Sudha madhuri dash is a published author of many novels. Along with photography she loves horse riding and practices odissi dance.
Ujjain the bustling capital of the Gupta Empire, at the court of the great emperor kumaragupta...a man came bearing a rare gift.
“This is indeed beautiful, I am pleased,” said the emperor.
“The man claims, he found it on the banks of kshipra,” said the prime minister.
“It shall find its use in the temple of the mother goddess,” said the pandit. The milky-white conch lay in a bed of river pearls, inside a bronze casket.
“I feel we should first find out about its origin and the meaning of the strange inscriptions written on the lid of the box,” Sukracharya had told the court, but the conch seemed to have mesmerized everyone.
The Mahakali yagna saw its completion by the addition of a new tradition, the blowing of the holy conch. That night mayhem had broken loose outside the gates of the citadel; a small outpost had been ravaged to the ground.
“Where are the bodies?” asked Supratik.
“Not even a drag mark sir, no trails to follow,” said his deputy.
“Something came and took them,” the soldier pointed towards the jungle. He was the only one who had survived. They had found him hiding under a pile of dung. The next few days more bad news was to follow, dead bodies started floating up the banks of the kshipra.
The security around the capital was tightened up and the citizens were cautioned to be careful. On one such night a beggar sat outside the tall gates of the citadel.
“The fool has been left outside again,” said one soldier.
Drunken rat, someday the wolves are going to tear him apart,” said another soldier, who was checking the oil cauldron.
“He smells like a dung pile, wolves will not touch him.”
Outside sat the hunched-back beggar. His deep-dark eyes watched the soldiers having a good laugh at his cost. He smiled, his teeth blackened and chipped with years of mistreatment, rattled as he belted out another song, in praise of the king.
“Shall we let him in sir?” the young soldier asked his senior.
Seeing concern in the young man’s eyes his senior smiled and said, “Wolves haven’t touched him in all these months, they aren’t going to start now.” As the night progressed the soldiers at different points in the capital become more vigilant and alert, these few hours between the dusk and the dawn were crucial...a single lax, could bring death to their doors.
The beggar lay awhile in a drunken stupor, but then as the night deepened, he melted away into the darkness. The villages mostly bordered the forest; the inhabitants were farmers, gatherers and honey collectors and they lived under the king’s protection.
“Hurry up daughter the sun has already crossed three quarts of the sky,” the woman carried a heavy load of dry grass upon her head; she stopped not for a moment. She could already hear the forest buzzing, as if coming alive, her little girl all of six, struggled to keep up with her, for she too carried a stack of firewood upon her tiny head. The sun was still warm in the sky when the village headman blew the holy conch; inside the forest hiding among its thick darkness were a pair of red eyes that flicked open on hearing the sound of the distant conch, its long ears raised and alert. He uttered a low growl calling to the other members of the pack, the leader of the pack, had the head of a wolf and his teeth were sharp. His claws were polished to perfection. He was a savage but he too knew the meaning of fear when he stood before the blood red eyes of the Matangi...the matriarch. For days now there had been no hunt and her patience was running out. Hungry she would devour one of her own. There would be a hunt tonight...the others too looked in the direction of the conch being blown.
The headman carefully carried the large milky-white conch into the mandir. The puhrohit then washed it with holy water and polished its smooth milky surface with a soft muslin cloth, before placing it back in its bronze box, and then he read aloud the inscriptions that were carved on its lid, “Ropsa mansa uchista ban ahar ro pari.”
“What does that mean puhrohit,” asked the headman.
“This is the language of the ancients...but I am sure it is a holy prayer.”
“Hope the holy prayers will keep us safe,” said the headman’s wife.
“Finding the conch in the village well was indeed auspicious,” said the headman beaming with pride.
“Indeed it was,” said the puhrohit.
It was almost dark when the puhrohit locked the doors of the temple.
“Lets us hurry,” said the headman.
“You know what happened in the outpost, don’t you?”
“We have been safe until know,” said the headman’s wife.
“Are you sure?” the headman looked towards the forest, only the spikes of the temple could be seen...the rest hidden by tall trees.
The puhrohit lay down to sleep with a silent prayer upon his lips. It was a full moon night and the fields glittered like carpets of molten green and silver. In one tiny hut that stood a bit alone on the edge of a small rice field, a family of four huddled close to the only fire in the room that was struggling to fight against the cold. The pie dog, sleeping in the room suddenly let out a low whine. The man sat up and reached for his scythe. The woman pulled her children into the safety of a small pit that they had dug in one corner of the hut. The three cowered in fear in the darkness of the pit. The man covered the open mouth of the pit with thorny branches of the nearby nettle trees. His dog was shivering and hiding behind the small pile of wood. The dog kept whining and warning the man of the danger that was coming. His grass cutting scythe kept slipping from his sweating grip. The pack circled the hut, the leader leapt upon the door bringing it down with one crashing blow. Screams-of-death filled the night air. They pack moved swiftly; unknown to them pair-of-sharp eyes was hot on their trails. Suddenly the direction of the wind changed and the leader of the pack stopped and sniffed the air...putrid smell of urine and dung hit the animal’s nose. Growling he turned away and the pack moved on. Supratik kept following the trails.
