The Adventure of the Snake Princess — Thugee in British India # 1
In March 1847, which is the time period of the true incidents that follow, the British had not fully conquered the Indian subcontinent or established what later came to be known as the British Raj (rule). Captain Smith served Queen’s commission in the central provinces (present day state of Madhya Pradesh in central India) that had jungles infested with elephants, lions, and among the more exotic creatures — thugs — a murderous band of dacoits and conmen. The series of reports filed by the Captain with his Commanding Officer in the cantonment were categorised as classified in the archives of Whitehall. These archives were subsequently transferred to the British office of Commonwealth. For nearly 170 years they were simply forgotten; in the maze of files that stretch for miles below the ground.
As often is the case, a chance discovery by Ms. Susan Carol, a researcher, looking for something else altogether in the archives, unearthed the forgotten treasure trove. She termed her discovery as ‘X Files from British India’, after the popular American TV franchise. One of the first such reports filed by Captain Smith dealt with the tattoo of the snake princess and the curious case of the oldest vampire of the world…
(Facsimile of Captain Smith’s report’s first page. The image has been digitally restored.)
The Commanding Officer,
Please find attached my detailed reports on the tattoo of the snake Princess and the creature ‘Darky’ (known as Pishachini or Piśāchini in the local dialect). It is a half human-half animal creature that terrorised the locals in my jurisdiction over the period of 5 months. It sucked the blood out of its human victims and established a reign of terror that has no parallel in our experience here.
Captain Roger J. Smith
East India Company
Under my personal seal & signature
X-Files from British India # 1: The Adventure of the Snake Princess
The old man with the overflowing gray beard was again telling Elizabeth something. She could see his lips move and the gestures of his hand. But like so many times before, she could not hear his words. Her gaze shifted to the tattoo on her left arm, a ferocious snake with the body of a woman with exposed breasts — like a mermaid. The blinding light made the fakir and the tattoo disappear and then there was darkness. The reoccurring dream has a meaning…that only time could decipher for her.
Central Provinces, India March 1870
The engine of the East Indian Railway Company chugged along the line that passed through the wilderness of the central provinces, far away from the semblance of order of the British cantonment and headquarters at Calcutta. It was still a wild country here, untamed by civilization, the land of the heathen with strange ways. Apart from the customs clerk at the port, no less than a dozen well-meaning people had warned the woman about the perils of taking the dangerous journey by herself.
But the headstrong anthropologist educated at Cambridge, who had a lineage of military men and hunters, was unimpressed by the dangers of the trip. She looked at the wild bushes and arid landscape outside; the railhead would be reached by evening and then more travel. She was wearing khaki pants with a white shirt that hid the tattoo on her arm.
“Not much of a view until we reach the great jungle,” commented someone with a heavy throat.
Turning her head, Elizabeth saw her countryman in uniform. His blond hair was parted cleanly and pasted to his scalp and his moustache well cared for. “I am sure you must have been told umpteen times by now, as to how dangerous these parts are that are not quite under British control yet,” he added, sitting on the berth opposite her.
“Do you disagree with that, Sir?”
“No. But those of us who like the countryside and jungles, we thrive on danger like a tiger who‘s hot on the scent of his prey.”
Elizabeth picked up the map of the area that had been arranged by an acquaintance in the army, ignoring the uninvited company. When the stubborn man refused to take the hint and leave, she looked straight into his cold butcher eyes.
“I can help you, if you are planning to go someplace. You‘ll not find too many markings in that,” he said, pointing at the map.
“Thank you for your generous offer, sir, but I can find my way.”
“Sure. In case you need any assistance, just ask for Gora Sahibs’ (white officer) place from any of the locals,” he said getting up.
“I would rather trust a wolf, than you Mister.”
“Your wish my lady, but you won‘t find me far away, wherever you wander in my territory,” he warned, adjusting the round cap on his head.
Long after he had turned and left, he could feel the blazing eyes of the determined woman, piercing through his back and felt the urge to send for his favourite hot but foulmouthed local girl in the night.
* * ************************************
“I knew you would come here one day; it was destined in the stars,” said the Fakir (Hindu holy man), examining the symbol on the left arm of the European woman.
“What does this mean, this tattoo?” asked Elizabeth, who sat next to the cross-legged man under a Pipal tree. Both seemed oblivious to their surroundings, despite the vast jungle that stretched far beyond the modest hut next to them.
“It is your karma, the deeds, the unfulfilled desires and the work of your past life that has brought you here, beti (daughter),” the keeper of the small temple of Hanumana (Indian monkey-god) replied through the interpreter.
