Chapter 22 – Ganga Mai –The Story of Ganga Civilization (Part 1)

THEME 22 – Ganga Mai –The Story of Ganga Civilization (Part 1)
Selected extracts from Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani, published by Penguin Books, India, ISBN 0-14- 024053 – 5
(Main Reference: Main Reference: page 515 to 583 from Return of the Aryans)
‘God, I think, needs Man. Why else did He create us?’ – (Response of Gangapati XIII – See page 514, Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani) .-

‘Yes; links do not snap. The past does not die. It relives; and a generation that does not know its roots is orphaned.’ – (From ‘Songs of Ganga’ – a poet’s response to Kashi – 5455 BCE -– See page 513, Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani) .-

‘Those who forget the language of their people are like dogs that change their bark,’ said the Chief. But his niece countered to say that dogs never change their bark, though people can change their speech, and the Chief growled, ‘Then learn from our dogs, who are superior to the people you surround yourself with.’ – (From ‘Songs of Ganga’ – ‘Cry of the First Chief’ – 5455 BCE – See page 503, Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani) –

‘Man has never learned to simplify, only to complicate. Often he does not say what he feels but what he thinks – and sometimes he thinks too much and, in the process, gains much knowledge but also larger confusion and greater grief.’ – (From ‘Songs of Ganga’; Hermit Nashtha to Kashi – 5455 BCE – See page 513, Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani) .- ‘. . . . . Raiders yelled and shrieked to terrify all. Brahmadatta too wanted his men to yell “Ganga Mai”, “Ganga Mai”, as they rushed at the enemy. It was to be a frightening, ear-splitting, soul-searing cry. But then Gargi said, how can anyone yell “Ganga Mai!” . . . .it is an utterance of homage from the heart . . . . a prayer of the soul . . . . reverence inspires it . . . . and piety . . . and love . . . . . Do you then wish our men to go forward to kill the enemy, or offer him comfort and solace? . . . . .” – (From ‘Songs of Ganga’, commemorating ‘Battle of Haridwar’ – 5455 BCE– See page 513, Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani). –

5050 BCE

Sindhu Putra himself was on the move, traveling far and wide, discovering new regions in the subcontinent that would come to be known as Bharat Varsha. Many clustered round him as he moved towards the Ganga Region Some say it was Yadodhra who inspired Sindhu Putra’s quest. Others claim that he moved at the request of those who had arrived from the Ganga Civilization, crossing through the once hostile eastern region where now Sindhu Putra’s name was enough to guarantee safe passage.

As it is, Sindhu Putra had already established a long-distance relationship with Ganga Civilization when the tribe known as the Silent Tribe had come under his influence and released all slaves and promised never to hold slaves again.

Of the twenty-six slaves from the Ganga civilization freed by the Silent Tribe, ten remained with Sindhu Putra; the rest returned to their homeland. The sixteen long-lost sons were received in a delirium of enthusiasm by their people. Even Gangapati XIII, the Supreme leader of the Ganga clan, left his town near the confluence of the three rivers to welcome them.

The Supreme leader of Ganga was popularly known as Gangapati, though his full title was Ganga Sarva Pati. The etymology of this title – Ganga Sarva Pati – is not clear. By itself, the title means the chief protector of the Ganga region; but a poet claims that the actual title was ‘Ganga Saras Pati’, or the protector of both the Ganga and Saraswati river regions. Another poet doubts this and asks : ‘How is it, then, that the title mentions Ganga and Saraswati but forgets the third river – Yamuna. But then another poet explains Yamuna’s omission saying, ‘Yamuna was, after all, Ganga’s tributary, and when the two rivers met, they were one, and flowed as one, in each other’s embrace, mingled and inseparable, to the sea. So why speak of Yamuna as separate! But Saraswati, impetuous as always, rushed headlong through the confluence, as though to meet and part in the same single moment; and it greeted and was gone in one breathless heartbeat, leaving a little of its waters behind, but taking no less from the Ganga to flow through Brahma Desa, and thence flow on, in River Sindhu’s embrace, far away to its own sea (Sindhu Sammundar – Sindhu Sea – now known as Arabian Sea).’

However, whatever the etymology of the Gangapati’s title, the fact is that in his time all the three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati – flowed broad and strong to meet in a confluence in his home town Trivenisangam Prayagraja (map reference : 25.27n; 81.50e; presently known as Prayag, Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, India.)

Gangapati’s joy in greeting the sixteen men released by silent tribe was genuine. Everyone had thought that they were irrevocably lost. And these sixteen had news also of the ten who remained behind with Sindhu Putra!

‘Why did these ten remain behind?’ was everyone’s question.

‘To assist Sindhu Putra in freeing the slaves in his land,’ they said.

‘Then surely Sindhu Putra is no god, if he needs our men to assist him,’ said many and they looked to Gangapati for confirmation.

But Gangapati said, ‘How can I say if he is a god or not! But God, I think, needs man. Why else did He create us?’

They remained silent out of respect – but also from surprise. No one ever walked through their land calling himself a god. Hermits, sages, rishis, munis they had; also philosophers, artists, and poets, just as they had drunkards, lunatics, whores and crooks; and in between a vast layer of those who worked hard to till the land and produce goods for everyday necessity, beauty and joy. But they knew of no god that actually walked on earth, whom people could see, touch and even converse with. And if there was to be such a god, surely he would be born by the side of their auspicious Ganga and nowhere else. How was it that their Gangapati failed to see what was so obvious!

Not many knew how the institution of Gangapati first began and it is not surprising that some regarded it as eternal. But actually, it was not that ancient. The story of how it all began has been told by a few poets and can easily be summarized :

The First Gangapati, before he assumed that title, went by the name of Brahmadatta and his wife was named Kashi. They were wandering in the Himalayas. No one knows what catastrophe or curiosity drove them there. But they are known to be the first to witness the glacial ice-cave at an altitude of 12,770 feet in the Himalayas, which later would come to be known as Gai-mukh (the mouth of the cow). From the belly of that ice-cave flowed two torrential streams, crashing against each other and throwing up their foam, white as milk, and thence parting, each rushing in a different direction. Brahmadatta and his wife chose to follow the path of one of the two streams. They did not know then that it was the Ganga river itself, for initially it appeared like any other mountain stream, no more than 20 angulas (40 cm or 15 inches).

They simply called it Kshira-subhra (white as milk), as that seemed to be the colour of this rushing icy stream. The other stream, which they did not follow, turned out to be Saraswati.

A later poet says that both the Ganga and Saraswati rivers flowed from the nipples of the same divine cow in the glacial ice-cave in the central Himalayas and thereafter each followed a different course to sustain life along its route, but Saraswati later went underground, and somehow that occurred at the same time as the tribals began sacrificing bulls and eating their flesh.

Slowly and painfully, through trackless passes, formidable peaks and deep gorges, Brahmadatta and his wife followed the course of the river and at last they reached the plains where the Ganga finally breaks through the last outriders of the Himalayas to enter the plains at Hari Hara Dwara – (home of the gods Vishnu and Shiva) now known as Haridwar (map reference : 29.52n; 78.10e). According to Brahmadatta’s reckoning, they travelled only 60 yojnas or 300 miles from Gai-mukh to Haridwar (including detours where the terrain was impossible) – but the journey took them nearly a year. All along the way, they met no one; but at Haridwar, suddenly, they saw a number of people along the river bank.

