Category Archives: ancient sri lanka

NOVELLA

(I continue this…then comes trouble.)


The warrior who came into view was a slightly older man than Harihar, with a luxuriant beard. Handsome, calm and strong, he controlled his horse effectively with his lean fingers and shapely feet. “Oh Kesari, please don’t frighten me like that! What are you doing here though?”
Kesari smiled, his teeth looking like pearls in the torchlight of his four companions. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” he replied calmly. “But I was on patrol duty tonight”-as Harihar turned he too followed, close on his friend’s trail-“why did you go for a row to the mainland in this weather? And with no moon out? Sinhalese guerrillas are common around here, you know. Why”-
“I needed to clear my head. I was…distracted. Thinking about home. About my fiancée.”
He halted briefly and his horse stood close to where the waves cooled its hooves. It whinnied in pleasure, and tried to wander further in. but Harihar strongly ordered it back out.
“Rukmini is lucky to have a boyfriend like you. I wish you would have a love marriage, you know. You’re a man with a great deal of passion, my friend. But still, she is lucky. Although why did you let that boy go? Weren’t you going to take him in? That was rather unusual of you, Harihar.”
“I have my reasons,” he replied gravely. “Not everyone saw that child the way I saw him.”
“And how did you see him?” He halted his horse, pulling sharply on the reins. Harihar too stopped. A moment of silence passed between the two men, but it was broken by a large wave crashing against a nearby rock.
“I always thought that he would…be part of a family that loved him. A family that could give him comfort and love every day. Rukmini would understand, she’s just like me when it comes to these accursed caste issues. But not the rest. We Brahmans are a strange race, you know. I think it’s foolish that we always think of these little issues.”
He spurred his horse forward.
“Sometimes,” he continued, “you just have to let go of it all. After all, we are all made equal by our mortality.”
With a slow nod if his head, Kesari galloped on towards the harbor. Harihar merely sighed, his heart still bearing the image of the exotic youth, walking like a loyal dog, blindly, by his side for the whole of that painful week.
He pulled out a small scrap of parchment from his sash, and tried to discern the writing on it. The moon’s ghostly light suddenly shone on the piece of paper and he saw, in perfect Tamil:
Yodha Wewa.
Beside the old reservoir. If you ever need someone to talk to, there I am, brother.
Yasa.
He held it against his chest, heart beating in joy. “Thank you, Lord, for this chance. I can still do some good in my lifetime.”
Sri Lanka, Chola conquest
Mahiyangana
1029 A.D. -Year of the Buddha, 1573
RUDRAN
“I must get home,” Rudran prayed as he looked deep into the eyes of the ivory statue in the little Hindu shrine he found on the side of the road.
The paint slathered across the broken-down altar was starting to peel as smoke from his incense sticks and lamps wafted through that tiny space. He wondered if Vishnu was being suffocated inside. It was early morning, and he had decided to take a walk along the worn cart track leading away from the Buddharaja estate. The dawn chorus of birds and cicadas attacked his ears, but he felt calmer as he prayed.
“I can’t live here like a damned refugee. I have a home, I have a father who loves me dearly and wants me back.”
Tears welled up in his eyes as another offering of crimson ashoka flowers passed into the shelter of the altar for the god to watch over. “Lord Vishnu, Preserver, Lord of the Thousand Names! Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them: Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures. I need to get back to Madurai safely, to live as I please. I want to live away from all this war, this strife and this cruelty. My world has been torn apart. My city is no longer my own. But this is place is worse!”
A slight gust of wind blew in his direction.
He looked up at the sky, where pastel shades of pink and faded baby blue mingled and swirled in an eternal dance.
The great whitewashed hulk of the Mahiyangana dagoba loomed up ahead, all eighty cubits of the ancient monument, its spire glowing even though no sunlight was available. He sighed loudly as he gazed up at the old Buddhist temple and down again at the little roadside altar where his god lived.
He wiped away his tears. “No matter what we call you, Lord, you’re just one and the same, aren’t you?” A small group of bhikkus walked slowly past as he stood in prayer and respect. One of them looked curiously at him, but diverted his attention back towards the cart track, probably looking out for the large ants that could at any moment, attack his bare feet.
A deathlike silence passed over Rudran’s world as the titanic form of a moving cloud enveloped the sky, adding a grey tint to once-vibrant colors. He knew that it would quickly start raining. Even the priests who passed him had umbrellas, after all.
Rudran walked down the road, hoping not to run into anyone else. His thoughts were directed to his hometown of kovils and perfect streets, to his own house in the inner city where a bearded old man, slightly fat and with a wrinkly forehead, waited for his return. An old man who wept and prayed for his only son’s return, hoping that his wishes and prayers would be answered at last by a knock on the front door…the man who would fling his now-aged and weakened arms out and embrace his pride and joy.
Those two square hands would surely be callused, lines and rough, but would never work in the forges again.
Leaves rustled softly in the wind as they blew out of Rudran’s path. His pace turned into a jog, his blood pumping with each movement of his pectoral and abdominal muscles. The short change of speed energized him, and he pulled up his dhoti to ease his movements. But with his dreams of Madurai, glowing in the sunlight, the nightmare began again.
Ravenous jaws, scaly and powerful, were around him as the huge form of the water beast grew clearer to him.
He was once again drowning in that red ocean of blood and forgotten dreams, gasping for air as he struggled to the surface. The makara was closing in as he tried to fight his fear of the deep, a childhood memory rushing through his mind once more. His soft twelve-year-old body had, at the time, been falling deeper as he tried to struggle against the cruel, still waters of the reservoir. Powerful, invisible hands had been pulling him inside, deeper into the maw of the terrible beast.
Something large had been moving purposefully past the flurry of bubbles that drifted upwards from his mouth and nose.
The water was dark, but he could still, by some miracle, see the deep black outline circling around him.
He tried to scream, but he could not and by rights, should not. He felt the water growing colder as the dark shape of the makara-his young mind was convinced that it was the fabled monster-grew nearer…
Rudran’s nerves snapped and he felt disoriented.
The ghosts of the past were hungry for his blood, and their whispers grew louder as his pace increased.
He began looking around him wildly, feeling the air as a chill descended upon his soul. His sight became less clear as he broke into a run, teeth gritted.
He halted suddenly, almost colliding with a man in a creaky old bullock cart, carrying a delivery of timber. The cart driver yelled in surprise, and the ox drawing it bellowed as well, tossing his head and brandishing fearsome horns. “Look out, you stupid Tamil!” snapped the carter, hitting his ox to calm it down again.
He muttered, “Damned fools these days! You never look where you’re going, do you?” He hawked and spat viciously at the soldier. But this skinny little man meant him no real harm, so he merely wiped the spittle off and rushed away.
“Forgive me!” Rudran shouted in reply, half out of breath as the rain started to fall. Within just forty minutes he was drenched to the skin, dhoti firmly resting against his thighs and organ. Yet he saw the house and the estate as he rushed up the road. Those beautiful groves of coconut and jak trees in the vicinity filled his heart with an as-yet unknown rush of warmth and happiness as he leaned against the trunk of one of them, panting and wet.
Rudran spotted the familiar figure of Vishaka, battling the rain with an umbrella as she stood by the door.
He cursed silently as the wind blew the end of her sari, allowing him to see her slim, perfect body. It was a thin, near- transparent drape, and the skin of her long legs glowed in his eyes, lighting up the grey world.
“Madurai is my home. You, you…” His teeth ground against each other as he angrily forced himself to turn away from her. “You will never be mine. I don’t care how you feel about me, but I will never love you, you infidel whore. You have a husband who loves you. I know, because I’ve seen him, wasting away to nothing in that prison in Manthotam. He still prays for you and your sons to be well and happy for as long as you both shall live. I’ve heard his voice too, he…I know he loves you dearly!”