Kshipra flowed like a mighty snake. Trade and commerce flourished upon her turbulent bosom. Few preferred to travel by the dirt roads that ran through the forest, most preferred the trading ports. In the ancient times this very same land was ruled by tribal chieftains, peace and calm had prevailed upon the people...it was said that houses did not have doors and man and beast had lived in a cohesive truce. When the Huns invaded the land, they not only ravaged the very souls of the inhabitants but also forced their terrible beliefs and customs upon the people. The Huns ruled for the next hundred odd years until the great Gupta emperor Chandragupta 1, destroyed them completely. There was a blood bath, the people rose in arms...the blood bath continued until the last of the Huns had been raised to the ground. For the next two hundred years peace prevailed...the land prospered under the strong rule of the Guptas...but then a new wave of terror had suddenly reared its ugly fangs...destroying the peace and calm.
As he scrubbed himself with mud on the banks of the kshipra, Supratik felt a rage of hatred flowing through his veins. He had been a mute witness to the mayhem. He had orders to follow, “no steps to be taken until we find out the truth,” those had been the orders of the emperor.
It could have been another day but it was not to be so for Supratik, the chief of police and internal Security at Ujjain, walked rapidly up the riverside, just as the body was being fished out. The officer supervising the operation turned around and saluted his commander immediately. Supratik looked at the mangled body that lay before him on the quay. There had been others...the frequency had now risen...this was one among the many bodies that had washed up the river. Supratik hadn’t slept for a few nights now. He had been on their trail but had lost the pack, when they had crossed the river.
“Send the body to Brajabhatta,” he told his deputy and then left on hurried steps. His horse breathed fire as he galloped towards the palace.
Brajabhatta had just sat down to have a frugal breakfast when the slave came in and bowed low. In the brightly lit operating room Brajabhatta carried out a thorough examination of what lay before him...there had been many more such bodies.
“Animals don’t eat in this manner,” he muttered under his breath as he raised his saw.
“All vital internal organs missing,” the assistant noted down the points.
“The skull has been drained very carefully in two places.”
“The long bones have been cracked open to drain out the marrow.”
Something shiny caught his attention, using forceps he pulled out the object from the eye socket of the dead body. He caught his breathe and exploded out. “What is this? This can’t be possible.”
Touching a ripe age of eighty, Brajabhatta knew the past well. This relic, spoke of the danger that had come knocking at their doors again; it came from the ancient past, a time which his grandfather would often speak about. Brajabhatta immediately called for his palanquin.
Both Supratik and Brajabhatta were waiting in the throne room, when the prime minister of the state and Sukracharya of the Mahakali temple arrived too.
“Why was I summoned?” Sukracharya was known for his short temper.
Brajabhatta held out the small shiny object. Seeing that, Sukracharya burst out saying, “where did you find that?”
“I thought we had seen the last of them,” Sukracharya said examining the object.
“It seems they have risen from the dead,” he continued.
“What do you know about this?” asked Supratik.
“The old scriptures speak about the wolves...that were born with claws of death...shape shifters, they fed on human flesh,” Sukracharya explained.
“These are fables of the past,” said Supratik.
“The Huns worshipped the tenth form of the mother goddess,” said Sukracharya, ignoring Supratik’s outburst.
“Matangi?” the prime minister voiced his concern.
“Yes! Uchista...they worshipped and appeased her, with leftovers from any kill...the eyes being a primary offering,” said Sukracharya.
The emperor was woken up by his favourite queen.
“What is the urgency?” Kumaragupta was a man of few words, who loved poetry more than his sword. He grumbled under his breath as he walked towards the throne room. The emperor heard everything...his eyes mirrored his concern for the safety of his subjects, who lived beyond the tall walls of the citadel.
“I believe the deity is alive again,” said Sukracharya.
“Wasn’t the temple sealed by my forefathers?” said the emperor.
“My belief is that, it no longer is, I had followed the pack till the mouth of the kshipra,” said Supratik.
“They hunt like animals and but walk upright,” continued Supratik.
“What are they, we are yet to find out?” said the emperor.
“The old priestess may know something more,” said Sukracharya.
“If she is still alive?” said Brajabhatta.
The afternoon sun was weak; Supratik along with a few other soldiers rode eastwards, towards the mountains. At the base of the mountain lay a small village. The villagers had never heard about the old priestess...
