North of Kollam, India
Kumbham (February-March), 809 Malayalam Era (1634 CE)
“Princess, where are you hiding?” yelled Abhaya, his hands cupped to form a speaking trumpet.
There was no answer.
“Chinna! It’s time to go! You have a wedding to attend.”
Abhaya, a wiry twelve-year-old boy, turned slowly, looking and listening in every direction. There was a broad trail, but Chinna was not the sort of gal to always take the easiest path.
After a moment’s hesitation, he saw where she had stepped off the trail into the forest. “Chinna.” He sighed. The canopy closed above him, and he felt cooler almost immediately.
After a few dozen gaz, he emerged into a glade. Chinna was there all right, drinking from a pond.
“Princess, it’s about time. You still need to be painted, you know.”
Chinna wrapped her trunk around Abhaya.
“Yes, yes, I know you like me. I like you too. But let’s get going.”
They were scheduled to make a ceremonial appearance at a wedding in a village two days’ journey north of Kollam. While there may have been elephants closer to the village, most elephants outside the temples and palaces were meergha—low caste. Whereas Chinna had the great girth, plump backside, massive head and chest, short neck, broad and well-proportioned trunk and full cheeks of a bhadra, a high caste pachyderm.
At the wedding, Chinna symbolized Ganesh, the elephant-headed Lord of Beginnings. She brought luck to the couple, and coin to Abhaya’s pocket. The hire price would have to be shared with Chinna’s owner, but Abhaya had had Chinna do some tricks for the guests, and had collected many tips.
Abhaya was a bit worried about the future, however. It was Kumbham, and the marriage season was almost over. Soon Chinna would have to either do farm labor or begging. The first carried the risk of injury, and the second that of hunger.
Abhaya and Chinna slowly made their way down the coastal road, toward Abhaya’s home town, Kollam. From time to time, Abhaya hummed; his father had taught him how to imitate the sound that a mother elephant made to let its calf know where she was.
“Are you thirsty, pretty one? In an hour we will be in Neendakala, and you can drink the whole of Lake Ashtamudi like some hero of the epics, if you so please.”
Suddenly, Abhaya rose slightly from his usual sitting position, and pointed ahead and to the right. “Look, Chinna, there are two Portuguese. “What are they doing on this beach?”
The elephant chirped.
“You’re right, Chinna, it doesn’t make sense. The Portuguese mainly keep to Tangasseri.” That was their trading post, and it was a short distance away from Kollam, which the Portuguese called Quilon. “And their interest is in spices, which are hardly to be found on a beach.
“Let’s find out, shall we, dearest?” Abhaya gently pressed with his left heel against the flank of Chinna’s head signaling her to turn right.
People who have only seen elephants assume that because of their size they must make plenty of noise when they walk. But that is not in fact the case. Abhaya and Chinna got within a few gaz of the foreigners before they heard her.
To say they were startled would be an understatement. One reached for a pistol, but his companion stopped him, whispering, “That will only enrage an elephant, you idiot, even if he let you get off a shot.”
“Namaskaru, strangers. Did you lose something in the sand?” This was a polite way of asking, “Why are you digging here?”
“Not at all,” said one of the Portuguese. “We are humble scholars, and there is something to be learned from even a grain of sand.”
“Uh-huh,” said Abhaya, “but it seems to me that you have quite a few grains of sand to learn from already. And it seems that you have a preference for the black ones.” Abhaya wouldn’t have questioned them so aggressively, if he weren’t on the back of an elephant. But given that he enjoyed that security, he was keen to find out if there was anything about this encounter which he could turn to profit. A word to a rival merchant, perhaps, who would pay for the information . . . or an honorarium from these two, to buy Abhaya’s silence.
Pistol Man laughed. “So much for you. You can’t even fool a kid with that story.”
Humble Scholar shrugged. “It was worth a try. What’s your name, boy?”
“Well, I’m Agostinho Pereira, and my friend here is Benedito Surrão. Perhaps you can help us, we’re looking for a particular kind of black sand.”
“And how will you know if you’ve found it?”
“If you want to see, I’m afraid you’ll need to get down from that beast of yours.”
“Well . . . all right . . . . But you better not try to harm me . . . or Chinna will deal with you.” Abhaya stood up, turned around and grabbed Chinna’s ears, put one foot on the center of her trunk, and gave a command. A moment later, Chinna lowered him to the ground, and Abhaya sprang off.
“Very gracefully done, young Abhaya. Now look.” Agostinho took out a thin panel of wood, and spread some sand over it. He then pulled out a strange black stone, and passed it over the sand. Some of the grains twitched, and moved along with the stone.
“May I?” said Abhaya, extending his hand. Agostinho handed him the lodestone, and Abhaya amused himself for a few minutes with it. When he saw that Benedito was fidgeting, Abhaya returned it with a bow.