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NOVELLA

(Image is of Sivaganga Tank)

His smile grew much more terrifying. It was the smile of a madman, wide-eyed and bloodthirsty, and this made everyone, even his own comrades, uneasy.
Anuruddha was sweating, trying to prevent himself from shivering in fear of Narasimha’s predatory glance.
“You don’t know anything about me, Tamil! I could kill you with my bare hands if I was out there! I’d…I’d let you suffer in Hell for this, you bastard!” he roared. “I…I will have my vengeance. My sons are probably out there right now, and they’re somewhere, planning your demise. Yours and that of every other Tamil pollutant in this nation. All your deaths shall be sealed. The Buddharaja clan will not be dead until all of us are buried. We have been in the service of our kings for centuries, and will do so till until this world is consumed by flame and flood!”
“The army doesn’t suit you, Anuruddha Buddharaja. Go on, be a poet. I’ll let you out in that”-
Balaram cut in.
 “This is inhuman! Narasimha, this is torture! I”-the army commander looked bitterly at him-“it’s not caning or whipping, alright, but this is still torture! You’re pushing this prisoner too much. In the end you’re the one who’ll regret your actions.”
Lakshman, the harbormaster, and Harihar stood grimly, nodding their heads in silence. The jailer appeared as well, and saluted the four officers in the traditional way. Anuruddha lay down on his straw mattress, and looked hard at the sacred, dirty-white thread around his wrist.
He heard the buzz of whispers, still thanking himself that his Tamil was perfect; he understood every word they said, but something in his made him wish that he did not.
Once the four officers had left, all he did through the day was weep.






