Of fine art and politics of jewellery making: an excerpt from Harini Srinivasan's historical fiction set in ancient India

The Curse of Anuganga
Book Excerpt 

A camaraderie, which was noticed by the others at the workshop. Even Vishnusharma commented on it when he saw his son and the two goldbeaters in an animated conversation, as they entered.

“Ah, so I am to understand that your time at Arya Vinayashura’s house was spent productively?"

Pranam, Arya, it was an interesting discussion. He was a bit upset that you and Somnath could not be present personally to offer your respects, but our young master, Shaunaka here, handled the situation impeccably," smiled Kumaragiri, as he then proceeded to give an account of what happened.

“Pitashri, Arya, would it be possible for you to send Suddhodhana with us tomorrow? His experience and knowledge would be of much help to all of us,” requested Shaunaka. At this suggestion, Suddhodhana, a master craftsman and experienced hand, seemed rather pleased and accepted it instantly. Hailing from a poor Sudra family, he still had not come to terms with his good fortune of being recognised by the master goldsmith who had promptly taken him in his workshop. He had been rather overwhelmed earlier in the afternoon when Somnath had told him that he would be required to craft jewellery for the Maharani. Who would wish for such a huge responsibility? What if he made a mistake and lost his job? Working in a rich merchant’s house sounded more convenient.

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“Tomorrow? Arya wishes that we start work without consulting Purohitji for an auspicious time? This does not sound good. Hmm, I am not sure if I would like to spare Suddhodhana entirely. He can come with you just for tomorrow,” asserted Vishnusharma. “We were called this morning to the palace, as you remember? The Maharani wants us to craft all the jewels for her, the princes and the royal family. The marriage of Prince Divakara has been fixed. Suddhodhana, as an experienced hand, and one of my best, is needed for that. I cannot see how this wedding at this Arya’s place can take precedence over a royal wedding!”

“Shaunaka, your gurubhai, Kaushika is here. I met him in one of the courtyards of the palace. He is here as a part of the royal entourage from Pataliputra. Upon recognising me, he was eager to come and meet you. He is here now and is paying his regards to Pitamahi and your Matashri. You should not keep him waiting any longer and should go and meet him.

“Arya, as you say, your wisdom and experience in these matters is more than mine. It is my honour to observe Suddhodhanaji tomorrow and benefit from his experience at least for tomorrow, if not after. I submit to your judgment and would like to take your leave now. Shubhasaayam,” said Shaunaka making his way to the inner chambers of his residence, where his childhood friend, Kaushika, who was now a Kumaramatya in Pataliputra, waited for him.

The day soon came to an end, with most of the workers leaving for their respective homes. Only Somnath and Kumaragiri stayed back to help Vishnusharma put together a plan of action so that work could commence the next morning for two weddings at two different places — the palace and the corner house in the Buddhist quarter.

“I had been meaning to ask you the entire day. Did you see the Maharani? The princes? Are they as god-like in person? Is the palace as magnificent as it looks from the outside?" asked a curious Kumaragiri, the moment Vishnusharma retired for the day.

“Bhuk! So many questions! Words cannot describe what I was fortunate to see today. But I will try. We have a long way back home,” said Somnath as they kept aside the tools and locked the workshop.

“Please go on. I am listening…”

“When Arya and I crossed the moat to the royal residences and the royal guards opened the main gateway — the one with the ivory and gold elephant and horse statues— I was overwhelmed. The palace is an entire city in itself – why it seemed to me like the kingdom of Kubera! Even Arya seemed a little dazzled. Even he had not stepped into these premises. As we entered, we were surprised to see a throng of people. A royal supervisor was shouting orders to his men who were filling the royal granaries. There are two large granaries as one enters, to the left and right of the main gateway. Next to that was the alms house. The queen had just finished distributing the alms in the alms house, we were told. Did you know that just like our dear Raja Rudrasena, who left us so soon, the Maharani also continues to offer her prayers to Lord Vasudeva and distribute alms twice a day?”

“What do I know of the dealings in the palace? All I heard was that the Maharani listens too much to her father and that Nandivardhana is turning into another Pataliputra.”

“Yes, that is what I had heard too. But then with two small children and a kingdom to manage, that was the best she could have done. Get advice from her father — what an illustrious king her father is, blessed by the Gods with bravery, wisdom and good fortune! Now, now, we do not have all evening, do we?”

The conversation continued as the two goldbeaters walked past the temple and the Brahmins quarter on to the main road that took them towards where traders and merchants lived. Since the tale was of much interest to both the narrator and the listener, they decided to stop by at a local tavern, just past the Chitrashala – a departure from their regular schedule, an extravagance that they could ill-afford – but one that was worth the effort, especially on such a momentous day!

