The horse strode into the woods, breaking every twig and branch on its way. The eerie silence diminished as wails and cries followed the horse. The voices were nearing exponentially with a deafening speed. Up in the sky, thunderous dark clouds swallowed the sun. In minutes, lightning flashes flew from the sky, making their way to the treetops, burning a few, and cracking open a few tree trunks.
The roaring of the clouds, the whooshing flames, howling wolfs, and wails of hundreds of people engulfed the surrounding. A thick gush of black mist flashed, and the horse made a dramatic jump to a halt.
There he stood, a man with a petite demure, with beard flowing to the ground, eyes so sharp, like bulging out of the sockets. He held a wooden sceptre in his right and extended his left hand, “Come to me.”
It was her cue, and Rudra kicked her horse, “Run, Kumara, Run.”
But it didn’t move. Rudra picked up the collar rope and pulled it harder. But the horse didn’t budge. It stood frozen to the earth. The sounds were nearing from around her, and at one end, this old man stood extending a hand. Either way, she felt trapped. She clutched the idol to her heart. Rudra jumped down from the horse to escape. But dark black shadows surrounded her from all sides, suffocating her. The sounds were unbearable. Whispers rang in her ears, “Give the idol to us, run away. It is of no use to you. Give it.”
Rudra closed her ears tight and kneeled on the ground as the black haze absorbed her.
“Ahhhh! Leave me alone,” she yelled as an ice-cold hand pat her trembling shoulders.
“Hey Rudra, what happened?”
Rudra opened her eyes, “Mangai? What are you doing here?”
Rudra sat upright, brushing her arms with her fingers as if wiping away mud and tiny leaves.
Mangai took a deep breath and pat Rudra’s back harder, “Wake up you sleepy head.”
Rudra rubbed her eyes vigorously and looked around. Once again, she had fallen off the bed.
“You won’t believe what I saw.”
“Oh, please spare the pain. I know the drill. The same boring nightmare as always. A dark forest, you riding on Kumara and some old man calling you. Sometimes I feel you just make things up to wake up late.”
Rudra pulled Mangai’s ears, “Is it, baby sister. I may wake up late, but let’s see who wins the race to the pond.”
Rudra tickled her sister, as the latter fell on the floor laughing, and Rudra sprinted towards the pond.
The nightmares were an everyday affair for Rudra which she wanted to bury forever.
“Akka, are the dreams some sign?” Mangai broke Rudra’s reverie.
“What? No. Leave it.”
“You always change the topic. But, I feel there is some hidden meaning in the dreams.”
“Wait, I will get you a surprise,” Rudra held her nose with her fingers and jumped into the pond.
Before Mangai could react, Rudra was gone. As time passed, Mangai was feeling restless.
“Akka, where are you? You will pay for your foolish tactics one day,” she hit her forehead disapprovingly.
Mangai called out to Rudra but in vain. She walked by the banks of the pond, but couldn’t find a trace of her cousin.
She sat under the shade of a huge banyan tree.
‘What will I tell Amma and Appa?’ Mangai dunked her forehead between her knees as drops of tears flowed down her cheeks.
Beads of water droplets sprinkled on Mangai’s back. She looked up and sprang in horror. A shadow pounced on her from the tree.
“BHOO,” Rudra lept at Mangai and started giggling looking at Mangai’s frightened face.
“You scared the shit out of me. Oh, God! When will you stop your vile acts? Look at you, completely drenched.”
Rudra sighed and dramatically walked up to her sister. She kneeled in front of her, pulled out the beautiful pink lotus that she had tucked in her skirt and offered it to Mangai.
“O, gorgeous damsel! You are the warm sunlight of dawn and the breezy wind of the night sky. Would you please accept my humble gift?”
Mangai rolled her eyes and snatched the flower from her.
“You seem pretty happy today. What is the special occasion?”
“I am celebrating freedom,” Rudra giggled.
“Freedom? Something is seriously amiss with you.”
“Nevermind. Come, let’s leave.”
They had just started walking a few steps towards home when Rudra halted.
“Mangai, you proceed. I will come in sometime. I forgot my stuff at the pond.”
“I will wait.”
