TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
Men, women and children, including pregnant mothers and those with babes in arms - some nursing, some sleeping or just playing or crying ... packed like sardines on grass ground covered in several sections with coconut leaves or paals (opened bags sewn together to form a sheet). Scores of others had standing room on the outside of those seated.
There were by far more women than men ... although it was night - lit only by several gas-lamps and flambeaux, and the massive tent in which they were all crowded was made of bamboo pillars and covered with several tarpaulins, that leaked here and there whenever the drizzling rain intensified.
But what seemed as inconveniences mattered little or not at all. They had all come from far and near, not so much to witness the Hindu overnight wedding taking place a few houses away from the tent, but to witness the most popular and heart-stirring open air dance drama of the time ... the Trials of Harischandra, King of Ayodhya.
Prior to the 1950's most Hindu weddings in Trinidad took place at night between the months of May to October ... lagaan (period determined as favourable by astrologers) time. Apart from the teeluck, which usually took place a week or two before the wedding, when the bride's brother (following pujan) presented the bridegroom-to-be with gifts, there would be the Hardee on the Friday, followed by a series of other ceremonies during the day on Saturday.
The baraat ... the bridegroom and his entourage ... usually arrived at the bride's home during dusk on the Saturday. Following the dwaar puja (welcoming ceremony), the bridegroom and his entourage ... baraatians .. would be accommodated the tent, where they would entertain themselves with music and dances of one kind or another.
At that time there were troupes of dancers with their own group of musicians, scattered throughout the land. Normally, the groom's parents would engage the troupe to perform ... in some well-to-do families, there would be two or more troupes: one set performing on the cooking night and two sets on the wedding night, one at the groom's home and the other at the bride's.
At my wedding ... June 8, 1941 ... a Princes Town Troupe popular for their Indar Sabha dance entertained the baraatians. In fact, they in full costumes occupied the tray of a decorated truck and with music and dances, entertained way side crowds while the baraat moved from Badeau Street, Gasparillo to Nuckcheddy Rd. New Grant.
Popular overnight dance-dramas included :
Indra Sabha ... Raja Indra's Court, where angels and fairies danced.
Prahalad ... A devote of Lord Rama who survived several dangers augured by his father, King Hiranyakasyapu.
Bharat Meelap ... The meeting of Bharata with Lord Rama in the forest, after Lord Rama was banished from Ayodhya for 14 years.
Harischandra ... and a host of others.
Although educational and popular, by the late 1940's and 50's overnight weddings practically disappeared, and with it, these dramas and dances...as some would recall, forced out in the belief that "prevention was better than cure." It was not rare that most of these prolonged overnight weddings saw invasions of uninvited guests and frequent stone pelting and even rapes. Any retaliation resulted is bloodshedding and at times serious and fatal injuries.
So frequent had such invasions become that some felt that the tassa drums at Hindu weddings beat out "come fo roti, come fo roti" with the bass drum answering; "all don, all don." But drum or no drum the largest team of invaders came after late cinema shows .... and you dare not say "food done" if you wanted to avoid stone pelting or some such scene, and... embarrassment!
Practically all Hindu weddings today, take place in daylight and without these shows and dances, except in rare instances on the "cooking night" - the night prior to the actual wedding when food preparations take place. Cooking night now attracts Indian Orchestras and singers ... not without some who "crash" the occasion ... but with some police presence, the invaders' stay is usually brief. Fact is, that there have been instances where masked "bandits" have actually robbed wedding guests at gunpoint.
Today these stories can be had not only in books and comics, but on video and on the wide cinema screens. The impact, however is not the same ... men, women and children alike actually feeling part of the act, shedding tears and at times actually getting up and joining with the dancers, are now a thing of the past.
Harischandra was one such story .... few could have prevented the tears and pain suffered by Harischandra or his wife or their son, Rohit. For they, being of the Raghus, preached, believed and practised what the Raghus of the Ramayana did:TRUTH.
Raghu kuul rity sada chali aiye, pran jaie par bachana na jaie
The policy of the clan of the Raghus was such that "they preferred to lose their life but not their word (promise)."
My Word Is My Bond
Centuries before Jesus Christ, in Treta Yuga, the King of Ayodhya then was Harischandra, who was acclaimed as a just, merciful and righteous ruler. He was respected not only by his subjects but by other rulers as well.
One day while in the forest, he heard the cry of a woman in distress and quickly, with bow and arrow in hand, he rushed in the direction from where the sound came.
