A Crimson Dawn

A Crimson Dawn

1536, Chittor, Mewar  

The long, canopied balconies in the Rana Kumbha Palace came alive every afternoon with the pitter-patter of little feet, the euphonic tinkling of trinkets, and mirthful squeals of laughter – this was the time when the spirited young wards of the Sisodiya royal clan would emerge from their expansive private wings to play with each other. The lady attendants in multi-hued, embroidered ghagra and sequinned bandhej kanchli would either play with them or simply chaperone them from a distance, their lehriya odhnis fluttering in the mild breeze. Some of the elderly palace maids would gather on the floor in small groups and exchange gossip or engage in harmless banter. This was a short intermission before the evening chores began. It was also a time when Janki, the experienced kitchen hand, would have a quick tete-a-tete with her long-term friend and soul sister, Panna.

“Panna Baisa, how does the palace situation feel? What do your instincts say – will Banvir Singh pass the litmus test? Is he genuinely concerned about Udai Kunwarsa?”

Panna gave out a deep sigh and looked pensive for a few moments. She spoke after a while, carefully measuring her words,”Janki, I’ve spent a lifetime within these limestone and marble precincts. I’ve seen heroes rise and martyrs fall…I’ve seen war, invasion, bloodshed and treason. But I’ve never felt so helpless and apprehensive. I literally feel like an orphan now with no one to turn to, no one to seek guidance from. The great Rana Hukum is gone. RaniSa took refuge in the raging flames of Jauhar last year. And Vikram Kunwarsa is in prison. I feel like a rudderless boat bobbing in a turbulent sea, looking for an anchor. I don’t know how much longer I shall be able to shield Udai Kunwarsa or thwart the evil designs of Banvir.” 

***

1531 – 1536, Mewar

Vikramaditya Singh, the elder brother of Prince Udai and son of the late Rana Sanga, was the erstwhile ruler of Mewar. In spite of Panna’s dedicated grooming, he remained a young man with brusque manners and a volatile temper. Neither his military prowess nor his administrative acumen deserved any honourable mention in the annals of Mewar. All the loyalists of the beloved Ranaji now abhorred Vikram. During his five years of reign, Vikram had many run-ins with the nobles and chieftains. After one such particularly ignominious incident with a palace faithful about a year ago, the nobles of Mewar, in a rare show of unity, forced Vikramaditya to step down from the throne. Panna could only watch helplessly as he was taken away and placed under palace arrest. The next in line, Prince Udai Singh, was promptly declared the successor though he was too young to administer his kingly duties.                                                                                                                                         

In the political melee that followed, Banvir Singh, a senior royal official, was appointed the Regent for Udai. The palace grapevine had it that Banvir was the illegitimate offspring of Udai Singh’s uncle and a maid. He was aware of his lineage and hence, not amused at the turn of events. Once, Banvir was heard ranting in his personal chamber,”The throne of Mewar belongs to me! I am older than both these brothers.” As he spoke, his eyes blazed with a bred-in-the-bone hatred for Vikram and Udai. “It’s my right and privilege to wear the crown! I dare any one to stop me from claiming what is mine!” 

***

Two young boys came running towards the ladies. Panna petted them lovingly. Both of them ran around her, playing and frolicking. Janki looked on indulgently as Panna knitted her brows and ruffled their hair in mock annoyance. Chandan, Panna Dhai’s son, was dressed in a bright white and blue kurta-pyajama set while Udai sported a red silk angrakha with elaborate mirror and bead embellishments. Trying hard to not trip on his beige dhoti, the latter complained, “Dhaisa, I don’t like wearing these heavy jewellery pieces. Look at Chandan,” the boy continued, pointing at his comrade, “He’s not wearing them…it’s so much fun. I feel itchy with all this…please Dhaisa, please remove them.” The young boy looked ill at ease with the heavy three-string emerald necklace, the gold hoops piercing his tender ear lobes and the thick gold bangles encircling his wrists. 

