15 December, 2016

#SpecialFeature :: Read an #Excerpt from Abhaya by Saiswaroopa Iyer

*** Special Feature - December 2016 ***

About the Book:

A tale set in the times of Mahabharata. An assertive and idealistic Princess Abhaya meets the enigmatic Krishna Vaasudeva. A bereaved Dhatri, hounded by her own family is saved by Lord Bhauma. When subverted religion becomes a tool in the hands of power thirsty and strikes Bharatavarsha, the land of Aryas, Abhaya finds herself face to face with the impending doom. 

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An Excerpt

“Welcome to the abode of the Supreme Goddess.”  The voice rang across the temple hall as Bhauma faced the followers of the Shakta order who had convened here from various corners of Bharatavarsha. “In these trying times where lesser gods and their worship has assumed intimidating heights, you the honourable Shaktas have chosen to stick to the only true path of Moksha, the way of the Supreme Goddess."
A cheer erupted in the temple of Kamaksha. The temple hall facing the Sanctum of Goddess Kamaksha teemed with hundreds of Shakta practitioners. For a cult that normally chose a reclusive life, this was a welcome event that brought them all together. Groups had arrived from across Bharatavarsha, from the secluded hill areas of northern and eastern corners and even from the south of Vindhyas. The fatigue of travel, though, was forgotten as they listened to effusive words of praise and reverence from the Lord of Kamarupa himself.
Away from the larger groups, a woman stared at the cheering crowd. Perhaps her own lack of excitement was due to fatigue. Kadambari had travelled all the way from the southern parts of Bharatavarsha to Kamarupa. She turned to another woman beside her who she had met at Varanasi, on the way to Kamarupa
“Why does he deem the other gods inferior?” she asked in a whisper. The woman shrugged at the question and turned back to catch Bhauma's words. Another loud cheer erupted. Kadambari looked around. Had she missed something? A male Sadhaka sat leaning against a nearby pillar.
“The Mother Goddess will grace us in person!” he said.
In person? Kadambari turned back to the dais where Bhauma stood, facing the sanctum. The door of the small room to the left of the sanctum opened and Kadambari saw three women walk out, dressed in red. She saw Bhauma’s hands rise and come together over his head as he bowed low. People followed suit saluting the three women as they first faced the crowd, then turned towards the sanctum.
“Supreme Goddess Kamaksha! Your devotees, the Shaktas, have gathered. Bestow your grace. May we bathe in the effulgence that surrounds you. May we drown in the sea of your compassion. May we stay blessed as you grace us in person.”
Kadambari watched him prostrate and saw the three women kneel and bow before the shrine of Kamaksha. The shrine that represented the Yoni of the Supreme Goddess was decorated with garlands. Kadambari looked around for the members of the group she had arrived with. They were mingling with the rest, making new acquaintances. The senior most among them, her guru Vamanatha, who initiated her into the Vamachara Shakta order, sat aloof. The old man’s eyes were closed.
When she saw him opening his eyes, Kadambari moved to his side. “Gurudeva”
“I regret coming here.” Vamanatha’s words were more of a whisper. “This is not the high seat of Shaktism. He is not a true Shakta.”
Kadambari held his arm, relieved that he had expressed what she had felt. “Shouldn’t we voice our thoughts, Gurudeva?”
“No, just look around you.” Vamanatha cautioned. In his tired eyes, there was a disappointment. “The fools get excited at the mere thought of pursuing a ‘superior’ religion. Practising a religion is a personal Saadhana, Kadambari. We don’t choose a religion because of stupid claims of superiority. We choose a certain religion not only because its tenets suit our temperament, but also because practising those tenets helps us to overcome our weaknesses. It is an endeavour to kill false pride and the sense of superiority. It is an endeavour to feel one with the universe.” Vamanatha’s voice had started to falter.
Kadambari felt a stab of guilt at the thought of her own initial enthusiasm about visiting the famed seat of Vamachara Shaktism. Vamanatha had never shown much inclination towards attending the conclave. But he could not deny the enthusiasm of his students.
“Gurudeva, if we don’t protest now….” Kadambari stopped when she saw Vamanatha shake his head vigorously.
He glanced around to make sure that none was listening to them. He need not have worried as everyone else was spellbound by the prospect of seeing the 'Goddess in person’ that Bhauma had promised them. “He, this Bhauma, cannot be taken lightly. He seeks to control the Shakta cult. I am afraid it is not just the cult he seeks to control. It might be... it might be….”
