Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Prithvi Raj: Last of the Hindu Knights

Now in the days of the old Hindu knighthood of India, there were four great cities where strong kings lived, who claimed that between them they ruled the whole of the country. And some of these cities you can find on the map quite easily, for three of them at least are there to this day. They were Delhi, Ajmere, Gujarat, and Kanauj, and one of them, Gujarat, is now known as Ahmedabad.

The King who sat on the throne of Delhi was the very flower of Hindu knights. Young, handsome, and courageous, a fearless horseman and a brave fighter, all the painters in India painted the portrait, and all the minstrels sang the praises, of Prithvi Rai; but loudest of all sang his own dear friend, Chand, the court-bard of Delhi.

Prithvi Rai's life had not been all play by any means. His duty, as a king, was greater than that of other knights, since he had of course to defend his people. And already he had had to fight great battles. For across the border lived a Saracen people under a chief called Mahmud of Ghazni, and six times this chieftain had invaded India, and six times Prithvi Rai had met and overcome him. Only, fighting as good knight should, for glory and not for greed, each time he had conquered him he had also set him free, and Mahmud had gone home again. And the last of these battles had been fought at Thaneswar, where the Afghan was badly wounded.

Just at this time, it very unfortunately happened that the King of Ajmere died, and left no son or grandson to succeed him. But he had had a daughter who had married the King of Delhi, and Prithvi Rai was her son. So, as the old man had no son's son to leave his throne to, it seemed natural enough to leave it to his daughter's son, Prithvi Rai, who thus became King of Delhi and Ajmere, and in this way the most powerful monarch in India. But this made one man very angy. The King of Kanauj claimed that he ought to have had Ajmere, for he had been married to a sister of the old King. Probably he had always been jealous of Prithvi Rai, but now he began to hate him with his whole heart.

In all countries always it has been believed that the bravest knight should wed the fairest lady. Now in the India of that day it was accepted on all hands that Prithvi Rai was the bravest knight, but, alas, every one also knew that the most beautiful princess in the world was the daughter of Kanauj! She was tall graceful and lovely. Her long, thick hair was black, with a blue light on it, and her large eyes were like the black bee moving in the petals of the white lotus. Moreover, it was said that the maiden was as high-souled and heroic as she was beautiful. So Pithvi Rai, King of Delhi, determined to win Samyukta, Princess of Kanauj and daughter of his mortal foe for his own. How was it to be done?

First he went to his old nurse who had brought him up. He prostrated himself before her and touched her feet, calling her "Mother," and she, with a smile, first put her fingers under his chin, and then kissed her own hand. For so mothers and children salute each other in India. Then the King sat down on the floor before her, and told her all that was in his heart.

She listened, and sat without speaking for a few minutes when he had finished. "Well" she said, after a while "give me only your portrait. I shall send you hers. And I can promise you, that when you win your way to the girl's side, you will find her just as determined as yourself, to marry no one but you."

That evening the old nurse left Delhi with a party of merchants bound for another of the royal cities. And in her baggage, unknown to her humble fellow-travellers, was a tiny portrait on ivory of the King. It was a week or two afterwards, that the ladies of the King's household, at Kanauj, took an old woman into their service who claimed that she had been born at the court of Ajmere, and had waited, in her childhood, on the late Queen of Kanauj. This old lady soon grew specially fond of the Princess, and was gradually allowed to devote herself to her. In the long, hot hours she would sit fanning and chatting with her, or she would prepare the bath, with its scents and unguents, and herself brush the soles of Samyukta's feet with vermilion paint Or at night, when the heat made it difficult to sleep, she would steal into some marblc pavilion on the roof, and coax the Princess to come out there into the starlight, while she would crouch by her side, with the peacock' fan, and tell her tales of Delhi, and of Prithvi Rai, and his love for her. And often they gazed together at a miniature, which had been sent, said the old woman, by her hand, to ask if the Princess would deign to accept it. For as we all have guessed, of course, it was the old nurse of Prithvi Rai's mother, and of Prithvi Rai himself, who was here, serving the maiden whom he hoped to make his bride.

