The Dancing Princess
Tamba, the bronze winged eagle, hovered, scanning the folds of the snowy cordilleras with his extraordinary vision. He was guarding the Himalayan kingdom of Kinnara nestled below. Its crystal palaces, golden temples and deep lakes seized the quivering sunbeams, and reflected it to the heavens. It glittered amidst the velvety-white landscape, like teardrops.
Yesterday, Tamba had spotted a messenger sent by the slave King Vrikodar, of the cannibals, who lived eight mountains away. The iron sickle, that the human brandished fearfully, was no match for the silver talons that gouged his eyes cleanly out of their sockets. Before the messenger’s face hit the cold ground, and if he could only see, he would know that his own eyes now lay by his feet, neatly placed in a row.
This sort of vengeance, was common to these parts. If Tamba was captured beyond the white horizon, his beak, wings and talons would be severed, and his body flung like dice, in the filthy bazaar, where dogs and men alike would fight and feed on him mercilessly.
The great eagle — protector and watchman, served the Bulinda head of Kinnara, King Heramb, the ninth reincarnate of the great God. Like his father before him, Tamba would lay down his life, or kill, for his king.
King Heramb paced back and forth the mosaic arcade, with Chandan-ji, the holy man, closely at his heels. The godly man was intoning the rules of the Barthashahtra to a tune that would lull anyone to sleep, as his king secretly scorned at some of the laws, although one could hardly guess what he was really thinking, from his regal visage.
It was that time of the century when the kings of the four Northern Kingdoms were to meet in the valley of flowers. They would participate and sign the treaty of Danushad to renew old alliances and celebrate loyalty and friendship that their forefathers had left them. This entente safeguarded them against their enemies. Together, the four kingdoms of Rarabar, Namvoj, Wunas and Kinnara were indestructible, yet King Heramb was nervous. He had heard a rumour only four days ago that the Immortals were planning an invasion, and his heart was heavy.
“My Lord,” said Chandan-ji bowing low, “The other three kings have sent word that they will arrive when the Brahmakamal flower blooms”.
“When do we leave?” asked the king.
“Send for Princess Leela. Make haste!”
Chandan-ji withdrew with a measured gait, careful not to show his back to the king.
The princess was in the garden when she was summoned, and as she gently ran to her father, an eastern fragrance went before her, and King Heramb raised his eyes to greet her, before she appeared.
“You are lovelier than spring!” he said as he rose to take her hand.
“Father! I hear you are leaving, how long will it be this time?” her midnight eyes implored, dolefully.
“It won’t be too long this time Leela. I have decided that you will accompany me.”
She was overjoyed at this sweet surprise, and immediately pressed her head against his mighty frame.
“I am so glad, father! I am tired of the monotony. This will be a great adventure,” she squealed delightfully.
“I have already sent word to your mother, she is packing your finest clothes. Leela, make sure to take your ghungroos. There will be many royal princes there. I’m sure you will sweep them off their feet with your beautiful dance. Every single one of them!”
“Yes father,” she replied shyly, and flittered away joyously.
The royal cavalcade with a total of 101 men and women, five elephants, and 2 silver chariots set off, a few minutes before the purple dawn turned into turmeric sunshine. Princess Leela sat between her attendants and drawing the silk purdah, looked back at the palace. She felt a strange grief overcome her and wiped a heavy tear that trickled from the corner of her eye. It was her first time leaving home and her mother. Tamba was leading at a distance so the king dozed off peacefully.
An hour later, he was rudely awoken by a cold blade. With a trembling heart, he looked up to discover his worst nightmare before his eyes. A congregation of forty men surrounded him on the most muscular horses he had ever laid his eyes on. A large dagger, still aimed at him menacingly, was held by a man wearing a scale armour coat who seemed to be their leader.
He had heard stories about the Immortals, but he had never expected to see them in the flesh in his lifetime. The king was afraid, but he would rather die than show his cowardice. So he bravely shouted in a deep voice.
“Let us pass. I am King Heramb of Kinnara and I am on my way to a peaceful meeting. As you can see, we are carrying very few weapons for we did not intend to start a war.”
The leader, in a strange tongue, called one of his men to bring forth a bag.
“Is that why your bird killed two of our men?”
He threw the large sack, still dripping, near the king’s feet, and with a voice as rough as stone, he added scornfully, “An eye for an eye! We have taken your daughter. You can be on your way.”
“But.. she is a child. Take me instead,” bellowed the king, his voice belying the horror he felt at this declaration.
“This is outrageous!”
His words were lost to the wind, for the savage Immortals had already charged away into the horizon. King Heramb, furious and pained, called his advisors immediately and they sent four messengers, three to each of the Northern Kingdoms and one to the slave king of the Cannibals.
When Princess Leela came to her senses, (she had fainted when the men accosted her), she noticed the ground was running. She saw the galloping feet, and knew at once she was hurled across the animal, while her kidnapper was making speed. She was wondering how she could make an escape when suddenly the horse stopped and she was lifted down by hefty hands of the leader. She could not see the man’s face, for it was swathed, but his piercing, kohl eyes, frightened her. She looked away and addressed him proudly.
“If you must kill me, do it fast, and dispose of my body in a holy manner.”
Ignoring her, he announced to the rest of his men, “Let us rest here tonight.”
She stood on the cold snowy ground, for a half hour, dejected, scared, and chilled to the bone, until one of the men poured water from the bota-bag into her cupped palm. Leela drank greedily, for even a princess has needs.
By nightfall, the princess was livid at the indifference to her presence. She marched up to where the men were sitting, around a small fire, and exclaimed in a controlled voice.
“They will send armies for me. There will be no mercy. Release me at once!”
