About 2300 years ago
The kiss was a lingering one. She seemed to lightly graze her lips over his, causing little sparks of static that travelled down his spine as he craved for the impassioned ritual to move towards its gratifying conclusion. Her name was Vishaka--it meant heavenly star--and she was undoubtedly a celestial creature. Her translucent ivory complexion with just a hint of aqua, her sensuous mouth, and mischievous emerald eyes were partially covered by her cascading, silken, auburn hair as she bent over his face, planting little pecks of exquisite joy upon his eyes, nose and lips.
Paurus lay back on the silken bedspread in the chamber of the pleasure palace. Sounds of a veena wafted in from the antechamber as one of the courtesans played with chords from Raga Hindol--the raga of love. Along the north-eastern wall of the room stood a golden basin that had been filled with pure rose water, and opposite stood a large golden lamp that had been lit with sandalwood oil. Paurus was in a state of tender bliss.
Allowing himself to submit to Vishaka's ministrations, he sighed contentedly. He tried to recall which great guru had suggested that the path to nirvana was complete and utter submission to the divine. Was this delectable creature anything less? He reached out his arms to pull her face downwards towards his own while his lips sought to quench their thirst from her moist clove-and-cardamom scented breath. He was on fire.
His throat was on fire! Paurus let go of her hair in panic while clutching at his own throat as he felt the compound of arsenic and mercury scald his lips, tongue and throat. He tried to scream but no sound emerged from his larynx--it had already been destroyed by the Sankhiya poison on her lips. The ambrosial Vishaka continued to cradle his head in the warmth of her shapely bosom as she felt the living breath silently escape from him. The peacocks in the royal garden outside continued to dance, quite oblivious to the agony of the king inside. Paurus, mighty emperor of Kaikey and Magadha was dead. Long live the king!
Pataliputra, the capital of Magadha, the great Brahmanic empire in the cradle of the beautiful Ganges valley in eastern Bharat lay quiet at this hour. The crocodiles in the moat surrounding the city fort were in deep slumber and the guards had shut the city gates for the night. Within the town, the only activity was towards Yama Gate, the southern quarter that housed the madiralays-- the drinking taverns--and the houses of the ganikas-- the prostitutes. At the northern end of the capital, towards the Brahma Gate, which housed the palace and the Brahmin community, the streets were deathly quiet.
Inside a nondescript home, Chanakya listened to Vishaka intently as the glow of the two oil lamps on either side of his study desk threw ominous streaks of alternating shadow and light on his grimy complexion. He was a hideous-looking man. His skin was pockmarked and his features were slightly crooked. His clean-shaven head was tough, black and leathery and he boasted a sandalwood-paste trident on his forehead. Towards the back of his head started a long shikha--a lock of hair maintained by most Brahmins in the kingdom. The only garment on his body was a coarse cotton sheet and his only accessory a yagyopavita--the sacred Vedic thread. He rarely smiled because smiling exposed his crooked teeth. He had been born with a full set of teeth--the mark of a ruler, but a clairvoyant yogi had predicted that the boy would be even more powerful than a mere king-- he would be the most powerful kingmaker of his time. To many he was known as Kautilya--the crooked one; to his childhood acquaintances he was Vishnugupta; but to most he was Chanakya--illustrious son of the great and learned Chanak, the most renowned teacher in all of Magadha.
He did not show the slightest emotion or exuberance as he received her detailed report of the assassination. The wily old Brahmin knew that it never paid to let others perceive what one's true feelings were. 'Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead,' he would often say.
But he couldn't help laughing inwardly. The fool Paurus had allowed himself to believe that the celestial creature in his bed was Vishaka--twinkle, twinkle, little star, indeed. Hah! Little had the imbecile realised that Vishaka was his trained vishakanya--a poison maiden. In fact, Chanakya had personally supervised the creation of an entire army of such maidens. His secret service would identify young and nubile girls whose horoscopes foretold of widowhood. These beautiful damsels would be sequestered at an early age and fed a variety of poisons in graduated doses, making them immune to their ruinous effects. By the time each of Chanakya's vishakanyas reached puberty, they were utterly toxic. A simple kiss with an infinitesimal exchange of saliva was lethal enough to kill the strongest bull of a man.
'Go tell Chandragupta that he's now emperor of Magadha,' the cunning Brahmin matter-of-factly instructed his venomous pupil as his mind wandered back to how and when the saga had started.
King Dhanananda of Magadha was in a foul mood. His Brahmin prime minister, the wise Shaktar, appeared to be lecturing him--God's representative on earth! Shaktar wanted the king to spend less time absorbed in winedrenched carnal pursuits, and more time improving the lives of Magadha's citizens. Dhanananda found scholars such as Shaktar boring and insufferable. He tolerated them nonetheless. Patronage of Brahmins in his council made him appear wise.
The roof of Magadha's great audience hall was supported by eighty massive pillars. Rich furnishings and tapestries embellished the court of the world's richest king. Some distance away from the palace stood a gilded Durakhi Devi temple, a Buddhist monastery as well as an ayurvedic hospital--signs of Magadha's religious, material and spiritual progress.