“What is this sand good for?”
“We have books that say that it can be made into a very fine white paint,” Agostinho explained.
Abhaya laughed. “Books, eh? How can you make black sand into white paint?”
“I don’t know myself, but the books of Grantville say that it can be done.”
“Grantville! The storytellers have spoken of Grantville. They say that it is a city perched on the side of a great volcano, that rose in a single day, and that the reason the people know so much is that each of them has two heads.”
Agostinho stifled a chuckle. “Well, you have told us that we shouldn’t believe all we read, and perhaps you shouldn’t believe all you hear.”
Abhaya gestured at the beach. “Do you know why there are patches of black sand on this golden beach? My father told me, as his father told him. The devi Kanyakumari had the power to overcome the asura, the demons, only so long as she remained a virgin. Yet she wished to marry and have a husband. She prayed to Shiva to find her a husband, and lo, the Auspicious One volunteered to marry her himself. But there was one problem. Her kin, the devas, insisted that the marriage ceremony occur at midnight on a particular day. Shiva’s wedding procession set out earlier that evening, at the most auspicious time, to meet Kanyamurari here. But his fellow gods also feared the asura, and conspired against him. One turned himself into a rooster and, when Shiva passed by, crowed as if to greet the day. Shiva thought that he had failed to arrive on time, and returned to his home in the Himalayas to sulk. Kanyakumari waited and waited, but Shiva did not appear. When the sun rose, she threw in every direction the pots of food that had been assembled for the wedding feast, and cursed them, changing them into the black spots you see today.”
“So,” said Agostinho, “do you know where we can find more of that black sand? A very big wedding pot, shall we say?”
“I know where there is plenty of black sand, but as to whether it is sand with this, this ‘frog power’—I don’t know. In any event, if you want to dig for it in large quantity, you will certainly need the permission of the raanni of Kollam, as well as the raja of Venad. It is in a well-traveled area.”
Agostinho stood silent for a few moments. “Are you and this Chinna available for hire, perhaps? I think we are going to join the raanni’s next procession to Trivandrum.”
Abhaya smiled, his teeth gleaming against his dark face.
The procession wound ponderously down the coastal road to Trivandrum, where the raja, Unni Kerala Varma, was presently residing.
The elephants, horses, and carts of the entourage of his sister, the raanni of Kollam, were in the lead, followed by those of the Portuguese traders and other supplicants.
First came two carefully matched male elephants, each wearing a jewel-studded headband. Then came standard bearers, whose flags hung limply alongside their staffs. They in turn were followed by several ranks of spearmen, a few noblemen on horseback, and the raanni herself.
The raanni, of course, was carried in a palanquin, with a half-dozen red-coated bearers fore and aft, on her left a chhathram-umbrella man to fend off the Sun, and on her right a chaamaram-whisk man to brush away the flies. Both chhathram and chaamaram were symbols of her royal authority. The fly-whisk was necessary, of course, since to kill insects would make one impure, but the flies did seem to come right back. The umbrella man had the easier duty.
Behind the raanni, there were more spearmen, then rows of Brahmin priests. When the raanni made her formal appearance at the palace, they would precede her, chanting her lineage and titles. The royal contingent ended with a cart carrying her maidservants.
In like manner, Chinna, ridden proudly by Abhaya, was the ceremonial vanguard of the Portuguese contingent. The Portuguese merchants were on horseback, and their presents for the raja were in the carts behind them. They even included a few items from fabled Grantville.
Before leaving Kollam, Abhaya had bathed Chinna—which was no problem as elephants love the water—and scrubbed her down with a pumice stone until she was a glossy black. He then took her to the best elephant painter in Kollam, a temple mahout who was too old to ride. She was now, in Abhaya’s admittedly biased view, the most beautiful cow elephant in all of south India. The cost of this transformation was borne, somewhat grudgingly, by the Portuguese—”The raja’s first impression of your party will be when he sees Chinna coming down the road,” Abhaya told them, “so don’t you want her to look her best?”—and of course the painter had given Abhaya a referral fee.
From Kollam to Trivandum was some forty-five miles, a three day journey. The crisis came on the morning of the third day. One of the priests had been falling gradually behind the others. Suddenly, he collapsed. This frightened the horses pulling the cart immediately behind him. They panicked and tried to veer to the left, off the road. While that saved the poor fellow from being trampled by the horses, it meant that he was liable to be run over in an instant by the right rear wheel.
Abhaya, whose eyes were perhaps twelve feet off the ground, saw his predicament. “Chinna!” he cried.
Chinna, of course, could see the fallen man, too. She reached out with her trunk, snaking it between the spokes of that wheel, and lifted. The raanni’s maidservants clutched the sides of the cart, and screamed, but Chinna had been clever enough to lift the wheel just enough to clear the priest, but not so much as to topple the women into the roadside ditch. Chinna’s pull on the wheel also arrested the horses’ attempt to escape, giving the driver the chance to get them back under control.