HARIHAR
The night had so far been moonless, but for a few minutes, when it did show itself from its cloudy hideout, Harihar’s blood grew cold. He was still watching his little longboat, which stood against the rocks, bobbing gently in the waves. As he paced nervously, he kept his sword sheathed. However, the lack of a breastplate made him feel exposed and fearful. Every sound caused him to look around wildly. Yet all he saw in the distance was the harbor, the masts of the ships looking like dark, ripe stalks in a tossing field of deep blackish-blue. His ears strained, in the manner of an owl alert for prey.
The chorus of the waves grew louder, and he feared that poor young Yasa would be dashed on the rocks near the shore. Yet he heard nothing from the boy, and saw not a trace of him either. His pace quickened as he looked out at the islands from whence he’d come. The mainland offered some security, so he hoped, but he still felt empty and helpless within.
Harihar’s eyes rested on the coarse cloak he’d given Yasa ten days ago when the lieutenant freed him from the dungeon. The boy had worn it every time he went around the fort with the other menservants, cooking and cleaning like the other males of his kind.
He also spotted the dirty torn sarong there as well, lying in the same heap as the black cloak…
Angrily, he shook his head, squeezing out tears as he tried to dispel the image of the Rodi boy when he and the jailer freed him. Harihar’s heart had pounded in fear when he glanced at Yasa waking up, and stepping out of the cell. Yasa was like a creature from a purer, cleaner world than any made by the great Lord Brahma.
He was too young to be here, to rot away for the rest of his life in some damned prison. But what next? Where would Yasa go? Did he know the way to his family? Did he even have a family at all? Harihar had seen many people, and had seen their eyes. There was still a flame in some of them, even those living in the most wretched conditions, he knew. He looked at the sarong and cloak and thought of the boy, naked and free, flashing through the sea like a happy fish. Was bringing him to the Lankan mainland even the best course of action?
Harihar gritted his teeth angrily.
Why had that soft young devil been haunting his mind, even now, when they were about to separate?
The children of Ratnavalli were the most beautiful people in the known world, and he was now in the iron clutches of this casteless wretch.
He tried to imagine the boy appearing from the sea, glowing with water as he tied on his sarong and draped his cloak across his slender shoulders. Dreams of sharing his home with the young man, watching him bask in riches, feel sensations he had never felt before. To be able to guide an innocent young boy into manhood, and the strength and confidence that came with it. To call him ‘brother’ and stand at his side through thick and thin…
The jeering neighbors telling him that he was a polluter…
That he could not marry his beautiful Brahman lover now…his lovely young Rukmini’s shape was drifting further away as the people of Urayur spat on Yasa. A fat man with a big beard, his priestly profession evidenced by the long cord across his shoulder, shielded his weeping daughter from the foolish man who had called a casteless little rat his brother.
He would no longer be the handsome Brahman boy who went to war and returned after a great conquest…no longer the warrior who would marry the beautiful girl of his dreams. Thoughts of her oval face, her long hair and petite figure danced through his mind, just as lightly and quickly as she had when she showed off her skills to him.
He smelled steaming plates of rice and curries being laid out on a table before him, smiling as he grew fat and happy on them.
Visions of her slender body, nude and perfect before him as the two young people enveloped together on her velvet-soft bed, grew more vivid…but Yasa was screaming out, his voice cutting harshly through the night…calling his brother, the only other person he could trust in the whole world…
“Stay…out…of my nightmares! Accursed little bastard, get away!” Harihar screamed, unsheathing his sword in a trice, thereby spooking a pair of seagulls roosting on the rocks. He stormed back to his boat, pushing it away with all his strength. His strong back and stomach helped his arms as he rowed out of the shallow water between the small archipelago and the mainland as he gasped and cursed. The rain suddenly increased, but thankfully it stayed pretty much a drizzle.
There would be no bringing him back.
Harihar wept as he saw the fortress of Manthotam grow closer. He flung himself on his horse’s rain-soaked back, mounting the animal after removing it from its tether. The patient animal neighed softly as it felt its master’s strong legs straddle its middle. Harihar quickly spurred it on.
“The last week proved to me that you’re an accursed outcaste,” he snarled. “I don’t know what I saw in your eyes…you’re an outcaste for a reason, Yasa…I’m sorry.” He wiped a tear away from his eye as he thought about the boy’s solemn stare, the dark eyes boring into the warrior’s hardened soul. “I might ruin my life if I take you in. I have someone who understands me and loves me for what I truly am…but her family isn’t so understanding, it never was. Neither is mine. My dear Rukmini promised me that she would wait until I got back. Your father will be pleased with me now my dear. We will have a perfect life together when I come back next month.” His tears were wiped away by the passing wind, but he was suddenly startled by another dark shape which cut out into his path from the line of screwpine and coconut trees.

“Harihar!”

NOVELLA

NARASIMHA
The commander stood up from his stool, clapping his hands loudly and slowly when he heard the voices of his associates.
“I guess my secret’s out, eh Balaram? Lakshman…” He stared viciously at the latter, the old harbormaster. “I’ll be taking a leave of absence in about two weeks, by which time I expect to have this young lion nicely tamed, and kneeling at my feet. Anuruddha, my dear friend”-he looked at the prisoner again-“I want to know what fires you up all the time. Because I’ve seen plenty of men break down under my stare. Yet you still remain rather stubborn. What is it that makes you so powerful?”  
He grinned at the prisoner, but received a gob of saliva in the face, in return.
“Well, I think I deserved that, now didn’t I?” he smiled sarcastically, beckoning his three colleagues closer. His hand gripped one of the bars of the cell, veins appearing across his fore and upper arms as his muscles tensed.
The prisoner was shrouded in darkness as he lay on his bed of straw. He’d left his bedpan directly below a crevice in the ceiling to catch any straw raindrops that were falling inside. Balaram was the only one who joined Narasimha, and he saw the man behind the bars. The Lankan prisoner’s body was stocky, with powerful limbs, and he was rather tall, a good hand taller than his captors when he stood up. How this human behemoth allowed himself to be captured, Balaram hadn’t a clue. Granted, he did not have much in the way of actual muscle definition, certainly nothing impressive despite his imposing bulk.
Yet he shuddered at the thought of having to fight such a massive beast.
Those huge hands and brawny arms were frightening to behold, as was the scar running across his cheek.
It began somewhere below his eye and snaked down his broad, square-chinned face, finally ending at his lower jaw. Narasimha gingerly slipped his fingers beneath Anuruddha’s chin, nonchalantly stroking the rough, matted beard.
“No time to shave, then? There’s a razor in the corner over there”-he pointed to a cruel-looking blade resting in a small crevice against the wall-“so why didn’t you? Want to look tougher, do you?” He toyed with the curly hairs of the prisoner’s beard. “Do you? Do you now?”
Anuruddha’s breaths were short and tense, and his eyes were dark with bloodlust and a primal longing for vengeance. Greasy hair, long and curly, stuck to his back, and the stale odor of sweat was overpowering. “My faith preaches very wise words to me,” he replied defiantly, his belly pulsing with each breath. His clenched fists relaxed and they hung down at his sides. Anuruddha nodded knowingly.
“Your taunts won’t hurt me. You Tamils don’t belong in this country; this is the land of the Sinhalese and us alone! Our monarchs have been pious Buddhists, Sinhalese Buddhists for millennia, and you can’t change that”-he pointed at the Chola officers-“with your invasions. Nobody can! Just you wait and see. Everything is impermanent, and we will strive on with diligence while your mandalam crumble with the march of time.” He sat down cross-legged in the center of his cell, eyes burning with the same flame as when he was captured.
Narasimha gazed straight into those blazing eyes as he remembered the huge man racing across the battlefields of the Vanni, rallying his troops, screaming orders at them from atop his elephant.
‘Maha Hastirajya Nalagiri’, he had called the magnificent tusker.
A pitched battle as Nalagiri charged from the forests adjoining the Vanni’s rolling scrub and grasslands, roaring with all his might, his trumpet only matched by his master blowing his conch shell to summon his troops.
Narasimha saw the Lankan elephants plowing through the great field of chariots, crushing the necks of horses with a mere swish of his trunks. Kalki had been shifting his weight beneath his rider, unnerved by the charge of the titanic, near-black pachyderm. The Lankan brigade was starting to mow down the Chola forces; charioteers allowed their masters to fire volleys of arrows at one another as the forest grew clearer. Guerrillas ambushed men passing through thick vegetation, and infantry divisions were thrown into chaos thanks to the powerful duo. Another man was speared on Nalagiri’s left tusk and sent flying, blood and entrails streaking through the air.
“Kalki my brother, we’re going to do something foolish,” he had whispered quietly to his sturdy steed. “When I give the signal”-he was carrying his bow at the time, and he put an arrow against it-“we charge.” He lined his arms up as the elephant grew dangerously close, the ground reverberating with his thudding feet. The black stallion neighed nervously, and started to get skittish, but Narasimha dug his heels into his mount’s sides and shouted.
Kalki’s blood boiled within him, his huge heart pumping rapidly as Narasimha put him into a gallop, rushing straight for the thundering elephant. Anuruddha intercepted him, but his mahout had not brought his master’s arrows. Narasimha’s eyes were excellent. He fired his arrow at the right time, catching the mahout in the throat while controlling Kalki with merely his feet and his words. Anuruddha was jerked about in Nalagiri’s howdah, and he couldn’t control the mighty beast.
The elephant was startled by the horse’s sudden maneuvers, and reared up, his trumpet having turned into a bloodcurdling scream.
Anuruddha had lost control and come tumbling down, right off his mount, and Kandula was left to wreak general havoc. It had been a dangerous time for both sides. Narasimha remembered how much he had smiled in pleasure when the huge creature had been restrained and finally captured thanks to his own elephant brigade; just another prisoner of war to be executed or used in service of the Chola Empire.