There was a clearing and therein sat this bearded muni ... Harischandra recognised him as Sage Viswamitra, and became very perturbed. He had disturbed the sage and so he quickly, with clasped hands, stood before the sage and pleaded:
Please do pardon me, I heard a distressed cry and came. Do forgive me for disturbing you.
Sage Viswamitra was not pleased and he made it known to Harischandra that he had been trying to master the spirit of sciences when he, Harischandra, disturbed him and spoilt his plan just when he was about to succeed. So vexed was the sage that he cursed the king, proclaiming that his kingdom would be destroyed.
Raja Harischandra pleaded over and over for the Sage to ask for anything" but not destroy his kingdom and its loyal and faithful subjects.
This caught the attention of the Sage, who repeated, "Anything? You say ask for anything?" Harischandra confirmed his statement and the Sage accepted this assurance and left.
Just a few days later, whilst the king was seated in his court, the silence was broken as Viswamitra burst in and let him know that he had come to collect on the promise. Harischandra bowed to the sage and with clasped hands before him, asked what was his order:
"Your kingdom ..yes, hand over your kingdom. That is what I want, your kingdom"
"My Kingdom!", exclaimed Harischandra. "Yes, your kingdom", repeated the sage who warned the king: "If you don't keep your promise, my curse will destroy Ayodhya!"
Without hesitation, as advisors and ministers in the Court looked on in amazement, Harischandra took some water in his hands and chanting the sankalpa ... mantras to transfer ... handed over the kingdom of Ayodhya to Sage Viswamitra amidst shouts and cries "No! No!" from his Ministers.
Scholars who have ventured into the pages of the Ramayana and/or the Mahabharata would readily sense a common significance akin to our own individual lives ... the need for sincere sacrifice without hope for even a glimpse of reward. For the sake of upholding and travelling on the righteous path, one must be prepared but make the sacrifice, regardless of the consequences to self.
Rama went into the forest for 14 years to uphold the word and promise of his father, Raja Dasaratha of Ayodhya; the Pandavas lived in the forest for 13 years because they had gambled and lost; and here Harischandra handed over his kingdom to uphold his word and promise.
How often do we today give to the needy? Some would readily share when they themselves have a-plenty, but few share from the little they have ... for here you must sacrifice your own needs to help another.
Raja Harischandra gave it all, and with his wife, Saivya and lone child, Rohit, stepped out... as men, women and children wept along the path. With only their clothes on their backs, the three slowly walked away from the palace towards the forest that lay beyond the boundaries of the kingdom.
They had gone some distance when there came a shout from the rear to stop. On turning around, there was Viswamitra approaching the trio. "You forgot something!" shouted the Sage. "Where my dakshina (honorarium) for the sankalpa? You must give me the dakshina!"
But the King had given up everything he had. His wife, his child and himself had only the clothes on their skins and yet, he acknowledged that the dakshina was due and that he must give it. But how, he asked himself? Then Harischandra pleaded with Viswamitra, "Please, do give me a month." To this the sage agreed.
Day after day, the King, having left his kingdom, went from village to village seeking employment in vain. And as the month drew near his wife grew perturbed and wondered "How much longer shall we roam like this ... Rohit is very tired..." and yet no job. Even Rohit could barely understand and kept asking why had they left the palace and why had they not taken their chariot with them. Harischandra, like a "caged bird", tried to give them courage and hope. He held his tears, but cried inside.
And then in the distance they saw at the banks of the Sanga river, the Temple City of Varnasi. With a glimmer of hope, they dried their tears and with renewed vigour entered the City with hope of finding something to do. Here they decided to enter a prestigious-looking temple, and to seek shelter and work from the priest.
Frankly, the priest on seeing the trio wondered why were they dressed in such meagre garb since they seemed to be of royal ancestry. "What do you wish?" asked the priest, as the trio bowed to him. Harischandra asked whether he could find some work.
"Work! What work could you, who appear so princely as a kshatriya, do in a temple?" the priest enquired, and promptly went on, "Sorry there's no work but you may take some food since you do look as if you have not eaten for sometime."
Prince Rohit could barely walk. He was starved. The trio took some food and went on their way. Day after day, Harischandra made his rounds from place to place seeking employment but each day he returned to face a son and wife, empty handed except for some food he had got from begging in the temples.
Some days later the king again encountered Viswamitra who reminded him that "today, the month is up ... where is the dakshina?" Harischandra had not got a job and he had no food, farless for dakshina but he had hope. "Wait", he pleaded with the Sage, "the day is not done yet. I still have till this evening." The Sage agreed but warned: "I shall wait no longer than sunset ... remember that."
