Before Shiladitya was born, during the rule of the last king of the Kanakasena dynasty, there was a sacred water tank, Suryakund in Ballabhipur. In a gigantic Sun Temple beside the tank lived a very old priest. He had neither a family, nor friends. The water in the vast Suryakund was blue, like the blue of the sky. And beside it, the old spirited Brahmin Sun worshipper in the temple was as lonely and solitary as the sun in the endless sky. Lighting the lamps, ringing the bell, offering prayers at dawn and dusk – he did everything all by himself. He had no follower, no assistant, and not even one disciple. Every day, the frail old man lifted a heavy brass lamp weighing almost thirty seers and performed arati of the Sun God. He held the huge bell, which looked liked the crown of a demon king, in his slender hand and rang it. ... And he said to himself: ‘I wish I had a companion! Then I could teach him all this and take rest.’
The Sun God fulfilled his devotee’s wish. On a dark evening in the beginning of the winter, after the sun had set, when the world was covered under a veil of fog, the old priest, after saying his evening prayers was struggling to close the temple gate that was as huge as Bhima's chest. A forlorn Brahmin girl came and stood before him. She was in tattered clothes, but was exceedingly beautiful. It seemed an evening star was seeking shelter in the temple to save herself from cold. The Brahmin noticed that although the girl bore auspicious signs, she was in a widow’s dress. He asked, ‘Who are you? And what do you seek here?’
The girl folded her slender lotus hands and said, ‘Master, I seek shelter. I am the only daughter of a Brahmin Vedic scholar of the Gurjar kingdom, Devaditya. My name is Subhaga, the Lucky One. But I lost my husband on the night of my wedding. And because of that sin, people branded me as inauspicious and threw me out of the kingdom. I had my mother; but even she is no more. Please save me.’
The Brahmin said, ‘How can I help you, unfortunate child? I have nothing to eat, I am extremely poor, and have no friends.’
Although the Brahmin said so, someone whispered into his ears: ‘Ye poor and friendless! make this girl your friend, offer her shelter!’ The Brahmin was in two minds. He wanted to take the girl in, but at the same time, he thought, ‘I have worshipped the Sun in this temple for eighty years; now, in the autumn of my life, should I pass on the responsibility to a stranger?’ He hesitated. That moment, tearing apart the darkness of the world, a slender ray of the sun from the western sky fell on the face of the ill-fated girl. It was as if the Sun God himself pointed a finger and said, ‘I accept her as my disciple! My dear devotee, offer this girl shelter, let this unfortunate widow serve me for as long as she lives.’
The Brahmin folded his hands, bowed to the sun and then took Subhaga, the daughter of Brahmin Devaditya, into the temple.
Many years passed since that day, and Subhaga learnt all the rituals. The only thing that she could never manage to do was to lift the heavy brass lamp with her soft, butter hands. And so, the old priest continued to do the arati. One day, Subhaga noticed, the shrunken body of the old Brahmin was about to crumble. The lamp shook in his trembling hands. That morning, she went to the Ballabhipur bazaar and returned with a small lamp weighing just one seer. Said she, ‘Father! This evening, please offer prayers to the Sun God with this lamp.’
The Brahmin smiled, ‘In the evening, I’ll have to say my prayers with the lamp that I used in the morning. Keep the new one aside for a day. Tomorrow will bring a new dawn, and we’ll do arati with the new lamp.’
The same day, when the sun was directly above their head and the world was flooded by light, the Brahmin taught Subhaga the secret prayer of the Sun God – the prayer that would make the sun come down to meet his devotee, and the prayer that, if recited for a second time in one’s life, would inevitably bring about one’s death.
Then, at the dark confluence of day and night, the lamp of the Brahmin’s life too died out slowly like a flickering lamp. The sun set, plunging the whole world in darkness. Subhaga was alone.
For a few days, she cried her heart out for the old priest. The next few days, she cleared the ground around the temple of wild growths, and planted trees and plants. Then for months, she scrubbed and cleaned the stone walls of the temple and painted on them birds, creepers with leaves, and blooming flowers, elephants and murals depicting stories from the Puranas and history. In the end, Subhaga was left with no work. So she wandered about in the garden. Overtime, as flowers came into buds and fruits began to ripen, a few tiny birds and colourful butterflies flew into her garden, and along with them, came a group of children. The butterflies were happy to sip just a few drops of honey from the flowers, the birds would only peck at a few ripe fruits, but the children ripped off the flowers and broke branches to wreck the garden. But Subhaga didn’t complain; she suffered everything in silence. Her days rolled on absently as she observed little children in colourful dresses playing around on the green grass under the trees.