People viewed Brahmadatta with caution as he limped slowly towards them, carrying his wife on his shoulders. Obviously, he was an outsider with his garb of animal-skins, a wild look in his eyes and his strange way of speaking; but some of his words were familiar though he spoke with an atrocious accent and pronunciation. However, obviously, he meant no harm and needed rest for himself and his wife. The husband and wife were fed, their wounds washed and a hut given to them to rest in. Later, neither his strange speech, nor his wild appearance nor anything else mattered, once the people of Ganga learnt that he had witnessed the source of their holy river. He drew for them sketches of the glacier and the icy cave and described vividly the two milky-white streams, one of which was their Ganga. In those sketches, people clearly saw figures of the divine cow from whose nipples flowed the two milky rivers – Ganga and Saraswati.

Soon, the time came for the Hari Hara Dwara people to flee – to go into hiding for a while, far away as tribal raiders were expected. Punctually, each year, without fail, these raiders came, largely to hunt animals, but if any men or women were around, they would drag them away dead or alive. The only persons that the tribals left unmolested were children and hermits immersed in their meditation by the river-side. For the hermits, they would even leave an offering or two.

Brahmadatta was terrified too, though his fear was of a different kind. He wanted people not to flee, but remain around him. His wife’s legs were frozen from frost-bite on the mountain. Even otherwise, she was in pain, unable to move. And she was expecting a baby.

Brahmadatta, who had perhaps never known fear before, was simply terrified. He felt totally incapable of looking after his wife in her delicate condition through childbirth. Also, he feared that to move her would be the death of her and the life inside her. The prospect of a tribal raid appeared to him distant and unreal and he shouted, ‘No one shall attack until my child is born. No one!’ Few believed him. Many left. For, after all, Brahmadatta spoke ‘not from inner conviction but from a wishful hope.’ Only two women decided to remain behind – with their husbands, though they sent their children with the others.

Strangely, Brahmadatta proved to be right. The tribal attack, punctual and invariable for so many years, did not materialize. A poet ascribes this to the ‘will of Brahmadatta’ and asks, ‘He who witnesses the auspicious source of the holy river – can he not will all?’ But another poet claims that the tribals failed to attack because they were busy defending themselves against onslaughts from neighbouring tribes.

The fact, however, is that a bouncing baby boy was born to Kashi and the tribal attackers were nowhere to be seen.

To the returning people who admired his little son, Brahmadatta proudly said, ‘He is me, me!’ – and some thought this to mean that the child’s name should also be Brahmadatta.

From then on, whatever their other doubts, it was clear to many that this man who had witnessed the source of their holy river could alter events. No wonder, with his emergence, the raiders, so punctual otherwise, just evaporated. The idea floated back and forth and even a few of those who had abandoned the place due to annual attacks were tempted to return and reside there again, under his protection.

It was now Brahmadatta’s turn to worry. He saw their faith. He had no such confidence in his own will-power. He was certain that some lucky chance had held back the raiders. And he feared they would come again. If in his earlier preoccupation with his wife’s condition and her impending delivery he had been blind to the possibility of attack, his fears for the safety of his wife and child now redoubled. Should he not move on? In any case, he was a wanderer and had never wanted to be rooted to a single spot! So why not leave and follow the course of the Ganga to see where it flowed and where it rested.

But it was his wife who intervened. She could not then understand the language of Hari Hara Dwara but had a ‘larger understanding’ of what people around her were hoping or saying. A poet is categorical that she told her husband that he had a greater promise to keep – to protect these people from attack.

He reminded his wife that he had made no promises to these people and truly, he never had. But she retorted, ‘Why do they then come swarming back here in growing numbers? Why do they feel a strange force in you that is replenished every time they see you? Why are they no longer fear-stricken? Why are their hearts touched and their panic replaced by solace and calmness of spirit? How is it then that you say that you made no promise!’

Brahmadatta went to the oldest hermit, certain that this man of non-violence would have the wisdom to offset his wife’s rash advice. The hermit agreed, ‘Only God gives life and takes life; nothing that man does shall alter that.’ So far they were in agreement and Brahmadatta was delighted but the hermit added, ‘Yet it is given to man to teach men what God did not need to teach – that is to live and die in dignity.’

Thus it was that Brahmadatta, a simple mountaineer, took on a new role to protect Hari Hara Dwara. When he gave serious thought to it, he realized that the task should not be too difficult. The raiders, as he learnt, always came at the same time, along the same routes, arrogantly expecting no resistance. Because of their memory of earlier massacres, villages invariably went far back into hiding, when the raiders were due to arrive. The raiders stayed no more than fifteen days and left after corralling cattle and finally taking it away. Sometimes if their catch was not sufficient, they burnt huts and crops in anger. No wonder, many who once belonged to Hari Hara Dwara chose to remain away permanently.

At Brahmadatta’s summons, some came back, at least to listen, hoping to hear that with his will-power, he would keep the raiders away permanently. But he said, no, they would all have to fight to protect the land. Each year, they knew, they had to run and remain farther back. As cattle grew scarce, the area of the raiders operations widened. He asked, ‘How far back will you run? And where will you hide when the entire region is at the mercy of raiders?’ Not many were impressed. That prospect was far too distant. But his final appeal had more success – ‘And meanwhile, there is no one to protect the offspring of the divine cow – what then?’ The poets here explain nothing, but obviously he meant that the divine cow at the source of the Ganga would be displeased. As it is, everyone knew that amongst the animals that the raiders captured and dragged away, were the cows that roamed around Hari Hara Dwara – and sometimes during their stay, the raiders would even roast a few cows to feast on them; when the raiders departed and the villagers returned, they would reverently wash the bones of the cows and bury them with a prayer.

Brahmadatta’s message was thus clear. ‘Face the raiders or face the displeasure of Ganga Mai (mother Ganga).’ Many chose the displeasure of Ganga Mai, certain somehow that she was benign, while the raiders were certainly malignant and merciless. But a few remained behind to fight. And even those that decided to return to their fields and farms far away from the danger zone, promised solemnly to help with labour and implements and any other sacrifice they could make to help defend their land. Only their own lives were beyond the pale of sacrifice.

Brahmadatta was not too dismayed as he viewed the groups of men ready to fight against the enemy. They had no fields or farms, but as a poet remarked, it is always the man of wealth who fears to die in the fear that someone will enjoy his wealth after he is dead.

Brahmadatta made no promises and when someone asked how many were likely to survive enemy attacks, he replied, ‘I hope enough to cremate all of us who die.’

However Brahmadatta’s first battle was not against the tribals but against the farmers who returned to their fields far away. He made them responsible for food for his warriors and to work on the foothills of the mountains to collect large boulders. He also requisitioned their draft animals and took away their wood to build carts to transport stones and building materials. He was deaf to their complaints that their crops stood neglected in the fields; and when protests arose, he threatened them with savagery worse than the tribals. With his little army behind him, they took him seriously. His men may have been afraid of tribals, but against their own, their courage was never in doubt.

Many poets exaggerate Brahmadatta’s exploits. He was more an organizer than a fighter. The advantages he had were that the time and route of attack were known; and though his own army was small, he knew that it outnumbered the pitiful enemy force that normally, came to attack. Actually, he was not trying to meet a single attack and feared that once the tribals were repulsed, they would return to attack in greater force to avenge their defeat.

