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   Mahadev Bishta
   The Tale of Bib Garazmaej
   Game of the Name
   A King's Metamorphosis
   The Birth of Lake Sheshnag
   Sankisar
   Folk Tales from Kashmir
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The Birth of Lake Sheshnag

by K. N. Kaul

For Visakha, a Brahman youth of about twenty one, it was a close encounter with death. Caught unawares between the charging cavalry columns of king Nara of Kashmir, who descended upon the place 1ike wolves upon a fold, he, in utter confusion, panicked and flew for his life. The gathering thunder of a thousand galloping horses, the glint of a thousand naked swords shimmering menacingly in the sun and the full-throated battle-cry of a thousand soldiers - all combined, made him swoon. He somehow managed to scurry and bolt across the road like a rabbit for its hole and hid himself in a corner of a half-broken outer wall of an old house. Here he tried to smother the sickening gurgling in his stomach with his one head and with the other he touched the top of his head to see if it was still there. The fright seemed to squeeze him dry of all blood. His eyes closed as if in slow motion and a blankness overpowered him. He felt there was nothing left in him and then he passed out.

King Nara, who ruled over Kashmir about more than a thousand years ago, was a young, tall figure, erect as a lance. He was known in the kingdom as an Aphrodite on the prowl. Year in and year out be seemed to be in a state of perpetual infatuation for this or that girl. Only recently he had fallen for the daughter of a courtier whose vivacious gait and swimming large eyes, which looked larger due to the outline of kohl around them, had hooked him fast. It was a face that got fixed in his mind but his advances were spurned as the maid had already sold out her heart to same recondite Buddhist priest. In one of her unguided moments the girl had confessed to the king her attachment to the priest, which was enough to turn his milk sour. For him now the only way to possess her was to remove the priest from his path for which he issued secret instructions to his trusted guards. But before they could carry out their nefarious scheme, the priest, sensing danger, had hoisted his sail at midnight and vanished without trace along with his lady love. Learning that his quarry had given him a slip a glowering devil seemed to rage within the king's heart, raising dark and savage gall. In a mad fit of frenzy he ordered his royal guards to wipe out all the Buddhist Viharas in the kingdom along with the inmates, a job, which they accomplished perfectly well. It was in this maelstrom that Visakha was caught but luckily saved by a mere chance.

It was a little before noon when Visakha came to himself again. The soldiers had gone away leaving a trail of destruction behind. Smoke was bellowing up at many places as the entire village had been torched. No man or beast was moving around. It was as if a great mantle of death had descended and hung over the place. Visakha felt his limbs still trembling with fear. He had left his home in the morning to see his maternal grand parents who lived in an adjacent village. But now he dared not take the highway for fear of the soldiers. He turned left and took the bridle path stretching over the hillock like a ribbon in order to make a detour to avoid any encounter with them.

It was now approaching noon and Visakha treaded along inhaling the fragrance of honeysuckle and lilac bushes. The lush green all around seemed to invite him to the delights of the open air to which he surrendered himself. Pure liquid trills of a Bulbul coming from some nearby tree bought a smile of delight to his lips. It was an infectious melody which brought involuntary echoes from his throat almost similar in tone and sweetness. Again, a throaty call of a thrush came from some distance, pure and clear, which was promptly echoed by its mate. A crisp wind sent the fallen leaves scurrying and now while coming down the incline he broke into a trot after them. It was wonderful to be alive and young on that sunny day after a close brush with death.

A small pool of water nestling under the shade of a couple of mulberry trees offered a tempting invitation to the jaded nerves of Visakha. He felt hungry and thirsty. He had his 'Sattu' (a mix of flour and jaggery) with him, which he now intended to eat. He had just cupped his hands to draw out a drink from the pool when he pricked his ears on hearing somebody talking. The desolate place was hardly a place fit for people to sit and talk. He thought that the Nagas must be 1iving somewhere in the vicinity as their habitats were usually lakes, ponds and springs. He had not met or seen anyone so far but he had heard of their mysterious powers like flying in the air, causing hail, rain or snow or even a blizzard at will. He got apprehensive of a possible encounter with them for which he was not prepared, at least not that day.