After some days came the rains. All around, there were dark clouds, thunderclaps, and flashes of lightning. One day, a razor-sharp eastern wind blew in like a tempest, tore leaves and flowers off their stalks, and the garden that she tended with so much care was almost reduced to a barren patch. The flock of birds flew away with the wind; the wings of the butterflies broke, they lay scattered on the ground like petals of dead flowers. The children had left. Subhaga sat in the pouring rain and cried, as she thought about her parents, her heartless in-laws, and recalled the smiling face of her husband on their wedding night. And she said to herself, ‘Oh! How will I spend the rest of my life in this desolate place all alone?’ Tears welled up in her dark eyes, which were as beautiful as a deer’s. As she turned towards the east, darkness met her eyes; there was darkness towards the west, north and south, in every direction. The evening reminded her of the time when she had arrived at the temple. The sky was dark just as it had been then, similar moist winds were blowing, and the great Sun Temple stood broodingly; but alas, where was the old priest who had sheltered the orphaned, unlucky Subhaga in her hour of despair? Like raindrops, two beads of tears rolled off her stunning dark eyes and merged with the darkness. She closed the doors of the temple, lit lamps, and offered prayers. Then, a thought crossed her mind and she started meditating before the deity. Gradually, her eyes became still, the noise of the raging storm and the booming thunders drifted far away. She had neither regrets, nor sorrow. It was as if the darkness of her mind had been wiped off by a scorching sun. Trembling with fear, she said the prayers she had learnt from her foster father. Suddenly, she felt as if the whole world had come to life. She could hear birds warbling, a flute being played far away, and happiness reverberating all around. Then, shaking the sky with the rumbling wheels of his chariot pulled by seven green horses, lighting up the whole world in scintillating orange, the Sun God appeared as if after melting away the temple’s iron gates, and stood before her like a million raging fires. Human eyes cannot stand such light, such brightness. Covering her face with her palms, Subhaga begged, ‘Please spare us, God! Forgive me, the whole world is burning.’
The Sun God said, ‘Fear not, little girl! You may ask for anything you wish.’
As he talked, His brightness turned fainter and fainter, until He became a slender ray on Subhaga’s head, like the vermilion line on the parting of married women. She said, ‘Master, I have neither a husband nor a child, I am a helpless widow, I am all alone. I seek a boon from you: let me not live in this world any more, let my troubles end, let me die.’
Sun said, ‘A god’s boon doesn’t kill anyone, their curse does. Please ask for a boon.’
Subhaga kneeled down before him and said, ‘If you wish to bless me, please give me a son and a daughter. I will live for them. Let my son be as strong as you, let my daughter be as beautiful as a spec of the moon.’
The Sun God said ‘Granted!’ and went away. Slowly, Subhaga drifted into sleep. She spread the end of her sari on the stone floor of the temple and lay down. It started raining heavily. Later, when the dawn was breaking, she heard a few birds warbling beautifully in her devastated garden. After some time, as a golden ray of the morning sun fell on her eyes and she sat up with a start, something pulled the end of her sari. Turning around, she found two little babies sleeping on her sari. By the grace of the Sun God, Subhaga became the mother of two babies as gorgeous as the gods themselves. As the babies had come to the world without anyone knowing about them, Subhaga named them Gayeb and Gayebi.
With the infants in her arms, Subhaga went out. The sun was rising in the east and the moon was setting in the western sky. She noticed, sunlight lit up Gayeb’s face brightly, but the moonlight faded quickly in the dark hair of Gayebi. Subhaga understood that she would not be able to hold on to Gayebi for long.