“No. You go home. Athai will be furious if you reach home late,” Rudra waved her hand and ran towards the pond. After a distance, she changed course. She brushed away the bushes to reach a beautiful mini-garden at the outskirts of the village.
She spotted him at once relaxing on tree bark, playing his flute. Rudra broke into an impromptu dance, swinging and swaying to the music of the flute. Gopalan was elated to have her here.
He pulled her closer, embracing her. He caressed her face with his fingers.
“My beautiful Valli, Rudravalli! What took you so long? Is it good to let someone wait so long?”
Rudra entwined her hands across his neckline, “Testing if you really long for me.”
“So what is the judgement?”
“Hmm…I will think about it,” she released herself from his clutches and sat near the narrow water rivulet that flowed between the garden.
“So Rudra, our plan is on right?” Gopalan looked curious.
“Yes, it is, so far,” Rudra looked into his eyes, “Do you truly love me?”
“More than anything, sweetheart. I promise you we will make our home in a distant beautiful landscape. Between hills, near the waterfalls, surrounded by greenery. We will wake up to the sweet notes of the nightingale. Golden bright deers will romance in the backyard. Nights will be dreamy under the velvety blanket of stars.”
“Oh, Gopala, how I yearn to be with you all the time, rejoicing in the music of the flute and wrapped in the marvellous beauty of mother nature,” she held his hand, “Promise me, you will always be there for me. I want to leave my past behind, and become yours for life.”
Gopalan held her hand, kissed her palm, “I promise.”
The love birds embraced each other for a moment before bidding their goodbyes.
Rudra was always a strong-headed, fierce and rebellious girl. She stayed with her uncle and aunt. Mangai was their daughter. She was a couple of years younger than Rudra. Initially, when Rudra came into the family, it was difficult for her to gel in. However, with time she understood, this was the best and only option for her.
Her aunt was a disciplinarian and abided by strict rules in the household. However, her uncle was warm-hearted. He always stood by the girls.
As years went by, Rudra felt caged in the small village. The chores were redundant. The people were the same, and life was a routine.
Rudra was ambitious. She wanted to achieve greater heights in life, be adventurous and travel the world. When she disclosed these feelings to her aunt, the only reply that she got was,
“So, you wish to live a life of a nomad?”
“No, Athai. There is turmoil in my heart. I want to do something extraordinary. But, I don’t know what. I want to explore the world and find answers to the various questions that run in my mind.”
Her aunt kept a stone face, “Your time hasn’t come,” and continued with her chores.
‘Time hasn’t come? What does she mean by that? Always answering in puzzles or monosyllables,’ Rudra was feeling all the more anxious.
Her only solace was the idol of Lord Krishna and Kumaran, her horse. She would talk to the idol and contemplate for hours together about her fate. Should she be happy and gratified that she is at least alive with basic amenities, or should she be herself, discontent?
When Gopalan walked into her life, she felt a breeze of cool air levitating her under a bed of butterflies. They met at the public pond. She couldn’t take her eyes off his magnetic gaze and charming smile. He introduced himself as a businessman’s son.
Gopalan had a soothing aura around him. The way he spoke and treated her, she felt wanted. Unlike the scene at home, where nothing felt special. This was a one of a kind experience for her. To top it all, Gopalan played the flute. Whenever he played it, she felt like a gopika around Lord Krishna, dancing to his tunes and forgetting the world around her.
Gopalan swooned her with his gentlemanly behaviour. Soon, they started meeting often. He promised her life away from the village full of zest and adventure.
One day, she brought along the Lord Krishna idol, tucked under her shawl.
“Gopalan, see this is the idol that I was talking about. It is always there with me and is very dear to me. I have always dreamt of being the Aandal to my Krishna. Heart full of devotion and an ocean of love.”
“Aandal?” Gopalan laughed, “My pretty princess. So, have you found your Krishna?”
Rudra pulled out the flute from his dhoti, looked at it and asked,
“Karpuram narumo kamalapoo narumo ,
Thirupavalla sevvaidhaan thithithirukkumo,
Maruposithu Madhavanthun vaisuvaiyum nattramum
Viruputru ketkinren solaazhi vennsange.”
“What? I didn’t understand a thing,” Gopalan looked puzzled.