Brahmadatta’s first command was an assault on the Ganga itself. He ordered a canal to be dug, in order to divert water to flood the valley which the raiders habitually crossed.

Brahmadatta’s other command was to build a series of dome-pits. These were simply man-size ditches in the earth in which a man or a woman may hide, but the top was covered with a dome of stone-work joined by bitumen and mortar, removable only by the combined strength of two or three men. Through slits in the dome, a person hidden in the pit could shoot his arrows and even jab with his spear if the enemy came too close to the dome. Nor could the defender abandon his post until his own men came to release him. All this took time, but Brahmadatta hoped that he had a year to prepare, though many feared that since the raiders had not come this time, they might rush in any day. Hundreds of dome-pits could have been readied with wood, grass and clay, if he had not insisted on stone domes, but as he explained, ‘Dome-pits are for hurting the enemy and not for our cremation.’

Brahmadatta is also credited with having a fort constructed, but that came years later. For the present, what he constructed was only a wall, rather than a fort. Deep and wide trenches were dug around the wall, to be filled with mud and water, to make them slippery like quicksand, ready to yield to pressure and pull a man down. The wall was connected with dry earth by a plank to be removed by the defenders when they reached the other side to scale the wall. Rope ladders connected the bottom of the wall to the top and those were to be pulled up when the defenders reached the top. But the defenders were to stand not only at the top of the wall but all along the wall where, from halfway up, were many projections for them to stand and throw stones or shoot arrows.

But Brahmadatta was not concerned just with defence. Everyone had to practice with bow and arrow, spear attack and stone-throws. Wrestling, jumping, fencing, running, dodging, kicking and even yogic exercises were the order of the day. Along the valley, which the new canal was to flood, open pits were dug for the best warriors, to pounce on the enemy who, hopefully, would be struggling through the rising waters. They were even taught to yell frightfully while attacking.

Brahmadatta himself had never seen a battle before, but from what they told him, it was clear that the shrieks and yells of onrushing raiders came well before their arrows began to fall – and the effect was terrifying. Brahmadatta did not know if raiders yelled to gain courage for themselves or to terrify others, but he saw some sense in it.

Yelling exercises began, though they were initially a failure. Brahmadatta had asked everyone to yell ‘Ganga Mai, Ganga Mai’ loudly as they rushed at the enemy. But none shouted or shrieked to his satisfaction – and a poet quotes Brahmadatta, ‘. . . . . . and then Gargi said : how can anyone yell Ganga Mai . . . . it is an utterance of homage from the heart . . . . a prayer of the soul . . . . . . reverence inspires it . . . . .and piety. . . . . Do you then wish our men to go forward to kill the enemy or offer him comfort and solace? . . . . Gargi was right and therefore . . . . .’

No longer then, did they cry Ganga Mai, though poets do not say what the cry was. But no doubt it was frightening, ear-splitting and soul-searing. Brahmadatta was satisfied. Whether the cry frightened the enemy or not, he was certain that it built up the courage of his men.

Every child took up the cry. Many shrieked better than the adults. And when they started banging drums and shrieking simultaneously, the effect was doubtly frightening. But Brahmadatta never intended to use children in battle. The raiders always spared children and it would be senseless to invite the wrath of the enemy on children by using them. But the use of drums was a good idea, he thought. Raiders themselves beat drums on their departure, to call their men, still hunting for animals. So why not a drum-beat to inspire them to leave, before they arrived!

Brahmadatta and Gargi apart, everyone had an assigned duty, though a poet observes, ‘Gargi it was, whose task was to see that none forgot his duty.’ In the morning when everyone assembled, after prayers, each had to repeat what his primary, contingent and subsidiary duties were – who was to be in the dome-pits; which group was to move stone-covers on pits; who was to take positions along the flooded valley; which marksman was to stand where; who was to scale the wall; who would remove the bridge-plank from the moat, and the rope-ladder from the wall; who kept – and how many – arrows and stones on wall-projections; who took position, when some fell.

Really, it was an anti-climax when the raiders did come. Almost everything went wrong with the preparations at Hari Hara Dwara. The canal did not discharge enough water in the valley to flood it. Many ran here and there, forgetful of their assigned duties. Confusion reigned everywhere. There was no reason for men, hidden in open pits along the valley, to remain paralyzed. But they were, even though the contingency of water failing to reach the valley had been anticipated. Raiders were coming on, leisurely, unchallenged. Soon, their yells would begin. Alone, Brahmadatta ran towards the valley to ensure that his men, hidden there would begin the attack. Gargi followed him, but he ordered her back to see that the men in the dome-pits and the ‘fort’ wall were ready.

The planning had been faultless and arrangements impeccable; every contingency had been thought of. But actually something unplanned came to rescue of Hari Hara Dwara. Contrary to orders, three boys and two girls had hidden themselves behind a clump of bushes along the valley They knew their men were to begin attacking as soon as the raiders crossed a marked spot in the valley and then their yells and shrieks would start. The raiders crossed that mark but nothing happened. Suddenly, then, they saw the raiders stop. Obviously their men had begun the attack. The children were much too excited to pause and verify. They began their drum-beat and shrieks. And now, as though by a miracle, the chosen warriors of Hari Hara Dwara hidden in the pits along the valley shook off the fear or lethargy or whatever it was that had assailed them, and came out of their pits, yelling and shouting.

Why had the raiders suddenly stopped? It was surprise, more than anything else, at seeing a lone man – Brahmadatta – running towards them. Normally, people ran away from them. But they heard the yelling and soon men were emerging from pits in their flank – yelling and shrieking. Ahead, it was not a lone man any more. Gargi had disobeyed orders. She was frantic that Brahmadatta must be protected. Any and everyone she could find was asked to abandon his post, to rush to the rescue of Brahmadatta. Everyone was yelling. Confusion. Pandemonium. Only the raiders seemed certain that it was a masterly ambush in which they were being caught. What else could they think with men rushing in front, men behind, and men alongside! They were not warriors; simply looters who had never faced opposition before. Many raiders ran back. No one stopped them. The first of the raiders remained immobilized. Their leader alone rushed forward and many say he wanted to surrender, while a number of raiders at the back kept running away.

Brahmadatta collided against the leader of the raiders in his rush and forgot that he carried a dagger in his belt and a bow and arrow in his backstrap. He simply picked up the leader and threw him in the midst of raiders at the back. Many raiders sat down to surrender with their hands on their heads. But even as they started to surrender, many at the back were still running away.

Many have, later, given a heroic account of this first historic battle of Hari Hara Dwara, crediting Brahmadatta with the masterly strategy of surrounding the raiders from three sides and crushing them. None has given an account of casualties. Fortunately, the comic-poet has left his version in his song entitled ‘Oh terrible was the toll; none remained the same and whole.’ He tells us that the ‘first casualty was the raider-chief whose head was bruised when Brahmadatta threw him in the midst of his comrades, but so thick was his head, that not a drop of blood fell. The second casualty was our own Motara, who fell from the top of the “fort” wall into the moat below filled with mud and water and he ate enough mud to feed three hungry men. And truly the mud-bath mad him look handsome while the mud remained on his face. The third casualty was that Gargi lost her voice and could shout no more, because of all the shouting she did when sending people into battle after Brahmadatta, but she regained her voice after two days and I know not which is a greater tragedy – her losing the voice or her regaining it, for now she keeps shouting at me, louder than before. The fourth casualty was the five children who disobeyed orders and went to hide along the line of attack. They were scolded sternly for disobedience, and then praised lavishly for their heroic conduct – and thus balance was achieved. The fifth casualty was that everyone’s head at Hari Hara Dwara is swollen with pride, but then the raider’s heads are shrunk with shame, for such is the purpose of life – always seeking balance amongst unbalanced men, and . . . ‘

The problem that Brahmadatta faced was : what should be done with the tribal prisoners? There were actually only forty-eight prisoners. Many had run away even at night while in custody.

