x-x-xI awoke with a start. It was cold, and I looked at Chandru to see that he had taken his sleeping bag from his backpack and was cocooned in it now. I thought I heard some music, like drums at a distance. The moon was high in the sky, and I could see that it was about two in the morning. I sat up and listened intently, trying to catch the drums. Yes, there it was. I could hear it quite distinctly. It seemed to be coming from the village. But no one was supposed to be there, and anyway, whoever wanted to be drumming at two in the morning would definitely make an interesting acquaintance. It was possibly someone from one of the many different magico-religious cults that were quite common it that part of Tamil Nadu. Now that I was awake and could hear the drums quite clearly, I decided to go and check it out for myself. Chandru was sleeping soundly, and I was thinking of how I would tell him of all that he had missed in the morning. I made my way to the village, and as I neared it, the sound of the drums increased. Drawn on by the primal appeal of the heavy rhythmic drumming, I found myself walking towards the centre of the village. The centre of the village was a large clear square, with an old pipal tree in the centre. Gathered around this tree I could see about a hundred men. They were all bare-bodied, wearing only a short veshti, which they had drawn between their legs and tucked into their waistbands, giving it the look of a pair of shorts. Thirteen of them stood in a circle and were beating heavy drums that were slung between their legs by long ropes that went around their necks. As they beat the drums, the other men were swaying in a frenzied rhythm. This looked like some religious ceremony, and I decided to ask one of them what was happening. I looked around, seeing if could approach one of the men. It was then that I saw that one of the houses to my right was not broken down. It was in fact decorated and brightly lit with flaming torches placed in sockets in the walls. It had a wide veranda, and in this sat two young men, clad like the others, but holding long staves in their hands. To all intents and purposes, they appeared to be guards. As I was pondering whether to approach them or not, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I turned. There behind me stood four men with staves in their hands, clad like the rest. At such close quarters, I could make out that all the men were lean and well muscled, and looked like a patrol on guard duty. The man who had laid his hand on my shoulder was about six feet tall. His broad shoulders, long hair, big moustache and air of confidence clearly marked him out as the leader of the men. "Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here?" The questions came one after the other. And he spoke a very different Tamil. A Tamil that sounded a lot like the one spoken in Sri Lanka with the singsong more accentuated. "I'm from Madras. I was sleeping in the mandapam when I heard the drums. So I thought I'd come and have a look." As I spoke, I could see first suspicion and then amusement in the man's face. He turned to the others and said, "He speaks funnily. Maybe he's a spy." Apparently the others found this very funny and laughed out aloud. "What is going on here?" I asked him, more to get his attention than anything else. He turned to me, as though amazed that I had spoken without being spoken to. "Don't you know where you are?" he asked as though he were talking to a child. Before I could reply, there came a voice behind him, "Thalapathi, what are you doing here? The men are waiting�" The voice trailed off as the speaker caught sight of me. The four had parted at the voice. The speaker was a man of royal bearing. About the thalapathi's height, he was lithe and lanky. Unlike all the other men, who were swarthy, he was fair skinned. His long black hair was held back by a headband of bright red cloth. His face was incongruous in the company of his men - he did not have a moustache. He was dressed as the others, but he held a naked sword in one had, and a leather shield in the other. The sword was long and curved, shaped like an Arabian scimitar, but narrower. Its blade gleamed in the light from the torches. "Who is this?" he asked the thalapathi, who shook his head and said, "We do not know, sir. We just found him and I was questioning him." He took one look at me and asked, "Have you come to kill me? Or have you come to spy on my preparations?" I was taken aback at how casually he asked me this. He seemed cool and collected. There was no edge to his voice - only an almost casual interest. "I'm just a traveller. Why would I want to kill you? And who would I spy for? And who are you anyway, that I should spy on you or kill you?" I blurted out. He burst out laughing at this. "He really does not know me! How amusing!" he exclaimed, and said to the thalapathi, "You go and join the men - they are waiting for you. Don't worry about him, I'll take care of him." The thalapathi gave me a withering glance before calling to his men and going to join the others. "So, where are you from, that you do not know of me?" asked the person who by now I'd made out to be some sort of chieftain. "I'm from Madras," I said, and could see immediately that it had made no impact on his understanding. "Must be far away from here. Very far away if you haven't even heard of me," he said. "Who are you? And what's happening?" I asked him. "I am the rightful