In the middle of the night, I woke up with a fright. I could hear those screams again. I turned around, curled up and closed my ears. I would rather listen to the trickle of the rain than hear the cries of pain. Day by day I had seen my mother’s body grow, weighing heavily on her. I had heard her whisper that a boy would be a Shining Star.
‘A boy,’ I said to myself. The hustle of sounds hampered my thoughts.
They spoke of blood, water, clothes, birth and celebration. The scream of my mother went worse before they stopped completely. I heard a baby cry, another baby. How many? I had even stopped counting. Then, I heard my father’s anxious voice, ‘Boy or girl?’
For a while, no one replied. I heard a woman’s voice with some hesitation. ‘It’s a girl, my lord.’
‘Ah!’ he cried, before I heard his footsteps vanish. I pretended to sleep to have some peace.
Many women watched over my sisters and me. They fed us, washed us, changed our clothes and made our beds. They did everything we ever wanted. We grew up in a pleasantly scented, aromatic ambience. I was the oldest and the strongest of all my sisters. I watched on the world day and night, never wanting to sleep.
I was nine years old when I realised my father ruled as an absolute leader. He divided his kingdom into two parts – men and women. Men were warriors and soldiers – training, exercising, mending their weapons, cleaning, feeding the horses and elephants from the first light of dawn to dusk. Behind the high walls were the women – young and old. They wore saris; their hair in topknots pinned with flowers and decorated with necklaces made of beads. Women looked after children, tended cattle, milked cows, dyed and wove cotton, ground rice and wheat. I heard of an unusual story of a woman warrior who had lost a leg in battle, which meant some women like men chose to be a warrior.
Mother dressed soberly. Her every little word was a command and her gaze were an order. She never carried any of my sisters, nor me, but she looked at us with love, without any pride. She was constantly worried about my vigorous nature reminding me to behave like a girl.
My father, Hemavat, belonged to the Gaja clan, whose totem was an elephant – the white elephant was celestial and their monarch. By worshipping elephants, we would have long lives, many wives and sons, there would be no draught or plague in the country. My father prayed every morning for a boy who could be his successor, but the elephant-god did not bestow his wish upon him.
The mango trees exploded into blossom and summer arrived. I was twelve years old. My parents restricted me to go out and lead a free life as the boys in our community did.
My mother told me, ‘You have grown into a young woman. It is time for you to wear saris and behave like an adult.’ I did not like the way she said it, but I was not supposed to answer back. Hence, I kept quiet.
‘You must learn how to read and write,’ my father stated firmly.
I was excited. I thought I would go to a school as the boys did, but instead my teacher came home to educate me. He said, ‘Boys of your age must leave home, live in a hermitage and serve their guru in order to learn the Vedas. You are a woman and the daughter of the prajapathi, the folk’s leader. You have the privilege of learning at home. But you must never forget to respect your guru.’ I touched my teacher’s feet to take his blessing. ‘God bless you with many sons,’ he said.
The demons formed the buffalo clan. They became powerful by winning many ruthless battles. Their chief, Mahisha, expanded his land almost to the entire peninsula, destroying many smaller clans. The Gajas were strong and a challenge to him. Mahisha had to think of a different strategy to win our land.
I was fifteen when my parents decided to search a suitable groom for me. They were looking for a man who would eventually become the chief of the Gajas. Mahisha thought it was an excellent opportunity for him. He visited my father with a proposal to marry me.
When I saw Mahisha for the first time, I did not like him. He had two horns on his crown and looked like a buffalo-demon. He was dark skinned with a huge moustache. With a strong body, he seemed like a master in the art of fighting and indispensable in the war field. He stared at me as if he had never seen a girl in his life.
I was happy when my father refused his proposal. Mahisha had killed most of the other clans, cousins and brothers of my father. Mahisha was a proud and arrogant man, not suitable to be my husband or the future chief of the Gajas.
When Mahisha came to know about my father’s decision, he became furious. He could have killed my father and all his bodyguards and declare war against the Gajas, but he did not do it. I heard that he wanted to win over my heart and not force me into marriage. He sent several messages to me through his ministers, proposing to marry me. I ignored all of them.