To Brahmadatta’s question – what was to be done with the prisoners – a hothead suggested, ‘Kill them.’ Brahmadatta stared at him in outrage. He did not know that his hothead had run away even before the raiders were sighted. ‘No,’ Brahmadatta said, ‘that I cannot do.’

‘You don’t have to do that. We shall,’ the hothead urged.

‘No, he who commands or permits a sin, commits it himself,’ Brahmadatta replied – and the poet mentions this exchange to prove the point that Brahmadatta already considered himself their leader both in battle and peace-time.

Another advised, ‘Let these tribals be held as prisoners.’

‘And we shall have to feed and clothe them?’

‘No. They can remain prisoners at farms, back there. The farm-owners shall put them to work and feed them if they work properly.’

It was perhaps a new concept – slavery. They had no word for it in their language. Nor did they understand it fully. ‘Why do you think that the farm-owners would agree?’ Brahmadatta asked.

‘The farm-owners are already rushing here to celebrate our victory. They are interested in paying well if we sell these men to them.’

‘How can a man buy or sell another?’

‘Cattle is bought and sold. What is the difference?’

‘Which farm will have so many workers?’

‘They will be distributed in different farms, one by one.’

‘For how long will they work for the owners?’

‘For ever.’

‘No,’ Brahmadatta said. Gargi and many others shook their heads too, to reject the idea, though it is not clear if the objection was moral or practical.

In dismay, Brahmadatta asked the raiders, lined up before him, ‘What shall we do with you?’ But it was a pointless question. He knew that they did not understand him, even though he tried the two or three languages he had picked up on his travels. As it is, the raiders spoke to no one. They did not even speak among themselves. They had not asked for water or food, even by signs, though later it was served to them at Gargi’s orders. They were young. Only their leader was old. Silently they stood, unmoving, with no expression, ‘neither of guilt, nor of shame, nor of fear, but perhaps in philosophic resignation, ready to accept whatever was to follow.’

It was Kashi, Brahmadatta’s wife, who stood up. She was sitting at the back. Limping she came forward. Frost-bite in the mountains had left its permanent mark on her. People heard her speak rarely and never in public. But now she spoke, directly, to the prisoner-chief of the raiders. He did not respond to her first sentence, nor to her second. Obviously, she was shifting languages. It was her third sentence that elicited a response.

Kashi’s first question was, ‘Our Chief asked you – what are we to do with you for this attack against us? What do you say to that?’

‘Only the Chief can decide that, lady,’ the prisoner-chief replied courteously.

‘If we let you go free, will you swear never to come here again?’

‘This is for our Chief to decide, lady.’

‘But you are their chief, are you not?’ Kashi insisted.

‘No lady, I look after the goats of our Chief.’

‘Then why did you come here to attack us?’ Kashi asked.

‘When our Chief sends us to war, we go. He is the Chief, lady.’

‘And these warriors of yours, are they goatherds too?’

‘Not all; some tend to other animals. Most of the warriors ran away.’

‘What will your Chief do, if we set you free? Will he attack again or will he appreciate our gesture and leave us in peace?’ Kashi asked.

The prisoner had a troubled expression. Finally he said, ‘How can I answer for the Chief, lady? He will do what he decides to do.’

‘But you can persuade him, can you not?’ Kashi asked.

‘I, lady! I do not speak to the Chief! He does not speak to me! I receive orders from the headman, who receives it form the priest, and they too receive orders from those that cannot speak to the Chief.’

‘Then persuade the headman, persuade the priest. Maybe your Chief has nothing to do with these raids!’

Mournfully, he replied, ‘Nothing happens unless the Chief desires it and none can speak for him unless he commands it so and those that disobey cannot live.’ It sounded as if he quoted from a ritual.

‘If we let you go, will you at least promise for yourself and your men that you all shall not join in any future attack on us?’

‘Of what use are such promises to you lady, if we are commanded to march again against you? We die, if we disobey.’

‘Oh! so you would prefer to die here, instead of there? Surely our people have a right to kill you here, if you give no promise!’

‘That right is theirs, lady,’ he said sadly. ‘But here we die alone. Disobedience there, brings death to our family too.’

Silently, Kashi was saying, ‘Why can’t you lie, old man?’

Everyone was watching Kashi with surprise. None – not even Brahmadatta understood a word of this strange conversation. Some wondered – is she herself from the tribe of these prisoners! Impatiently, Brahmadatta asked, ‘What is their chief saying?’

Kashi faced Brahmadatta and spoke in the language of Hari Hara Dwara which she had learnt recently. Each word came slowly, but distinctly, ‘He is a victim himself. They are all victims. Let them go!’

The silence was broken by Kauru, the man who had suggested the sale of prisoners as slaves and he shouted, ‘He is lying to you, woman!’

Woman! It was a term of endearment if a husband so addressed his wife. A parent, midwife, teacher could say that to scold in good humour. But for strangers, it was an insult. A poet says, ‘even Gargi, who had not regained her voice, shot deadly arrows at Kauru with bloodshot eyes, and her hand threw a spear which was not there.’

Brahmadatta wanted to hear more from his wife. But Kauru appealed to them, ‘The farmers will pay well. Forget the lies of this miserable prisoner!’

Kashi’s voice rose, ‘This old man is as incapable of telling a lie as you are of telling the truth!’

Insult! Counter insult! Brahmadatta came to a swift decision, ‘It shall be as my wife says. They shall go free.’ Some say that Kauru’s disdainful attitude to his wife prompted his sudden decision. Others declare that he was divinely inspired and could look into the future.

Two days later, the prisoners left. But meanwhile Kashi spoke to their chief to translate for Brahmadatta and Gargi. ‘Tell him,’ Gargi prompted, ‘to use his influence and never to attack our land again.’

‘Your land!’ the prisoner-chief exclaimed. ‘My people were here before your ancestors ever set foot here. We were the ones driven out.’

But he could not tell when they were driven out. Ten generations ago? He did not know. It was simply ancestral memory, passed to them in age-old songs, with no dates, not time-frame, yet clear, vivid, as though it were a day old.

Questions then were many. Were they all driven out? Were any of them left behind? No, they all had to leave or die, though two hermits – a man and woman – stayed back. Later, an orphaned child ran back and the intruders permitted him to stay with the woman-hermit.

The prisoner-chief added that his people would never hurt a hermit, as all hermits were reincarnations of the two they left behind. Nor would they hurt children, for such was their Chief’s command.

‘Your Chief is then merciful!’ Gargi asked and Kashi translated.

‘Merciful! He is the Law. He upholds the Law.’