king of this land. Just because my mother was Roman, I have been denied my birthright. And now they want to kill me as well. The ways of the wise are strange indeed," he said. Whoa, hold on a minute - I was experiencing extreme reality fragmentation here. Here I was, in the last year of the second millennium, and here was this guy talking to me about being a king and being denied his rightful inheritance. What's more, said guy held a great sword and a shield as if he'd been practising taking back his birthright. There were only two possibilities - either I had travelled back in time or I was dreaming this whole thing. Either way, I couldn't see any way I could contradict the rightful heir and keep my head on my shoulders. So I decided to nod sagely and hold my peace. "My father was king of this land. My mother was the daughter of a Roman merchant. They met in the court of the Chola, where my father had gone to pay his father's tribute. They were married even before my father became king. I was born in the first year of my father's reign, and I was my father's eldest. Of course, my father took other wives, out of other compulsions, but my mother was always his wife - all the others mere political conveniences. And they resented this. My mother died soon after I was proclaimed the crown prince. But the other queens plotted. They spread rumours, they started whispers against me in my own house. And when the ministers and generals took their side, I knew I did not stand a chance. So I left the court when my father died. I told them they could make whichever of my stepbrothers they wanted king. I thought that I would be left alone if gave them the kingdom. But it was not so. The queens wanted me dead. So my stepbrother, the king now, sent his men after me." "Who are these men?" I asked, pointing to the men who had by now finished their dance and were standing in groups, talking to each other. "These are my bondmen. They are bound to me by death. They will give their lives for me, and if I die, they will take their lives too. Such is their loyalty. And great fighters they are too. If it comes to a pitched battle, my eighty-five men can easily account for at least a thousand of the enemy's men. And that is why they haven't moved in against me yet." "I have received information that they shall attack me tomorrow. And they have recruited more than a thousand bowmen. Cowards. They know they cannot face us in hand-to-hand combat. So they want to draw us into the open and use their bowmen. That is why we are here today. This city was the capital of my great great grandfather, and it is here that I shall account for every one of the enemy. No longer shall I run like a coward. And here, their bowmen are of no use. In the streets, among the houses, the only combat that is possible is hand-to-hand. And we will take all of them with us. This is the end, for them and for us." "Don't you have bowmen too?" I asked him. "Bows are for wimps," he told me contemptuously. "They are for people who cannot face their enemy on the battlefield. We fight with swords, the weapon of real men. And we have the finest swords in the world. Look at this. See how it gleams, and see how it becomes dull nearer the centre. The perfect combination of strength and sharpness. Our swords are used all over the world. The Arabs use our swords, though they use much broader ones - better when used from a horse's back. But this - this is the finest sword in the world. I can slice off an elephant's head with one stroke. And that is our weapon. We fight with swords and knives, not with bows and arrows." As he said this, he swung his sword in arcs around him. There was no sign of any exertion on his part as the sword described great arcs all around him so fast that it was a blur. Anyone who got anywhere near him would be sliced to pieces. There was a broad grin on his face as he saw my openmouthed expression. "Let me show you something," he said, and swung his sword at my feet. I was so shocked that I was frozen to the spot. I couldn't move, and as I waited for my feet to be cut away from under me, I closed my eyes. Nothing happened, and I opened my eyes to the sound of the prince laughing loudly. I looked down. The prince was holding the sword where he had stopped it - about a millimetre from my calf - and it had already sliced through my jeans. "That is how good we are!" he exclaimed, "and any of my men can do that." "So when are you expecting to be attacked?" I asked him. "Not until the dawn, and even then only after it gets fully light. They are afraid, the cowards. They think I have an army of devils." With that he burst into laughter. If all his men could do what he did with his sword, and if they all had swords like that, then I could not blame his enemies for thinking he had an army of devils. And I wondered what he would think of today's armies and their guns. I was in no mood to try and find out. "Come. Let us rest. Who knows what evils lurk in the darkness. I hear the kollivai pisasu is on the prowl near the mandapam. Sleep here till dawn, then you can go on your way," said the prince. I couldn't agree more with him. I was tired and I was scared, but more than that, I felt very drowsy. As we reached the brightly-lit house, he indicated that I could sleep in the veranda, watched by the two guards. With a grin on his face, the prince went into the house. I curled up in a corner of the veranda and was instantly asleep.