One day, my father fell seriously ill and never got up again. The doctors said it was food poisoning, but no medicine did any good to him. A few days later he died. With tears, cries and wails, we observed all ceremonial procedures, lay him on a pile of wood and set fire to his body. Priests read sacred texts and prayed for the soul of my father. My mother remained silent. I followed her meekly, obedient and dazed. For the first time in my life, she held me in her arms and wept with me.
We were still mourning over the unexpected death of my father, when the cunning Mahisha waged war against the Gajas as if he could not even wait for the mourning period to be over. The Gajas did not expect such an inhuman act from Mahisha; they were off-guard and unruly without my father, their beloved leader. They fled for their lives. Mahisha conquered the Gajas.
I escaped along with my wounded mother and a servant. All my sisters were dead. To protect my mother from our enemy, I took my father’s sword with me. It was heavier than I had assumed. I had never held a sword in my hand before.
I was angry at the demons for having brought my mother and me to such a plight. Minute by minute, my mother’s wounds became worse. Without food and shelter, we wandered aimlessly in the forest. After several days and nights, we found a cave. My mother died two days later. I had no tears left. No voice left. The servant gathered pieces of wood and lay my mother’s body upon them outside the cave. Before we ignited her body, I climbed the wooden logs to make sure she was actually dead. There were no priests to perform her final ritual.
The cave shook in the grip of a violent storm, the thunder roared, and the earth trembled. A tree just outside the cave was stuck by lightning and collapsed. I was terrified and started to pray. The darkness was drawing me in. I had never felt so alone before. The thought of never being able to go back home or seeing my parents again frightened me. I would wake up every night with scary dreams.
I waited and watched for a familiar face at the entrance of the cave. I longed for someone to save me from my miserable condition and take me back home, but no one came to my rescue. I had no idea how many days and nights had passed in the cave. Using a pebble, I started making marks on a rock to count the days. Every day I drew one vertical line and crossed it off with the fifth line.
I wore the pearl necklace I had bought with me, but the dress did not fit me any longer, I had outgrown the beautiful dress, which I had worn when I had come to the cave. I wanted to give my dress to the servant, but she refused to take it from me. She had stripes of grey hair and her face looked tired with fatigue. She told me her name was Gargi. I asked her about her family. She said they were all dead, just like mine.
The mountain seemed too quiet; I could only hear the occasional chirping of birds and insects. Sometimes they appeared sad, sometimes happy. During night as the reflection of the moon scattered over the river, which ran near the cave, I watched the myriad of silver rays quivering. At times when I woke from my dreams, I listened to the birds sing. Their songs lulled me back to sleep. I dreamed of valleys and mango trees, my father’s face and my mother’s words. Monsoon passed by, but my days were not peaceful at all. I learnt about the harsh way of life in the forest.
Gargi suddenly toppled backwards with a loud cry. A huge leopard was baring its sharp teeth close to her. It had crept quietly towards us from the back. When she saw how huge the animal was, she was terrified. I instinctively pushed Gargi away. Quickly grabbing a short knife from my waistband, I threw myself forward and stabbed the leopard, cutting only a little skin and flesh. It opened its mouth wide and leapt forward towards me. I mustered up my courage and managed to stab the leopard again, this time in its belly. The knife sank into it. I was about to pull the knife out and stab the leopard again. It bounded up violently, rolled on the ground several times and died facing upwards. Seeing the leopard lying dead, I was astounded.
I looked at Gargi and proudly said, ‘I killed the leopard.’
She was delighted, she hugged me as my mother had done once and said, ‘Thank you. You saved my life.’
I helped Gargi sweep the cave with a bamboo broom. I had never held a broom in my hands before. I bent down beside the waterfall to beat my clothes clean on a large rock and helped her in cooking; we had enough leopard-meat for many days. Gargi became my greatest friend.
Prayer did nothing to subdue my hatred for Mahisha. The desire for revenge was a venomous wound infiltrating my organs a little more every day. A woman was supposed to be a good homemaker, bear children and be a worthy companion to a brave man. If I had to go back to the lowlands, I was sure Mahisha would find me. I hated the idea of being his wife. I wished to kill the demon and rescue my clan. Having made my decision, I started practising with my father’s sword I had brought with me.