When the chirping of the birds died down, the anthropologist took her eyes away from the group of monkeys eating chana (gram) and said, “I had this strange tattoo on my body since birth; first, they thought of it as an insignificant birthmark, but as I grew up so did the marking.”
The conversation was interrupted by an argument between the fakir and the middle-aged interpreter — a local with knowledge of English that Elizabeth had hired at great expense from the remote town at the edge of the great forest. The fakir got up and went to feed the monkeys, signalling the abrupt end of the conversation.
“What‘s the matter, Jiwan? Why have you become so angry?”
“You cannot trust him, memsa’b (madam). I‘ll take you to a knowledgeable priest at the temple on a hill near the town.”
“I need your translation, not opinion.”
“He…he says that you need to go to the head priest of the shrine of Seeshnaga, fifty miles from here. They are the worshippers of the snake-god with a hundred hoods. But I tell you, this man must be a thug or their agent.”
“Who are these thugs? I have been hearing about them and their thugee constantly.”
“They have descended from robbers and dacoits and kill people for a living. The fakir will alert them and have us mugged or killed on our way to the shrine! I have a wife and children to take care of…I am leaving.”
“My grandfather shot dead a rabbit with this pistol a long time back. Do you think it is still working well, Jeewanlal?” she asked, taking out a handgun and pointing it casually at her interpreter to help him make up his mind.
The English woman was unaware of a pair of murky eyes that looked at her through the window of the hut as she passed the idol of the monkey-god plastered with sticky orange sindoor (vermilion).
“It is magnificent!” said Elizabeth, as they reached the ancient shrine of the snake god Seeshnaga after a long and arduous journey through the jungle.
The place was by no means isolated as she had mistakenly imagined, neither was the ground covered with crawling reptiles as she had feared. The shrine was a place of pilgrimage and over time a shanty town had developed around it. A stair path with the crowded bazaar on both sides led to the main shrine complex, which was lined with cheap lodges for pilgrims, priests, and sadhus (Hindu ascetics). There was also a stable for horses, donkeys, and elephants at the edge of the town.
Passing mules, monkeys, cows, beggars, pilgrims and numerous touts offering lodges or vendors selling prasadam (offerings of sweets, milk and flowers) they reached the enclosed courtyard of the shrine. Elizabeth could feel the rocky surface beneath her feet, sticky with the milk spilled over the centuries. The air was filled with an overpowering odour of marigold flowers and oil that was being fried to cook food for the pilgrims in the bazaar.
Presently, her guide came back with a small man with a fat belly who wore the yellow clothes of a priest. “The head priest has agreed to meet you after the Maha-aarti (prayers) in the evening, after his assistant sees your tattoo.”
They had to step aside to let a palaki (palanquin), carrying a huge quantity of gold ornaments pass that was carried by villagers as an offering to the deity. The singing, chanting and dancing devotees had worked them into a religious frenzy. Once they were gone, the priest rubbed the tattoo with his oil soaked hands, and giving a last queer glance of respect, fear and apprehension went away. It was the last time Elizabeth was to see him alive.
* * ************************************
The Maha-aarti at the shrine was a spectacle to behold, a riot of colours and music with uncountable lamps lit up with scented oil, incense sticks, an aura of light, devotion, and faith unlike Elizabeth had ever experienced. She felt gooseflesh all over her skin as she looked at the idol with innumerable hoods, whose fiery eyes were perhaps the largest and most expensive collection of rubies anywhere in the world.
She met the head priest half an hour later in a room behind the idol, in the inner sanctum. The man was remarkably agile and alert for his advancing years. His round face and pot belly showed his preference for easy living. Once he examined the tattoo, his demeanour changed from suspicion to exhilaration.
“I never dreamed that I would live to see this day. The ancient promise has been fulfilled. The princess has come back. Here, see this,” he said opening a gold rectangular box with a red linen cloth, from which he took out and unwrapped an old book of worn plant leaves with ancient scripture. “This was written 500 years ago and it is passed to each head priest by his predecessor.”
Elizabeth saw the drawing of her tattoo. But the real shock came when saw her own image, she was dressed in the picture wearing garlands and leaves and sitting on a throne. How was this possible? But before she could question the priest, the dead body of his young assistant, whom she had met earlier in the day fell before them and all hell broke loose. A gang of sword-wielding men dressed in black turbans, whose open end covered their faces, grabbed the head priest and hit her on the head with the handle of the sword making her lose consciousness.