x-x-xThe sun was shining brightly on my face when I woke up. It was early morning, and the sun was on its way up. I looked around me - I was in the veranda of a ruined house. The same house where the prince and his guards had been the previous night. As I looked around, I could see no signs of the village having been occupied by anyone. It was as though everything had been a dream. I thought of Chandru - he would be really worried if he found me gone when he woke up. I ran to the mandapam - it took me a few minutes, and all my breath. Out of the village, up the rise, down the other side, turn off from the road and there it was - the mandapam. As I reached it, I found Chandru just waking up and stretching. On seeing me, he mumbled a sleepy good morning and asked me where I had been. Then, seeing that I was panting, he asked me if everything was all right. In fits and starts, I told him everything that happened, expecting him to be amazed. All I got from him was a wry look and, "Are you sure you don't walk in your sleep?" after which he turned away to rummage in his backpack for a toothbrush. "Brush your teeth, Mr. Sleepwalker - let's go get some pictures of your prince's great great grandfather's capital," laughed Chandru. Half an hour later, we were in the village square, Chandru setting up his tripod in front of the house on whose veranda I had woken up, while I explored the interior of the house. It was a sprawling house with many rooms. The roof was gone and so had the doors and windows, a few of the walls had fallen, but I could get an idea of the plan of the entire house. I reached the end of the house, its rear entrance in a street parallel to the square. It was then that I noticed that some of the walls were thicker than others. There were also two other exits into small lanes on the right and left sides of the house. As I was looking at the walls and wondering what it meant, I heard the sound of a jeep driving up and stopping. I went to the entrance of the house to see three men getting out of an old rickety jeep. Chandru was trying to get a shot of the jeep with the old buildings in the background. I walked up to the jeep, noticing on the way that it had 'Archaeological Survey of India' stencilled on its side. The three men who had got out were looking around. One of them was a large old man with cotton-white hair and pink skin. The other two were Indians, one a military type with grey sideburns and the other a middle-aged man who smiled a lot, who was obviously an interpreter. I went up to the military-looking man and introduced myself and told him about Chandru's and my travels. This seemed to spark something in him and he became very genial. He introduced himself as Major Mahabali, late of the Indian Army, veteran of peacekeeping forces in Sri Lanka and Bosnia, recently discharged and now an honorary member of the Archaeological Survey of India. He was taking Professor Helmut (I didn't get the last name) of the University of Cologne around different archaeological sites for a book he (Prof. Helmut, not the Major) was writing. By now the Professor had his camera out and was competing with Chandru for pictures. I could see the two of them arguing furiously about something with the poor interpreter caught in the crossfire. The major was shaking his head. "Poor Helmut, he should stay in Cologne and let his research assistants do his fieldwork for him," he said. "How is this village important in history? I thought this was just another settlement where the people left because the wells dried up," I asked the Major. "It's got a long and interesting history behind it. What you see around you was once the capital of Adiveeraparakraman, a minor vassal of the later Cholas. This was once a busy metropolis, the centre of trade and diplomacy in this region. Adiveeraparakraman was a warrior as well as a statesman, and he kept together a loose confederation of vassals. This ensured that all the individual kings kept their sovereignty in their lands, but by being part of a confederation that owed allegiance to the mighty Cholas, kept themselves from being overrun by either the Chola juggernaut itself or any of the other marauding dynasties. The confederation itself was quite shaky - kings and chieftains kept joining and dropping out. But the core of the confederation was Adiveeraparakraman. For thirty-six years he ruled, and for thirty-six years the confederation stood. At that time, this was the seat of all commercial and diplomatic enterprises. "Within ten months of the death of Adiveeraparakraman, the confederation was destroyed and the vassal kings were on their own. They had to fight everyone around them to keep their crowns. There was a series of wars and battles, after which four minor kings emerged dominant, and they stuck to an unwritten treaty to keep out of each other's way. One of the four was Adiveeraparakraman II, son of Adiveeraparakraman. But by that time, the wells of this place had dried up and he had to shift his capital to what was called Adiveeraparakramapalayam, which means 'the armoury of Adiveeraparakraman.' That's about sixty kilometres from here. His reign was for about eight years - he was assassinated and no one knows why or by whom. Veeraparakraman succeeded Adiveeraparakraman II and ruled for ten years, before he died in a war with another vassal. The dynasty was pushed into its capital and the kingdom shrunk to a ridiculously small size. "It was then that Adityan became king. He was a brilliant man, married to a Roman woman. Her brother commanded a galley, but was an infantryman at heart. He was a brilliant strategist and assisted his brother-in-law in drawing up battle plans and campaign strategies. He also brought with him a master swordsmith, Mayan, whom he had captured in a battle with an Arab vessel. Mayan was from the Sera kingdom, and Adityan promised to send him home if he would set up an armoury for him and train his soldiers in the art of swordsmanship. So began Adityan's long and arduous campaign to reclaim the land of his forefathers. Mayan's swords were legendary - it is said that the Arabs were ready to worship him, but did not do so as Islam did not permit it. "And Adityan was every bit a diplomat as his great grandfather had been. His charisma won him many friends, and