Kashi herself wanted to know what his people did after they were thrown out of Hari Hara Dwara. The old man knew little of the distant past, except that his people wandered in barren, desert lands, weary and hungry with the fruits of the earth denied to them. There were no plants with edible roots, nor fruit-laden trees, nor soil suitable to grow cereals. Their first Chief, from whom their present Chief was descended, taught his uprooted people something new – to catch animals and eat them. Many followed his lead but some declined and argued – how do you kill God’s creatures to satisfy your hunger? The first Chief spoke of the law of necessity. He said also that it violated God’s law to act differently from other creatures which ate smaller creatures and some who even ate their young. But the arguments never ceased and some asked, ‘Was not man evolved to seek a higher destiny?’ All arguments commanded by God to do so. Many obeyed the divinely-inspired order of the first Chief. But those who remained steadfast in their refusal to eat meat had to be treated the same way as the animals themselves. Thus it was that the first Chief saw to it that they all became hunters.

Brahmadatta was surprised. His own ancestral knowledge was that man was a hunter first, before he began to cling to the earth to garner its fruits and harvest its crops. He asked, ‘But surely, old man, all the tribes began by eating meat and then turned to the earth to feed them!’

‘Not in my tribe; maybe in yours, Master,’ the old man replied.

Maybe the old man is right thought Brahmadatta. Even Kashi had mentioned that none in her ancestry ever ate meat. He had met Kashi on a mountain exploration. She had been nine then. He had been starving. Her mother and father had given him food. Kashi herself had run to her goat to bring him milk. Four year later, Brahmadatta had come back to the same spot, with gifts for those friendly strangers, but Kashi’s parent were dead, along with all their neighbours. A huge, cruel mountain-slide had wiped out their entire settlement. Kashi alone survived, as she had been away gathering flowers under a mountain cleft. Brahmadatta and Kashi did not understand each other’s language, but somehow he had persuaded her to leave with him. Later, they became man and wife.

The prisoner-chief spoke also of the ancient songs that told of many fleeing at night in different directions, to escape the first Chief’s wrath for not joining the hunt for animals or to eat meat. And again, Brahmadatta wondered : does Kashi come from the stock of those who ran away? How else does she speak the language of this old man? Suddenly, he asked, ‘Those who fled from the first Chief – where did they go?’ Slowly, the old man replied, ‘Who knows! Everywhere perhaps. But as the first Chief marched in all directions, many of them were found dead. And the first Chief said that it was disobedience to him that killed them and starvation.’

‘Did any flee to the mountains?’ Brahmadatta asked and described the mountainside where Kashi lived. But the old man did not know.

He then spoke for how the tribe wandered around hunting for animals and how the first Chief’s domains grew larger. But that was inevitable, as it needed only a little patch of earth to sustain life with what could be grown there. But to hunt, one had to cover an ever-widening area. Animals, rarely suspicious before, began suddenly to fear man and wandered far way and the first Chief’s people had to cover vast areas. The first Chief taught his men always to win, not only against wild beasts but also against all the new people whose settlements they came across. He set up a new system of joint endeavour in which many together stalked the prey – be it a wild beast or a colony of people. He made his men fearless and laid down two axioms : animals feel, while humans think, and therefore pain belong to animals and rewards to man and a man can always trap and kill an animal whatever his size, strength or reach; we think and plan, they doubt and waver – and it meant that those who listened to his voice alone, would be stronger than those that listened to the many voices of doubt and discord.

The old man continued, ‘Land occupied by the first Chief grew in size and prosperity and his prophecy was that his son would have greater vigour and wisdom and the son of his son ever greater, and so on, for all time. And thus it is, that our present Chief is the strongest and greatest, though his son will be even stronger and greater.’

‘And those who fled from the first Chief? Did your tribe ever come across their descendants?’ asked Brahmadatta, his eyes on Kashi.

‘The first Chief announced that they all died.’ The old man’s eyes were on Kashi’s face and he added quietly, ‘If some survived, or had descendants, our first Chief would have known – for he knew all. Not that he was obliged to tell all, for he spoke to God directly and would tell only that which had to be told. Great was our first Chief!’ The other prisoners nodded. Apparently his last words were a ritual utterance, to which they all had to agree. ‘Yes,’ he added, ‘only the first Chief could know who lived and who died.’ Yet his eyes still rested on Kashi, as if he saw a new link from an old past. Kashi whispered, ‘Maybe we were together once.’ The old man whispered back, even softer, ‘Yes, perhaps, a thousand years ago your mother and mine were the same.’ His eyes darted to his companions. They had not heard him, even so, he changed the subject, as if he was continuing his whispered words. ‘Yes, but how was your leg hurt, daughter?’ This was the first time he had called her ‘daughter,’ instead of ‘lady’.

She told him of the fall in the mountains during her pregnancy.

The old man spoke, ‘I live amongst cattle, daughter. But sometimes I tend to village-people when they are hurt. And you should rub your leg with the oil of the zalzari tree, soaked in sunhera herbs.’

She knew nothing of the zalzari tree or sunhera herbs. He too realized that the tree grew neither near the mountains nor near the rivers, but in dry, desert air. Cheerfully, he pointed to a tall tree visible at a distance, in the direction from which they had come, and said, ‘Who knows, maybe even that tree may yield that oil after some time! So, sometimes watch that tree.’ That seemed a foolish remark to the other prisoners, as the tree pointed to by him was tall, not stunted and thorny like the zalzari; and there was no sunhera plant, with scarlet flowers, blooming nearby. (The zalzari tree and sunhera plant, together, were called the ‘odd couple’ and had to be within four hundred yards of each other; if the plant was cut off the tree died within days; similarly, if the tree was destroyed, the plant did not survive.) But the prisoners thought no more about it, certain that he was rambling on to keep in the good graces of the captors and obtain their early release.

Brahmadatta’s main question still was : ‘Will your Chief attack again?’ To this, the old man did not even try to hazard a guess. He simply said, as if quoting from a ritual, ‘Our Chief is mighty and merciful and his is mighty and merciless; he decides as he wills; except when God calls on him, and then, together, they determine what must be done.’

‘Have you seen God call on him?’ Brahmadatta asked with irony.

‘God walks unseen and speaks unspoken,’ the old man said softly.

‘And yet you say that God and your Chief discuss and decide on the course of action! You don’t even say that God commands your Chief!’

The old man was bewildered, ‘When did God ever command man? Did God not leave man free to do what he wills?’ He paused. ‘God is with us twice when we are born and when we die – and yes, the third time, after death, to those who have lived decently – and with them, He always is.

Everyone looked at him intently. Was it different from their own belief in salvation after a life filled with noble deeds!

Gargi said, ‘You seem to believe what we ourselves believe!’

‘This land that you call yours was ours too, lady. It is the land that nurtures the mind. How then can you and I think differently?’

‘And your Chief,’ Brahmadatta pressed, ‘he believes that too?’

The old man was aghast. ‘Our Chief! He is above and beyond us! He walks with God in his mysterious footsteps. He knows what God knows. He knows what He believes. Who am I to say?’ the other prisoners nodded.

Was it respect or fear? – Brahmadatta wondered and asked, ‘Do your headman, priest or Chief order many to be killed?’

‘Not the headman, nor the priest. Only the Chief can order that a man be killed for an offence. And he is just and fair, always, when he punishes or does not punish.’ His companions nodded assent as he added, ‘The headman can order a man’s foot to be cut off. The priest can order that both the feet of a man be cut off. But no more; sometimes this is to the criminal’s advantage, as a priest cannot order the second foot to be cut, if the man has already lost one of his feet at the orders of the headman. And certainly, our Chief does not order a man to be beheaded unless he comes to his punishment, full and whole, with both feet, intact and uncut.’