‘You look like a man,’ Gargi said.
‘Why? Is a woman not supposed to hold a sword?’
‘I’ve never seen any woman with a desire to fight,’ she answered.
The sword was heavy, and I could hardly lift it. I realised I was weak. Besides, I was completely unaware of any fighting technique.
All night long, I would cry bitterly. No way was I ready to give up. My mind was stronger than my body. My willpower to kill the demon became stronger than ever before. I needed someone to teach me how to fight, to train me the tactics and strategies of a warrior.
I decided to take the chance of going to the land of the Nagas, meet Vasuki, their leader and seek his help. He might welcome me, or he might refuse to recognise me, I was not sure. When I informed Gargi about my plans, she was surprised. She feared my life and did not like my idea of going alone to the lowlands. However, when she saw how determined I was, and she let me go. Promising her I would soon return to the cave, I walked for several days and nights alone in the forest. The fear of wild animals and an overwhelming anxiety that Mahisha’s men could find me, made me feel terrified. I regretted for not having learnt to fight when my father had been alive. I lamented for having spent my time worthless for so many years. Impatient, as I was, the urge to fight back to win my land grew deeper within me.
Vasuki, my father’s brother, was a noble man. When I saw him, I fell on my knees with my forehead on the ground. I could feel the accelerated fluttering of my heart. I saw my rags rubbing against the carpet.
I heard him say, ‘Daughter of Hemavat.’ My head buzzed. I stepped forward; my eyes lowered. I made my way slowly towards the throne and carried out one great prostration. Vasuki got up from the throne and came towards me. He was happy to see me; he offered me food and shelter. I was grateful to him, but I did not wish to stay there longer as I had a mission to accomplish. I asked my uncle if his martial guru Oliyar could teach me the art of fighting.
‘It is a very difficult path you have chosen,’ he said, ‘You can live here with me like my daughter until I find a suitable groom for you. You can get married, lead the comfortable life of a queen and be a mother to your children. Why go through the pain of revenge? You can leave it to your future husband.’
‘I do not want to get married. At least not now,’ I told him.
‘You are already crossing the age limit to find a groom, my dear. Do not ruin your life.’
I repeated my decision to him. Vasuki was surprised at my strong willingness to learn fighting and take revenge on the demon. He doubted my courage and thought I was immature, but he gave into my wish and requested Oliyar to accompany me to the forest and teach me all the skills of fighting. Vasuki also assured me I was welcome to live in his house if I ever changed my mind.
Oliyar, who was older than my father, was a well-known guru of the Dravidian-style martial art. I observed his hair had turned completely grey, unlike when I had seen him as a child. He knew, I did not know anything about fighting and he had to teach me from the beginning. I touched his feet to pay my respect. He blessed me by touching my head with his palm.
‘I believe,’ he said, ‘everyone should know how to fight, even girls.’ He paused and said, ‘I would love to teach you. I see you have great enthusiasm to learn.’ I could have jumped with joy with those words from Oliyar, but I remembered my mother’s words that I should behave like a woman.
‘It’s a painful journey you have chosen, my child,’ Oliyar continued. ‘We must constantly endeavour if we are to succeed.’ New energy and renewed hope swept through my body.
Vasuki gave us two of his best horses and lots of food to take with us. Oliyar brought with him a baggage of different types of weapons. It took us two days to reach the cave on the horse. Gargi was eagerly waiting for me, she was happy to see me with Oliyar.
After a peaceful night’s sleep, while having breakfast Gargi had prepared, I saw Oliyar was in excellent spirit. He taught me how to sit, stand and move, like a warrior.
He said, ‘You are already quite old, and it is a little late for you to start learning superior martial arts now. But discipline and determination can do unbelievable things. You are naturally intelligent and a master like me will make you no ordinary person. In five years’ time, you will be invincible in the martial world.’