Dhanananda looked to his right and observed the first chair. It was reserved for the most important Brahmin in the land--the prime minister, Shaktar. The chair was empty because Shaktar had stood up to deliver his sermon to the king. The pompous bastard, thought Dhanananda. They were all a bunch of self-serving rascals, recommending the most arrogant amongst themselves as ministers, and then using Dhanananda's money to award themselves honours, grants and titles, while attempting to tutor him--the mighty Dhanananda--on the duties of kingship! Their hypocrisy revolted him.
Dhanananda's eyes wandered towards his female attendants. Women always surrounded Magadha's monarchs. They performed various functions including guarding the king's person, controlling access to his chambers, tasting his food to ensure that it was not poisoned, delivering messages, polishing his armour, entertaining him with music, bathing and dressing him, gratifying his sexual needs, and tucking him into bed at night.
Dhanananda had over a thousand female attendants and courtesans serving him. Catlike, they were vicious and protective of their master. Dhanananda slyly winked at a delicious feline whose curvaceous figure belied her strength and capacity to kill and she returned the favour, smiling coyly at him.
The wink was the final straw. The usually coolheaded Shaktar lost his temper, allowing many years of pent-up anger to burst open like stinking pus from a festering wound. 'O King! No woman in your kingdom is safe anymore due to the lecherous ways of the court. Girls are routinely found on the banks of the Ganges--raped, murdered, or both. Usually their trail leads back to the royal palace!' he thundered.
Dhanananda, master of the largest standing army in the world, was furious. 'Hold your tongue, Shaktar, or I shall have it removed for you! You live off my grants and think that you have the right to come here and tell me--the most powerful emperor of the known world-- how to do my job?' he shouted, white spittle bursting forth from his lips along with each word. 'Rakshas! Have this rascal thrown into Nanda's Hell. Let him experience first-hand what a pain in the ass feels like,' he ordered Rakshas, his minister for internal security.
Nanda's Hell was the infamous torture chamber in Dhanananda's prison complex. The overseer, Girika, was a monster. Even as a child Girika had enjoyed catching and torturing ants, flies, mice and fish. He had later graduated to torturing cats and dogs, using hooks, nets, hot wax, boiling water and copper rods. Bloodcurdling screams could be heard at all hours from the dungeons in which Girika worked, wrenching out helpless prisoners' teeth with metal pliers, pouring molten copper on their genitalia and thrusting red-hot embers into their rectums.
Rakshas shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was his haemorrhoids acting up at the thought of the red-hot embers. He knew that he was wedged between a rock and hard place. Obey the monarch's orders and have the entire population brand him as the king's pimp-- which he was--or disobey the diktat and be sent to the dungeon himself.
Fond of dance, drama, music, literature and painting, Rakshas was a cultured and refined artiste. Being surrounded by resplendent feminine beauty in his artistic world offered him the ability to supply Dhanananda with the most ravishing women of the kingdom. This was the key to his success with the king. The master politician in Rakshas hated open confrontation. Why did Shaktar, the foolish tightass, have to go around stirring things up? Rakshas rose from his chair and reluctantly commanded his guards to arrest the prime minister.
Outside the gates of the royal palace, a solitary figure was standing on a stone ledge spewing venom at Dhanananda. 'Citizens of Magadha, this tyranny has continued far too long. The imperial thug, Dhanananda, has imprisoned the only minister capable of standing up to him. Are we going to stand here helplessly while we see a guardian of the kingdom--the wise and illustrious prime minister Shaktar--be treated in this shameful manner? How many more farmers have to commit suicide because the tax inspectors of Dhanananda loot their grain? How many more soldiers must die in battle because their armour has been compromised to make wine goblets for the king's pleasure? How many more mothers must cry over the corpses of their violated young daughters? How much longer are we going to tolerate this evil sovereign?' he cried.
A crowd had gathered. After all, the orator was no ordinary individual. He was Chanak--the most respected teacher in the kingdom--father of the wise Chanakya and a close friend and confidant of prime minister Shaktar. Kings vied with one another to send their sons and future princes to be trained in and educated for princely duties by Chanak.
Inside the palace, guards had seized Prime Minister Shaktar and had whisked him off through a series of secret passages to the dungeons. Rakshas had quietly instructed the lieutenant that Shaktar was to be treated decently and that Girika was to keep his hands off. 'Tell Girika that I will personally rip off his balls, roast them like chestnuts, and make him eat them for breakfast if he so much as touches a hair of the prime minister!' he had hissed to the lieutenant.
Rakshas had been contemplating his next move when the commander of the royal guards rushed in and sought a word with the king. The visibly shaken commander nervously revealed the news that a large crowd was gathered outside the palace and was being incited to revolt by Chanak.
Dhanananda flew into a fit of rage. His face contorted and the veins in his neck throbbed to the drumbeat of the guards marching outside. 'Kill the son of a whore! I want Chanak's head chopped off and displayed along the banks of the Ganges. Now!' he shrieked. The hapless commander scurried off to obey his whimsical leader's royal edict for fear of his own head being served up on a plate at the dinner table and being sampled by one of Dhanananda's courtesan tasters.