Kadambari swallowed seeing the growing concern on Vamanatha’s wrinkled face. His hands sought her support, his discomfort increasing at every word. She stroked his shoulder gently. “I understand, Gurudeva. Who knows, if we are outnumbered, they might even tell these soldiers to harm us.”
“We shall leave this place by dawn. This is not the temple of Shakti. This is a tool in the hands of a wayward overlord lusting for power,” Vamanatha whispered.
Someone clutched at Kadambari’s arm startling her. She glared at the intrusion. The Shakta looked apologetic. He then pointed towards the sanctum. “Pay attention. Don’t miss the spectacle!”
Despite her growing disgust, Kadambari turned back to the sanctum. Bhauma and the three women were still seated on the dais. Suddenly, a flower garland fell off the platform onto the shoulders of one of the women. A hush descended on the crowd and then gave way to gasps. Kadambari watched, unsmiling.
“The Supreme Goddess has chosen her medium!” Bhauma announced. His words reverberated across the hall. “You see in front of you, the personification of the Goddess, Mahadevi Dhatri.”
Kadambari’s eyes narrowed. A cheer much louder than before erupted and the crowds rose to their feet. She glanced at Vamanatha. His eyes remained closed. From what she had learnt about the Vamachara practice, she understood the distinct rituals of Mudra, Maamsa, Madhira, Meena and Maithuna as symbolic of the human pleasures. The pinnacle of pleasure when the mind went beyond physical yearning was, Vamanatha had taught her, the state of bliss, the state of Shiva. The Shakta order considered women the embodiment of Shakti, the giver of the bliss, which made them worthy of worship.
The crowd jostled for a glimpse of the woman declared the Mahadevi. Kadambari leaned back against the pillar, rebellion in her heart rising. Isn’t every woman a personification of Shakti, the energy, the very Goddess? What is the need of a Mahadevi and how could she become the only voice of the Supreme Mother?
Kadambari made her way out of the crowds to the outer sanctum. The day seemed to wane quicker in the eastern part of the land.
The unrest in her heart did not die even in the evening when the other woman from Varanasi came to her side and gave her a leaf bowl filled with a mixture of boiled grains and pulses. It was dark and she did not move from the sheltered corner after eating the meal. Kamarupa. There was something about this place that did not allow her to sleep. She waited for dawn, eager to leave this place as soon as she could with Vamanatha. Following his advice, she refrained from arguing with anyone.
This place has three layers of fortification. Why, in the name of Amba, does a temple town need such defences? The outermost fortification housed the soldiers and guards. Armed to the teeth, far beyond anything she had seen at Avanthi and Prabhasa. The middle layer housed the practitioners and the innermost one the temple and the palaces of Lord Bhauma and his close associates. Like something is hidden here?
“You there, it is time to move out of the sanctum.” The condescension in the guard's voice irritated her.
“I came here on invitation. Treat your guests with respect!”
The guard looked suitably chastised. “Nobody sleeps in the open. It is an order that the pilgrims vacate this place by sunset. There are rooms made comfortable for you just outside. Where is the rest of your group?”
Kadambari moved towards the nearest exit. The guard took his position there as she left.
“That area over there isn’t safe. You might fall off the cliff,” he called out and she nodded without turning.
Given a choice, Kadambari wanted to leave the place as soon as she could. Walking around in the middle ring, she found the Shakta practitioners chatting. Most of them found the rooms they had been given very comfortable compared to their usual forest residences.
“We don’t need to take turns and look out for a wild animal,” a woman remarked aloud to none in particular. “We can all sleep well tonight.”
Kadambari sighed. An hour later, she found herself in one of the rooms. The night was dark outside, and the silence, punctuated only by the noise of crickets, belied the fact that there were so many pilgrims camped there. Kadambari closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She was on the brink of sleep when a sudden scream pierced the night.  

About the Author:

An IITian and investment professional turned author, Saiswaroopa's interests include Indian history, literature and Philosophy. Also trained in Carnatic Music, she has won a gold medal from Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams in rendering Annamacharya Kritis. Currently based in London, she is working on her next novel based on a Rig Vedic Legend. 

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