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Short Story to Novella- The Creative Journey of ‘City of Victory’

Updated on August 20, 2014
The cover of my historical novella 'City of Victory'
The cover of my historical novella 'City of Victory'

When my short story ‘Mystery’ which first appeared in the Deccan Herald newspaper in Bangalore and then found a place in my first published book – Dolphin Girl and Other Stories’ published by Har Anand of Delhi, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2004, my Muse Gordon Hindley had suggested a more “historically correct” ending. It was a tragic ending with the gypsy protagonist Jehaan being caught after her escapade only to be sacrificed on the King’s funeral pyre. But the BBC preferred the mysterious original ending and the tragic end of Jehaan haunted me.

Gordon's in-depth knowledge and love for Hampi inspired me to turn the story into a novella. ‘City of Victory’ which had only the gypsy Jehaan as protagonist, now became the story of four women in the harem of King Krishna Deva Raya in 16th century Vijayanagar: the lovelorn gypsy, suffocated by the pomp and splendor of the court, the spiritual Meherbanu who seeks to escape her tragic life, the frustrated queen who dreads the inevitable ‘sati’ and a ‘Vish Kanya’ who no longer wants to kill with a kiss.

Although the story may be categorized as historical fiction, Gordon pointed out that I could take creative license as very little was known about the period. I have seen the Jain temples in Hampi, but I felt Buddhism would be a better fit for Meherbanu. Who knew, perhaps Buddhism had also flourished here being akin to Jainism.

Adding a New Character – Vish Kanya (‘Poison Damsel’)

We put our heads together and created the different POVs except for Vish Kanya whose story we delved into in third person. She wasn’t as major a character as the other two – Jehaan, the Queen and Meherbanu. I added her because I was fascinated with the concept of these women who were brought up on snake venom since infancy. Once you were born into such a family of these “Poison Damsels” , you continued the tradition unless you were male, in which case you were usually done away with in infancy.

There is in fact a historical reference to the Vish Kanya who had almost succeeded in destroying Alexander the Great. He was saved from this folly (for the Vish Kanya was extremely alluring), by his mentor Aristotle who had accompanied him on his campaign of conquest.

My Vish Kanya also added another dimension of tension to my story, for she wanted to end her way of life. It would give Meherbanu the opportunity to lead her to the light. Eventually Vish Kanya joins the Buddhist Monastery.

Developing The Character of Meherbanu

Meherbanu grew to be the most important character in the novella. It would be her victory in the end, not the city with the pall of “sati” (the ancient tradition of women being burnt on the funeral pyre of their husbands) over it and the resulting bad luck.

Meherbanu’s tragic past took shape. The fate of many Moslem women in that era who were sold by their impoverished parents to wealthy old men when still young. They would be sexually abused by the young male relatives of these men and would lead lives of misery. Meherbanu needed such a past is she were to turn to the spiritual path for succor.

She could then teach the women of the harem self acceptance help them surrender to their tragic end on the funeral pyre. Gordon told me that any woman in the Zenana who had slept with the King would be doomed in this way. I wanted the beautiful Meherbanu to escape this fate. I still remember that brilliant flash of answer: she would disfigure herself and thus escape the sexual abuse and be overlooked by the King.Her spiritual path (Buddhism) which she had embraced as an ill-treated child would inspire her and give her the courage.

But how would she land up in the King’s harem? Gordon suggested that the King on his usual rounds (he was closely modelled on the famous King Krishna Deva Raya who reigned Vijayanagar in the 16th century) of the city in the early morning hours, would overhear her cries as he passed by her abode and out of compassion, he would offer her the position of Mentor to the women of his harem.

The Queen, Nagala Devi

The courtesan Nagala Devi had been gifted to the young prince Krishna Devaraya in order to teach him social etiquette and instill in him a deep intellectual hunger. He married her when he became King of Vijayanagar. They had a sickly son who was murdered by his jealous relatives who aspired to the throne. There is no evidence that the Queen gave up her passion for dancing in her grief, but I thought it would make a fitting and dramatic consequence. I had heard about a well-known singer in India who had given up music after the death of her son and this had imprinted itself on my mind.