The aroma of the tea in the evening, the warmth of the kitchen and the loving smile of her mother that Elizabeth was dreaming about was suddenly replaced with the overpowering smell of wet leaves and mud as the sky opened up above and she rudely came back to consciousness. She found that she was lying on the ground with her ankles and hands tied.
“Why did these thugs attack the temple, Jeevan?” she asked.
“For the gold and treasure, memsa’b,” he said, lying on the ground tied up like his client.
“But why did they assault the head priest and abduct us?”
“Perhaps for revenge and in our case for ransom, these people are the followers of the goddess Kali and have a centuries-old feud with the followers of the snake god and Lord Shiva. Too bad they struck just before the priest was about to reveal the truth about the tattoo.”
“I guess they have changed their minds,” she said as the leader of the thug approached her and raised the sword above his head.
She closed her eyes and thought of her father and their horse-riding — her fondest memory, which was much preferable to the ferocious face of her murderer as the last image to be imprinted on her memory.
The familiar grip of the strong hand of the tall, handsome man reassured the little girl as they walked past the lake while the horses grazed at leisure. The beauty of the Scottish countryside with its scenic green pastures, hills, castles and old chapels was spread all around them.
“We often ignore the truth in our preference for the fanciful, my lovely daughter. All the answers are in your heart; just close your eyes and let go. The heart knows both the question and the answer; just let go and it will find you. Let your soul be your guide for what is right and wrong.”
Two successive gunshots made her open her eyes. She saw two thugs lying on the ground on their faces, while the other two made good their escape. Her slender countryman with a well-kept moustache said, “I told you that you wouldn‘t find me far away in this territory. Too bad you brought my orderly here and got him almost killed. Lieutenant Mark, untie them and bring them to my house.”
“What did the priest at the hilltop temple tell you, my lady? You visited him yesterday again after your rescue,” asked Captain Thomas, as they sat on the veranda of his house in the evening with a lamp placed in the middle of the bamboo table between them.
“He told me that, as per the Sanskrit scriptures, I was a tribal princess and my father had accepted the snake lord as our patron deity and got this tattoo made on my arm. I have been reincarnated, but only the head priest knew for what purpose.”
“A tremendous leap of faith; from and Evangelical to a follower of the heathens‘ mumbo-jumbo.”
“You have a better explanation?”
“Yes,” the reply and the follow-up act were both equally unexpected.
“Here are the boiled eggs and potatoes you ordered, Sa’ab,” said the orderly.
“How much did you make from the thugs, Jeewanlal?” he asked, getting up and slapping the orderly on his face.
He cried, and holding the feet of his master, started crying, “Please forgive me, sa’ab; I was blinded by greed.”
“What‘s the truth of the scriptures?” he demanded, his butcher eyes tearing through the culprit.
“An artist saw her and got her likeness drawn on the old leaves; the idea was to make money from her. The head priest had cooked up the entire scheme; I was only to get a good commission.”
“But what about the detailed snake tattoo drawing on the leaves?” asked Elizabeth.
“Did you show it to anyone before you reached the temple?” asked the Captain.
“Only the fakir. Oh my God! He was an impostor; he was the artist who made those drawings and sent them to the shrine before I reached there. You little scum,” she grabbed the orderly by the collar and slapped him angrily.
“So much for your adventure and revelation,” said the Englishman, as he sat back to enjoy his snacks with scotch.
20 years earlier…London…England
In the darkness, the little girl felt her hand and legs tied and could smell water. Unknown to her, she was in an underground cellar near the river Thames in London. She strained her ears to hear the disjointed words.
“…can‘t ‘old her ‘ere forever,” said a female voice.
“I‘ll release her after her father pays the ransom,” replied a male voice.
“What if ‘e doesn‘t?”
“That‘s why I got the tattoo made on her arm, to sell to the Egyptians as a slave, a pharaoh princess reborn. The artist assured me that the tattoo would look like a birthmark when she grew up.”
Again the darkness followed by whistles, men in uniform, a drive to her house, her mother‘s loving face and more forgotten bits of overheard conversation.
“The doctor says she is still in a state of shock, but otherwise she is fine. It will be better for everyone if she forgets about this. She‘s much too young to remember it anyway; the memory will fade away.”
“And the tattoo?”
“Let it be. We‘ll tell her when she is old enough to understand.”
The long dream was to stay with Elizabeth long after she woke up the next day, as did the words of her father of how we ignore the truth in our preference for the fanciful. The tattoo looked back with the same mystique it always had. But now she had found meaning and truth in her life and hope that her nightmares would finally fade away.