Fear overcame hunger and Visakha forgot to eat his 'Sattu'. He began walking on tiptoes in the direction wherefrom the human voice was coming, curiosity getting the better of him. With bated breath and pounding heart he walked softly trying to make his footfalls as light as possible. At a little distance he was startled to find two young maidens sitting under a huge fir tree eating something resembling grass. He circled noiselessly round the bushes in order to have a close look at their faces. The maidens in their prime of youth were stunningly beautiful, their almond shaped eyes adding a strange unearthly charm to their faces. He had not seen such slanting and sparkling eyes in any woman's face before. Dressed in their finest and bedecked with gold jewellery, their appearance seemed at odds in that uninhabited place. Visakha felt like a singing in his earns and his heart seemed to melt with a warmth he had not felt before. What impressed him was a kind of solemn dignity about them matching with the solemnity with which they were eating the food meant for herbivorous animals - 'kacchaguccha' pods to be precise. He stood spell-bound, gazing at them the way one would at an apparition suddenly materialising out of the blue. He felt he could gaze on for ever.

The maidens had sensed the presence of a stranger and without looking towards him, they suddenly stopped eating.

"Civilised men do not violate the privacy of others. Why should someone sneak in like a coward or a thief and ogle at us" said the one with a necklace of sparkling rubies decorating her long slender neck, in an offending tone loud enough to reach Visakha's ears.

Visakha felt as if he was caught with his pants down. He could neither run away because they had seen him, nor come out of his hiding, feeling terribly embarrassed. He cursed his luck. It was a day full of disasters one after the other. He stood rooted at the spot like a person caught red-handed stealing his own money.

"How low have the Aryan youth fallen!" retorted the other maiden, the invective obviously meant for Visakha. "No dignity, no morals, no character," she blew out the words like a spit.

Visakha sagged in with the effect that the unwarranted aspersions had upon his mind. For a moment he floundered and looked like a murder victim. Drops of sweat streaked down his spine for he had indeed violated the norms of Aryan decency. Presently, overcoming the initial shock, he shook himself out of the torpor as the stinging accusations 1eft him no other alternative but to defend and clear himself. Inwardly angry at his own foolishness, he stepped out of his hiding dropping all pretence of concealment. He approached the young girls but stood at some respectable distance from them.

"I am no vulgar sneaker. One cannot expect people sitting and talking in this desolate place and that is what made me curious to look," he stammered a reply with honest reproach in his voice, "But pray tell me, why are you eating 'kacchaguccha' pods. I have sweet 'Sattu' with me and will be happy to share it with you, that is, if you like to," he added, his words ringing with genuine sincerity.

The maidens kept on looking at him and then at each other in order to gauge their reactions to the offer. They surveyed him from head to foot with a blank expression, giving out nothing.

Emboldened a bit, Visakha came a few steps closer, as if attracted by some invisible magnetic force.

"I am Visakha, the son of a Brahman priest living in that village," he addressed the maidens with an honest face and friendly smile. "I have just escaped with my life in the morning when the king's soldiers swooped upon the village. In order to avoid them I came over this hillock and here I find you eating this," he said.

Visakha's honest countenance and the genuine anguish in his words had the desired effect. The young girls seemed to struggle for the remnants of their diginity and finally gave in. With a gracious and slightly condescending smile the one with the glittering necklace beckoned him to sit.

"Won't you introduce yourselves?" said he.

"I am Chandralekha and this is my elder sister Iravati. We are the daughters of the Naga Chief", said Chandralekha, throwing her head up.

"I am glad to hear it. But why do you eat this food?" he said pointing to the 'kacchaguccha' pods.

"That we cannot tell you. But if you are keen to know, you can ask our father who will be coming for the pilgrimage of Taksaka the next week. You may ask him as many questions as you like. You can single him out even in a crowd. With his long plaited hair he is too conspicuous to be missed,'' said Chanderlekha with eyes smiling.

Then both the young girls vanished into the thin air. The sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of the maidens was too much mind boggling for young Visakha. It took him some time to collect his wits. Of one thing he was certain. The face of Chandralekha had left a deep indelible impress on his virgin mind but at the same time he was apprehensive of the mirage that might vanish for good.

A shrill ping of the mosquitoes in Visakha's ears brought him out of the depths of reverie and with the determination of a champion athlete, his dark young eyes were smouldering with a purpose. He vowed to himself to be as near to Chandralekha as possible. That was the ultimate he could think of about the gates of paradise which he wanted to be opened to him.