The local tavern was a noisy place – filled choc-a-bloc with people from all strata of society. There was an actors’ troupe, drunk and loud as they flirted with a couple of women of disrepute. There were a group of merchants – of Yavana origin, probably or maybe Romans, if one noticed their build and colouring – discussing business. Feeling a little bit like outcastes in this charged atmosphere, the two goldbeaters modestly walked up to a relatively free corner and seated themselves and Somnath continued his account of the day.

“As we were walking towards nowhere, even Arya did not know where we had to go, the royal emissary, the one who delivered the message met us. Suryadeva is his name, a good boy… He took us past all the grandeur into one of the inner structures – a private section, definitely. We were stopped by a huge man who had the meanest expression on his face at the gate and were let in after Suryadeva told him why we were there. The grandeur on display is to be seen to be believed. Polished, shining tiles with beautiful coloured paintings lined the entire courtyard. The beautiful, lush, green gardens, the massive Chitrashalas, the bridges, why even the massive balustrades seemed to be adorned with pearls and rubies. I thought my eyes were playing a trick. And you should have seen the treasury!

“Treasury? You walked past that? You were allowed to take a look?” Kumaragiri’s mouth fell open.

“The treasury seemed like a town in itself; there were such huge rooms with craftsmen and artisans working in them. Silk and silk threads, pure cottons, gold, pearls, silver, rubies, corals and emeralds were everywhere. Jewellers like us, designers, weavers were intently producing new accessories and fineries. Why, I also spotted many well-known gold and jewel merchants in one of those rooms where the officials valuing and checking the jewels were seated. Why, Arya’s close friend, Vibhishaka was there. He came over to convey his regards to Arya as we walked past. There was an indescribable air of grandeur, splendour and excitement in the inner quarters.”

“Suryadeva confirmed that the Queen had indeed fixed the marriage of Prince Divakara to the Princess of Kamboja, upon the advice of her wise father. It was to take place within the next month — before the start of Pitru Paksha. The Rajapurohitji was yet to fix an auspicious time. He also mentioned that the royal party that had come in from Pataliputra the day before included several important officials who were here to help us all out. He opined that it was one of these officials who would be there presently to place the order with us. And while we waited for someone to come and tell us why we had been summoned, can you believe it? Maharaniji entered the room, in-person, accompanied by two of her advisors!”

“Ah the Maharaniji in person? How is she?”

“A combination of Ma Durga and Lakshmi, blessed with a beauty that goes beyond the physical appearance, with compassion and wisdom shining through her eyes. Why, her innate mental strength comes through – making her stand taller than her actual physical height. She made us feel welcome; was very polite as she explained to Arya the type of jewels she wished to get made. Imagine, we are going to craft jewels for the entire royal family! I feel blessed to have been there today and to have been in front of such an admirable Queen. You tell me, how was your meeting with Arya Vinayashura. Was he really as horrid as that Ashwini described him to be? He does tend to exaggerate quite a lot.”

“Oh yes, that man was indeed despicable and for no reason, it seems. There are richer merchants in town — look at those Yavanas sitting there, they seem equally wealthy. Only Lord Vasudeva knows why Arya behaved that way. He seemed as if he had a problem with everyone. Shaunaka thinks that he is just a deeply unhappy man with too many resentments and that makes him be horrible to the rest of us. Probably Shaunaka is right. His wife, Devi Tanirika seemed scared and worried too – scared of her husband is what Ashwini thought. But Shaunaka was not too sure. I was too dazzled by her beauty so I did not look up to observe her,” said Kumaragiri reflectively as he ran through the day’s events.

“Strange man! Too much talk about that house though. Was it as impressive as has been rumoured?”

“Umm, I am not too good at describing it, but I felt awed by it. The house is large and beautiful but made dark by that horrible man. Aargh, I do not have any interest in working there tomorrow under his watchful eyes. Wonder what makes him so horrible. Is he not bothered about his next life? I think we should leave now, it is getting late and work will begin in earnest tomorrow morning.”

As the two goldbeaters left, they did not observe the reaction of the middle-aged gentleman who was seated at the next table. Wearing a black shawl matching his dark complexion that covered his slight build and revealed only his sharp, observant eyes, he had a mop of curly, unruly hair tinged with silver on his round head. He sat there observing and watching the antics of his fellow tavern members – especially the noisy, rollicking theatre troupe. Had the two gold-beaters been more aware of the world they lived in, they would have recognised him as being the Mahakavi himself! Had they been less oblivious of their surroundings, they would have realised that the name Arya Vinayashura had taken the Mahakavi by surprise.

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