Panna sat him down on the spotless marble floor. She gently dabbed her odhni on the glistening beads of perspiration on his forehead. Then, in a voice that bordered on the deferential, she explained to him,” Udai Kunwarsa, these are precious family heirlooms that your mother left in my care. These jewels are the pride of Mewar. And a sign of our valour. As a prince, you must wear them.”  

By this time, the other maids had also gathered to witness the young prince’s adorable show of indignation. Udai Singh seemed only marginally pacified by Panna’s reasoning. He continued to tug at his necklace and eyed Chandan, a tad grudgingly. Taking the cue, Panna cuddled him affectionately and said,”Chandan is your friend and my son…we all know what a muddlehead he is! Do you think he will be able to take care of anything valuable? He is better off without any jewellery. Besides, he does wear those silver anklets, right? They are heavier than your gold ones – honestly, Kunwarsa.”

“Dhaisa, then promise me you’ll make Chandan wear my clothes and all my heavy jewellery one of these days!” Udai Singh’s boyish face broke into a wide, mischievous grin at the very thought. The palace corridors rang with the blithesome laughter of the women and the children as they all returned to their respective wings.

“Who would guess Panna Baisa is not the actual mother of Udai Kunwarsa…even little Chandan pales in front of her love for Udai!” One of the younger women whispered to her close aides as they were walking back. 

“And why not? Baisa has nurtured Kunwarsa with her own milk. Our late RaniSa had handed over Kunwarsa’s entire responsibility to her. She is more a mother to him than a mere wet nurse. As infants, she never differentiated between Chandan and the prince,” added an old hand, in hushed tones. 

“In fact, I’ve even heard that Panna Baisa offered suggestions to RaniSa, at times, on political and court matters. After all, wasn’t her husband the most trusted aide of the late Ranaji? He laid down his life fighting for Mewar. Baisa shares the same fervour of unconditional love and fierce loyalty towards the crown of Mewar.…she’s just waiting for Udaisa to grow up some more and take over the reins of the kingdom,” quipped another, as they parted ways at the end of the corridor.

The palace meals were lavish affairs. All the male members of the royal family gathered for dinner along with Banvir Singh and young Udai. Banvir Singh always relished a hearty meal and indulged in a loud, boisterous chit-chat with the others. Today, however, he looked distracted and tense. He kept fidgeting with his necklace and seemed to be biding time, as if waiting for something significant to happen. The fiery laal maas failed to tingle his tastebuds while the flavourful daal baati did not have him demanding a second helping. While the others lapped up the syrupy malpua-rabdi and frothy lassi, Banvir barely took a bite and retired to his quarters in a hurry. This unusual behaviour was not lost on the kitchen helpers who discreetly exchanged curious glances with each other.

As the new moon night descended, the palace lit up with the glow of a thousand lamps, emanating an empyreal radiance against the obsidian sky. Their reflection fell on the placid waters of the rectangular pond that was flanked by the palace buildings on all sides. The lotus blooms floating in the water suffused the air with a mild, lingering fragrance. The flowers, along with the twinkling reflection of the lamps, made for a mesmerising sight….it seemed like a shimmering gossamer veil with gold spangles had been laid out on the earth. It was a beautiful, magical night – one, in which nothing possibly could go wrong. Or could it…

Panna Dhai finished all her chores, tucked both Udai and Chandan into their respective beds, and came out into the terrace. Taking advantage of the darkness, she dropped her veil and inhaled a lungful of the fresh, perfumed air. Panna was a young woman with a wheatish complexion and long, lustrous hair. The simple emerald green ghagra and blouse she was wearing complemented her name. Panna was widowed young, hence the entire responsibility of bringing up her only child Chandan, fell on her. Chandan and Udai were of the same age – one was her own flesh and blood; the other, her royal charge. She reminisced how Rani Karnavati had entreated her to undertake the responsibility of both Vikramaditya and Udai before immolating her widowed self to escape enemy lust. Panna had pledged to keep them safe.