Rudra smiled shyly, “Sri Aandal says in one of her poems, addressing the conch that Lord Krishna holds,
O, Majestic white Conch! I desire to know the taste and scent of the coral-like red mouth of Madhavan, who twisted the tusks of the elephant Kuvalyapeeda. Is it the scent of raw camphor? Or is it the scent of lotus? Is it nectar-like sweet to taste?”
Gopalan stared into her soft yet vibrant dove-like eyes. He placed a gentle kiss on her lips,
“Now you know.”
The deal was sealed for her. Twenty-year-old Rudra fell head over heels in love with Gopalan. It was a change that she always yearned for.
But, she didn’t want to go against her aunt and uncle. So, one day she gathered guts and walked up to them.
“Athai, Mama, I am in love with a wonderful person, Gopalan. I would like to marry him. Can I tell him to come and meet you?”
Her aunt and uncle both were equally shocked. At a time when girls had a glimpse of their husbands only after marriage, this was way too much for them to digest.
Her uncle refused to talk, but her aunt made a perfect scene out of the situation. Her proposal was not only denied but she had been ordered restricted outings. And if she wanted to leave the house, it had to be with Mangai. Lack of freedom irked her.
Today at the banks of the stream, Rudra and Gopalan made the best plan possible. The only option they had was to elope.
Rudra waited till everyone at home fell asleep. She packed her belongings, tiptoed to the door, sat on Kumaran, and fled.
The dark night, the pin-drop silence and the distant barking of the dogs did not frighten her. She was happy. Extremely positive and ecstatic that finally, she will be free. Finally, she will be able to be one with her beloved and lead a life of her own. No rules, no deadlines.
She tied Kumaran to a tree trunk from a distance to the garden, where they were to meet.
She wanted to surprise Gopalan and frighten him in the dark. But, she heard a few voices from the garden.
‘Who are these people at this hour of the night? What if they see Gopalan? Are they thieves? How will I alert my beloved?’ A list of questions flashed through her mind.
Rudra stayed at a distance from the garden. She had already spent at least an hour here, but there was no sign of Gopalan. She thought it best to walk closer and peep from the bushes so that she had a better view of the people.
As she cascaded closer, she heard a familiar voice. The sight that beheld her, stumped her, it sent shock waves down her spine.
“Where is your lover, Gopalan? It’s getting late. Will she come? What did you tell her?” One in the group asked.
“She will, brother. My plan is perfect. She has fallen for me completely. Foolish girl. I have told her to get some valuables. Apart from that, I have seen a gold idol with her. We will surely become wealthy, once we sell that.”
“And the horse you were talking about?” Another person asked.
“Oh, yes. How can I forget that? It’s the best horse I have seen in ages. Healthy, white, fluffy as snow.”
“What about the girl?”
“What about her? She is one pretty damsel. Let’s take her to Kannipuram. We will leave her at the doorsteps of any wealthy man who wishes to take her.”
“But, isn’t she quite aggressive and bold. How will she accompany us?”
“I have the perfect potion for her. She will fall unconscious for at least a day, and we can finish our work by then,” Gopalan smirked.
Rudra’s heart sunk. The pain was no less than a thousand lightning bolts striking her at the same time. She had believed him blindly. She equated him to her god, Lord Krishna. And here he stood, with the name of the God but a heart of the Asuras. She had loved a worthless man, left a loving home and now was standing in the middle of the woods, clueless about her future.
As much as she wanted to wail out a cry, or confront Gopalan, she knew the odds weren’t in her favour. It was best to run away from this situation, at least to safeguard her virtue. Rudra walked up to Kumaran.
“Kumara, what should I do now? How will I face Athai and Mama? They must have had such high hopes and faith in me. I drowned it in a jiffy. Why is Krishna playing with my life? Is it wrong that I saw my Lord in a mortal being?”
She hugged his nape as tears rolled down her eyes.
“Shhh… be silent. We need to leave this place,” Rudra jumped on him, rode as fast as she could.
“Kumara, don’t go home. I have betrayed my people, and I don’t want to see the humiliation in their faces. Take me far away. Anywhere you wish.”
Kumaran rode for a couple of hours till he reached the threshold of a town. It was already daybreak and the marketplace buzzed with vendors. Rudra wrapped her face with her shawl, covering it whole except her eyes.