“No one lives up there,” the headman had said. Supratik took a few of his war-hardened men and scaled the mountain. The peak was infact a flattened piece of land that was barren...the rocks were glassy in appearance, the icy winds had picked up speed and the small group lay huddled among the rocks that offered scarce protection. The rain poured and the lightning zigzagged with vengeance, streaks of fire hit the rocks, very close to the group.
“We need to find cover,”
“There are no caves here,” said his deputy.
Just then another bolt of lightning hit the ground, a bit close to large boulder; the impact was so strong that the bolder started to roll downhill, missing the group by a few inches.
“Look sir! There is some sort of cave in the ground.”
A flight of stairs led the group downwards into the earth’s belly. The mashals lit up the small cavern. It was bereft of any form-of-life except in one corner...sat a figure on a small wooden platform. Supratik looked closely, there sat the mummified body of a women...could be the old priestess. He had reached a dead end, but then suddenly one of the soldiers pointed to the walls of the cavern. There were drawings and etchings that spoke of the past...the drawing of a temple caught his eyes. Supratik read the paintings mesmerized; they unfolded a story of the past.
“We can’t stay here, the cave is flooding with rain water,” said his deputy. Supratik threw one last glance at the mummified figure of the old priestess, in death she had stood to council and guide them, now nature was giving her the burial that she deserved. Back in the citadel Supratik went to meet the emperor.
“You say there were three of these conches?” asked the emperor.
“One is with us sir, kept in the Mahakali temple, where the first hunt took place,” said Sukracharya.
“The other, I have traced to a village that lies close to the forest,” said Supratik.
Isn’t that the village, where the recent hunts have taken place?” The emperor asked.
“Yes sir! Indeed it has.”
“The blowing of the conch has a connection to the hunts,” said Supratik.
“How do we stop this evil?” asked the emperor.
“We shall bring the hunt to them,” said Supratik.
The winter sun was weak, Supratik stood on a small hillock that overlooked the forest. The headman raised the conch to his lips...his hands were shaking and his lips were dry...a croak came from the conch.
The deputy drew his sword and raised it menacingly, “blow the conch or I will have your head.” The blasts from the conch hit the still air of the evening; a pair-of-red eyes flicked open...a low growl erupted from the temple, whose tall spires almost touched the clouds.
Supratik and his men waited...ready. When suddenly everything fell silent, not even a blade of grass moved...then they appeared...at the edge of the forest. “What are they? One of the soldiers whispered.
They were like grey shadows; they were led by a large form that walked upright. The leader sniffed the air but once, then arching his back let out a blood-curdling war cry. Swords flashed and bows were drawn. The slaughter continued until dawn.
“Did we get them all?”
“I am sure we did sir,” said his deputy.
“You need to see this sir,” a young soldier came running up to them.
“Cut them open,” ordered Supratik.
These are masks that have been stitched skilfully to their heads. Under the masks lay faces that resembled humans but yet were so deformed that one look, would strike fear into the hearts of the men.
“Look sir! Their claws are made out of silver,” said his deputy.
“Cannibals,” said Supratik.
Turning to his deputy, he ordered him to get the soldiers ready for one last strike. Crossing the river had not been easy, now they stood outside the temple. Finding a way in was not difficult for the main entrance stood open. Dry flowers and nettles littered the main courtyard. A foul stink clouded the air and the soldiers found it difficult to breathe. Hundreds-of-years old, the temple had been the centre of religion and culture during the time of the Huns. They entered the inner sanctum and there sat Matangi the mother goddess and matriarch of all she governed. Her statue seemed alive and vibrating, the red rubies that formed the eyes of the goddess shone blood red. The soldiers cringed with fear as they looked upon the floor just under her feet that was littered with rotting flesh and bones of humans. The floor was sticky and red with dry blood.
“We can’t stay here for long,” said Supratik. The feeling of being watched was strong.
“Let us seal the temple and move quickly,” he turned and ordered.
Just as they were crossing the river they heard the temple bells ringing. Supratik had checked the perimeters of the temple. He signalled that they should move on.
A very special meeting took place in the throne room.
“I hope we have seen the last of these animals,” said the emperor.
“We have also destroyed the conches,” said the prime minister.
After a very long time, peace and calm prevailed upon the kingdom of the Guptas.
Not far from Ujjain, was a small kingdom of the Magadhas whose king was an excellent hunter. On one such trip into the forest he stopped by the mouth of the river kshipra.
“Let’s rest a while,” he told his men.
When suddenly one of his hunters came running with a small bronze box, he opened the box to find a milky-white conch that lay in bed-of-sea pearls.
What an auspicious find, the emperor thought to himself. The conch found its place in the temple; it was an addition to the evening puja.
As the priest raised the conch and blew...the blasts from the conch were ear-deafening, such as none had heard before. Deep in the forest, a pair-of-red eyes flicked open...he was hungry and he let out a low growl that signalled to the others that...there would be hunt that night.
© 2022 sudha madhuri dash