With Vikram, she had failed – his own superciliousness and political misadventures proved to be his nemesis. But with Udai, things were different. Along with Chandan, he had grown up on her milk, cocooned in her lap, thus cementing an everlasting bond between them. On her part, Panna deftly juggled all her roles of Udai’s father, mother, playmate and mentor. Each time she cradled the suckling baby and looked into his innocent eyes, the lines between her raw maternal emotion and her role as a designated nursemaid, steadily blurred. As a result, she was often assailed by bouts of self-doubt and self-reproach. Was she neglecting the seed of her own womb to nurture the fruit of royal responsibility? This was a question for which she had no answer. At such times, she would close her eyes tight and pray to the Almighty to safeguard Chandan and give her enough prudence and will power to tread the path of righteousness and loyalty.                     

It was a ritual for Panna to sit on the terrace every night for a while, osmose the cool, serene surroundings and say her prayers. It acted as a balm on her frayed nerves. But today she was not able to concentrate. Why was there such a strange restlessness in her heart? She fluttered her eyes open and looked around for any movement. There was none. She tried hard to regain her meditative stance but felt defeated. The clouds of premonition triumphed over her innate composure. She decided to go back to her room and rest. 

Panna reclined on her bed and closed her eyes but sleep eluded her. Within minutes, she heard hushed voices and the sound of heavy footsteps marching towards their wing. In a trice, she sat up and covered herself with a heavy veil. What is happening, who would want to visit me at this hour, she wondered, her heart pounding hard against her chest. She swiftly came out of the bedroom and shut the heavy, ornate door behind her. Inside, the two boys lay ensconced in deep slumber, blissfully unaware of the storm brewing outside. No sooner had she stepped into the common room than a couple of maids and two sentries – all, longstanding palace loyalists – barged inside, unannounced, and visibly shaken. 

“Baisa, please listen carefully,” said one of the guards panting heavily, “Banvir Hukum seems to be on a killing spree. A prison insider told us that some time back, he had charged inside the prison and murdered Vikramsa in a fit of rage. The prison officials tried their best to resist him. A few of them got brutally injured, some even lost their lives. But Hukum was in no mood to heed. We fear, he will be heading this way shortly. Baisa, you need to escape with the boys right now!!” 

Panna listened to them intently, horror writ large on her face.

Oh Ma Ambika! This is such a dilemma! The future of Mewar lies in my hands. I have to act fast…and act right! Udai Singh needs to be protected at any cost. But how? If I escape with both the boys, the evil Banvir is sure to hunt us down…which means, imminent death for all of us.

 Panna shuddered at the thought. 

Or else, can I mislead Banvir? Somehow throw him off our scent, through fair means or foul…? 

Panna’s mind was working fast, trying to win the race against time. 

If he can be led to believe that Udai Singh is dead, he’ll probably give up his diabolic rampage and concentrate on his win. That will give us some time to escape and seek help. As of now, I see this as the only path ahead of me.

“Panna Baisa, please don’t tarry. The late Ranaji had left his sons in our care. Udai Kunwarsa is the only rightful descendant of the clan left now. We MUST protect him at any cost. Please escape through the narrow pathway at the back, Baisa…hurry up,” beseeched a maid in an urgent tone. “And now we have to leave or else, they’ll smell rat!” 

Panna whispered some quick instructions to them. All four nodded and left stealthily, merging into the midnight darkness.

Slowly she realised the enormity of the situation and what it demanded of her. In a bid to save the crown prince, she had chosen to use her own offspring as a decoy. Panna sank on the floor, cupping her face in her palms in sheer despair.… now she realised the reason for her restlessness and her misgivings since evening. 

But Ma, how can I do this? Chandan is my own blood, I’ve carried him in my womb for nine months….I’ve always done what is best for him. And now You want me to be the instrument of his death?! Oh, why are the heavens ruthlessly testing my resolve? Ma, please have mercy, I entreat you!

For a few excruciating moments, it seemed that the universe had come to a standstill. The zephyr stopped blowing, the gurgling stream halted mid-flow, as if they all waited with bated breath for Panna to decide. Finally, gathering an epic strength of will, she made up her mind. And with that, she chose to execute the biggest sacrifice history had ever seen – that of her own son, at the altar of royal duty and responsibility. 

