’s mingled consternation and amazement. Nanjaraj looked amused. In the end, only Vilvalan and the young man remained.
“Even half the distance would be almost impossible for even me, an accomplished archer,” grinned Vilvalan. “Off with you, runt!”
The young man gave him a measured glance, and then walked away. Just as an astonished Vilvalan was about to be announced the winner by default, he returned.
A morose Vilvalan, now forced to shoot, fixed his arrow to his bow, and let loose. The arrow flew true, and out of sight, as two soldiers set off to mark it. “You’re never going to be able to beat that,” he grinned wolfishly. “I warned you.”
The young man raised his bow. To his arrow was fixed an iron shell, with a rocket in it!
“What on earth…” began Vilvalan. The young man grinned, lit the rocket, aimed his bow, and let his arrow fly.
An amazed audience watched as it shot through the clearing, whizzed along the trail and disappeared out of sight. Even Nanjaraj stood up, eyes wide with astonishment. Before soldiers could move, however, he announced: “We shall follow the arrow’s trail ourselves!”
And so, a party of men, with his lordship, his entourage, Vilvalan, other archers and the young man himself, panted hotfoot towards the sand bags. Minutes later, they arrived, to see the arrow stuck to the sand, the rocket still flaming and spluttering!
“Good lord,” murmured Nanjaraj, as the rest stood around gaping. “What a very extraordinary idea!”
“This is unfair!” screeched Vilvalan.
“The rules didn’t bar the use of a rocket,” the youngster murmured.
Nanjaraj turned to the young man. “Young man, what’s your name?”
“Haider Naik, my lord,” said the young man. “A volunteer horseman.”
“I hereby promote you to the command of 50 horses and 200 peons,” pronounced his lordship. “You will go far, I see.”
“Indeed I will,” thought the young man to himself. “Sultan Haider Ali of Mysore,” he murmured.
It sounded very well indeed.
Historical Note: Haider Naik’s (1721 – December 7, 1782) dream came true. His political ambition and incredible acumen would later witness his rise to greatness as Sultan Haider Ali, ruler of the kingdom of Mysore. In later years, he opposed the military advances of the British East India Company. He is also credited with being the first to use Mysorean rockets in warfare. Although there are no precise records of how he won the shooting contest, it is true that he came to the notice of, and gained promotion under Nanjaraj through these skills.