“Yes,” Narasimha added smilingly. He wrung his hands as he looked at Anuruddha’s pitiful position, languishing in his cell. “Clearly, everything is impermanent. How long has it been since we imprisoned you, dear veteran? Three weeks? Two weeks? Well, if you were an important general, we’d have put you to death the minute we caught you. So count your blessings for as long as you can. The only reason you’re alive is because I allowed it. We can only hope your monster is fine…”

NOVELLA

(The story continues. Image is a photo of the Sivaganga Temple Tank, in Thanjavur)

His eyes looked eerily at the two men.
The harbormaster cleared his throat, fighting back a gob of phlegm, and then looked at Balaram. A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the sky.
The sudden flash threw a light onto him, leaving merely the harbormaster and the lieutenant in darkness.
“So, to continue, three years later his father got a new job opportunity in Kanchipuram. But my sister…bloody Saraswati! She’d taken a liking to this soulless bastard and wanted to go with him. Oh, by the bow of Lord Ram!” He threw his hands up with an exasperated sigh.  “Well, our parents agreed to it! I couldn’t believe it and I just wanted to slap both my mother and my father.”
He paused awhile for a short respite.
“Now we too were going to the mainland, and that demon was going to be living wherever we were. I loved to trip, but Narasimha-though he never showed it, hated it-and finally, we lived there. I married young, and so did Sarasvati. Now, Narasimha, well…there’s so much to be said, but let me skip the details. His family had always been patrons of the biggest temples of the temple. And since Brihadisvarar and Chidambaram were major places, they decided to move out of Kanchipuram. They chose Brihadisvarar so this time they shifted to Thanjavur. Of course I still saw him, because we were already soldiers by that time, new recruits. Of course, I preferred fighting out on a ship to just fighting on land. It was also mostly a way of getting away from him. He rose through the ranks and became an excellent cavalryman and brilliant commander.”
“And I think he got married too. A young devadasi, an incredibly beautiful woman; she’s descended from merchants from near the River Ganga or somewhere from the old Pala territories. It was a love marriage, and his parents didn’t really care what he did what his life. I think they understood that she felt the same way about him that he did about her. Well, and here we are now. Narasimha is an enigma, trust me. How he can conform to society and be a husband”-he shuddered slightly-“I have no clue. And if the gods know, they won’t tell me. I still don’t understand how we can still be friends. Perhaps absence really does make the heart grow fonder.”
A leaden silence descended over the room as a cascade of rain fell from the heavens. Men everywhere rushed from the docks to the safety of the fort. The coastguards put into shallower waters as the sea grew rougher with every drop of water.
Umbrellas were unfurled wherever possible. The roar of thunder chilled the hearts of everyone in the harbor.
Balaram felt like he was in a tomb. Harihar himself looked like the ghost of a young man, taken down during the golden years of his life. “Thank God it’s not the actual monsoon,” he laughed, but was soon subdued by the terrifying quietness.
The harbormaster’s feeble hand navigated towards his sliced mango. He looked at the piece he’d picked up with a grimace on his face, and after a second of contemplation, pushed it away.
“I know something more.”
His voice was a bell in that dead void.
Another flash of lightning illumined his entire body as he stood up, towering over the swarm of flies like a mountain of wrinkled flesh, while his associates remained in the darkness. Balaram took a second to scratch his beard, but merely sighed and remained wordless.
Accidentally kicking over a still rather full squatting pan had not been on his itinerary,  but when it happened he quickly covered his nose and mouth and turned away. The other two men with him hurried down the corridor, gripping their torches tighter in their hands.
“I can’t believe that Narasimha would even come to a damned hellhole like this! What does he do here?” demanded the disgusted Balaram.
The harbormaster and Harihar both sighed as they looked sadly at him.
The former hissed, “I still don’t know. But he keeps some rather interesting prisoners in this dungeon, that’s all I know. He doesn’t put them up for execution. Rather, he has this bizarre form of torture. Well, I wouldn’t precisely call it that as well, but he does something strange. See, all these prisoners are foreign. Well, there are a few would-be deserters from our side ready for the chopping block, but mostly Lankan men and women, soldiers and civilians.”