She walked around the marketplace, checking the produce on display. It took her a couple of minutes to realise that something was amiss here. All eyes were fixed on her. It was as if the market had come to a standstill at her arrival. Rudra felt extremely uncomfortable and walked hastily holding Kumaran. She walked past a huge board and paused at a distance.
Rudra walked back to read the sign, “Welcome to Kannipuram.”
She was aghast. This was the same place Gopalan was talking about. Somewhere at a distance, she heard feeble cries. Her eyes pierced through the crowd, to froze at the end of the market.
‘Krishna, is this for real? How could you let this happen in your land?’ Rudra swallowed a lump that dangled in horror down her throat.
Girls, women, young children were lined up, hands tied, to be sold. Each one was priced based on age and looks. An array of men surrounded them for a bid. Rudra could not look at the women, her heart overflowed with disgust and disbelief.
She turned around to leave the place, but…
Rudra looked up at a tall man staring at her.
“Wow! What beautiful eyes,” he leaned forward to take off her shawl.
Rudra held his hand in mid-air.
“Ahh! Strong arms too. Come, let’s go to the podium.”
“What? No, I am not here for that.”
He held her wrist and won’t let go, “Come, I have seen so many like you,” and he dragged her along.
Rudra was furious. Never had she imagined that she will be touched without consent. A river of rage ran through her veins. She called out to Kumaran as she walked along. With one hand she took out the Krishna idol from her bag and banged the man’s head hard.
It took a while for the people around to fathom the situation, but before they could react, Rudra jumped on her horse and dashed out.
“Kumara, faster,” she looked behind and could see a huge commotion. Immediately, a dozen men, in uniform, alighted their horses and started to chase her.
“They must be the soldiers of this kingdom. Kumara, into the woods,” she shouted.
Colliding into the bushes and tall tree branches, she rode as fast as she could. The turn of events within a night’s time had rattled her soul. Though she was running away from the men in haste, yet her heart went out to the innumerable women in distress. She, herself was the victim today. Once betrayed by Gopalan, and now targetted by the soldiers.
The soldiers were nearing, and she was lost in the deep forest. It was getting dark. Rudra felt nauseous and giddy with each pounce of the horse. A whole day of hunger and tiredness made her wary. Suddenly, at a distance, she saw a reflection.
‘Am I hallucinating? This can’t be true,’ Rudra rubbed her eyes hard. It was not a shadow, but indeed a person standing.
Rudra pulled Kumaran to a halt. But her head kept spinning like a ball. She strained her eyes to have a better look, and just when she realised who it was, Rudra fell from the horse unconscious onto the ground.
Rudra blinked and tried hard to open her eyes. She sat upright, her head still heavy. It felt like a lifetime of sleep. At that instant, she recollected the events of the day and stood upright. She was beside a beautiful waterfall. This place seemed familiar. It seemed like a place from her previous birth.
She looked around and spotted Kumaran at a distance, tied to a tree, munching on some grass. She ran to him and cuddled him. Her eyes fell on the bag that she was carrying. It lay open on the ground. Immediately, she brushed through her belongings, only to find her idol missing.
“Are you searching for this?”
Rudra looked up. It was the same old bearded ascetic from her dreams holding her idol. She snatched it from him.
“What are you doing with my Lord?”
“Your Lord?” he laughed aloud, “Hmm, I thought you will at least be thankful that I saved you from those vultures.”
“Did you,” Rudra looked puzzled, “But why? Who are you?”
“Who am I?” he smirked, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we are.”
Rudra stared at him blankly.
“You ask me who am I, but my child, how could you forget who you are?”
A hurricane of emotions collided her heart. She wanted to run away from the truth, but invariably truth always followed. She fell on her knees, covered her face with her palm and let out a deep cry. She wailed her heart out as flashes of her past encompassed her mind.
“Your Majesty! Your brother King Lankeshan has arrived with his troops at the gates of the fort,” the Minister walked into the room hurriedly.
King Sarveshan nodded his head and let out a deep sigh, “Hey Krishna, what do I do now? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?”
Screeching aloud amidst the chants of sacred tests and prayers, a cry of a baby reached his ears.