Shortly afterwards, a small group of trusted aides secretly entered her wing.  They were carrying a large, sturdy basket. Panna gently lifted Udai Singh and placed the sleeping boy inside the basket. Then she removed his signet ring and the emerald necklace. The servants swiftly covered the basket with heaps of leaves, fruits and flowers. To any outsider, it would appear as an ordinary fruit basket. 

“Take the rear exit and move silently out of the palace through the narrow slushy road that will lead you straight to the river bank. My men are there in a boat, waiting to ferry us across the river to safer shores. Wait there till I join you. And do take care – I’m entrusting Mewar’s most precious possession in your able hands.” Panna choked on her words as she bade them a hurried goodbye and god speed. 

Time was at a premium. Panna could already hear blood-curdling cries at a distance along with the clang of metal and the stomping of aggressive feet and hooves. With a heavy heart and leaden steps, she carried herself back to the bedroom. She sat beside the sleeping Chandan and looked at him,  long and hard. Then, she painstakingly dressed him in Udai’s ornate jacket, his royal necklace and the signet ring. 

Dhaisa, promise me you’ll make Chandan wear my clothes and jewellery some day – Udai’s prophetic words rang clear in her ears and knifed through her mother’s heart. She gently laid Chandan on the royal bed and covered him with Udai’s blanket in a way that revealed the family jewels. The son of a valorous chieftain and an allegiant nursemaid, Chandan’s mien had an ingrained radiance and aristocracy which was no different from any dyed-in-the-wool Rajput royal. Looking at his peaceful face, Panna wrung her hands helplessly, as if trying to unshackle them from the promise she had made to her master, years ago. Her face writhed in unspeakable anguish and remorse as a searing heartache found its watery vent through her eyes, down her face.  

A demonic banging on the door jolted Panna out of her grief. She quickly wiped her face and wore her signature sang-froid. The moment she opened the door, Banvir Singh stormed inside. Eyes flaming, nostrils flaring, he looked like a man possessed. Without speaking a word, he looked menacingly at Panna and then marched straight towards the bed. 

It was Panna’s ordeal by fire….she summoned all her inner strength and determination to stop herself from crying out as Banvir’s glinting sword swished violently across the bed. The boy never moved. The only sound that emanated was a mild splish as blobs of innocent blood splattered on the opposite wall. Banvir looked at his crimson sword for a moment and smiled malevolently. As he walked out with long, triumphant strides, lusty cries of “Long Live Maharana Banvir Singh!” rent the dark, unpropitious air. 

In the pre-dawn hours, while Banvir was already preparing for his opulent coronation ceremony, no one noticed how Panna had slipped out of the palace precincts and reached the river bank to join Prince Udai and the others. Their boat was ready. She never shed a tear as she performed the last rites of her beloved son. There was neither any time to lose nor the luxury to grieve. In a moment of bitter epiphany, she wondered if it was probably a curse to be so iron-willed….so self-restrained. Was it perhaps better to be of a weaker mould? Panna looked heavenwards for an answer – she found none. Only a strong wind heaved and sighed mournfully as the tangerine flames of the pyre licked the tenebrous sky above.
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Author’s Note:
*Ghagra – a traditional long, flared skirt worn by Rajasthani women
*Kanchli – a traditional embroidered Rajasthani blouse
*Odhni – a traditional Rajasthani veil made of a fine, light material
*Bandhej – a traditional Rajasthani tie-and-dye fabric having small white circular patterns
*Lehriya – a traditional Rajasthani tie-and-dye fabric having wavy patterns
*Dhaisa (or, Dai Sa) – a respectful address for a Rajasthani wet nurse (dai)
*Baisa – a respectful address for a Rajasthani lady
*Kunwarsa – a respectful address for a young male member of the Rajasthani royal clan
*Rana Hukum – here, refers to Maharana Sangram Singh or Rana Sanga
* Rani Sa – here, refers to Rani Karnavati, wife of Rana Sanga
*Jauhar – the ritual of self-immolation practised by Rajput women to escape being captured by the enemy
*Angrakha – a long, flowing Rajasthani upper garment, often worn by men
* Laal Maas and Daal Bati – spicy, flavourful Rajasthani delicacies
*Malpua-Rabdi – a special Rajasthani dessert
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