Like any woman would, the Queen wished to escape her death on the funeral pyre and when the gypsy offered her a means to dull her senses, she gratefully accepted. She had taken an instant liking to the young gypsy who had been captured for the harem from a passing Egyptian caravan and turned her into her chief handmaiden. She had a special fondness also for Meherbanu and with her spiritual guidance learnt to accept her inevitable fate as a sati.

The King

Historical records show that King Krishna Devaraya, Vijayanagar’s greatest monarch had Russian women as his bodyguards, a fact that added a colourful element to my novella. He was a patron of the arts and a man with a heart who rescued Meherbanu from a life of misery. He followed a strict exercise regimen and this too I used in my story.

The Gypsy Jehaan

In my original story, ‘Mystery’, Jehaan, who feels stifled by the luxuries of court life and yearns to escape, conjures up a green-eyed gypsy with her romantic longing. She runs away with him and becomes part of his caravan, but she realizes in the end that he is only a figment of her imagination. In the novella, her character is more rounded. She recalls her gypsy days of freedom and the love of her old father. She remembers her gypsy lover and the tattered tents and goat cheese. In the end when she escapes during the festive nights of Dussehra, lured by the figment of her imagination who tells her that he is only as real as her longing is, she is followed and brought back to the harem. The King is seriously ill and all the women he has bedded must die with him on his funeral pyre.

As Jehaan is pushed into the cremation pit, she pulls along with her the chief Brahmin priest who has always mocked her strange ways.

Lotus Mahal in Hampi - abode of the Vish Kanya in 'City of Victory'
Lotus Mahal in Hampi - abode of the Vish Kanya in 'City of Victory'
Details of the Mahanavami Dibba (Festival Platform) in Hampi
Details of the Mahanavami Dibba (Festival Platform) in Hampi
The Queen's Bath in Hampi makes an appearance in the novella 'City of Victory'
The Queen's Bath in Hampi makes an appearance in the novella 'City of Victory'

Listen to City Of Victory on BBC Radio 4 Narrated by Badria Timimi

Researching the Novella ‘City of Victory’

My novella 'City of Victory' ends with the death of the king. I wanted to know whether the funeral and the ensuing sati took place on top of a hill as many believe and this question took me back to Hampi in 2007.

A Quest for the Place Where the King of Vijayanagar was Cremated

Hampi is a city of mystery. It is said that King Khrishna Deva Raya who in the 16th century, took the city to the zenith of its wealth and power, was cremated on top of a hill. But he was not alone. Destined for the funeral pyre were the unfortunate women from his harem, including his queens, one of whom had been a famous courtesan, and had been hired to teach social graces to him when he was a teenager.

"All that karma," my friend Gordon Hindley, a Hampi enthusiast told me, "that miasma rising from the evil practice of 'sati' caused the city's eventual downfall."

Legends of Hampi

But no one can be certain about the place of cremation. Or about the truth of the legends attached to Vijayanagar. Here, the goddess Parvati (known as Hampi), married Shiva; here Lord Rama (of Ramayana fame) came looking for his wife Sita, whose garments marked the rocks on the banks of the Tungabhadra.

When I saw these marks on my trip to Hampi in 2009, I thought of Troy. It took just one enthusiastic archeologist to turn the fantasy of Troy into reality. And so I began my search for the place where the king had been cremated. Why would they pull the corpse, and all those women and priests up a hill?

The Quest for the King's Cremation Place Begins at Anegundi

At the tourist office, the man at the counter told me to go to towards nearby Anegundi, once known as Kishkinda, the kingdom of monkeys from the Ramayana. Here Lord Rama was said to have met the Monkey Chieftan, Hanuman, and enlisted his help in his search for Sita. We were told that the king's funeral mound was at the foot of the Anjanadri Hill, the birthplace of Hanuman.

On the way, we stopped to photograph a lovely peasant woman leading some ponies laden with her possessions: pots and pans, and sacks stitched with pockets to hold goat kids. We drove past clumps of rocks and palm trees, and fields of green and gold until the Anjanadri Hill rose to our left.