To Brahmadatta’s main question – would their Chief attack again? – the old man had no answer. But he gave them some insight into their Chief’s mind. Sometimes, he said, their small columns – like his own were repulsed by the other tribes. Often, the Chief ignored the repulse when he wished to forgive, but at other times, he would unleash mighty armies to wipe out the tribe. Their Chief invariably sent out small columns, regularly, at the same time, so that other tribes may know in advance and escape inland to save themselves. After all, he wanted no bloodshed. He simply wanted their animals and produce, though sometimes he would move to occupy their territory; and those who obeyed his law would be spared; and others killed or enslaved. But an attack against himself, he never forgave. Last year, he sent out no columns, as seven tribes banded together to attack the Chief’s land. He not only repulsed them but now all the lands of those tribes were under his control and all their men were killed. Only the children and women had been spared.

‘He respects women, then?’ Gargi asked.

‘Who does not!’ the old man asked. ‘Who else will look after the children?’

Brahmadatta asked, ‘If a column like yours is repulsed, and if your Chief decides to attack, does he attack at the same time next year?’

‘You ask, Master, what I cannot answer. Our Chief may, in his divine wisdom, consider our repulse a challenge; or in his divine humour, he may forgive it, like the lighthearted acts of children. All I know is that tiny, miserable columns like mine are sent on time, but the mighty armies of our Chief move like the roaring of the wind, at the moment of his divine inspiration, uncontrolled by all but the Chief Himself. Great is our Chief!’ Again, all the prisoners assented.

‘You mean, the attack from your armies can come at any time?’

‘Not any time; only when our Chief so desires.’ This was no answer. Yet the old man could give no promise – not even to save his life.

And similarly to many more questions, the old man’s answers were non-answers, though he was sincere and not evasive and said, ‘I am a goatherd, I speak mostly to cattle, and they speak to me not. I know little about your questions, Master.’ He did not even know if originally his ancestral tribe emanated only from Hari Hara Dwara, or came from further inland. His answer was, ‘Our Chief would know – or the hermits,’ and he pointed to the hermits sitting along the riverbank.

‘Our hermits!’ Gargi asked surprised.

‘Our hermits! Your hermits! What is the difference?’ he rejoined, irritated for the first time. He was convinced that these hermits were reincarnations of the two hermits left behind, centuries ago.

‘You have hermits in you lands? Are they respected?’ Gargi asked.

‘Of Course! They are God’s people. The Chief honours them.’

‘Even if hermits say what displeases the Chief?’ Gargi asked.

‘Nothing that the hermits say or unsay displeases the Chief. The hermits seek answers. The Chief knows all the answers. Nothing is hidden from him. Where is the scope for displeasure?’ His companions assented. Clearly, the old man believed in God’s majesty; but believed no less in the majesty of his Chief!

Kauru meanwhile returned, with gifts from the farmers who hoped that the prisoners would be sold to them. Proudly, he announced, ‘I have talked to the farmers. They have agreed to pay more than they had earlier offered.’

Kashi dashed his hopes. She demanded that the gifts be returned.

‘No,’ Gargi thundered. ‘They sent these for the sake of the prisoners. Let them be given to the prisoners.’ Kashi gratefully hugged her.

The old man had a parting request, ‘Much your people gave us, daughter; we always leave offerings for the hermits. Is it permitted?’

The prisoners bowed to the hermits, gave their gifts and went their way.

‘God be with you,’ Kashi said to the old man when they parted.

‘G

od be with you! Daughter of thousand years! Daughter of Sanathani!’

Daughter of Sanathani! Kashi wondered. How did he know that every mother in her mountain-settlement was called Sanathani? To Brahmadatta, the explanation was simple – the Hari Hara Dwara people themselves were known as Sanathani. So what was so surprising if the old man thought that she belonged to Hari Hara Dwara and called her ‘daughter of Sanathani’? Her surprise now was greater : how did Sanathani move so far upwards from Hari Hara Dwara to her mountain?

‘People move. Wanderlust, necessity, love, who knows! Maybe centuries ago your people moved from Hari Hara Dwara to that mountain.’

‘Then why did I not speak the Hari Hara Dwara language? Why did my people speak the tongue of the old man whose ancestors fled from here?’

‘But you do speak in more than one tongue!’ Brahmadatta countered.

‘Yes, that is because my father came from another mountain.’

‘See! Love brings everyone together!’

But even Brahmadatta wondered. Did Kashi belong to the people of the First Chief driven out from Hari Hara Dwara? Perhaps, she did, as she spoke their language. But then those people were not known as Sanathanis! They were known as the ‘First Tribe’. Only the people in Hari Hara Dwara were known as Sanathanis. Yet Kashi’s people never spoke the language of Hari Hara Dwara. Strange that Kashi should speak like the ‘First Tribe’ but bear the name of Sanathani!

Brahmadatta gave up this idle speculation which took him nowhere and finally said to Kashi, ‘Enough that we belong to each other.’

But it did matter to Kashi. Later, it was a hermit who took them a step further. He was not the oldest hermit and certainly not the most revered. Nor was he always meditating. Often, the comic-poet sat by his side and both spent their time laughing. Many suspected that the two were laughing at them. But the comic-poet denied it, saying, ‘We laugh only at God who created you.’ And when someone said, ‘You forget that God created you too,’ his reply was ‘When did I say that everything that God did was a mistake!’

Kashi and Brahmadatta were fond of the comic-poet, not for his poetry, but because he and his wife were amongst the four who had remained behind to help Kashi with her delivery. Even when Kashi hardly understood the language of Ganga, he would recite his poems to her; and his own wife’s smiling request was: Sister Kashi, please listen to his poetry – but, please, only when I am outside the range of hearing.’ Actually, Kashi listened to him, carefully and gratefully, and if she learnt the language quickly, it was thanks to the comic-poet.

It was to the comic-poet then, that Kashi first posed the question about her roots. But to avoid a comic answer, she placed her little son in his arms, and said, ‘Not me alone but my son must also know.’

Soberly, he asked, ‘Why must this little one know of links that snapped perhaps two thousand years ago?’ But he answered his own question, ‘Yes. Links do not snap. The past does not die. It relives; and a generation that does not know its roots is orphaned.’

‘So?’ Kashi asked for all this hardly answered her question.

So, go to Nashtha.’ Nashtha! It was the name of the young hermit.

Later, Kashi understood why hermit Nashtha would know. Nashtha was descended from the orphaned child who had run back to the land that was his – while his own people were driven out to wander in barren lands under the first Chief.

Nashtha ignored Kashi. He simply stuck his tongue out to tease her little son, who responded by showing his own tongue. He took the child in his lap. The child put out his hand to push Nashtha’s tongue back in. ‘There is much that your child already knows,’ said Nashtha.

‘There is more he must know,’ Kashi said.

‘He will ask, when he must!’ Nashtha replied gruffly.

There, the first conversation ended, for Nashtha had closed his eyes to pray. Kashi bowed to Nashtha and left after whispering, ‘To your star-dust, I bow.’ These were the traditional words of farewell of her own people – and these were the very words she heard from prisoners when they were parting from the hermits. And she said these words in her language of the past – and not in the tongue of Hari Hara Dwara!

She did not know that Nashtha heard her and opened his eyes.