he forged many alliances. He was reviving the confederation of his great grandfather. And he was such a man that Mayan decided to stay on with him. The swordsmen he trained were said to be the best in the world, and combined with his swords, they were invincible warriors. It is said that they could cut off an elephant's head with a single stroke of the sword. "With his alliances, the military might of his swordsmen and the brilliant strategies of the Romans, Adityan was soon ruling an area that was much bigger than his great grandfather's. He ruled for thirty-two years. But within the palace, all was not well. The crown prince was Aditya Parakraman, Adityan's son by his Roman wife. She had died when Aditya Parakraman was seventeen. The other women whom Adityan had married had sons and big ambitions for them. So they conspired against Aditya Parakraman. When Mayan, Aditya Parakraman's only ally in the palace, died, the few ministers and generals who were with him went over to his stepmothers. One day, Adityan died suddenly, and by nightfall, Aditya Parakraman was on the run, pursued by his stepbrothers' armies. "Aditya Parakraman was an expert swordsman, and along with him were his bondmen, a band of men who were tied to him by an oath so powerful, they would end their lives when he died. All his bondmen had been trained by Mayan, and the chief among then was Mayan's son. Aditya Parakraman, in the Roman way, did not sport a moustache, and this is his distinguishing feature in references to him by poets. He is referred to as the 'unmoustached one.' One folk song goes, 'Aditya Parakraman, without a moustache, but a real man without a kingdom but a real king�' "Aditya Parakraman and his men came here, and stayed here for about a month. They knew that the armies would eventually find them, but they were ready. His stepbrother, who knew about the prowess of Aditya Parakraman and his bondmen, did not wish to engage them in hand-to-hand combat. So he sent for all the bowmakers and bowmen in his land. He gathered about a thousand of them and marched on this town. And then they laid siege to this place, staying at a safe distance, but with bowmen always ready. One by one they picked off Aditya Parakraman's bondmen. And then on the fifth day of the siege, just before dawn, Aditya Parakraman and his men attacked. They had slunk up to the army in the night and had taken the sentries. It is said that the army was totally routed that night. When it was all over, more than two thousand of the five-thousand-strong army lay dead. Most of Aditya Parakraman's men too lay dead. But neither his body nor the body of Mayan's son, his Chief bondman, was found. "While the army was laying siege to Aditya Parakraman here, all the borders of the kingdom were under attack. The usurpers were never kings, they never had a kingdom to rule. In less than a month, the kingdom was gone and all Aditya Parakraman's stepbrothers were dead. "Soon after Aditya Parakraman's last known battle, the wells in this place were full of water. People began to settle in, and they built their houses on the ruins of the old capital. Since then, the drying up of the wells has occurred roughly once every hundred years. After that, the wells have water again for about fifty years. This cycle has been repeated again and again. The wells went dry in 1940, and the people moved out. What is very exciting to the archaeologist and the historian is that every time the people moved in, they have built on the ruins of the old village. So, what you see today is probably the layout of the village as it was during the time of Adiveeraparakraman. Many of the houses too have retained the pattern of building. So, in effect, what you see here is the ruin of a village as it was about eight hundred years ago." "How do you know all this? Are there written histories about this?" I asked. "Most of what I've told you has been culled from various sources. Tax records maintained in stone by the Cholas show us that Adiveeraparakraman, his son, grandson and great grandson were loyal vassals who paid their tributes regularly. A lot of the details have been preserved in folk songs, stories and sayings. And since there is a Roman connection, a few details have been corroborated by Roman scholars too. Again, the Arabs have written records of Mayan working for them and his skill as a swordsmith and a swordsman. Putting all this together has been the work of a lifetime for me. Of course, I will be a mere footnote in Helmut's work." By this time, Helmut and Chandru seemed to have finished their picture-taking and returned. The Major bid me farewell and gave me his card, asking me to drop in on him sometime. Seeing a Madras address on the card, I made up my mind to look him up once I got home. The Major, the professor and the interpreter climbed into the jeep and drove off. "Batty old bugger!" exclaimed Chandru, "kept getting in the way. But I managed to get some decent pictures though." As we set off to the next village, I told Chandru what the Major had told me. He was quite incredulous and told me that I might have read about it somewhere and dreamt about it and sleepwalked. We did not speak about it for the rest of the trip.
x-x-xOnce I got back to Madras, I was once again caught up in the mad rush that is city life. Finally, after about three months I got the time to call up the Major. He recognised me immediately, and we fixed up a meeting on the following Sunday. When I went to his house, I resolved to tell him about my experience in the village. I wore the same jeans that I was wearing when I was in the village - the cut made by Aditya Parakraman's sword was still there. When I rang the bell, the Major answered it himself. As we sat talking, I told him, very hesitantly, "When I was in the village, something weird happened to me." "I knew it," said the Major "you see, when I saw the cut in your jeans in the village, I was reasonably sure you had met Aditya Parakraman. I met him six years ago. Why else do you think I would be so passionate about the history of some obscure vassal dynasty? And yes, he did that to me too." As the Major put out his leg, I could see that the jeans he was wearing were cut in exactly the same place as mine.
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