Rohit on the other was weakening ... he was very very hungry and was pleading with his mother for some food, but she had none. Just then the king entered with some food and the his wife with tears streaming down her cheeks asked: How long shall we keep on begging for food .. our son could barely walk.
King Harischandra bent his head and after some time declared that he knew a way to solve the problem. "Yes" he told his wife, "there is a way .... I must sell myself and the payment I get, I shall pay the debt and get some food," but Saivya would not agree.
At that time it was not an uncommon practice ... most parts of the world buying and selling, voluntarily or otherwise, of men, women and even children, was recognised, legal and acceptable. As in other places, the market place provided an auction platform.
The king climbed onto to the stand and announced "Who will buy me? I can do any work ... please buy me."
The rugged life, most times without food or sleep or rest of any kind had reduced the king into "skin and bones" and whilst many looked on and heard the king, most of them found him too frail to be able to do any meaningful work. Desperate, the king jumped off the auction table and went man after man pleading to be bought ... he knew there was little time left for him to pay his debt. Frustrated, the king held his head and wanted to bawl, just then some one said:
"Sell you wife ... nobody will buy you, but they'll buy your wife for housework."
"What!" the king snapped, "sell my wife.. my own wife, the mother of my son?" Saivya, however had heard what the stranger had suggested and with sunset not too far off, she pleaded:
"My lord, why hesitate. Aren't we one. Have we not vowed to be for one another .. I have given you a son ... my life is fulfilled. Do sell me and let the debt be settled. You must uphold your promise .. truth, my love is dearer than us."
Try as the King may, he eventually succumbed to his wife's reasoning and they climbed the auctions platform again, but this time the King met another barrage of insults for offering his wife for sale.
Eventually an aged Brahmin approached and offered 500 gold coins for the King's wife and the King murmuring to himself, " what a beast am I .. but I gotcha do what I have to do" agreed after ascertaining that his wife would be the Brahmin's wife's servant.
Harischandra writhing in grief and pain refuse to touch the money but let the Brahmin tie the purse containing the coins to his dhoti. And now it was time to part.
As the Brahmin led the way with Saivya following, the young prince burst into cries for his mother. Inspite of all the problems, never before was he separated from his mother ... he could not restrain himself and ran behind her. Saivya, weeping as never before stopped and begged the Brahmin to take her son also. And thus, the Brahmin saw this as a bargain ... he offered 250 gold coins for the boy and the trio left.
But the king could now barely standup ... with his wife and only child sold he felt he had "nothing to live for" except to pay his debt. While he grieved thus, Viswamitra approached and reminded him that the day was near over.
Quickly the King handed over the monies from the sales to the Sage. "That is not enough" cried the sage, "you must get more ... I'll be back later."
Distressed and distraught at the Sage uncompromising demand, the King realising that the demand must be met, felt bewildered, walked to the river's steps and sat there with his head buried in the palm of his hands. "I must pay my debt in full," he told himself, "there must be a way ... I just got to do better."
The King resolved that being alone and with nothing left and "no one want to buy me for work", maybe, just maybe they'll buy me "as a slave." With this in mind he once again jumped onto the platform and now shouted:
"I am for sale ... buy me as your slave. Please do, buy me as your slave."
And again he met with insults and rejection ... he's no good, he sold his wife and child, he's too meagre ... what could he do ... except that a chandala (the keeper of the riverside cremation site), armed with a big stick and human skull, offered to buy him.
"Yes", repeated the chandala, "I'll buy you but will you work for me ... taking care of the corpses at the cremation site?"
It was perhaps seen as the lowest of the low thing to do ... work with corpses ... but the King knew then that work was work and someone had to do it, apart from which he had no choice. He was bent on "paying" his debt to the full and so agreed to be bought for 250 gold coins to which the chandala agreed.
With the sun setting and the night shadows creeping in, Viswamitra was prompt and the King politely bowing to him handed over the gold coins and quickly joined his new master, the chandala who was a short distance away.
Both wended their way to the cremation site, foul smelling with bones and skulls littered and a small shack between stacks of wood and a few trees that had better days.
"What do I have to do," asked King, "I am ready to carryout your command."
The chandala replied: "Your duty is simple. You must wait on cremators, day or night and from them, before anyone is cremated, collect the cloth ... with which the corpse is wrapped ... rice and money. This is divided so that six parts goes to the King, three parts to me and the rest is yours."