The next day Kashi left with Brahmadatta who had to meet farmers inland. The comic-poet spoke to Kashi on her return, ‘Nashtha is asking after you.’ She went to Nashtha. ‘Why should the hermit Nashtha ask for her?’ some asked. ‘Why not? Maybe he is very fond of Kashi,’ the comic-poet replied. Perhaps, here, he said too little or too much. For everyone saw that everyday she was near hermit Nashtha singing songs for him.

Nashtha told her little, but asked if she knew the songs of her ancient people. She sang for him the songs that her mother had sung. People, passing nearby, recognized neither the tune nor the words.

‘These are not songs of my ancients,’ Nashtha said. ‘They are sad, tearful songs. My people sang to laugh, to dance, to make love.’

‘Maybe these songs were sung in tears, after my people lost their home here.’ But suddenly she brightened up and hummed a tune with half-remembered words. It was a soft, restful, contented tune – a lullaby with which her mother put her to sleep in her childhood days.

She saw his tears. She stopped. ‘Keep singing,’ he ordered, but she replied, ‘I don’t know the words.’ He opened his eyes after the lullaby had ended. Quietly, he pointed to her sleeping son and said, ‘The song ends and the child of our people sleeps.’

Nashtha’s story was simple. Nine hundred years ago, his people were driven out of the land of Ganga. From Hari Hara Dwara? No, that was the last point of exodus. His people came from further inland, beginning from a city called Varnash, after its destruction by intruders. Where was that city? Not far, but the way was barred as many new tribes had settled there, ‘displacing those who uprooted our ancient people.’

Nashtha’s ancestor, the orphaned child himself, came from Varnash and fled with the first Chief. But he soon ran back. He was cared for by a woman-hermit – one of the two hermits who remained in Hari Hara Dwara. Later, this woman-hermit’s daughter was sent back to her by the first Chief.

‘Why did the first Chief send her back to Ganga?’ Kashi asked.

‘Because she would not eat meat,’ Nashtha replied.

‘But the first Chief even killed those that refused to eat meat!’

‘No one sheds his own blood!’ Nashtha said.

‘His own blood!’ Kashi asked, surprised. Nashtha explained – the little girl was the first Chief’s own niece and the woman-hermit was his sister; it was this sister who had brought up the first Chief since his own mother had died when he was an infant. When the sister became a hermit, he became the loving guardian of his niece. But when the first Chief fled the land of Ganga, the niece wanted to go back to her mother and even refused to eat; so he sent her back to his sister, though many say that he himself came, disguised, to bring her. Later, this girl married the orphaned boy who had run back to Ganga. And it was from this union that Nashtha traced his descent.

‘Was Sanathani the name of the Ganga tribe which fled?’ asked Kashi.

‘Yes.’ But then Nashtha explained how the name Sanathani itself came to be adopted by the intruders who occupied the land of Ganga, ‘Simply by the process of assimilation; the culture of the conquerors was overtaken by the gentler, civilizing culture of the conquered.’

‘But how! Did not the conquered all flee with the first Chief?’

‘No,’ Nashtha replied. ‘How could all of them flee! Many remained. It was simply the first Chief who said that all the people had fled Ganga to join under his banner. He wanted his people to so believe, lest anyone was tempted into returning to Ganga. He was keen that the numbers of his followers should swell, not shrink.’

‘How many joined the exodus and how many remained with Ganga?’

‘Who knows? Maybe intruders killed one out of every ten and maybe one out of every thirty remained behind, and all the rest fled, to follow the first Chief, and even other chiefs who fled from the first Chief too – perhaps like your people – to find sanctuary elsewhere.’

Kashi asked, ‘If one out of every thirty did not flee to follow the first Chief and remained behind, how is it that their ancient language does not survive in the land of Ganga?’

‘Yes, the language did not survive in the land of Ganga, even though you and I, here are now conversing in that tongue. The language survived only with those that fled, even though so many remained behind. The intruders were far more numerous; and those of our people that remained behind were afraid to give out their identity or to emphasize their separateness. The result was that they adopted the language of the intruders and, over time, forgot their own words and songs.’

‘But you said that the intruders were overtaken by the culture of the ancient people of Ganga from whom we spring?’

‘Yes, I did. Intruders imposed their language or maybe they did not impose it and our people adopted it from fear or because the intruders were in a vast majority. Yet the culture of our people did not perish under the onslaught of intruders, even though our people adopted some of their external influences. The culture that came with the intruders – the culture that survived by brute force – died, absorbed by the more humane, the more intelligent and spiritual civilization of the Sanathanis of the Ganga that the intruders came to conquer.’

‘Surely the conquerors brought their own culture too?’

‘Yes, the conquerors did bring their culture but in the end it is always the gentler, more humane culture that survives. The conquerors have the power to win by force; but is power the same as wisdom, enlightenment or culture? And thus it is that much of their culture withered away and the rest of it mingled with the culture of the conquered Sanathanis.’

‘But how could the culture of so few that remained behind in Ganga come to overtake the culture of so many that came from outside?’

‘Numbers? Do they matter? The smallest minority, even a single individual, can influence culture. Don’t ask me how. Maybe it is the land we live in or the soul-sustaining waters of the Ganga. All I know is that if a culture retains its God-given values of truth and righteousness, it lives.’

‘But what part of our culture was adopted by intruders, if our language went out with the first Chief, to disappear from this land?’

‘The beginnings of assimilation were slow. But in time, the intruders even gave up eating meat. They rejected the doctrine that denied to any God’s creation its rightful place in God’s universe. They began to believe in equality, certain that God treats every aspirant with favour. And so they too chose the path of piety, prayer and meditation. It obviously did not blind them to the need to protect righteousness.

‘The woman was accorded equal status with man. But even greater was their belief in compassion, justice and fairplay and, above all, in sinless conduct and positive good deeds to achieve the final goal of salvation (mukta or moksha). They were guided no longer by the fear of the supernatural but by the love of God whose presence they felt all the time, all the way.’

Kashi came to her main question, ‘Yet for me there is a missing link, somewhere. When the ancient people left Ganga with the first Chief, they carried their language. Their own people who remained behind, retained their culture but lost their language and spoke the language of the newcomers. So much is clear. But then what about my people at our mountain settlement? We spoke the First Tribe’s language – the language that the people of Ganga abandoned – and yet we called ourselves Sanathanis, as the people of Ganga do. Do I then belong to the First Tribe or Hari Hara Dwara?’

Nashtha smiled, ‘To both – you belong to the Sanathanis of Ganga and to the First Tribe. The prisoner-chief was right to call you the daughter of Sanathani, for that is what you are. And he was right too when he called you their own daughter of 1,000 years.’ he paused to explain, ‘What puzzles you is that your people at the mountain-settlement did not speak the present language of Ganga, and yet called themselves Sanathanis like the people of Ganga. But the answer is simple. Your people and the people who fled Ganga under the first Chief were both Sanathani. That name remained with the people of the first Chief for at least eighty years and then, by the order of the grandson of the first Chief who ruled in his place, the name Sanathani was discarded and even outlawed.