Five years! I said to myself. I wanted to make it shorter, hence I was determined to work harder. Every day, Oliyar would wake me up before sunrise and we would warm up and start our physical exercises. He began teaching me with fervid mental discipline. He prepared me to fight with my mind as much as the body. He strengthened me as an intrepid fighter, to swing weapons with closed eyes and forget about being a woman. I had nowhere else to place my hopes in, so I invested all my heart and soul into learning martial arts.
Oliyar drew inspiration from animals; he named fighting techniques after the boar, elephant, lion, fish and serpent. He taught me expressions of the goddess of war, the sounds of animals, the swiftness and ferocity of wild beasts. He educated me in all the strategies of fighting and the darker secrets of the highly sensitive, vulnerable and vital parts of the body.
I counted the markings I had been doing every day on the rock. Two years had passed. Oliyar praised me for the first time, ‘With your present capability, you will be considered one of the best in the world of martial arts.’ I did not want to return to my land, at least not now. Neither did I want to become a famous warrior. All I wanted was to avenge my parent’s death and to prevent Mahisha harming me when I met him again. I had to perfect my skills further.
Oliyar taught me how to hunt animals and birds, which Gargi cooked for dinner. Every evening before falling asleep, I endured my frustration and stayed ascertained to retain my concentration and to reach the highest level of perfection.
Oliyar divided his teachings into three areas – physical training, weapons combat and barehanded combat. In turn, each of them again consisted of fifteen phases of arduous training. I mastered to coordinate my movement to the desired perfection. I could leap or kick high in the air, quiver my body with mental adroitness and augment the adrenaline.
Once I fell on a rock and hurt my knees badly during a practise. Oliyar, who was well versed in the knowledge of Ayurveda, examined me and said it was a minor joint dislocation. He held my knees in a certain position, applied pressure and twisted it suddenly. I screamed with fear and pain, which lasted for two or three seconds. Then, as if by magic, the pain was gone. My knees did not hurt me anymore.
The urumi was a deadly double-edged flexible sword, sharpened on the stone, which had a spring like action, a dangerous weapon because of its flexible nature and very difficult to control.
‘Only a highly trained person can use this weapon,’ Oliyar said. ‘If you learn to handle the urumi well, you could fight at least a dozen opponents at the same time. On the other hand, if you don’t use it properly, you could dangerously harm yourself.’
I did hurt myself badly while practising with the urumi. Before I could control it, the deadly weapon flew in the air cutting my shoulder with its sharp blades. I shrieked in pain as the blood surfaced on my body. Tears rolled down my eyes. It reminded me of my mother when I had seen her die, wounded and soaked in blood. Oliyar gathered few plants from the forest and squeezed it on my wound.
As I lay on the floor, unable to practice, a messenger arrived for Oliyar; his wife was seriously ill and wanted to see him. Oliyar instructed Gargi to take care of me while he was gone. He showed her how to apply the medicinal plant on my wounded shoulder. Oliyar was gone.
Gargi took care of me and soon I felt better. My wound was still fresh, but I slowly got back to normal and started my daily practise. Certain moves I could not do as easily as before. I missed Oliyar and his guidance. Every day, I waited for him or his messenger, but no one came.
Finally, after two months, Oliyar returned. I rejoiced. He told me about the sad demise of his wife, which is why it had taken him so long to come back. I did not know what to say. I hugged him, as I used to hug my father sometimes. He seemed to hide his distress by not talking about his wife any further.
Oliyar was determined to make me a good warrior. This time I was very careful with the deadly weapon and never played around with it. I wore it around my waist, always on guard. ‘An expert must always be ready to defend oneself from attack with any weapon,’ Oliyar told me.
Every day I did rigorous exercises for hands, legs and other parts of the body. Soon, I could fight with bow and arrow, club, machete, short sword, long sword, round shield, spear, bow and arrow, trident and I could fight on my own against a group.
When I counted the marks, I had made on the rock every day, it was one thousand four hundred and seventy-eight. It was around four years. I was nineteen years old.
My guru was happy at my perseverance and willpower. He taught me the power of patience. Oliyar was satisfied the way I progressed. Now I was ready to declare war on Mahisha, the demon. I touched my guru’s feet, sought his blessings and thanked him. He wished me all the best before he left.