The men jeered, taunting her, as they thumped each other’s backs vociferously.
“They will not catch up for at least a week,” said the leader, who was as serious as a rock. He continued, “and by then, our army would be there to welcome them.”
It was then that Leela understood and her blood grew cold.
They had spied Tamba first! He had never attacked any of them. She felt sick to her stomach, her face now drained of any color or hope.
She realized she was the bait!
A long prophesied war with the Immortals was about to begin, and Princess Leela, was mortified that she was going to lead her father and his army into grave danger. The next day the kidnappers traversed across the mountains at a faster pace, eager to catch up with their army. When they halted at night, they openly discussed combat strategies and schedules. As they moved from one place to another, they always left something behind. Once, they took some locks of the princess’s hair and stuck it on a detached goat head. It was then affianced to a spike and stuck into the cold snow. It was their intention to be followed, and to be found. She stole glances at the men when she had a chance, and gasped. In all her life she had never seen beings that looked like them. They towered like giants, all of them the same height. During the day their faces were covered by a steel mask. They wore raw hide tunics with horizontal rows of iron lamellae. Each man carried detachable shields on their arms and several weapons. There was a short sword, a long shining blade with a wooden handle, a quiver with bow and arrows and also a small purple pouch, which she knew not the contents of. On their heads they wore a leather cover which extended from the sides until the end of their ear. Their eyes, the princess feared the most, because at night they glowed. As if these men, were not completely human.
For the first time in her life, the princess began to desperately worry about the fate of her family and the Kingdom of Kinnara. For two long nights, she prayed to her ancestors and to the Gods. She fasted, refusing food and water. Then just before sunset, on the third day of her captivity, a vision came to her. She went to the leader.
“I have a request,” she said softly, not looking directly at him.
“I know I will die soon, for I have seen it in my dreams. It is my last wish to perform a dance I have learned, in front of an audience. It is the only legacy I can leave, so people will remember my life on earth.”
The mocking laughter of the men echoed, for they had never heard such an absurd thing. The leader was silent for a few minutes, weighing the options of this strange request. It would be good entertainment for his men who would be engaged in battle for the next few weeks, maybe even months. He nodded his consent.
Princess Leela returned to her tent, and began to ready herself. She wore a fine dress with tiny gold leaves upon it. Her dainty hands then applied special colors from glass jars to her lips, eyes and cheeks. She braided her hair with pearl beads. Finally she dabbed some rose fragrance onto her neck from the little crystal bottle that she always kept hidden in her bosom.
For the next three nights, the blue mountains reverberated with the vibrations from her dance, and, the music from her ghungroos pierced the deepest valleys and highest peaks.
On the first night, she performed the dance of Sathak — her sinuous hands and feet narrating the stories of the wandering shepherds of the Zivalaik range. The second night, she danced Edra-Bagadhi, through which she revered her ancestral God, by imitating perfectly the stances of Nbhanga, Rabhan and Vanuka.
The Immortal men were by now, more than enchanted, and could not wait for the next dance.
On the third night, before she could begin, Princess Leela closed her eyes and reverently touched the dust in front of her feet to her forehead. When she opened her eyes, to her delight, the audience was seated and ready. They bellowed words of encouragement, as she stood before them, ready to begin.
She inaugurated the evening’s performance with the Mataraj pose, balancing one leg atop another expertly, not a single ghungroo making a sound, and her audience clapped sonorously. Slowly she progressed, to Kasya, a gentle dance expressing beauty, and they clapped louder. When she began the third part of the dance, the princess began softly reciting a holy chant to the God of Death. Her eyes changed into deep crimson, and with a loud murmur, she vigorously initiated the sacred dance of destruction, Rudrako.
By now the men were reduced to screaming rabble, as they encircled her, banging their feet with loud exclamations, pleading for more. Never before had any of them witnessed a beautiful princess transform into a pictorial allegory of mesmerizing energy and passion.
The leader of the Immortals moved closer, sensing the danger that her movements were stirring up. He raised his hands, trying to stop the men, but they paid no heed to their leader. They seemed to be caught under a spell as they moved in the throes of a strange frenzy, drunk with dreams, their eyes moist, and heads shaking violently like deranged lunatics.
“Stop!” he screamed.
But, alas, it was too late! He fell to the ground, pushed by a mighty force.
The princess’ magical incantations, to the horror of all men, called upon the Earth’s serpents. They came out from the ground, from behind the rocks, some fell from the sky, and ambushed the men, their tongues spitting deadly venom and fire.
The princess kept dancing with closed eyes, oblivious to the evil forces that were pitted against each other. When she began the dance of death, she had no idea that she would be stirring up the only force capable of destroying the Immortals.
Their faces first turned black from the poison emitted from deadly fangs, and then, one after the other, they turned to stone.
After every one of them had been annihilated, the serpents stopped and gazed at the Princess Leela. They swayed to and fro, charmed by her sound and dance, until her shimmering face, like thousand stars, lulled them to sleep and they vanished just as suddenly as they had appeared.
The dawn broke and all was peaceful again.
The four Northern Kingdoms, along with the cannibals and their gallant armies, led by King Heramb, defeated the armies of the Immortals, and they retreated a hundred mountains behind. Yet, Princess Leela was never found, save her silver ghungroos, in the midst of the remains of the statue warriors.
Some nights, travellers say, they see a girl whose face is whiter than the jasmine flower, dancing on the mountains, in mystical light. Her hair radiant, her feet moving with a passionate fervor, enrapturing their weary souls.
Those who behold her, suffer endless sleepless nights as their souls search for the mystical being, while others rapturously close their eyes, to sleep the sleep of eternity.