The Kartik Moon and the Rajput Princess

By Ahmed Fazelbhoy

It was 1932, and I had occasion to go to Jaipur, well-known city of Rajputana (now Rajasthan) -- the abode of the warrior clan known as the Rajputs. The people are brave and religious-minded, and there can be seen temples, large and small, all over the city, even built in the middle of the roadway. I was sitting on the verandah of the hotel after dinner. The full moon was in the sky, bathing the environment of the extensive garden in its silvery, mellow brightness, and the tall Sal trees stood out clearly visible in the moonlight. For it was Poonam (full moon night) in the month of Kartik (the first month of the Hindu lunar year, which falls in October/November) and which ushers in the clear days after the monsoon rains. The air washed clean by the recent rains makes the Poonam night the brightest in the year and is an invitation to roam in festive mood. People come from far-off places, just as they do to see the celebrated Taj Mahal in the Kartik moonlight -- an unforgettable experience of its enduring beauty and regal grandeur.

Another guest came out of the big hall to enjoy the exotic moonlit scenery. As he was looking for a seat, I beckoned to him, and he readily came over and sat with me. He introduced himself as Kuldeep Singh Jaiswal, a businessman from Udaipur. He was in Jaipur often as he was a dealer in precious stones which came from the mines in the state, and Jaipur was the center of its trade. As we chatted on in friendly conversation I inquired about what there was of particular interest in Rajputana. He said the state was well known for precious and semiprecious stones, particularly panna, the emerald, which is most exquisite in richness of color, purity, and serenity, and is much sought after by jewelers the world over; also for its legends, very rich and profound in religious philosophy, with high moral value and a practical approach to problems faced in day-to-day living. These legends, he explained, came down as folklore by word of mouth from generation to generation, and they have become the cornerstone of spiritual thinking. In reminiscent mood he added: "Today is the Kartik Poonam. On such a night in ancient times a drama was enacted, the legend of which is so heartwarming that it is often recited by mothers to their children as a lesson in speaking truth and in courageous living." At my request Kuldeep Singh readily related the following account as one characteristic of the indomitable courage of both men and women when faced with danger:

In earlier years Rajputana was composed of small principalities and each such unit had an independent ruler who was called Raja. One such state was Sambhar, about 50 miles from Jaipur and adjoining the lake bearing the same name. Forests surrounded it and the ruler was one Raja Hanut Singh, arrogant and despotic.

One day a stranger came to the town of Sambhar. No one knew where he came from, but as the tradition for hospitality prevailed no objection was made to his settling there, and he did so on the outskirts of the city. There he erected a small hut and lived alone; so he was called the recluse. He was tall, handsome, and of fair complexion but, as he avoided people, they in turn began to dislike him, and soon gossip began that he lived with evil spirits. Some said that whoever saw his face first before dawn would meet with misfortune. In course of time these stories became exaggerated even more and eventually reached the Durbar or Ruler's Court, and the Minister spoke to the Raja about the newcomer.

The Raja decided that the rumors should be investigated and, if found true, that the man be expelled. Said he: "Bring him to my palace tomorrow before dawn with hooded face, and I will see him first, alone, in my private chamber." The recluse was accordingly brought and stood before the ruler alone. He was asked to uncover his face and did so. Both looked at each other, the first face that either had seen before dawn; then the recluse was allowed to leave. After performing the morning rituals, the Raja sat at table for his first meal, which was served on a silver tray in silver cups placed in a semicircle.

As the Raja extended his hand to take his food, suddenly a lizard that was running across the ceiling slipped and fell on the middle of the tray, where it wriggled and, overturning the cups, splashed the curried food around, then jumped off the tray and disappeared among the garden bushes. The shocked Raja stood up, his clothes soiled, and his face flushed with anger. After changing his clothes he called for his Minister of Justice: "Surely the strange man has evil spirits," he said, "and the lizard was one such embodiment sent to ruin my day. Such a man has no right to live anywhere, and I order that he be hanged so that the people will be rid of the evil spirits which he controls."

The month being Kartik, it was decided that the hanging take place after the Poonam was over. It was the custom in those days that a condemned person be allowed to express a last wish which could be granted before the execution took place. Two days before the time the jailkeeper asked the recluse to make such a wish. "I have a very simple one," said he. "Take me to the Durbar Hall at which the Raja will preside tomorrow to meet the people and hear their grievances. I have one grievance to make, and this time let me be taken with face uncovered, late in the day, so that no misfortune befalls anyone." The Raja was apprised of this last wish of the recluse, which he could not object to as it was the practice to hear all grievances of his subjects.

The next day the monthly Durbar was held and the Raja was on the throne. The turn of the recluse came and he stood before the ruler. Said he: "Andata (Great Provider of people's food), you have sentenced me to death because you lost one meal after you had seen my face first before dawn, just as I saw your face. If this was a crime, then you also are guilty of the same. You lost only one meal that day, but you will enjoy many more in days to come in your lifetime. But I will not have any more food after tomorrow. Maharaj, tell me whose face bore greater evil -- yours or mine -- and who should stand before the gallows if the scales of Justice are to be equal in judging of the same crime. I declare that you should be hanged, not I."

The arrogant Raja's face was flushed with rage at being so insulted in open court before the people. He shouted for the Nyaya Mantri: "Take this man away from my presence! Do not hang him, but put him at the western gate of the Sanctuary of the Lions in the forest to walk through the night to the eastern gate. If he comes out alive tomorrow, set him free."

He was about to adjourn the Durbar when suddenly a female voice was heard in the great Hall. It came from the upper gallery reserved for court ladies and called: "I have a grievance to be heard." Soon entered Padmini, the Raja's only child, his daughter, with uncovered face against the custom of the time, as ladies of the royal household were not allowed to expose their faces to the public gaze. The Raja was shocked but, as she was his daughter, he asked Padmini her grievance, little dreaming what it would be.