Visakha was among the first pilgrims to reach the shrine on the auspicious day. Roaming about aimlessly among the thickening crowd he spotted the two maidens flanking a stout man with two long plaits of hair decorating his front. He bowed his head respectfully and wished him. Iravati recognised Visakha and introduced him to her father. The Naga chief gazed rather loftily with his meditative look and tried to size him up. There was a faint tightening of his nostrils but presently he shook his head like an old horse. The honest innocent look of Visakha clicked a favourable response in his heart.

"My daughters have told me about your concern for our predicament," said the Naga chief. There was a reflective pause and a tinge of sorrow and reproach in his voice. "We are harmless people but at present victims of unforgivable inequity", he continued, but stopped on seeing Chandralekha's face. Her face was tense and eyes about to overflow with sorrow.

The chief wiped Chandralekha's tears with his finger and continued." A spell has been cast upon our standing crop by an ascetic who indulges in black magic and so we cannot reap the yellowing corn. If only he would eat a few grains from this crop, the spell would break and we could satisfy the painful rumblings of our empty stomachs. What else is there for us to eat except the lowly 'kacchaguccha' pods till then? Look, there he is sitting on the river bank chanting spells on simple folk like us," he concluded pointing towards the man.

Visakba looked at the wide reflective eyes of Chandralekha and then resolved to do something to help the family out of the impasse. The ascetic was indeed guilty almost to the point of heartless cruelty toward those who had done nothing to earn his wrath.

"Please wait for me here and I shall be soon back," he said to the chief.

The ascetic's inhuman torture of the Naga family and his crazy way of showing off supernatural powers, destructive in intent was disgusting. Visakha saw the ascetic sitting cross-legged on the river bank. He plucked a sheaf of the yellow corn and entered into his hut where he saw a pot of rice boiling. He put the grains of corn into the pot and hurried out as stealthily as he had entered. Hiding behind a cluster of poplars, he sat down to wait.

Visakha was determined to see the end of the ascetic's wickedness. He saw him entering the hot and taking the contents of the pot on a plate, after which he sat down to eat. The spell existed no more. The Naga chief was overjoyed to hear the good news. He and his people started reaping the harvest.

The Naga chief invited Vigakha to his place and granted him a boon. He very coyly asked for the hand of Chandralekha which was granted and the wedding took place at Narpora, a beautiful village nearby.

One day while sitting on the terrace of her house, Chandralekha found a horse eating corn that was laid out in the sun to dry. She hurried down the terrace and slapped the horse on his croup, leaving a golden imprint of her slim tapering fingers on it. King Nara heard of the strange phenomena and as usual, the devil in him poked him. He asked his sycophants to seduce the lady. He sent his agents, emissaries to her with fabulous temptations but the virtuous 1ady rebuffed them, one and all. The king now threatened Visskha with death if he did not surrender his wife to him. He along with his wife rushed to the Naga chief and narrated their tale of woe. With a wave of his hand, the Naga Chief turned the day into night by hiding the sun under thick layers of clouds. A strong gale swept the Valley which turned into a hurricane and started uprooting everything. Thunderbolts leaped with deafening crash burning everything on the ground. King Nara's palace was ablaze and then a rain of big boulders coming from above crashed the fleeing people to death. The apocalyptic devastation consumed the entire place. The Naga King's sister living on the Ramanaya mountain came to his rescue and showered more boulders on the city. Five yojnas of best 1and now 1ay waste, strewn with huge bould which no man could dislodge.

Seeing the extent of devastation, the Naga king felt great remorse for having over-reacted to the king's foolishness. He abandoned the locality and with the help of his supernatural powers he made water gush out from the bosom of the earth forming a huge lake in the depression. Pilgrims on way to Swami Amarnath cave can see this lake, named the Sheshnag, its bluish waters reflecting the snowcapped mountains around it and sometimes the passing clouds as clearly as in a mirror.

After the demise of the Naga chief, Visakha, having now become a Naga, ascended the throne. He got another lake made in the vicinity of the Sheshnag, popularly known as the 'Zamturnag' meaning 'the lake of the son-in-law.'

Source: Koshur Samachar

 
 

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