“Oh, Madhava. You have finally listened to our prayers. Minister, go and inform my brother, that the kingdom will be lit with festivities. Invite him inside sans the troops.”
“But Sir, isn’t it a little early?”
King Sarveshan’s face went red, “Do as I ordered.
Well, the Minister wasn’t completely wrong too. This was the queen’s eighth pregnancy. Each time they had a stillborn child or a miscarriage. But, the astrologers at the kingdom had predicted that the eighth child will be healthy and rule the kingdom.
The royal midwife walked up to the king and placed his newborn daughter in his arms, “It’s a girl.”
The king kissed the tiny one’s forehead and announced, “She looks just like our Kuladevi, Rudravalli. My lovely princess Rudravalli.”
Soon, the news of the arrival of the new princess spread like wildfire. There were celebrations and festivities all around. Except, at King Lankeshan’s abode. He was King Sarveshan’s stepbrother. Their father had extricated him long ago citing his bad behaviour and character. However, instead of running away, he built an empire of his own adjacent to the kingdom.
With his crooked tactics and clever mind, he could gain the confidence of many people to work with him. Finally, gathering a large army under him. After their father’s demise, King Lankesha wished to rule the kingdom. However, he had strong opposition from the courtiers and citizens. But, as years passed, the incapability of the queen to conceive gave him a bright chance.
Today, when he received the news from his spies that the queen was in labour, he had rushed with his troops to barge in if they went childless again. But the gods were in his brother’s side today.
Months metamorphosed into years, and young Rudravalli never ceased to surprise her parents. She was an avid and quick learner. She had an inquisitive thirst to educate herself. Hence, the king had roped in experts to teach her whatever she wished for.
Queen Umayal took pride in her daughter. Every night she would read out stories to her. Stories of love, war, peace and devotion. Umayal would talk about the various great men and women who lived in this Punya Bhoomi and showed the humans the path to righteousness.
At the age of five, when Rudra was told about the great saint Andal, her devotion to Lord Krishna and the poems that she wrote for him; Rudra was star struck. She would dress like her and walk about the gardens of the kingdom, singing songs in praise of the Lord.
When Rudra was around eight, she had already read the epic mythological tales and wished to learn the nitty-gritty of warfare. This was when she was introduced to sword fighting. A young horse was gifted to her by the ministers of the court, who loved her dearly.
By the age of ten, she had already read extensively on the ways to tackle a combat situation physically, emotionally and mentally.
But, every party comes to an end. And hers halted rather abruptly.
King Lankeshan never settled with his thoughts of ruling the kingdom. He had always believed that Rudra being a girl, there will be no male heir for the kingdom, and he will soon walk into the throne. However, Rudra’s valour and intelligence shook his confidence.
He tried reasoning with his brother on occasions, “Why are you wasting energy on your Rudra? She is just a girl.”
But, the look that he received from the king, made him stop these conversations. Lankeshan never treated women as human beings. For him, they were just another commodity or a distraction from achieving a man’s goals. And now to contemplate that a girl was his direct competitor, disgusted him. He thought it best to wipe the traces of dust.
One night, when the whole city was asleep, Lankeshan barged into the palace with his troops. He massacred a whole army of people. When the king and queen were intimated about him, they picked up Rudra and ran into the hidden stairs below their bed.
“Appa, what is wrong? Are we at war?”
“Yes, I need you to be strong.”
“But why are we running?” she jumped from her father’s arms, “Are we cowards? Is this what our forefathers taught us?” Rudra fumed.
Her mother held her shoulders, “How could you think like that? Your father is a great warrior but today he is helpless.”
“Stop it. Isn’t it selfish of us to just run away leaving our people behind?” Rudra retorted.
They heard a hoard of heavy footsteps alighting down the stairs. Queen Umayal held her daughter’s wrist and dragged her along quickly. The stairs ended at an opening behind the fort, into the deep forest. Far at a distance, Rudra noticed him standing.
“Who is he amma? Leave my hand,” Rudra scuffled from her mother’s grip.
Her parents bowed down on their knees in front of him.
“Whatever you predicted has come true. As per the plan, please take her to Umayal’s brother,” the king said.
