Once the world was still, they opened their eyes. Elfu reluctantly detached his trunk from Rohan’s waist, which he had clutched a little too tightly. Rohan took a deep breath in relief. An overwhelming smell of floral and sandalwood perfumes, and a cacophony of sounds assailed him simultaneously. He looked around. They seemed to be in some sort of busy marketplace with shops lining the square on all sides. Crowds of shoppers strolled past stalls of all sorts – piled with fruits and vegetables.
To one side, goldsmiths were sitting and fashioning gold and precious stones into elaborate jewellery, while nearby, metalworkers hammered out copper vessels with loud thwangs. Other stalls had blossoms and buds piled up, with garlands and flower jewellery in intricate designs. Vendors were crying out, hawking their wares, while shoppers were engaged in friendly bargaining here and there. Rich ladies were being carried around at a leisurely pace in palanquins held by eight to ten bearers each. Both men and women were mostly dressed in cotton clothes – dhotis of some sort – wrapped tight or loose, long or short – wait, some were even in sarongs?! Everyone had long, flowing scarves…some had them hanging from their necks down the front, some the other way around. A few were using the long cloths to cover their heads. Some women were wearing bandeau-style blouses. And the colours! All the clothes around them seemed to be in all the hues of the rainbow…and so many different prints… bandhani, block, ikat…!
“Look, Zo! Why are people dressed so differently from one another? “Noor asked Zoya. “Hmm.” Zoya looking around. “See,” she pointed out, “the poorer folk are in just loincloths. Those fancily dressed men must be noblemen…is that an umbrella??” They turned to look at a couple of young men and a lady dressed in fancy silk dhotis and scarves. They had attendants carrying some kind of umbrellas over them, made of what seemed like large, dried leaves!
The people under them were laden with fragrant floral jewellery – garlands, bracelets, anklets – with flowers woven even into their long, curly hair…and with gold and gemstones as well. The lady had her hair up in an elaborate knot and a large lotus was tucked into it. In fact, all the people around, from peasant to prince, all looked like walking-talking gardens! Both men and women had flowers wrapped around their hair, neck, wrists, waist…
“Look at those groups of Jain munis!” exclaimed Ansh. “I saw so many when I visited Mount Abu…how do they survive without clothes!” He added, “And those are Buddhists,” pointing out shaven-headed monks with downcast eyes, wearing robes of maroon and yellow, and carrying begging bowls. “And see, a sadhu! He has covered himself in ash!” He indicated a man with long dreadlocks, wearing a loincloth and smeared all over in a white powdery substance. Ansh’s mother was always exploring different religions, and it was showing. Noor exclaimed again. “Check out the hairrrr. Insannne!” They all looked around, noticing the hairstyles. “Those must have taken hoursss to do,” exclaimed Zoya, noting the loops and curls and knots studded with jewels and nets of pearls. Many men and women wore bands on their heads with pearls suspended from them; many others wore fine muslin turbans.
Jewels gleamed on every conceivable and inconceivable part of the human body – hair, kundalas in the ear, necklaces of all lengths, golden snakes coiled on the upper arm, bangles, bracelets and rings, waistbands, hip bands, upper-thigh bands, anklets – you name it! Rohan was excited. “Guys! Look! How many pets do these guys keep?” pointing to a large variety of pet shops. There were men selling monkeys, birds, puppies…were those mongooses? It was all so overwhelming.
“At least we are girls this time,” muttered Zoya, looking down and then at the others. She and Noor were wearing embroidered dhotis of delicate muslin with bandeaus on top, and a long scarf hanging down their necks. She checked her head with her hand. She had such an elaborate hairdo! The boys were wearing white dhotis with woven borders, and gold double-chains crossing across their chests. “We should try and fit in,” Noor said in one of her typical super-loud whispers. “Look! We need to go get some of this art on our faces…” She had adored face paint at birthday parties when she was little…in fact, she still loved it, but secretly. Almost-teens were meant to have grown out of such childish things. Zoya piped in, “Yes, and some of this flower jewellery as well…smells soooo good.” She checked the pouch at her waist and saw with satisfaction that there were coins in there, in copper, bronze, silver – and even a gorgeous gold one!
They wandered over to a stall laden with flowers of all sorts. The shopkeeper was a simply dressed woman with completely white hair, a mass of wrinkles and old, kindly eyes. “Young ladies and gents, come and adorn yourselves,” she said in a pleasant voice. They realised that they could understand this language. “This isn’t Sanskrit!” muttered Ansh. “Zo! What did people speak in this time?? And actually, WHEN is this time?”
“Ansh! I dunno…we are probably sometime in the fourth century.”
“Aah. BCE?” asked Ansh.
“NO!” Zoya replied, completely exasperated.
“CE. CE!” She continued, “You are right. This isn’t Sanskrit. Hmm. Must be a Prakrit of some sort.”
Excerpted with permission from History Hunters: Chandragupta Vikramaditya and the Shaka Conspiracy, Shruti Garodia and Archana Garodia Gupta, Hachette India.