As Gayeb grew up and started going to a children’s school, Gayebi stayed at home and learnt the tasks performed at the temple. She was quiet and obedient, but Gayeb was unmanageably restless and feisty. Children wanted to play with Gayebi, but her brother became a terror to his classmates. In the end, all of them sat together and decided: Gayeb is far better than us in studies, and is much stronger physically. Let’s make him our king. Then, he won’t torment us any more. So they picked up Gayeb on their shoulders and started dancing. Gayeb was quite pleased to sit on the shoulders of boys who were much smaller than him. After some time, a little boy said, ‘I am the royal priest. I’ll chant mantras and put a tilak on Gayeb’s forehead.’ They made him sit on a mound on the ground. He sat on the earthen throne like a real king and the little boy, after putting the mark of royalty on Gayeb’s brow, asked, ‘Gayeb, we know your name. Who is your mother, and who is you father?’
He answered, ‘My name is Gayeb, my sister’s name is Gayebi and my ma’s name is Subhaga. But what is my father’s name?’
Gayeb did not know that he had come to this world as a boon from the Sun God. Since he didn’t know his father’s name, he looked down in shame. The boys started laughing and clapping, and his face turned crimson. Then he smashed his earthen throne with a mighty kick, smacked the small boys, making their puffy cheeks puffier, and trembling with rage, went straight to the temple. Subhaga was teaching Gayebi how to perform arati with a small lamp, when Gayeb arrived like a storm, snatched the lamp from her hand and threw it away. The solid brass lamp crashed on a stone wall with a loud clank and broke into pieces. And along with that, a black stone with a carved image of the Sun God fell off the wall. Subhaga said, ‘Are you insane? How could you disrupt the arati of the Sun God and insult Him?’
Gayeb replied, ‘I care neither about your sun nor about your god. Tell me, who is my father? If you don’t, I’ll throw the deity into the Suryakund.’
Although no one, not even Bhima himself, could have dislodged that gigantic stone statue, seeing Gayeb’s fury, Subhaga thought he might do anything! She rushed towards him and held his hands. Said she, ‘Calm down, my son! Don’t insult God. What will you do with your father’s name? I am your mother, Gayebi is your sister, what else do you need?’
Gayeb started crying bitterly. He asked between his sobs, ‘Do you mean, mother, that I am no one, that I am as insignificant as the dust on the road, worse than a beggar?’
The words hit Subhaga like sharp arrows; she sat down, covering her face with hands. She said in her mind, ‘Oh God! Why did you do this? How do I explain to this desperate child? How do I pacify him? Gayeb and Gayebi are not to be despised, they are not ordinary, they are children of the Sun, holier than everyone. But who would believe this?’ Subhaga thought of the secret prayer of the Sun God, but recalled, if she would recite it the second time, she would die. She did not want to leave her two little children, the mother in her cried out in pain …. She said, ‘Son, let’s not talk about this, let’s go away from here. Try to believe that the Sun God is your father.’
Gayeb shook his head; he didn’t believe his mother. Then she said, ‘Shut the doors. You’ll soon see your father, but you’ll lose your mother for ever.’
Tears started flowing down her cheeks. Gayebi implored, ‘Brother, why do you make ma suffer?’
Without replying, Gayeb started closing the temple doors. Subhaga sat down before the deity of the Sun God for meditation, with her children on her sides. There was a time when she had wished to die and had recited the same mantra without fear, but now, she thought of her children and felt the mantra was an agent of death, like a venomous serpent. She recited it with terror. As the Sun God appeared, the temple seemed to have been drowned in a deluge of blood … He looked massive and frightening. Subhaga asked, ‘Master, who is the father of Gayeb and Gayebi?’
The Sun God did not utter a single word. His searing heat burnt poor Subhaga into ashes. Gayebi cried out in terror, ‘Ma! Ma!’
Gayeb asked calmly, ‘Where is our ma?’
Once again, the Sun God did not reply. He only pointed towards a pile of ash on the floor. Gayeb realised that their mother was no more. With eyes blazing in grief and anger, he picked up the piece of stone with the Sun God’s image carved on it and threw it at him. The stone, which looked like the head of Yama's buffalo, was deflected off the God’s crown like a piece of burning ember. Gayeb fainted.
He sat up after a long time. By then, the God had left. Gayebi alone was sitting beside him. He asked, ‘Where is He?’
Gayebi showed him the black stone and said, ‘This is the Adityasheela . If you hit anyone with it, they will die. The Sun has given it to you. He said he himself is your father, and from now on, your name will be Shiladitya. Your descendents will be known as the Sun Dynasty; they will rule over the world. And He has left his chariot drawn by seven horses at your command. Whenever you wish, it will come out of the Suryakund for you. Brother, it’s time for you to go out on the Sun’s chariot, Adityasheela in hand. Go and conquer the world!’