"Pitaji (my father)," said the Rajkumari (princess), "this man has spoken truth, and the punishment meted out is most unjust and cruel, for no unarmed man has been known to come out alive from the Lion's Sanctuary in the forest, where his flesh would be torn to shreds. He is innocent of any crime, for of your own accord you called him to let you see his face. The Sastras (scriptures) say: 'Truth must be spoken if a life is in danger and no harm come to those who stand for truth on such an occasion."'

Retorted the Raja in anger: "If the Sastras have said that no harm shall come to those who stand for truth, then you too shall walk with him tonight through the Lion's Sanctuary to prove that the Sastras have spoken the truth." He commanded the Nyaya Mantri to make sure that the order was carried out for both; the despot then dissolved the Durbar. Such was the overwhelming influence of the Sastras on the minds of the people that none dared to raise his voice in protest to speak for the victims. Gloom spread over the city and the women wept copiously. All prayed for the life of the Rajkumari Padmini and now also for the recluse.

In simple dress of pure white silk she came down the palace steps to be carried in the state palanquin to the forest gate. As she was about to leave, her mother, Rani (Queen) Saraswati came with eyes reddened by tears to bid farewell. She removed a gold chain from her person and put it round the slender neck of her daughter. On the chain hung a pendant inset with a large single emerald the size of a pigeon's egg.

Said Rani Saraswati: "Beti (my daughter), this is my most sacred possession among my jewels, given to me in dowry by my mother, Rani of Jaisalmer. She was a saintly woman and the uncut panna was given to her by the priest, who had found it in an abandoned mine when my mother built the temple at Dilwara for Lord Mahavir (the Jain saint). The priest had said that this emerald when cut will be matchless in color, purity, and serenity, and is the rarest of its kind in the world. Its green brilliance symbolizes greenery in creation, the life-giving force of nature, and the stone attracts Devas (angels) as a charm. I shall pray that Devas walk with you in the night and be your Protectors." Padmini said, "But mother, I may not be able to return your treasure, for . . ." and the words died on her lips. The Rani quickly said: "Never mind, my child, for in that event I shall not need the jewel any more. You have Rajput blood in your veins. So go without fear." The daughter touched her mother's feet -- the mark of duty and obedience to elders -- and left.

The keeper of the forest pointed out the mud path used by hunters that led to the eastern gate. "Do not stray from the path," he counseled as he closed the gate. Padmini slowly walked ahead; the recluse followed behind at a respectful distance. Occasionally a lion peered from the wooded areas, surprised, as if seeing an apparition that moved like a silvery cloud. The jewel was resplendent, a little moon come to earth. The beasts, as if charmed, let them pass.

Thus they walked for two hours unmolested until they came to a small ravine flanked by sloping sides which flattened near the ground with an overlay of green grass like a carpet. It was inviting to rest, and tired Padmini approached. As she did, a roar was heard and soon from the opening of the ravine appeared the head of an aged lion, as if to investigate. Seeing the strangers, the lion came out cautiously and gazed and, as if by some attraction, came closer to the girl. Padmini impulsively stretched out her hand and patted him on the head. This apparently pleased the lion, who moved his tail sideways to express friendship. She rested on the grassy bed with the animal at her feet and the recluse rested a little distance away on a heap of dry leaves.

The night soon passed. Suddenly was heard the musical note of the full-throated koyal (songbird of the forest), "peeyoo, peeyoo" (sweetheart, sweetheart), and Padmini awoke. She saw the reddening of the sky in the pre-dawn light. It was time to leave the forest -- she rose to move on, and so did the lion and the recluse. The three wended their way and soon reached the narrow pathway that led to the eastern gate Before going on, the princess halted and the lion came close. Again she patted him on the head; she then went along the pathway to the gate the lion remaining behind looking sad as if he had lost a friend.

On the other side of the wicked gate the crowd went mad with joy, and dancing and singing accompanied the palinquin to the palace. Rani Saraswati was on the steps. She folded her daughter in a fond embrace. "Where is Pitaji (my father)?" inquired Padmini. Tears rolled from the eyes of the mother and her voice choked.

Tortured by anguish and fear that he had sent his daughter to certain death, the Raja had become penitent and restless. Soon he could not stand the torment any longer and rushed to the armory, grabbed his sword and dashed off on horseback to the forest, dismounted, and entered the gate. The keeper warned him not to go deeper but, brushing him aside, the Raja ran shouting, "Padmini, Padmini, come back," and in a frenzy he strayed from the path. The forest rang with the shrieks of wakened birds and animals thus disturbed and, when the hunters went in search of the Raja, they found his mangled body near a grove which was the habitat of a lioness nursing cubs. That was the end of the tyrant, Raja Hanut Singh of Sambhar.

"But what happened to the recluse?" I asked.

"Ah! this is the climax of the legend," said Kuldeep Singh. "He was none other than Prince Mansingh, eldest son of the ruling house of Jaipur. He had exiled himself for reasons of court intrigue. His stepmother, favorite consort of the ruler, plotted to poison him in order that her son should inherit the throne, so he escaped to nearby Sambhar where he settled. Not long thereafter the Jaipur ruler died. The Council of the People recalled Mansingh to assume the throne. Meanwhile Padmini, being the sole heir, had been proclaimed Queen of Sambhar. Mansingh sent a formal proposal of marriage and Padmini accepted. The two kingdoms were thus united and the royal couple founded the dynasty of Great Rulers of Jaipur.

"That is the end of the legend of Padmini, the Rajput princess," said Kuldeep Singh Jaiswal.

(From Sunrise magazine, March 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)

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