He paused at a cell holding a long-haired, extremely young, slender boy who stared at the world outside with widened eyes.
“People like this…um, outcaste here. His name is Yasa…it’s what he calls himself, at least. Sweet young thing and innocent as a doe. I think he’s about sixteen, but looks much younger. The locals call their outcastes Rodi. They’re a group stricken by poverty; of course, we’ve seen these poor bastards plenty of times in their little mud hut villages. Their women are forbidden to wear a bodice as per local law. Silly law, I should say. But more on that later.”
His eyes lingered on the boy, who tried to return his glance with a small smile, but went to looking disgustedly and dejectedly at the outside world.
Harihar’s mind still clung onto that boy in the cell.
That innocent youngster called Yasa.
His skin was essentially golden, almost matching some of the beautiful sunsets that Harihar himself seen during his stay. A faded and rather torn-up white sarong was wrapped around his waist, reaching his slender ankles. The white cloth concealed slim, smooth-skinned legs that pressed firmly against it as he walked up and down.
Harihar tried to hide a feeling of pity within him as he remembered the youth, but emotion still tainted his words: “So what did he do to find himself here?”
The harbormaster looked wearily at the young man. “It’s Narasimha. Nobody knows, although I think he was the personal attendant of some old Valanji on the enemy side. So he speaks Tamil and the native languages fluently, although he refuses to. I once heard some plans about getting some information out of him, maybe using him as an informant to spy on his employer, but I don’t know, really. Anyhow, there are plenty of female prisoners around here too. What I do know is that he particularly enjoys the company of women, which, frankly…” His own throat was caught up with a strange feeling.
“It frightens me.” He shuddered as he gripped the wall, guiding himself. Harihar, though, held his hand strongly and gently.
After a while, the lieutenant quickly added, “We could at least free the poor thing…I mean; we can’t keep him on what I believe are invalid charges…”
“Enjoys the company of women? That doesn’t sound like the Narasimha I know!” thundered Balaram, turning around suddenly. His right hand flew to the bars of a cell holding a recent prisoner, a thin man with a sizeable beard. Neither of his companions said a thing, but looked bleakly at him.
“I mean, he would never cheat on his wife! He wouldn’t, stop giving me that look, both of you! Narasimha is a good man. Besides, what would he profit from cheating on her?”
Harihar tried to speak, but the Rodi boy’s visage still rose up in his mind. Balaram saw the young lieutenant’s eyes wandering towards the outcaste’s cell when he turned around. He tried to force a dark look in his direction, but instead set himself on the harbormaster’s course. That Yasa, whoever he was, no matter how pretty his face was, was casteless in the end.
Harihar should have nothing to do with him.
They finally encountered a wider space that before, the corridor having opened up into what seemed to be a huge indoor ‘courtyard’.  A few rafters had been broken due to rotting away in the damp air down there, and a few stray raindrops pattered into this squalid place. There were very few cells here, and most were empty. Balaram, though, was more confused to see his best friend seated on a stool facing the cell on the left corner. It seemed to be a spacious, almost homely for a prison cell.
Harihar leaned towards the sailor, and buzzed into his ear:

“This is the prisoner he’s most interested in. According to the reports he never says why. Only that this is a Lankan warrior who truly intrigues him. The Senathipathy has been reading about those warriors of old. The powerful giants who dominated this country thousands of years ago live inside this man’s soul, so he says. But he scares me,” he said knowledgeably, “every time he talks about this prisoner.”

“I’m guessing you want this one as a personal attendant too?” grunted Balaram in sarcasm. “But in all seriousness Harihar, what does this particular prisoner have to do with Narasimha? It’s like he hasn’t moved at all. And I’m pretty sure he knows that we’re here!”

“I only know this prisoner’s name: Anuruddha.”

NOVELLA

(The story’s continuing…image is a picture of a ruined European fort in Mannar)