In a few months, came the time when the King of Kanauj must announce his daughter's marriage. And he determined to call a Swayamvara, that is, a gathering of princes and nobles, amongst whom the princess might come and choose her husband. She would carry a necklace of flowers in her hand, and heralds would go before. At each candidate's throne as they came to it, the praises of that prince, and all his great deeds in battle and tournament, would be declared by the heralds. Then the Princess would pause a moment, and if she decided that this was the knight whom she desired to choose for her husband, she would signify the fact by throwing her garland round his neck. And then the Swayamvara would turn into a wedding, and all the rival princes would take their places as guests. This was a ceremony only used for a royal maiden, and naturally no one was ever asked whom it would not be desirable for her to choose.

In this case, invitations were sent to the kin and princes of all the kingdoms, save only of Delhi, and all India knew that the most beautiful princess in the world was about to hold her Swayannara.

This was the time for Prithvi Rai to act. So he and his friend Chand, the court-bard, disguised themselves as minstrels, and rode all the way to Kanauj, determined to be present at the Swayamvara, whatever it might cost.

At last the great day dawned, and Samyukta made ready for the bridal choice. Very sad at heart was she, for she knew not what the day might bring forth, only she was sure that of her own free will she would marry none but Prithvi Rai, and he had not even been asked to the ceremony.

The insult thus done to the knight of whom she dreamed, burned like fire in the heart of the Princess, and she wondered contemptuously which of the princes whom she would meet in the hall of choice, could dare to stand before the absent King of Delhi on the feild of battle. And something of her father's own pride and courage rose in her against her father himself, as the hour drew near for the Swayarnvara to open. Yet behind all this lay the dull misery of the question: What could she possibly do to announce her silent choice in the absence of the hero? A princess might choose amongst those present, but to speak the name of one who was absent would be a fall unheard of from the royal dignity! How the brow of the Rajput maiden throbbed as they bound on it the gold fillets of her marriage-day! How the wrists burned, on which they fastened the bridal ornaments! And the feet and ankles, loaded with their tiny golden bells, which would tinkle as their owner walked, like "running water" in the bed of the streamlet, how glad they would have been to carry Samyukta away into seclusion, where she might do anything rather than face the ordeal before her!

At last, however, the dreaded hour had come. Seated on thrones in the hall of choice, the long array of knights and princes held their breath as they caught the first distant sounds of the blare of trumpets preceding the princess. Nearer and nearer came the heralds, and so silent was the company that presently, underneath all the noise and clang of the procession without, could be heard distinctly, through- out the great hall, the tinkle of anklets, and they knew that the queen of that bridal day was approaching.

As for Samyukta herself, as with slow footsteps and bent head she paced along the pathway from the castle to the door-way of the hall, she saw no one amongst the many thousands, on foot and on horseback, beside the path. Had she but once looked up, the whole scene would have been changed for her, and in a moment she might have made her choice. But this was not to be. Lower and lower bent the head of the royal maiden beneath her long rich veil. Tighter and tighter were clasped the hands that with their firm hold on the marriage-garland, hung down before her. And slower and slower were the footsteps with which she drew near to the hall of choice, till she had reached the door itself. But there the proud daughter of king raised her head high, to lower it never again. For one moment she paused, startled, dimayed, incredulous, and then, with flushed cheeks and haughty air, drawing herself up to her full height, she entered the hall of choice with perfect calm. For here at the entrance to the pavilion stood a grotesque wooden figure of the King of Delhi, made to stand like a door-keeper to wait at the marriage of the chosen knight. At first Samyukta could not believe her own eyes. The image was hideous, mean, and dwarfish, but it was unmistskably intended for Prithvi Rai. Had it not been insult enough to the gallant knight that his name had been omitted from the list of guests, that Kanauj should add to this the madness of mockery? Yet so it was. And as soon as she had realised it, the daughter of the King knew also her own part in the day's great ceremonies, and whatever might be the outcome for herself, she would play it to the end. The princes rose to their feet as the veiled maiden. entered, and then sat down once more on their various thrones. The heralds fell back at the entrance, making room now for the Princess to precede them. And then, wth slow firm steps, she, whose each footfall was music, passed on from throne to throne, waiting quietly for the questioning cry of her own heralds, and the answering salutation of those about the enthroned prince, before she could listen to the tale of brave deeds by which each bard sought to glorify his own master in the eyes of the fair lady; But at each throne, after patiently listening, after giving every opportunity to its adherents to urge their utmost, the veiled Princess paused a moment and passed on. And something in her bearing or quiet disdain told each whom she left behind her, that she required more of the knight she would choose than he had yet attained. But the sadness of disappointment gave place to astonishment, as Samyukta drew near to the last throne, and stood listening as patiendy and as haughtily as ever. This prince, as all thought, she must perforce accept. Round his neck she must throw the marriage-garland. With veil knotted to his cloak, she must at his side step forward to the sacred fire. These things she must do, for now there was no alternative. Yet none of these things did the daughter of the King attempt. Her slender form looked right queenly, and even beneath her veil her courage and triumph were plain to be seen as she turned her back on the whole assembly, as if to pass out of the lull of choice, and then stood a moment in the open door way, and threw the garland round the neck of the caricature of Pritvi Rai!

