Young World

Nine gems for the king

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi  

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It was but a chance meeting. The poet was studying his manuscript when his attention was caught by the soldier who knelt in prayer in front of the sanctum.

Day 21, Month of Aswin, Ujjain (today’s Madhya Pradesh), 374 CE

An hour before midnight.

The poet sat cross-legged in a corner of the chamber in front of the temple sanctum. He’d been reading through his manuscript and was musing over the wording of certain verses … but his attention kept wandering. It was fixed for instance, on a young man kneeling in front of the sanctum.

This young man was quite tall, the poet noticed. Well built too. He looked like a soldier — ah, yes, there was the sword at his waist. And what a sword! Huge, broad and decorated beautifully.

“Stop staring at me,” the soldier’s voice rang out.

The poet jumped, but recovered his composure almost at once. “You shouldn’t be praying at this hour, then,” he replied with a smile. “You look like the kind of person who’d attract attention.”

The soldier turned slightly; his face was still averted. The small lamp by the shrine’s entrance lit his hair and shoulders. The rest of the temple was shrouded in darkness, but the light threw him into prominence. “The last thing I want to do is attract attention,” he said, bitterly. “That’s why I came to this tiny Kali temple — and here I find a random devotee staring at me!”

“I’m no ordinary man,” the poet announced, in a grand fashion. “I was born in the Himalayan foothills and I can compose verses…”

“Verses are no use to me now,” cut in the soldier. “I… well,” he sighed. “I’m going on a mission. I probably won’t survive.”

The poet sat up, perturbed. “I am sorry. If it’s any consolation, I…”

Recognition

The soldier turned around just then, and the poet gasped. “But I know you…” A picture rose in his mind of a grand coronation ceremony held recently in Pataliputra, the Gupta capital par excellence. The present Emperor — Rama Gupta — had been crowned amidst great pomp and glory and his wedding had taken place the same day: to the beautiful Dhruva Devi.

“I saw you standing by the Emperor,” the poet whispered, still astonished. “You were wearing silks and ornaments. Dressed like royalty… you could not be an ordinary soldier.”

“Oh, I am,” replied the young man, with a rueful grin. “In my elder brother’s reign, I’m lucky to be alive, and I certainly can’t hope for anything else.”

“You … are the Emperor’s brother?” The poet jumped up. “Forgive me, your highness.”

Prince Chandra Gupta waved a hand. “There’s no need for all that. By tomorrow, I’ll likely be dead.”

“That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t accord you the respect you deserve,” the poet replied promptly. Then, he hesitated. “Is he sending you on a mission?”

The soldier’s face clouded over. “Surprisingly enough, no.”

“May I know …”

The soldier sighed. “You can’t have forgotten the tremendous defeat we sustained at the hands of the Saka King, Rudhra Simha? My God, if my father had been alive…”

“It is far better that Emperor Samudhra Gupta is not alive to see our ignominious defeat.”

“My father would never have let the Guptas be defeated!” Chandra Gupta shouted. Then, his shoulders bowed. “Do you know what that evil Rudhra Simha wanted? Dhruva Devi. Our queen.” He whispered. “The woman I should have married …” He paused. “And what do you think my brother did? Gave her to the enemy.”

The poet gasped. “Good God! No!”

“No one knows this except for the royal family, and I intend to keep it that way,” Chandra Gupta said, harshly. “And that goes for you as well. If you ever open your mouth…”

“Perish the thought,” the poet said with some dignity. “My thoughts and words are meant for poetry, not your petty human affairs.”

The prince stared at him for a moment, and then grinned. “Spoken like one blessed with knowledge.”

“Forgive me. I shouldn’t have…”

“Never mind all that.” Chandra Gupta walked forward. “You, whose gaze doesn’t falter at the sight of royalty, tell me: what will be my fate? What will happen to Dhruva Devi, the captive queen?”

The poet rose and paced the stone floor slowly. “You must understand that my sight and speech is guided by the divine. You mustn’t punish me if what I say … displeases you.”

“I won’t.”

The poet closed his eyes. “The queen Dhruva Devi is shrouded in great sorrow, just like Shakunthala of the epics. Just as she grieved for her beloved Dushyantha, so does the Gupta queen, awaiting her salvation at the hands of her one true love. And just as Dushyantha, who forgot her due to the Sage Durvasa’s curse but remembered and won her back — so shall you.”

Chandra Gupta drew a sharp breath. “Careful, poet,” he murmured menacingly. “You speak of the Gupta queen …”

“I speak of the one once betrothed to you. She was meant to marry you — and she will,” the poet’s words rang out with conviction: he spoke as though describing a prophecy. “Together, you will rule a land far greater than your father’s …”

Neither noticed the passage of time. Somewhere, a cock crowed; dawn approached.

The prince startled, as though woken out of a deep dream. “You speak like a sage yourself, poet. I hope your predictions come true. And when… if…the day of my coronation arrives, I shall summon you to court myself.” He walked to the entrance, and turned. “What name must I use?”

The poet smiled. “The name I gave myself. Kalidasa.”

Historical Note: The prince mentioned here is Chandra Gupta II (CE 376 – 415), who, due to his great military conquests earned the title Vikramaditya; he did marry Queen Dhruva Devi, and ruled a great Empire. The poet is Kavi Kalidasa, who adorned his court — one of the Navaratnas, or Nine Gems — and was lauded as one of the greatest Sanskrit poets of his times.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 10:11:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/kids/kavi-kalidasas-chance-encounter-with-a-soldier-knelt-in-prayer-changes-the-latters-life/article7818338.ece

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