Because of the commotion the procession came to an uncertain halt, and the noblemen rode back to find out what was wrong. Orders were given; the Brahmin’s companions put him on an improvised stretcher and put him in the cart with the maidservants. Fresh horses were brought up from the rear of the column and the agitated ones sent back.
First the noblemen, then several of the priests, told Abhaya that he was a great mahout, a prodigy for his age, and that the raanni and the raja would surely reward him after they arrived at the palace. Each time, Abhaya bowed and thanked them for their praise.
“What a gift from God,” Benedito whispered to Agostinho. “Abhaya’s good deed will surely reflect well on us as his employers.”
“Indeed. But I have been watching Abhaya, and he seems increasingly uncomfortable with all the attention.”
“Perhaps he is just shy, speaking to those of higher caste.”
Abhaya had thought that he would be summoned as soon as they arrived at the palace, but of course protocol required that the raja first receive his sister, then greet her guests and examine their presents. It was therefore several hours before he was ready to speak to Abhaya.
Abhaya wasn’t accustomed to addressing even a single royal person, let alone two, and by the time the summons came, he was in a state of some agitation.
The first words, at least, were reassuring. “Thank you for saving my Brahmin,” the raanni said.
“Indeed, you must be rewarded,” added the raja. “My vizier has a fat pouch of gold for you.”
Abhaya prostrated himself, then rose. “A thousands thanks, great lord, but I must tell you . . . it was all Chinna’s doing.”
“Yes, my elephant. I gave no specific orders; it was she who realized what was to be done. The coin, of course, will help me feed her, but the praise should be hers alone.”
Abhaya prostrated himself again.
The raanni, the raja, and their advisors went into a huddle. There was much murmuring in the audience hall.
The raja made a small gesture, and his herald called for silence.
“It is clear from your explanation that you are even more praiseworthy than I thought at first. You are clearly honest, since you didn’t seek to steal praise that you thought was the rightful due of your elephant. But more than that, you have clearly trained your Chinna so well that she knew what to do without your giving a specific command. That is, I think, the highest level to which an elephant rider can aspire.
“Where is my commander of elephants?”
“Here, my lord.”
“Have you inspected the elephant?”
“Yes. She is bhadra, as you would expect from her actions on the road. A very excellent female.”
“Female, hmm . . . . Not really suitable for the army, then. Do you own the elephant, boy?”
“No, I lease her.”
“Very well. My commander of elephants will pay your owner a fair price for her, and then she will be donated in my name to the Temple of Padmanabha here in Trivantrum.” Padmanabha was the 48th, 196th, and 346th name of Vishnu in the Vishnu Sahasranãma.
The raanni cleared her throat. “And I hereby declare that she is to receive a stipend for her upkeep from the throne of Kollam, and be awarded the title of Gajam Raanni.” It meant, “Elephant Queen.”
“I thank you on her behalf, great ones,” said Abhaya. He wiped away a tear. “When would I need to say goodbye to her?”
“Goodbye? There is no need to say goodbye. Don’t you want to still be her mahout?”
“Of course, but would a temple accept me . . . “
“Don’t worry about it,” said the raanni. “With the Brahmin you saved speaking on your behalf and our royal favor, even one of lower caste than you would be acceptable.”
“And I have something else to give you,” said the raja, “to remind your new colleagues of why you have been honored, and by whom. Indeed, it is in one of the gifts from Grantville the foreigners brought me.” He whispered something to a servant, who left the audience room and then came back with a round object in his hand.
“Here it is, a very appropriate token of my esteem. My advisors tell me that it is a good luck charm, and the writing beneath it is a chant to activate it.”
Agostinho, in the audience, was taken aback. “But that’s not—”
“Shut up,” said Benedito. “Don’t even think of correcting the raja on so trivial a matter. There’s a time and place for pedantry, and this isn’t it.”
Abhaya inspected the token. It bore a picture of an elephant, whose blue back, adorned with stars, clearly represented the vault of the heaven, and whose legs and trunk were painted red, the most auspicious of colors, and one associated with Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy. Elephants, of course, were considered to be lucky animals, which is why Abhaya had so much wedding business.
“What do the words say?” Abhaya looked at the Portuguese expectantly.
“That’s your cue,” Benedito said to Agostinho. “Just give them the pronunciation, no translation.” Agostinho complied.
Abhaya listened carefully, and then repeated the magic words:
“I LIKE IKE.”
The Indian words in this story are mostly from Malayalam, the language of Kerala, and not the more familiar Hindi. However, since the Hindi words raja and Brahmin have become English words, I have used them instead of their Malayalam equivalents (e.g., raajaavu). My thanks to G. B. Keshava and K. Gupta for their linguistic assistance.