BALARAM
Again, the old man sighed loudly, wringing his hands and shooting the young lieutenant a weary look. Narasimha turned a corner and walked to the left, out of sight. His thin hand caught Balaram’s arm firmly as the doors opened out into the courtyard. Huge, battlemented walls rose up in all directions around the three men, and a light rain began falling. The inter-monsoonal rains were not everyone’s best friend. Balaram looked around nervously as the harbormaster groped the air.
“I can’t see that well. I’m fifty, though I may not look it,” he added and smiled warmly. “So, how well do you know that man, Ganathipathy? And must I say it’s an honor to be standing here with you? I never made it past being the captain of a few vessels during my best years. I wish I had your vigor and courage when I was young, because I regret every day at not being able to command a great squadron like you do now.”
Balaram gave him a look of pity, but at the same time was rather exasperated and embarrassed all at once.
“Like I said, how do you know that commander? I take it he is”-
“Strange?” echoed Balaram rather loudly. “He is known for his unorthodox methods on the field. Honestly, he prefers to be out on the battlefield than in a little office safe in a fortress or with a governor or the Emperor drawing up strategies. But by Krishna, his plans hardly go awry. Recently though he’s had a few disasters and near-misses as far as his career was concerned. But I’m sure you don’t want to waste your time on this? A busy man such as yourself?” His helmet came away in his hands as both he and Harihar supported the old man between them on the climb to his office.
“Oh, I adore long stories, my son!”
The office was small, but it looked comfortable enough for the old harbormaster. He caught hold of his desk as he pushed himself firmly into his seat. The silk cover of the little orange cushion felt pleasant beneath his weight.
On it were his seals, all with the carved image of a tiger, although there were one or two bulls and elephants around, and a small store of ink. His styluses were arranged in perfect harmony, beckoning his trembling hands. A flurry of tiny orange fruit flies buzzed around a small, perfectly cut mango on a little silver tray. An array of documents and a small, rather old but beautiful copy of Shakuntala
It was accompanied by a tiny, polished brass statue of Shiva-Nataraja.
A sheathed sword was placed against the wall, supported by two iron struts. Instantly, Balaram’s eyes flew towards the huge object. The heavy metal hilt of the mighty old weapon was inlaid with ivory; he guessed that this old man must be insanely wealthy from all his years of service.
“So tell me more about your friend.”
“Oh, right, my apologies, sir. Narasimha and I have been friends back in Rameshwaram since the day we were very small. He’s from a powerful and wealthy Brahman family, and his father was a trader in silk, and a retired military instructor, may the gods bless his soul.”
“We used to train together almost every day. He, my sister and I would play together for hours on end on the beautiful beaches there. I mean, it’s truly wonderful! I presume you’ve been there? It’s like a little slice of paradise on earth. No mountains of any sort! And I can tell that he loved it there, and given the choice, he would never have lived. But there was that one time…I knew that he had to be joking when he told me. We were twelve and his father’s friend, I think his name was some Kamalan, or something, had got a new horse from foreign traders who disembarked there. It cantered along the seashore at sunset. So beautiful, it was. That horse would shine in the sunset, its skin brimming with sweat. Of course, Kamalan was kind enough to allow us to ride his favorite horse. I used to love the horse, but Narasimha absolutely enjoyed riding it as well. Sometimes he’d circle the whole island until it was sunset. I loved that he was enjoying himself, and he soon learned to train horses effectively as well. But…in the depths of my heart…I felt like that bloody creature had torn us apart!”
“He was my only friend, you see,” he explained wearily. “And for three years, that creature was in his possession. I hated its sandy skin and its great power, so I…that night…”
His eyes were brimming with tears as he spoke. His mind wandered back to a moonless night, a night when the ghosts of the mighty guardian of the ancient forests, Hanuman, and his wild Vanara troops still scurried around the tiny yet sacred island. A long-buried memory, of darkness painted with blood that was forcing itself out through the edges of his mind. Balaram’s hands came together in deep thought. His fingertips trembled as he steadied himself. Thoughts of a terrifying scream shot through his memory.
Blood seeping onto the hay-strewn floor of the stable as the animal finally succumbed to the attack. In this battle between man and beast, it was a boy who had triumphed. The stench of his own vomit poisoned the air as the divine horse lay there, twisted and bloodied, its entrails spilled out on the floor in the manner of thick snakes.
His trembling young hands flung down the rusty-bladed weapon as he cried aloud into the night.
The animal’s face still bore the same mask of abject wide-eyed horror as the boy continued to hack away at its neck despite his tears. The madness in his eyes was cast in the faded black mirrors set in the skull of the poor horse, and the boy only knew one thing for certain; he was a now a monster in his little community. His words, though, were simple and cloaked with the same shroud of darkness:
“I murdered it. In its sleep.”
He saw Harihar and the old man staring at him and felt like a bull locked in the sights of a hunting tiger. Their eyes held a mix of pity and anger towards Balaram.
After a few minutes, his cheeks and lips trembled slightly. “But there’s…more to it.” His own eyes looked wearily at the two men.
“I thought I’d be welcomed by Narasimha’s tearful face, and perhaps some verbal abuse. But most of all, I thought that I could be his shoulder to cry on. I mean, I never left any indication that it was I who’d killed the horse! But the next morning, I got nothing.”
His eyes widened in fear.

“I tried to look for the slightest trace of sorrow in him. Every minute of the day, my sister and I spent with Narasimha. We studied together, I sparred with him. His face was just as it always was! He smiled at us, spoke to us. No tears came from his eyes. The more I looked at him, the more terrified I was. Something must have weighed on his mind, but I saw nothing. It was like that horse had never even existed! It was as if he’d forgotten about the whole thing! And he even went to the stable that morning to take it to pasture. So he saw it, and…and yet, no crying, no care at all for the life of an animal he loved so much. To be honest, he’d never even cried at his grandmother’s funeral. I just thought that he was good at hiding his sorrow. But the more I think about it, it was like he has no ability to feel sorrow. It’s like Narasimha is a hollow shell, dead inside.” 

NOVELLA

(The story alternates between the Chola and Lankan sides. Here’s what’s going on on the other end of Sri Lanka. Picture is of  the Temple Tank beside Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur.)