Bareback and with just a langoath ... loincloth ... the King dedicated himself to serving his master and with not long before his first cremator arrived. He collected the cloth, rice and money and then watched the flames devour the pyre and body as thick black smoke filled the air. Days passed in this manner and the King soon changed in appearance ... his face became near black and wrinkled and he was almost unrecognisable. Sometimes the King would dream and other times get lost in deep thoughts ... he remember his child and wife, the two dearest to him; recall the days of laughter and playful things and moments of sharing or giving charity to others.
There were months of heavy breathing and tears and eyes filled with tears, but not a sound. The thoughts and memories never went away, every moment of the day or night they'd come and he'd cry ... even bawl deep ... inside him so that none would know. Thus his day and night could come and go. Only consolation that kept him going was that he had wronged Sage Viswamitra and this was his opportunity to pay that debt and save the citizens of Ayodhya from any harm or difficulty.
In another area, Queen Saivya and her son, Rohit were serving their master's wife, when one day Rohit ran to his mother in tears. "The Brahman," he said, "beat me for playing in his room."
Saivya, with tears streaming down her cheeks, hugged her son, wiped his tears and told him not to play in the Brahman's room but "you could play in the garden ... go there and play quietly."
Completing her day's chores, the Queen went to her room at nightfall but Rohit was not there. "Where could he be at this hour?" she asked herself and hoped that he did not have another encounter with the Brahmin. She, with lamp in hand, went through the several rooms but he was not there and then she remembered, "I sent him outside to play .. he was sad and still crying. Maybe he fell asleep."
The Queen went outside and behold had stretched out under a tree. "He's asleep .. poor boy" she told herself, but when she touched him, the body was cold and there were marks on his leg as if he was bitten. She tugged at him, pushed and pulled and then placed her ear to his chest ... Rohit was dead and the Queen could barely muffle her cry.
With tears rolling down, the Queen took up the dead child was stumbled towards the house. Her cries awoke the Brahmin and standing before him with the dead child clasped to her bosom, the Queen asked "please, give me some money" to cremate my dead child but the Brahmin replied: "Don't I feed you enough?"
With her child's corpse in her arms, the Queen walked through the dark deserted streets towards the cremation site, as she quietly sobbed while her tears trickled down her frail cheeks, but on nearing the gate there came a shout "What do you want?" to break the otherwise silence of the night.
"My child is dead" she muttered "and I have come to have him cremated."
The King: "Very well .. give me the cash and the rice, then."
The Queen: "I don't have any money or rice. I just don't have anything but I must cremate the corpse of my child, please sir!"
By then, the King got a glimpse of the child's face and while he did not fully recognise Rohit, he thought the "child's face has the mark of royalty" and promptly asked: "Who are you and who is this child with royalty marks? Tell me, tell me!"
The Queen knowing the gate keeper as chandala with a husky and rough voice did not even look at him ... she was worried and concerned with her dead child in her hands ... but replied:
"The child is royalty. His father was Harischandra and ..."
The King, whose heart was already pounding thought he heard his name and asked: "What ... did you say Harischandra? How did this happen .. is he Rohit?
The Queen did not have to hear more ... she looked at his face and behind those dark wrinkled face were the eyes she could never forget. Both, the Queen and the King recognised each other and knew that their son was dead and needed to be cremated.
"Oh what a wretched man I am," lamented the king, "my son's corpse is in front of me and yet I cannot do anything until you bring the dues .. the cloth, rice and money."
Perplexed the Queen still holding her child asked: "Your are the child's father ... you were a King and now a chandala and you ask me for dues?"
"I must" the king declared, "I must. I cannot deprive my master and the king of their dues ... just give me half of your upper garment."
"Must I uncover my body?" asked the Queen but promptly herself replied "you insist because you must do your duty. Very well, you may have it."
But no sooner she her uttered her last words and the King stretched his hands towards her there came a call:
Raja Harischandra Ji Ki Jai
Raja Harischandra Ji Ki Jai
Raja Harischandra Ji Ki Jai
I was just under 10 years when I witnessed "Raja Harischandra ki Nach"in Lumsden Street, Gasparillo during the wedding of one of the Sankar's girls.
More often than I would have liked to remember, Raja Harischandra trials and tribulations "faced me squarely" and with Rama's ... who also had His share ... guidance, I survived.
Today those memories have all returned .. for it is all I have ...
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