Her father, seated at the end of the hall high above the guests, sprang to his feet with a muttered oath! From the marriage-bower to the darkness of the dungeon, was this the choice that his daughter would make? What else could she mean by such a defiance? But scarcely had he strode a foot's length from his place when a tall horseman from amongst the crowd was seen to stoop down over the form of the Princess, and, lifting her to his saddle, gallop off out of sight, followed by another. For Prithvi Rai and his friend Chand had not failed to be present at Samyukta's Swamvara, knowing well that though the King of Delhi was not amongst the guests, yet no other than he to whom her heart was given would be chosen by the peerless daughter of Kanauj.

And then the festive hall became the scene of a council of war. The King of Kanauj swore a mighty oath that to the enemies of Delhi he would henceforth prove a friend. The outraged princes added their promises to his, and runners were sent across the border with letters to Mahmud of Ghazni, offering him the alliance of Kanauj in his warfare against Prithvi Rai. The day that had dawned so brightly went down in darkness amidst mutterings of the coming storm. For the wedding day of Samyukta was to prove the end of all the ages of the Hindu knighthood.

A year had passed. To Prithvi Rai and his bride it had passed like a dream. Amongst the gardens and pavilions of the palace they had wandered hand in hand. And Prithvi Rai, lost in his happiness, had forgotten, as it seemed, the habits of the soldier. Nor did Samyukta remember the wariness and alertness that are proper to great kings. It was like a cup of rich wine drunk before death. Yet were these two right royal souls, and knew well how to meet the end. Suddenly broke the storm of war. Suddenly came the call to meet Mahmud of Ghazni on the field of action. And then, without a tear, did Samyukta fasten her husband's armour, and buckle on his sword, and kiss the royal jewel that she was to place in the front of his helmet. And while the battle raged around the standard of Delhi, she waited, cold and collected in the palace. What had she to fear? The funeral fire stood ready, if the worst news should come. Not for her to see the downfall of her country. Was she not the daughter and the wife of kings?

Hours passed away, and ever on and farther onwards rolled the tide of battle -- on one side the infuriated Kanauj, fighting by the side of the alien in faith and race, and on the other Prithvi Rai with his faithful troops. Splendidly fought the adherents of the King of Delhi. But in the end the advantage of numbers prevailed, and Prithvi Rai fell, pierced to the heart, at the foot of his own banner.

It was dark when they brought the news to Samyukta, waiting in the shadows of the palace. But red grew the night with the funeral fire, when she had heard. For her eye brightened when they told her, and her lips smiled. "Then must I haste to my lord" where he awaits me," said this Rajput queen gaily, and with the words she sprang into the flames.

So passed away the old Hindu kings and queens of Delhi, and all things were changed in India, and Mohammedan sovereigns reigned in their stead.

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