Kishkinda - the Kingdom of Monkeys

But there was no cremation mound at the foot of the hill, and a woman in a tea shop told us to go to the summit. I thought, perhaps this theory about a hill-top cremation was true after all. Monkeys scrambled all over the hill, following us, and when I decided to lunch on my cinnamon roll and choco-coconut bacquette from the Italian Bakery, one of them jumped onto my shoulder and snatched a morsel. Soon they swarmed about me, face- to- face, demanding more. I had to part with more in an attempt to get rid of them. But they did not disappear.

They accompanied us all along those six hundred steps up the hill. A female monkey even succeeded in unzipping my bag. My companion was enjoying himself, bickering with them, mimicking their lunges and yellow-fanged threats. Yet they did not attack him.

As we climbed, the views became more breathtaking: paddy fields spread out below us interspersed with small rocky hills, and on the horizon, more rocky hills. As the sun made its slow descent, the colours of the rocks changed and by the time we reached the wind-ravaged summit, the rocks were gold.

Before us stood a small white-washed temple. A woman with the tell-tale long matted locks of a 'devadasi' (temple dancers from another time), told us to take off our shoes and ushered me inside. In the darkness, I discerned within an inner shrine a huge red statue of Hanuman. A young priest, with long hair and beard, his torso bare, distributed a sacred offering of sweets to a couple of foreign tourists and a foreigner dressed like a priest, red 'tika'on his forehead, sat on a narrow bed in an ante chamber.

Disappointed that there were no signs of a royal cremation here, I followed my companion downhill, once again accompanied by the monkeys. I could see why they called this place the kingdom of monkeys.

The Ashram on the Hillock in Hampi

After some asking around, we stopped at a beautiful rocky hillock with a fortified gateway on top and within, a half-ruined watchtower. We did not find any tourists here. An old man led us to three whitewashed tombs, telling me that the largest of them belonged to the king. I thought the king was Hindu, and would not be buried in a tomb. We walked on towards the 'ashram'. I overheard a young nun clad in a white sari, holy beads about her neck, tell a pilgrim that she was from Kashi (Benares). When she heard me question the old man about the tomb, she said to me in Hindi, "A Hindu king will not be buried unless he has taken 'sanyas'."

"You mean renounced the world?" I asked.

"Yes. Not unless he is a holy man."

"Oh but the king I'm looking for certainly had not renounced the world."

"You must look somewhere else," she said.

Curious about the life she led, I asked, "Are you a vegetarian like I am? No onion or garlic even?"

"I'm 'saatvic' and a Vaishnavite. Actually, I'm living here in a holy man's place. I am travelling from place to place on pilgrimages, but I have not found what I want. I want to leave Kashi, but don't know where to go next."

Right then two ascetics in loincloths, their hair matted, approached us.

"Where do you come from?" One of them asked me.

"I was born in Ranchi."

"No!" cried the ascetic. "We are also from there."

I felt an unexpected affinity with these spiritual seekers. We were all in our own ways, seeking enlightenment.

"Go to the pavilion of the 64 stone pillars on the Tungabhadra," said the old man to me. "It is the place where the king was cremated."

The Pavilion of the 64 Pillars in Anegundi

A small crowd swarmed the banks of the river. Some were wading out to the great stone pavilion.

"Is this the place of the king's cremation? I wonder," I said to no one in particular. A middle-aged man heard me and saying that according to one theory, this was indeed the place, directed me to 'Gagan Mahal', the home of the king's descendants in Anegundi village.

Numerous decrepit rooms surrounded the huge courtyard of Gagan Mahal (Sky Palace). The walls hadn't seen paint for years, and some had thin cracks, but what I liked about the place were its many trees that almost completely shaded the place.

But the person I had come to meet wasn't home and I was asked to come back the next morning.

However, we were to leave the next day for Bangalore and I doubted we could meet the king's descendant. We could not visit the Vittala Temple with its extraordinary musical pillars and its famous stone chariot with movable wheels, because the temple closed its doors at sunset.