Sri Lanka, Chola conquest
Mahatittha Harbor,
1029 A.D. -Year of the Buddha 1573
NARASIMHA
Stray sunbeams tore angrily through the curtain of clouds, illuminating the ominous shapes of powerful Chola ships on the horizon. They were pulling into ever-shallower water as they moved through the waves, the brawny arms of the oarsmen driving them forwards.
The men on the shore at the harbor quickly readied the area for the seamen to disembark.  More ships were anchored here in deep water off the rocky islands off Manthotam. Masts and sails stuck out, a warning sign as potent as the quills of a porcupine. The stone walls of a fortress towered over even them, an orange banner emblazoned with a pouncing tiger fighting against the wind and signaling the oncoming task force forwards into safe waters.
The coastguards patrolling the mouth of the bay set off to guide the approaching ships into the harbor.
Their relatively smaller boats flanked the vast hulk of the leading battle cruiser as they signaled to the men aboard.
Dock workers piled out, as did a number of elephants, ready for any heavy lifting. The beasts were still nervous despite the presence of mahouts on their backs. These men steered the elephants with expert skill from their posts on the backs of the creatures.
“Keep them steady!” A man on horseback raced forward. Four more men flanked him, but he stuck out from the rest. Even one of the elephants almost bucked, releasing a startled bellow at the sight of the leader. His horse, for one, was an enormous animal, flowing black mane glowing in the sunlight. Its jet-black flanks were hewn with muscle and bathed in sweat. A terrifying flame blazed in its eyes, and even the mahout grew unsettled as the creature neighed and reared up suddenly.
“Whoa Kalki! Calm down, brother, calm down”-the horseman lovingly patted the monstrous horse’s neck as it paced menacingly-“and you, mahout! If that lump of fat does anything to my horse, I’ll make sure to separate your head from your body.”
One of the other men drew up, raising a cloud of dust behind him. “Sir, would you like a report? I just got”-
“Later, Harihar, later. First, we need to welcome that fool Balaram properly. He calls himself a man of high standards, so he does. Bah! Just between ourselves, lieutenant, I’ve never really like the navy. I don’t like long voyages either. Why else do you think I put out from Rameshwaram when the lot of you came here from Arikamedu? The distance was much shorter, and anyway it’s my birthplace. I have every reason to go there whenever I like. Sure, our old friend Raman blew his top when I refused to obey his orders. But I got my way in the end. I always do. But tell me Harihar, are all roads to Jananatha cleared and ready for the new troops to pass? I don’t particularly like the governor, but still…”
“You never liked anyone, SenathipathyBrahmarajan. It’s not news to me.”
The lieutenant was younger and leaner than the broad-shouldered Senathipathy. A wispy beard covered his cheeks, but his eyes were still puffy from lack of sleep. A large vein traced itself across his bicep as he gripped his horse’s reins even tighter. Harihar looked uncertainly at his commanding officer as his hair was whipped by a sudden gust of wind. The stormy eyes of his commander echoed the approaching storm that Lord Indra was about to unleash.
His mount shifted its weight uncomfortably as he glanced out to sea. “I think we should take shelter. And hope that the ships can all weigh anchor here.”
“It’s my job to worry about that, Harihar.” He steered Kalki effortlessly to his right and halted. “Harbormaster, are the stores ready?”
“Yes they are my friend,” answered the old harbormaster with a knowing smile. His hand went up to the commander’s back as he continued, “We can get through this, Narasimha, we can and we will. I never asked for a war like this. I do believe that this is the toughest resistance I’ve ever seen from any of our colonies overseas. Vikramabahu is king of a mere sliver of this island but he fights with the inner fire and determination of a true, all-powerful Chakravarthy. I admire the man for that, but I also fear him.”
One of the larger supplies ships had pulled into port and the dock workers and deckhands hauled out luggage of all sorts, carting it off to the stores.
Very few of the elephants were needed in the end, but those that were required, carried immensely heavy chests filled with weapons and armor.
Someone shouted, “Harbormaster! Sir! There appears to be an excess of spears, and we have severely under-stocked when it comes to swords and shields. We have just enough maces to last us for a while though.” He ran up to the officer, panting, as he held out a scroll on which he’d written down the details of the store capacity.
His handwriting was atrocious and the old man strained his eyes crossly as he attempted to make out the scrawled Tamil.
The harbormaster grumbled and spurred his horse into a quick gallop as he raced away from his companions. Sacks of dry rations were hefted up onto the backs of some of the stronger men and even a few of the biggest oarsmen kindly assisted the workers. Narasimha and Harihar themselves galloped off to where the new ships had been docked. The battleships guarding the supply vessels were now jostling for a good spot to moor themselves. A few other ships already at Manthotam had to move away slowly, making room for the approaching vessels. After all, they were on an island. There were plenty of ports about.
Narasimha, still astride Kalki, skirted around as boats were put out from the largest battleship in the squad.
He whispered to the harbormaster, “Allow that ship into the harbor. No sense for Balaram to stay out in the bay.” In reality, the battleship was not far from shore, virtually within stone’s throw. The harbormaster raised a grey eyebrow quizzically as he watched the boat coming ashore, the rowers raising their oars up as three men made walked up the harbor steps. Their leader breathed deeply as he looked around.
His eyes caught a glimpse of a metal-grey sky above him.
They blinked rapidly when a long, stray hair escaped from under his polished helmet.
They also caught sight of the large, broad man astride a huge horse, black as night itself, with a strong and square-jawed face and curled mustache, as well as a small white mark, the traditional mark, which struggled to stay still against the rive of sweat on his large forehead.
The sizeable dimple at the end of his chin flexed into shape as easily as his powerful arms did when he smiled at the lead man who walked up the steps.
“I see you’re just as joyous as ever my dear friend!” He warmly put his hands together, dismounting when the three visitors reached the top. Scores of men, all determined soldiers still in civvies for ease of travel during the voyage, appeared as more boats were put out of some of the ships that had been anchored further out.
“Just explain something to me, Balaram,” continued Narasimha, “I suppose you have your own professional reasons for dumping yourselves here? We have enough warriors as it is, but I do hope that there are enough cooks and doctors in your ships. There’s a shortage of those as it is, and we have had a few losses out here. What’s surprising”-he put his arm across his friend’s back-“is the number of defeats here in the north. Granted, our last siege was a complete disaster, but we have had plenty of successes too.”
Balaram sighed with a shake of his head. He looked Narasimha directly in the eye, but his expression was unreadable for a while. A vein appeared gently pushed his friend’s arm away. “You won’t like Raman’s newest decision, that’s for sure. You’re already one of his best commanders but are also a huge thorn in his side as he so eloquently and unapologetically puts it. He believes that your methods are, well, off the record and that you’re too much of a risk taker.”
A mask of bitterness strapped onto Narasimha’s face as he beckoned the harbormaster and his lieutenant.
“So he doesn’t agree with me? I could say the same”-his tone grew venomous as he handed Kalki’s reins to one of the stable boys-“although I will not do what he wants. Well, you know I have my ways, don’t you? I’m going to the lavatory. Plus I’ve got a few more appointments with some top officials. Go to the harbormaster’s office Harihar. Take Balaram with you.”