‘Why?’ Kashi asked. Nashtha explained that when the first Chief fled, he convinced his people that not a single Sanathani was left behind, and that they had all fled from the hated intruders. As it is, the name Sanathani did disappear from Ganga itself for some time, as even those Sanathanis who had remained behind kept a low profile initially, for fear of persecution form intruders. But soon, not only the name but even the dharma (moral law) of Sanathani began to re-emerge, stronger than ever before, as intruding tribes came under the sway of its culture. Everyone in the Ganga – ancients and newcomers – began to call themselves Sanathanis. It was then that the grandson of the first Chief decided that his own people must not be called Sanathani. He had the same dream as the first Chief had – of reconquering Ganga. He feared that if his people continued under the same name as the people of Ganga, they would identify with each other as the same tribe – and over time their enmity would subside, yielding to friendship. He had to keep alive the separateness and past enmity. So he renamed his people the ‘First Tribe’ to distance them from the Sanathanis.

Nashtha then voiced his conjecture about Kashi’s ancient people, ‘Your people also, I think, fled the Ganga along with the first Chief; like him, your people too were Sanathani and unfamiliar with the language of the intruders. Somewhere along the line, your people and the first Chief parted. Is it surprising then that your people spoke the language of the first Chief but remained unaffected by his grandson’s order to outlaw the name “Sanathani”?’

Nashtha could not say how her people parted from the first Chief. ‘Maybe, the first Chief permitted your people to go free as he allowed his niece, who was my ancestress.’

‘He may have been kind to his niece. Why to the others?’

‘Who knows! All I know is that the first Chief had a terrible reputation – but it was an image he himself had created. Everyone spoke of his killing those who disobeyed him. But that was not true. In the dead of night, he would arrange the escape of those who refused his order, for instance, to eat meat or join the hunt for animals. He spoke of killing people at the slightest excuse, but no one ever saw him doing that except in extreme cases. Even those who died of natural causes or in fighting or hunting, were said to be killed by him – and he never denied it. Yes, the sins he committed were many, but he was not as evil as he painted himself, in order to inspire fear and obedience.’

‘But why did he have to pretend to be more cruel that he was?’

‘He had a single dream. He saw his people flee the Ganga, starved in mind and body; they appeared beyond repair. He did what he had to do, to change them into a strong, cohesive force – to listen to him, single-mindedly – and his dream was to return to Ganga and live there for ever, but not under the rule of intruders.’

‘And he died with his dream unfulfilled!’ said Kashi.

‘In a way, yes. He wanted to charge at the head of his people to reconquer the land but that proved impossible. He came alone.’

‘He came!’

‘Yes, at the age of seventy, he nominated his son the Chief, and left himself – and no one knew where he went, though his people said that he had gone to meet the gods. But the ache in his heart had returned and slowly his footsteps turned to Hari Hara Dwara.’

‘And no one stopped him?’

‘Who would trouble an old man of seventy, who comes looking like a hermit? He came to his niece, my ancestress, and her husband, the once-orphaned child. They escorted him to Varnash. There he died and his last hope was the someday his soul would return to embody his ashes in the Ganga, so that he could lead his people to reconquer the land of Ganga.’

‘He had lost his faith in mukta (salvation – breaking the bonds of re-birth) then?’ Kashi asked.

‘No, he was convinced that for the evil he had done, mukta was lost to him. And he sought neither mercy from God, nor offered repentance, and died with defiance on his lips saying – “God, you deserted my people but I shall not desert them. And what I did, I shall do again, in each life that is mine.” The fact is, he had one life-long love – for the Sanathanis who fled with him. He lived and died too, with one terrible hatred against the intruders and for that he was prepared to sacrifice his soul and every hope of mukta. Nothing else mattered to him. But I think he was a better man than he thought he was.’

Nashtha smiled, ‘Tell me now, yourself, where do you belong? To the Sanathanis of Ganga or the “First Tribe”?’

‘To both,’ Kashi replied.

How did Nashtha know of events that happened hundreds of years earlier? Later He told Kashi. Both his ancestors – the orphaned child and the first Chief’s niece had matured as well-known poets and singers of songs. They had almost forgotten their language of the past and sang in the new language of Ganga. It was the first Chief who shouted at his niece when he stealthily entered the land of Ganga – and the seventy-year-old Chief could still shout with passion at his niece who was now fifty years of age – and said, ‘Those who forget the language of their people are like dogs that change their bark.’ But the niece told him with a weak smile that dogs never changed their bark, though people could change their speech; and the first Chief growled, ‘Then learn form our dogs who are superior to the people you surround yourself with.’

Nashtha continued – ‘Some ten years after the first Chief’s ashes were immersed in the Ganga, his niece lost her husband; and she wanted to compose a song in his memory. Her mind went back to the events of the past – how her husband as a child had run back from the contingent of the first Chief and was sheltered by her mother, who was a hermit, by the side of the Ganga. The first Chief – who was her mother’s brother – had sent her back to her mother but himself came in disguise, year later, to witness her wedding; again, when his sister – her mother – had died. She thought also of the last time that the first Chief had come to her briefly, only to die in her husband’s arms.

‘But,’ added Nashtha, ‘the words in her song did not flow as she thought of the first Chief – and of the empty, sinking feeling he had in his last moments when he feared that his people would forget their roots, if they forgot their language. She began her song in the language she used to speak in the days of her childhood – and then the words and the feelings came to her easily, effortlessly. It was to be a song in celebration of her husband’s life, but it went on to sing of her land and the people – and of the people who left with the first Chief whose new land she had not seen. She could only speak of their longings to return to the land of their roots. Few could understand her song and even her children did not understand the language in which it was composed. But then sometimes a poet does not compose a song for others. Yet a song dies if it is not recited to another. And she began to recite it to her youngest granddaughter, barely two years old. But the child grew and she kept hearing the song and even learnt the unfamiliar language that her grandmother taught her. Since then – whether it was as a promise to the grandmother or otherwise – someone in the family would be taught that old, archaic language, along with the song. Even so, the song that I inherited as part of my family tradition came with many words and verses missing. Strangely, it began as a lullaby and ended with it too but otherwise had no connection with the rest of the song and I am not certain if it was intended as part of the song or was simply a lullaby that her ancestress had sung to her granddaughter.’

After this, Kashi and Nashtha were together often. Once Kashi asked, ‘How did the old prisoner-chief express the belief that god is with us only twice – when we are born and when we die and perhaps the third time, eternally, if we have lived our life with honour?’

‘Is that what you believe, yourself,Kashi?’

‘The last part – yes. But I also believe what the people of Ganga and my own people believe – that God is with us, always.’

‘Only words differ. The beliefs are the same. When the old man said, God comes to an individual at birth, he did not mean that God comes empty-handed. God leaves a gift behind – gift of conscience. It is for the individual then to use or abuse it. And, God, he said, comes again when the individual dies – but that is only to see how His gift of conscience was used or misused – and if it was used well, there is then the third meeting that the old man spoke of – when differences vanish between the soul of man and the soul of God – for then they are One for all eternity. Is there really a difference between what you believe and what the old man said?’

‘But why different words? Why change a simple, beautiful thought – God is always with us – into a complicated formula of three visits?’

‘Man has never learned to simplify, only to complicate. Often he does not say what he feels but what he thinks – and sometimes he thinks too much and, in the process, he gains much knowledge but also larger confusion and greater grief.’ He paused. ‘Actually, it was the first Chief who changed the words in that concept to create a belief in God’s three visits. But in no way did he try to alter the doctrine of mukta, whereby salvation and identification with the soul of God are achievable through righteousness, pure conduct and noble deeds. Indeed, mukta remains a common word – like many others – in the language of the people on both sides.’