'He's dead, Vishnugupta. I am sorry for your loss, my son. The king's spies are everywhere. You must flee. They'll be looking for you,' explained Katyayan, a minister in Dhanananda's cabinet and a loyal friend of Chanak. While in court, he had heard the news of Chanak's slaying and had quickly hurried over to warn Chanak's son, Vishnugupta.
'But if I flee, who shall take care of my mother? She's too old to go anywhere,' began the boy.
'I shall look after her, don't worry,' said the gentle and assuring Katyayan.
'And Suvasini?' asked Vishnugupta. Suvasini was the daughter of the imprisoned prime minister Shaktar and had been Vishnugupta's childhood crush.
'I shall take care of everyone else if you will simply take care of yourself, Vishnugupta,' said Katyayan impatiently.
The blank expression on Vishnugupta's face startled Katyayan. There was no sign of either dejection or anguish. 'Do not call me Vishnugupta,' said the proud and angry boy to Katyayan. 'From today onwards the only identity I have is that of Chanakya--son of the noble Chanak!'
It was amavasya--the darkest night of the fortnight-- and Chanakya had waited patiently for two whole days to carry out the plan suggested by Katyayan. He had rubbed a mixture of charcoal and oil all over his body until he was jet black. The complete absence of moonlight and his shadowy appearance meant that he could move about stealthily along the unlit banks of the Ganges without being observed.
He followed Katyayan's precise instructions on how to locate the banyan tree along the riverbank. It was a sacred tree that would be worshipped on festivals and-- aware of this--Dhanananda's guards had hung Chanak's head on the branches of this particular one, knowing that ordinary people would not touch it. Having reached the banyan, Chanakya ignored the oil lamp at its base and started climbing the massive trunk. A foul stench soon guided him to the point where he could see his beloved father's head hanging like a ghoul from a branch to which his single lock of hair had been tied.
Chanakya felt tears well up in his eyes as he saw his father's severed head swinging to the eerie whistling winds. His father's eyes were wide open and there were gaping holes in both cheeks where insects had already started feasting. His mouth was firmly clenched shut, a silent reminder of one of his favourite--and now unfortunately ironic--maxims: 'A man who opens his mouth too often may end up meeting a tragic end, either from indigestion or execution!'
Chanakya steadied himself, clambered up the branch and swiftly untied the shikha. As gently as possible, he lifted the head, cradled it in his arms and reverentially kissed the crown. His tears were in full flood and rained upon his father's skull. He had not wept until this moment but he silently promised himself that this would be the only occasion on which he would allow himself to cry; Chanakya would make others cry. They would pay for what they had done. His tears would be paid for in blood.
He quickly scampered down the tree and wrapped his father's head in fresh muslin that he had brought with him. He then tied the muslin to his upper torso and jumped into the dark and ominous river. The shock of the freezing cold water took a few minutes to subside and he was soon making his way with firm strokes across the Ganges to the little Durga temple that lay across on the opposite bank.
Katyayan had bribed the royal guards to part with Chanak's body and had secretly arranged for the remains to be transported to the temple grounds. According to Hindu custom, a corpse had to be cremated before sundown, but the circumstances of Chanak's death meant that tradition would have to be given the go-by. If Dhanananda ever caught a whiff of the fact that Chanakya was cremating Chanak, he would not hesitate to send his cronies after the boy.
Emerging drenched from the strong current, he found the priest, a fearsome hunchback clad in a blood-red sheet, waiting for him on the riverbank. He was holding a flaming torch and silently gestured to Chanakya to follow him to the funeral pyre that had been prepared. Wordlessly, he took the muslin containing Chanak's head and placed it along with the rest of the body enclosed in the pyre. He handed over a bundle of burning grass to Chanakya and asked him to circumambulate the body once and to light the pyre thereafter. As flames enveloped Chanak's body, the priest handed him a bamboo and asked him to smash the corpse's head--supposedly an act that would free Chanak's soul trapped inside.
As the flames ebbed, the priest instructed Chanakya to take another dip in the Ganges and gave him a dry set of ochre robes to wear. Bathed and dressed, Chanakya took the small bundle that the priest offered him. It was a parting gift left for him by Katyayan. It contained a small dagger for his protection, fifty gold panas for his sustenance, and a letter to the dean of Takshila University.
Located over nine hundred miles away in the distant northwest, Takshila was the world's first university. It had been established almost three hundred years previously and graduated over ten thousand students each year in more than sixty subjects.
Chanakya began the long and arduous trek that would take over a year.
About the book:
Modern India happens to be just as riven as ancient Bharat by class hatred, corruption and divisive politics and this landscape is Gangasagar's feasting ground. Can this wily pandit--who preys on greed, venality and sexual deviance--bring about another miracle of a united India? Will Chanakya's chant work again? Ashwin Sanghi, the bestselling author of The Rozabal Line, brings you yet another historical spinechiller.
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