I dressed myself with auspicious ornaments, which my mother had given me before her death. They were supposed to bring me good luck, according to her. I opened my hair, which had grown to my knees. With fire in my eyes, I could feel the energy exploding within me.
Gargi said, ‘Your lovely, charming face is shining bright.’
I took the deadly weapons in my arms. She looked at me and said, ‘Incomparably graceful.’ She hugged me again and wished me good luck.
I untied my horse and walked away. She watched me until I disappeared from her view. The horse moved quickly, and I reached the front of the ridge in no time, followed a little stream between two hills before I finally entered the valley.
My mind remained focussed only on one thing and it was to overpower Mahisha and to take away his life. I went alone to the buffalo clan to astonish the demons.
I stood outside Mahisha’s palace waiting for him to come out. When Mahisha heard about a strange woman in front of his palace, I heard him laugh hoarsely. Then, roaring like a lion, he sent his messenger to find out who I was and about my intentions. I sent the man back with the information that the strange woman was none other than Uma, the princess of the Gaja clan.
I could hear the messenger further describe me, ‘She is the most beautiful woman, adorned with ornaments. She holds deadly weapons in her hand.’
I think he was curious to see how I looked and to know how desperate I was to be his wife. He sat in his chariot, bedecked with flags and loaded with weapons. He longed for me to look at him with fondness and passion. With a garland around his neck, he looked like a demon in love. He stood in front of me with the attitude of a soldier.
‘You are welcome to my palace.’ He stood at a distance and bowed his head towards me.
‘I am here to cut off that head of yours,’ I said.
He laughed and ordered the messenger to take me inside with all respects a woman deserved. When I heard what Mahisha said, I laughed. I cautioned him; I was there to regain my father’s land. I warned him to run away in case he feared death.
Mahisha did not take my words seriously. He said, ‘Don’t you know, my beloved, I am a great warrior and above all, you are a woman, the most beautiful woman.’ He was over-confident. ‘I have been waiting for you for many years. Come into my arms.’ He thought I was only passionate and helpless.
‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘women are only fit to be a wife or mistress? Do you believe that women are only proud of their beauty and skilled in the art of love?’
‘Don’t use such harsh words, my beloved.’ He thought my words carried some hidden meaning. He thought I used such words only because I was obsessed with him. He sent two of his best soldiers to get me to him. He ordered them, ‘Do not kill her, but just scare her if need be and bring her to me.’
When I saw the two soldiers approach me, I blew my conch shell – the sound of battle. This infuriated them and they aimed their arrows at me. One of them addressed me angrily with full of arrogance, ‘Woman, do not try to be a man. You are fortunate. Our king loves you. Otherwise, he would have you killed by now.’
I blocked his arrow with mine, shot another sharp arrow at him, and sent him to death. The fight then turned dreadful for the other soldier when I cut his head off with a sharp axe. He fell down dead.
Watching this, Mahisha became angry. He could not believe that a delicate woman like me had slain two of his best soldiers. He was in grief and began to think over the matter with great anxiety.
When I saw Mahisha approaching me, I blew my conch shell again, louder than before. He appeared calm when he said to me, ‘My Beloved, the excellent union of a man and a woman gives the best kind of happiness. If you marry me, there is no doubt you will get happiness. All the jewels and precious things I possess will be yours. My heart is enchanted with your beauty. I will do anything to please you. Your wish will be my command. The cupid arrow of your love has struck me. Although I am so powerful, I promise I will be your servant. Take a look at me.’
‘I do not desire to be your wife, demon,’ I said. ‘I do not desire to enjoy the ordinary pleasures you just mentioned. Take refuge in peace and it will lead to happiness. You give my land back or fight with me.’
‘You are so beautiful,’ he said with composure. ‘To tell you the truth, a man cannot be happy without a woman like you. I would certainly like to carry you to my palace today.’
‘You fool,’ I said. ‘Run away or fight for your life. I will kill all you demons today.’