NOVELLA

The boy listened hard as he made another slash in midair. His leap was perfect as his sword clattered against the wooden post. He proceeded to attack, feinting and dodging as if fighting a living opponent. His little round shield was up in an instant, and he used its boss to attack his wooden enemy. One blow to the nose with such an object was enough to break the cartilage, and then came a quick slice to the neck.
He paused.
Around the courtyard, the buzz of servants and workmen became clearer to him as he stood still, belly pulsing with each gasp. Each shake of his head revealed another new drop of sweat as he squatted, kilt stuck obscenely to his strong thighs. Jayampati swung his sword in his hand as he panted, taking a quick gulp of water out of a small container made from a hollowed-out gourd. The refreshing liquid spilled itself across his body too, cooling him from the harsh rays of the sun.
Yet the water was soon to be superfluous.
In the skies above him, a celestial battle was raging. Surya’s life-giving rays were swamped now by the cloudy curtains drawn up by Indra, King of Storms. The low rumble of his chariots streaking across the sky was audible from afar.
The surge of energy invigorated Jayampati, adding new strength to his arms. He took his stance, and then leaped once more, powering his powerful body forwards. His sword came crashing down on absolutely nothing. But pride swelled in his heart at his victory against the invisible enemy.
“Jayampati.”
The voice was familiar, rather deep and rough, maybe slightly tired too.
“Get the hell out, Tamil,” groaned Jayampati bitterly. “I’m not interested in anything you have to say, so get out. Get out of my home Rudran. You aren’t welcome here.” Rudran bit his lip in anger, staring at the boy as he picked up the sword and shield lying on the ground. He adjusted the latter and slashed the former through the air.
“You mother thinks we should be friends.”
Jayampati snorted derisively, “Like that’ll happen”-he turned around and was taken aback-“but…what’s the meaning of this? Trying to kill me, are you?” At that, Rudran raised his hands in protest.
“I saw you practicing,” he replied, “and I think that you’re either a coward or a complete damned fool. You have no live opponents to fight you and you take your anger out on that.” He gestured to the post.
“My anger?”
“Yes Jayampati. I don’t think that that vein in your neck means happiness or elation, that’s for sure. You’re gripping your weapons tightly. Relax your hands, but keep them firm at the same time. You trust in your shield.  I like that. Most fighters believe the power to slash is more important than the power to block. But you, you are courageous, though still inexperienced. A little arrogant, I presume?” He stood casually, testing his sword out, swinging it about with a smirk plastered across his face. “Come on now. Show me what you’ve got.”
Rudran took up his stance.
Jayampati angrily attacked him, but Rudran’s shield flew to his defense in seconds. The boy’s sword hacked away at the rounded shield. Jayampati grunted at the effort, but every time he attacked another part of his opponent’s body, that annoying shield appeared to defend its wielder. Jayampati paused a minute, and then began to pant. He took a run-up and leaped, bringing his sword crashing down on Rudran’s shield.
The Tamil soldier, however, crouched down, rooting himself in.
“Well?” snapped Jayampati. “Attack, you coward!”
“Are you really going to tell your enemy to attack you in a real fight? Because I’ve been holding back for all this time, and I don’t feel as tired as you do. First rule of this fight, don’t push me, or any other opponent whose strength is unknown, to actually launch his attacks. Second rule”-he smartly held the tip of his sword under Jayampati’s chin-“exploit your enemy’s weakness. Third rule will come up later.”He turned back, waving nonchalantly at the Lankan fighter.
Jayampati squatted on the ground, dumbstruck. His arm was rather sore from holding his shield, so he put it down, although his sword stayed with him. He stayed there for a while, and then demanded, “My weakness? What’s my weakness?”
Rudran halted.
He did not reply, instead standing there, swinging his sword.
“Tell me! I order you to tell me, now!”
His anger was rising within him, and with a roar, rushed toward Rudran, only to have his weapon knocked out of his hand with a narrow cut across the palm. He held back his cry, but his sword clattered onto the ground. He winced for a minute or so, but by the time he picked it up he found the point of Rudran’s weapon pressed lightly against his neck.
“Third rule of battle strategy: Never let your guard down. Plus, since you so politely asked, your greatest weakness is that short fuse. Your temper gives you slightly less concentration and makes you downright sloppy. The best thing to do is control it. Or else channel it and augment your own abilities in a fight. You need to put your mind and heart into your strike, not just your muscle power.”
“But how did you”-

“What, know that you put your shield down? I concentrated on your next move. Everything else was merely shut off. You could call it a trance, meditation, whatever you wish to call it. But I listened. And I planned my next attack accordingly. It’s all in your head, Jayampati. Like chess, only this is physical. So next time you’re stuck in a big fight”-he sheathed the sword and turned to leave-“think of me and react before you get your blood spilled. I’m going to get some breakfast. Goodbye.”