Ugra Narasimha, the Presiding Deity of Hampi

On the way back to the lodge, we stopped by the imposing Ugra Narasimha. The deity was no longer in the open upon Hemakuta Hill. In fact, I hardly knew we were on the hill, so much had changed since my last visit over 20 years ago. The bulbous-eyed statue, his consort, the goddess Lakshmi partly struck from his thigh, was surrounded by an enclosure. There was an iron grill before the statue to keep visitors from touching it. Legend had it that the city would last as long as the moon and stars carved at its feet. In the 16th century, marauding Muslim hordes had cut the goddess away, and defaced the moon.

The sinking sun shone at the edge of the great crowned head in a burst of light and I still wasn't sure whether the king had been cremated on top of a hill as Gordon had suggested.

The Dussehra Festival in 16th Century Hampi and the Mango Tree Restaurant

The restaurant is famous for its Nutella Pancakes and View of the Tungabhadra River where Baby Crocs Sun on Rocks. Plus read an excerpt from my novella, City of Victory, for a glimpse of Dussehra in 16th century Hampi..

The nine nights of Dussehra are still celebrated with passion in Karnataka, but cannot compare with the festivities during the golden reign of King Krishna Deva Raya. Here is an excerpt from my novella, 'City of Victory'.

Glimpse of the Dussehra Festival in 16th Century Hampi

Here is an excerpt from my short story ‘Mystery’ which brings alive those nine nights of the Dusshehra festival in Vijayanagar.

Vijayanagar was astir with pomp and revelry for the festival of nine nights. Torches flared everywhere. The skies exploded with fireworks, the earth was a carpet of roses. The vibrant air was rent with the thundering salutes of elephants covered in brilliant armour, carrying gilded castles on their backs. The strains of music mingled with the gentle jingle of anklets as bejeweled women danced before the king. Wearing resplendent white robes embroidered with gold roses, he lounged on silk cushions before a dias where upon a throne was an idol: the Goddess Durga in white alabaster, her six arms holding aloft sacred emblems and weapons, her feet upon a bloody buffalo. Many Brahmans stood about the idol and the King, fanning them with horsetail plumes, tokens of the highest dignity.

On the high pavilions flocked jugglers, musicians and story ‑ tellers. Dancing women wrestled and monarchs came to pay homage to the king with gold in great chests, ornamented camels and prancing Arab steeds with jewelled reins and saddles.

And then in a pounding of drums, the chanting of voices, and blue incense smoke the sacred rituals began. The king stood upon a pedestal and showered perfume on the decorated horses and oxen covered with flowers. Silence enveloped the people richly dressed in vivid silks and in velvet woven with many colours. Jewels flashed on their clothes and limbs.

Before the King paraded first, the thirty female door-keepers of his palace, with canes in their hands and whips on their shoulders; the eunuchs; many women playing trumpets, drums and flutes. Then slowly and gracefully, weighed down by their heavy ornaments, and supported by women came the thousand maids of honour to the two Queens, headed by the moon among stars - Jehaan. They were dressed in fine silks, tall caps with flowers of pearls upon their heads, their arms covered with bracelets, their necks and chests with necklaces, and many girdles covered the length of their thighs. Even their ankles were weighed down with gold and strings of pearls. They glided by the King in a glittering procession, followed by handmaidens bearing glowing lamps of gold.

The Mango Tree Restaurant

This popular restaurant was just a short stroll from another great restaurant –.the Italian Bakery. Plantations of banana surrounded the Mango Tree and above it towered the gigantic umbrella of the biggest mango tree I have ever seen.

The Swing and the Crocodile

From the tree, on long ropes, hung a wooden swing. An unafraid hippie was swinging on it. I admired her courage, for the open air arena-like seating with its many levels would have made a fall quite painful. If you swung too far, you were bound to swing out over the restaurant wall and land among rocks and trees. In the near distance, the shallow Tungabhadra River snaked past the rocks. I started at the sight of a baby crocodile, jaws ajar, sunning itself on a rock.

Everyone craned their necks to see. A woman with an Australian accent remarked, "And I wanted to swim there!"

"They don't harm tourists," said someone, "and they only eat fish."

"Oh they want a change -- Australian food."

Everyone laughed. I'm sure I laughed the loudest.

Hampi, India

© 2013 Anita Saran


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