Another soldier came forward with an urumi in his hand. I could see the tip of his sword sparkle as it moved like a spitting python. I removed my urumi, which I had tied around my waist. The swordplay began. With successive strokes, I displayed my skills. It seemed like he did not expect me to handle the weapon as efficiently as I did. He was unable to block my blow. The long sword cut right into his face. He hurriedly slanted his head to one side. My next blow came right on his neck. Blood flowed profusely as Mahisha stood there watching with unbelievable eyes. With another thrust from my sword, which I aimed at his chest, he fell to the ground with a crash. I thrust my sword out a third time. The soldier lay on the ground and died.
After the death of another soldier, five other men came forward to fight with me. I continued using my favourite weapon, the urumi. With all the might, I swung the urumi up in the air and then at the five soldiers. The sharp blade whipped them down to the ground. I was sure; they would never get up and fight again.
I killed Mahisha’s men one by one with my skills and tactics. Mahisha became greatly astonished at the death of his men. Many of the buffalo clan ran away from the scene struck with fear.
Mahisha could not control himself. He came forward with his sword drawn towards me. Each of his strokes was vivacious and determined to restrict me, but not to kill me. He was resolved to marry me as much as I hated him. I had no experience fighting such a powerful enemy, but my movements were quick and agile while my strokes were unusual.
At first, I was distressed, too eager to attack and kill the evil Mahisha. As my mind agitated, I remembered Oliyar’s words, ‘Fight with your mind as much as you fight with your body.’ I closed my eyes for a second and thought of my guru.
I familiarized myself with Mahisha’s swordplay. The two of us leapt around and fought in a circle. The blade of the sword and fists seemed to come into close contact very often. My every blow was able to take Mahisha’s life, but he was capable to hit back or dodge and managed to counteract all my strokes. Other soldiers watched us with their mouths wide open as we became fully engrossed in fighting. I aimed my sword at Mahisha’s throat.
He leapt from under the sword, clasped my right arm, sending my long sword flying outwards. I gave a horrifying cry and lost my grip on the urumi. My hand grabbed the sword from my waist and cut his chest. He stumbled backwards, panting. With the sharp sword, I cut his back muscles and he lost a lot of his blood.
Angrily, I lifted my bow and began to shoot sharpened arrows at him. Mahisha cut all my arrows into pieces; he would not give up easily. The fight between us rose fiercely and caused terror on earth.
I was infuriated and fought like a tiger. I took my trident and struck at the demon. He fell on the ground but got up the next moment and kicked me forcibly. I then took out my sharpest sword and severed his head. Streams of blood gushed out from his body. The headless body of the demon dropped down on the ground lifelessly.
Loud acclamation of victory sounded everywhere by the remaining men and women of the Gaja clan. The noble Gajas celebrated gloriously over my victory. It took me some time to realise that I had won great success in the battlefield. My success was without parallel. It marked me as the favoured of the gods. My people, the Gajas, treated me like a goddess. An assembly of priests had come up with a suitable title and ceremony. I, Uma, became a queen, a woman set apart from another woman.
By the old temple, where the Gajas had worshipped the gods for over a thousand years, they pitched pavilions. The trees, which grew there, had radiant scents unknown in any country. The stars shined brightly that night. A deep silence waited for the Sṛnga; a trumpet made from the horn of the buffalo. The coronation night had come. At the top of the old, worn steps, I stood dressed like a queen decked in emerald, coral jewels and the ancient garb of the Gajas, beside me stood my Guru Oliyar and Gargi. I could see they were proud of me and so were the cheerful Gajas and the Nagas who had assembled below.
Slowly, as the trumpets sounded, came Vasuki, the chief of the Nagas. He held the terrific headdress of the Gajas. There were loud cheers and rejoice as I was crowned the queen of the Gajas. It was the custom of the priests to chant the Vedas in my honour.
After the chants, Vasuki addressed the people. ‘No one,’ he said, ‘shall underestimate a woman’s power. Uma is no less than any man is. From now on in my country all girls are welcome to learn martial arts and participate in the defence of the country.’
I became the first woman chief of the clan. I named my land as Mahishur after Mahisha, so that the world would remember the fearsome battle forever.
(Published on eFiction India - May 2016)
Copyright © Anu Kay 2022 - 2023