He turned towards Rudra, “Rudravalli,” he kissed her on the forehead, “Take this idol with you. This is our ancestral identity. Keep it with you always. Lord Krishna will guide you. Go with him,” He gave a sword to the man, “Let this be with you. Give it to her when she is ready.”
“Go with this man? Why? What about you?”
“Their time has come. Bid your final adieu,” The old man said as a matter of fact.
“Final goodbye? Amma, Appa, why aren’t you coming with me?”
“Because we will fight till our last breathe with the man who destroyed our kingdom. Now the time isn’t right. He is a cannibal, who thrives in the pain and blood of young women. I have arranged for as many of them to escape as possible. But you, you have to be protected like a treasure,” the King paused.
“Rudra, promise me. Promise me that you will come back. You have a great task ahead. You have to return for our people. All the learnings and education should not go in vain.”
Before she could react, the old man whistled, and Kumaran came hopping. He picked her up, jumped on the horse and rode.
“Appa, Amma…I won’t go. Leave me you old fellow,” Rudra struggled to run away from his clutches. She peeped behind, only to find her parents surrounded by the enemy troops and his uncle walk towards them with a sword held high.
Into the future
Rudra could not contain her tears, “How foolish of me! How did I forget everything?”
“It was because of a herb that I told your aunt to give you when you were younger. I thought it best to erase a few horrible memories from your mind for a little time. Over time, you went with the flow like an ordinary girl. But, Rudravalli, you are not an ordinary person. You are here to achieve great heights and free your people from your devilish uncle.”
“Now, I understand why the town looked so familiar. But, the name?”
“Yes, he changed Krishnapuram, the land of our Lord to Kannipuram, the land of the virgins, to be sold.”
“Ahh, disgusting. But, I am just a girl, all alone?”
“Just a girl? Alone? Come with me,” the old man walked into a cave, that opened into a mini settlement.
An old lady limped towards her, “Is it her?” she rubbed her eyes and let out a deep cry.
Hundreds of young girls and women came walking towards her.
“These are your people. Remember you asked your parents about the fate of others. Your parents, along with the ministers managed to evacuate them. But, their families are still stuck in Kannipuram. The fate of their men is unknown. I have strived hard to impart as much knowledge as possible to these women. Now they are all ready and waiting for their leader.”
“Leader?” Rudra looked shocked. As much she wanted to help them, she felt incapable.
“This is such a draconian task. O Krishna, what will I do?”
The old ascetic walked into a hut and came out with a shining huge sword in one hand. He picked the Krishna idol in the other and held it out for Rudra.
“Yatra yogeshwara krishno yatra paartho dhanurdhara:
Tatra sri: vijayo bhutir dhruvaa neetir matir mama”
A new wave of confidence gushed in her blood as she held the sword and the idol in her hands and heard the sloka. It was the last verse from the Bhagavat Gita that her father always recited. She finally knew this was her calling. This was the quest that she was running towards all her life.
“Yes, Guruji. Wherever there is Krishna, the Lord of Yoga; wherever is Arjuna, the wielder of the bow; there will be prosperity, victory, happiness and justice.”
She looked at the huge army of women ready to march into their land and fight for their rights. Rudra jumped onto her horse, “Kumara, you are my Sarathy, I am your Partha. Come let’s get moving towards our victory.”
“Your Majesty, King Lankeshan. The fort is surrounded by hundreds of women yielding weapons.”
“Are you kidding me? Women with weapons?” The king walked up to the terrace of his bedroom to have a better look.
Far away, outside the gates, he saw the shining sword that belonged to his late brother.
“Still alive? Princess Rudravalli.”
Athai – Aunt
Mama – Uncle
Gopika – Devotees female cowherds who loved Lord Krishna dearly.
Lord Krishna = Madhava – Hindu deity
Aandal – 7th-century saint and devotee of Lord Krishna, who wrote innumerable poems and songs for the Lord.
Kannipuram – fictional city
Kuladevi – an ancestral tutelary deity in Hinduism
Punya Bhoomi -Holy land
Bhagavat Gita – a sacred Hindu text
Arjun = Partha – a character from the Mahabharata.
Sarathy – a person who rides a horse, Lord Krishna in this context.
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