He whisked out a figurine from the manifold pleats of his robes and held it forth for all to see. A gasp went up in the room. In measured steps, he walked forward and set it before the king.
The figurine resembled the dancing Shiva, the Nataraja. Only, he was dancing on his hands. Framed in an arch of carved flames, the divine acrobat balanced on one palm. His other hand formed a mudra, a third hand raised a flame, and a fourth held a drum. His clothes and ornaments whirled askew, as he somersaulted gracefully below the arch. His face was fierce, moustached and intensely focused.
No one spoke. It was as if they waited for that magnificent figure to finish his fantastic dance. His power over them was complete.
“Is it possible this is made of stone?” sighed one of the men in admiration, “It looks as if it’s moving!”
“It must be a trick of the light,” said another. “Some mechanical secret, perhaps? Or something added to the stone.” Murmurs of agreement and delight echoed in the room.
“Poet, who created this?”
“Sire, word of your grand temple has spread to all corners of the land. Men from everywhere are vying to participate in its construction. Three stonemasons, newly arrived and residing on the outskirts of the city, are responsible for this piece. Should you allow it, they will carve such tremendous figurines from plain granite that the gods might take the temple for heaven itself!”
“Majesty, think what tales could be carved onto those bland pillars. What lamp-bearing beauties could light your way down its long, dark passages. What fierce guardians would adorn the gateways and arches. These gifted men were born to complete your temple! Then might the minister more truly say that nothing at all remains to be done.”
The king listened to every word, not once taking his eyes off the Nataraja. There was no doubt in his mind that the stonemasons would work on his temple. But how could he inspire them to perform their best, to create an unparalleled masterpiece?
“Invite the stonemasons to work on the temple,” he said. “Speak to them thus: carve us your most terrifying, most intricate, most inspired visions. Carve such wonders as have never been seen before and as none may mimic hereafter. Whatever is the weight of the dust that falls from your carvings, we will equal its weight in gold as your reward!”
The room broke out in shouts of praise for the king. The poet bowed with a sense of personal triumph and left to carry out his master’s commands.
The three stonemasons went to work. Over many months, they gave form to startling, dreamlike creatures in the temple. Doorways sprouted ram-horned, bulbous-eyed dragons; ceilings and passageways began to mirror each other with geometric strips; stories of heroes and damsels climbed up the pillars scene by scene, cascading into domes over gates and halls; and unimaginable deities took root in dark nooks.
One week, they found an army of fierce yalis carved around a courtyard. Part lion, part horse, the gigantic creatures reared up on their hoofs and bared their fanged maws at passers-by. Like little boys, some of the priests surreptitiously climbed up and put their hand into the granite mouths, to feel the curious thrill of almost having it bitten off.
Another week, the dark northern corridor became an avenue of a hundred shapely, doe-eyed apsaras. Intricately ornamented in rock-cut girdles, anklets, earrings and necklaces, each held a granite oil lamp in her hands. When lit, the lamps cast mysterious shadows over the soft figures.
While the priests went about their business, admiring the new works, it was understood that none must disturb the sculptors at their job.
In one of the courtyards, the stonemasons were busy carving an avatar of Shiva. One worked to create 26 faces in a five-tiered pyramid. Another chipped-away rock to form 52 arms and all the weapons a god of destruction could want. Stone dust piled steadily at their feet, covering their knees, hands and faces in a fine sheen.
The third, who carved the mountain on which the god sat, made smooth, tumid boulders. Not so intricate, this, he thought. Not much dust will come off it…and that means, less gold for us.
His attention wandered to the scatterings of chips and flakes visible through the haze of half-floating powder by their feet. How much dust will we collect, he wondered. How much gold will there finally be?
And then a doubt that had been nagging him for a while surfaced.
Will the king really give us gold dust in equal measure to the stone dust we produce, he wondered. There is so much dust! Will he really part with such a vast amount of gold? What if he changes his mind and gives us only a fraction of it?
The thought swam round and round in his head. Before he realized it, the block of stone he was working on had all turned to dust! He looked at the pile thoughtfully. Nothing of a statue had been created, so he shouldn’t really be paid for this dust.
But what if he did add it to the pile? Who would know? An idea began to take shape in his mind.
If the king cheated them and gave them only a part of the dust’s weight in gold, he deserved to be cheated in return. And if the king kept his word? Why, then the three of them would simply be that much richer!
Temptation, like a slow-furling creeper, took insidious hold of the stonemason. He picked up a fresh block of stone and began carving.
Excerpted with permission from “The Stonemasons of Suchindram” in Rogues and Rajas: Dark Tales for Tumultuous Times, SV Iyer, Hachette India.