Eyes closed, Prince Ajitha Shaurya breathed in slowly and exhaled.

“Slower,” Aacharya Gurukripa whispered in his ear. “Breathe quietly … like a snake slithering in the grass.”

Ajitha breathed in again, even slower. And exhaled. The chirping of the early morning birds melted away. He could hear his heart thumping noisily, the blood flowing sluggishly through his veins. The tightness in his arms and wrists eased.

The prince inhaled again, this time even slower. His heartbeat was a gentle murmur. All that existed was the solitude within. He opened his eyes slowly and looked at the target at the far end of the archery field.

Five pots, tied with silk threads, hung on five bars placed one behind the other, parallel to each other. Each pot was painted a different colour. The pots swung like pendulums – all in a straight line but crisscrossing each other occasionally. The prince breathed in, one last time.

“Red,” whispered the aacharya.

Ajitha watched the swinging pots – a moving kaleidoscope of colours. One moment he saw blue, the next green, then it was black, and then it was the white pot.

The red pot would come next, thought the prince. He exhaled slowly and released the arrow. He saw the pot shatter before he heard the twang of the string next to his ear.


His heart pounded with joy. He could hear the birds chirping again as well as the voices of the praying brahmans coming from the palace.

A smile of victory spread across his face.

“You shattered the wrong pot, my prince!” said Aacharya Gurukripa, stroking his long flowing grey beard. “You waited too long before releasing the arrow.”

A tightness welled up within the young prince’s heart. For the last six weeks, his mornings had been the same. Wake up well before dawn, drink a quart of pungent oil on an empty stomach, do a hundred sit-ups, wrestle with a man twice his size who would pound him into the mud, and practice fencing with the best swordsman in all Vaishali, who would stab at his chest with a blunt sword, day after day. And then, when he could barely breathe, shoot at a bunch of swinging pots. He had improved at every task, including that of keeping his vomit down after downing the oil, but shooting at the correct pot was still beyond him.

Right now, Ajitha wanted to break his bow and every arrow in his quiver over his knee. But he knew better. Aacharya Gurukripa would not approve.

“Anger is like a wild elephant, Ajitha. It tramples everything along its path and when there is nothing left to destroy, it consumes its own caretaker,” said Gurukripa, as if reading the young prince’s mind.

Ajitha looked up at the reddish sky of the dawn and tried to master his emotions.

“Once more, Gurudev?” he asked.

Aacharya Gurukripa opened his mouth to reply just as the sound of a gong ringing thrice came from the palace. The king was awake. Court would begin in an hour. It was time for the prince to get ready for his royal duties.

“Once more, Gurudev?” Prince Ajitha repeated.

The boy is as stubborn as a mule, Gurukripa thought.

He smiled and nodded his head. His gooseberry-green eyes twinkled in approval.

The prince picked up an arrow from his quiver, placed it on the bow and pulled the string right up to his ear.

“Breathe in slowly, Prince Ajitha,” said the aacharya.

The bow-legged man entered Mithila from the western gate, soon after sunrise. Despite his tattered clothes and unwashed body, the guards welcomed him, bowing low with folded hands. The tuft on the back of his head and the thread around his chest were sufficient to ensure a respectful welcome.

One of the guards asked the man his name and where he was from.

“Divyakshu Sarma, Brahman, Soumyapur,” said the bowlegged man. The guard scribbled the details on a parchment and waved the brahman ahead, even as he stared at the incredible bend of his bowlegs.

Up ahead, just before the inner gate, five spearmen, a vaidya and a scribe waited next to a sandpit. The vaidya, dressed in a spotless white dhoti with a silk angavastram draped around his shoulders, saluted the brahman.

“Welcome to Mithila, sire,” said the vaidya, who had a few leaves of tulsi tucked behind his ear, a practice followed by all healers in the kingdom. “Now please stand in the middle of the sandpit and raise your hands above your head.”

Divyakshu Sarma did as he was told. The vaidya stood at the edge of the sandpit and circled it, his eyes studying every inch of the brahman’s skin. When he was done with the inspection, he stepped into the sandpit and asked Divyakshu to raise his neck. The vaidya stepped closer, so close he could smell the sweat off the brahman’s body. For what seemed to Divyakshu like a very long time, the vaidya stared at a pusfilled boil on the brahman’s neck, distaste written all over his face. When he was done with this inspection, the vaidya stepped out of the sandpit.

“He is fine,” screamed the vaidya, even as the scribe wrote it down. “Just a small boil on the neck. It looks like a heat boil.” The vaidya stepped forward and offered Divyakshu a bowl of water with neem leaves floating in it. “Welcome to Mithila,” repeated the vaidya.

Divyakshu gulped down the water despite its bitter taste. Then, heaving a sigh of relief, he started walking towards the unguarded inner gate pointed to by the vaidya, and into the city.

Divyakshu Sarma was exhausted. He had not known tiredness like this before. For thirty days and thirty nights, he had walked the sunbaked, dusty plains till his calloused feet had bled. Sleep had played hide and seek, more hide than seek. Hunger had gnawed at his insides. Every limb in his bony body had begged for a warm bath and a soft bed. But Sarma had kept walking, until he had seen the gates of Vaishali.

Since he was a boy, Sarma had dreamt of seeing Vaishali’s sprawling palaces and temples, its noisy markets where rubies and diamonds were sold like boiled sweets, its fabled gardens that smelled of parijata and nagachampa blossoms, and its placid blue lakes on whose shores children splashed around in the afternoons.

But, right now, as he dragged his stiff, calloused feet along, Sarma felt blind to the charms of the greatest city in the sixteen kingdoms. All around him, the people of this glorious city were going about their lives – ignorant of what was coming their way.

Like goats being led to slaughter.

Only he, the man called Divyakshu Sarma, knew better.

The fair-skinned women of pale eyes and smooth skin, carried by servants in palanquins, did not know. The coarse horse traders from faraway lands – haggling for more pieces of silver – did not know. Nor did the pompous priests who extracted payments in gold and silver know what fate had in store for them.

Only I know. A man from nowhere, whom nobody recognises, knows.

And he was going to tell the king of Mithila all about it.

Excerpted with permission from Brahma Hathya, TV Mahalingam, Westland Books.