Gayeb said, ‘But where do I leave you, sister?’
Gayebi said, ‘Brother, please leave me here. I’ll eat fruits from the trees in the temple garden and drink the water of the kund. When you become an emperor, please take me to your palace.
A happy Gayeb left his sister behind in the temple and went on a conquest, riding the chariot drawn by seven great horses. Gayebi immersed the ashes of her mother in the holy waters of the Suryakund, fell on the stone floor and cried bitterly for her mother and Gayeb.
That night, when there were no stars in the sky and no light in the world, the Sun Temple shook with a deafening noise. Almost half the temple, including the gigantic statue of the Sun God, started sliding down towards the womb of the earth, taking the soft, wispy, beautiful Gayebi along. She tried to save herself, but couldn’t. She tried to crawl up, but she slipped as the stone wall was smooth as glass. She cried, ‘Brother!’ and fell down, unconscious. Everything came to an end, darkness enveloped the world.
Many years passed. Gayeb went around on the Sun’s chariot, collected an army of soldiers from different countries, conquered many kingdoms and in the end, returned to defeat the king of Ballabhipur in a war. Gayeb killed him by throwing the Adityasheela at him. Then, taking the name Shiladitya, he ascended the throne, made his former classmates ministers and generals and drove away the infirm and useless employees of the former king. Then on a fine day he married Puspavati, the princess of Chandravati, amidst blaring of bugles and conch shells and retired to his marble palace. Late in the night, when the world was still, when the maid fanning him had nodded off beside his feet and the golden lamp near his head had almost died out, Shiladitya saw his lovely little sister in a dream. He felt she was looking at him from far away, and heard a feeble cry from the direction of the Sun Temple: ‘Brother! Brother …’
He woke up with a fierce cry. By then, it had been dawn. Without wasting a moment, he rushed to the Sun Temple in his chariot, with soldiers in tow. The massive gate of the temple was firmly shut; vines grown over years had tied it up like iron chains. Shiladitya removed the creepers with his own hands to open it. As daylight fell on the dark interiors of the temple, bats flew out. Shiladitya entered the temple. As he looked towards where the deity used to be, he found darkness hanging like a black curtain. Shiladitya shouted, ‘Gayebi, Gayebi, where are you?’
The darkness responded, ‘Oh poor Gayebi, where is she?’
Shiladitya asked for a torch. In the torchlight, he found that the northern part of the temple had vanished, gone underground. Only the heads of seven stone horses rose above the ground like the hood of a gigantic serpent. He found no trace of the room where he had played with Gayebi, where they had drifted into sleep in their mother’s arms after listening to stories of the Gurjar kingdom, the room where the brass lamp like a deodar tree had been kept. He stood before the deep chasm and called out, ‘Gayebi! Gayebi!’
His sad voice rebounded off the walls of that endless hollow and trailed away farther and farther, up to the gates of hell. A devastated Gayeb returned to his palace.
That day, following the king’s order, workers started covering every inch of the temple with plates of gold. Shiladitya did not install another idol there. The seven horses of the Sun God continued to look up from the dark chasm. Afterwards, Shiladitya got the sides of the water tank covered with gleaming marble slabs brought from the best mines. Whenever there was a war, he prayed to the Sun God sitting beside Suryakund. Immediately, seven horses would pull up the chariot from the depths of the kund. Shiladitya was invincible when he was on that chariot. In the end, a minister whom he liked and trusted more than anyone else betrayed him and brought about disaster. But for that minister, no one knew that the Sun’s chariot came out of the Suryakund for Shiladitya.
When uncivilised aliens called Parads from the land of Shyamnagar on the other side of the seas invaded Ballabhipur, the traitor conspired with them and for the sake of money, poured cow’s blood into the holy tank to desecrate it. On the day of the battle, Shiladitya prayed to the Sun God, but the chariot did not appear. He called the seven horses by their seven names again and again, but alas, there was not a ripple on the water. A dispirited Shiladitya went to the battlefield on another chariot to combat his enemies. After battling through the day, the Sun God’s gift to the world died as the sun set in the west. The brute enemies destroyed the Sun Temple and left after looting and sacking Ballabhipur.
Translated by Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri