Varanasi, the city reputed to be the royal palace of Lord Mahadeva experienced its usual evening hustle as hundreds of pilgrims thronged over the ancient temple town. The placid waters of Ganga stood as a splendid contrast to the rush of the crowds, most of them thronging to the famed temple of Vishwanatha. Varanasi was also a place where people would commence their journey in the ripe old age to have the Darshan of Vishwanatha and breathe their last on the banks of Ganga, the river which was hailed as the dissolver of sins and bestower of merits. Hundreds came to offer their tarpana or last obeisances to the departed elders for it was believed that dissolution of mortal remains in the Ganga would grant eternal heaven to the dead. Kings, nobles, seers, priests and common men from all over the Aryavarta made it a point to visit the famed temple city at least once in their lives.
A city that prided over such a magnitude of footfall through out the year was undoubtedly a thriving place for artists who sought to perform and entertain the pilgrims. Songs were composed on the Glory of Mahadeva, the Lord of all Gods and sung with fervor. Groups of artists visited Kashi to stay and perform over a period of time. They comprised singers, dancers, actors and those of various folk arts. Most of them sought to perform the favourite story of the population which described the wedding of the universal Lord Shiva with the universal Mother Parvati.
Not very far away from the famed temple of Vishwanatha, on one of the prominent Ghats, stood the relatively less but nevertheless crowded temple of Manikarnika. Legends spoke of this place being the Shakti Peetha symbolizing the ears of Goddess Sati. Yards away from the Ghat was a ground with a raised dais erected for performing artists. The ground was relatively empty, save for a couple of children who looked with great interest at a group rehearsing for the performance probably for the night or the next day.
An artist sat on an elevated seat, carrying an artificial wig of matted hairs, his body painted greyish with ash. He also wore a tiger skin and a trident stood by his side. Ones who had watched versions of this performance would make out that he was poorly dressed to play the role of Mahadeva. But for a rehearsal, this was enough, perhaps the master of the group thought so. He supervised the space over the dais, at times throwing cautious glances at the enthusiastic children who collected to ejoy the rehearsal like they would enjoy a real performance. Smiling at them he turned to see the one playing the role of Parvati. The woman was one of his favourite dancers. She had the nimbleness of a deer as she circles around the ‘shiva’ enacting the song of endearing devotion as she prayed to him to accept her. He followed each of her movements closely and sighed at minor mistakes that would easily escape the audience, but not his sharp eyes. Controlling his urge to stop the rehearsal and correct her poses, he decided to enter the stage to play his role. With one final look at his own richly colored and bejeweled costume as Kama, the god of love, he took up the bow and felt for the quiver that carried mockshafts adorned with flower strings before landing on to the stage with a well measured but extremely graceful leap.
The entry could not stop there. He whirled around with ease making it clear to any onlooker that he was the star performer. The singer who stood a little away from the dais continued to sing what would describe his role
Does this befit you, O maiden of the King of Mountains?
The rosary beads, the bark skin and moving in the sun and rains
Why didn’t you think of this Kama of the flowery bow
Who can fell the God of Gods to his arrows of love
The ‘Kamadeva’ surely showed everyone around there that he was the master as the singer repeatedly sung through the same lines with variations and he himself took upon an elaborate depiction of the capabilities of Kamadeva.
As the children left coaxed by their parents, the group was alone to rehearse to its hearts content. As the’kamadeva’ proceeded to coax ‘Mahadeva’ to marry ‘Parvati’, his gaze could not escape the dark figures looming behind the dais at a distance, misway from the Ghat. He sensed something fishy in their movements but chose not to stop the rehearsal. He threw a stern glance at the’Shiva’ who opened his eyes earlier than he was supposed to. The artist looked apologetic and closed his eyes again. The singer got an unusual sign from his master to repeat the last four lines again. This master continued to whirl with same ease, grace and expertise, but now his focus on the cloaked figures whom he suspected were upto no good. He saw them approach a lone woman in the Ghat from behind and attempt to take her.
Breaking the sequence of the song, he felt for the arrows in his decorated quiver. Amongst the flowery arrows, lay a couple of real ones with sharp tips that warriors of superior kind used. He took one of them ino his had instead of the mock shafts to be used for the play and aimed it on to the bow. Unsuspecting audience would have thought that he was proceeding in his act of breaking the penance of ‘Shiva’. He alone knew that he was instead aiming it at those miscreants in the twilight.
Before the dancer playing the role of Parvati could recognize the real arrow in his hand, he had strung the bow and the arrow zooed past, inches away from he ‘Shiva’ and hit the miscreant. The ‘Shiva’ opened his eyes confused again. His master in the role of Kamadeva signed discreetly to keep his ground and collapsed to the ground sticking to his role.
The cloaked miscreant uttered a cry which was drowned in the musical orchestra. Nobody other than the co artists knew that the arrow that injured the stranger belonged to their master. Their understanding drove them to continue the play. Not much of it remained and it was discontinued as the woman who was saved ran towards the ground crying for help. She could not realize that she was already out of danger. The artists pretended to take no notice of her. However the one who was playing a stringed instrument stopped to comfort the lone woman. Her cries had brought some people to the spot. The new group apparently had a couple of her family members who were relieved that she was unharmed. The second miscreant had apparently fled the place. The people dispersed, not even glancing at the apparently unconcerned troupe. The master was satisfied. He gently got up signing the end of their practice.
As an attendant helped him remove his mock crown and a heavy neck ornament, he surveyed the site again. His arrow seemed to have killed that mysterious person in the cloak and he lay motionless on the ground. A couple of townsmen had gathered to observe the body. He debated on whether to approach the group and gather more information on why did the man attempt the mischief. But as soon as he jumped down the dais in his half cast costume he notice another woman nearing her twenties looking intently at him.
“You shot the arrow?” She asked with discreet signs.
He debated whether to pretend ignorance. But the gaze of the maiden seemed too alluring to let go of any opportunity. He smiled unfathomably and signed back that he did not understand.
With a naughty gleam the woman stepped closer towards his earshot. “Now if I am right that you intend to remain disguised, do you want me to reveal your name or..”
His brows twisted at her comment. She seemed to know too much. “Wait” he stopped her speech midway. “Maiden, you are mistaken, I don’t even know you.”
“That speaks of your poor knowledge. For I know you too well, Ar..”
“Maiden!” he stopped her from taking his name.
“Pray, come with me. I too am in a disguise and you won’t regret it.” She smiled convincingly. Who but a fool would reject an earnest invitation from a flaming beauty like this? He smiled to himself.