World creation is a crucial aspect of fantasy writing. It was a great chance for me to explore aspects of ancient India to construct the world of Avishi. Reimagining Vishpala of the Rig Veda was a challenge. Nothing was known about Vishpala that could be expanded into a novel. One of the scholars I approached for inputs commented that the hymn does not even have the material for a short story, forget a full-length novel.
He was not wrong. The process was daunting, but it gave me an opportunity to imagine the Rig Vedic India (Jambudvipa in the book), right at the dawn of civilisation.
There were other hymns which gave some clues about the polity and society that existed in those times. Taking the liberty to reimagine and reconstruct the ancient world inspired by Rig Veda was a fascinating journey. Here are some facts about the world of Avishi.
The story takes place on the banks of River Saraswati. Naimisha, the forest school and ashram serves as the autonomous centre of knowledge as well as policy. The rishis of Naimisha debate on issues (social, religious, political and academic) and formulated a code – Smriti – conveyed to the settlements across Jambudvipa.
There is no script. Knowledge is passed on to the next generation through a segment of rishis – Santagrahis. Santagrahis are endowed with striking memory and can remember for life what they listen once, twice or thrice. They serve as living documents.
They travel across the land, observing the lives of commoners and political developments. They report to the council of Naimisha. The remaining rishis assess the validity of older codes and deliberate on formulation of new codes.
Ashtagani, the fictional settlement of ancient India, where the bulk of the story happens, is a republican settlement governed by a samiti comprising of elected heads of various professions. The samiti is headed by a ganapati/ganamukhyaa. Inspired by the Rig Vedic basis, the samiti has male and female members.
The institution of vivaha or wedlock is not yet established in the world of Avishi. Men and women freely choose their mates and remain faithful to each other. The relationships stand till one of them or both discontinue.
All professions have men and women participating and heading them. A huntress, a cowherdess, a rishika or a female warrior or even a ganamukhyaa, the head of a settlement, should not come as a surprise.
Caste system does not exist. The varna system is porous and non-dynastic. A farmer’s son can train to be a doctor. A fisherman’s brother can train to become a soldier.
Looks egalitarian and utopic? What could go wrong in such a society? Travel through ancient Jambudvipa to know more.
The Sacred Cave was situated towards the North-Western boundaries of Ashtagani. The settlement had grown beyond the wooden fence that had once marked its boundaries and extended and thinned out towards the vast pastures of the River Saraswati. The pastures that fed the cattle earlier, were now getting converted into cultivable farms forcing the cowherds to go further west to graze their cattle. Nevertheless, the morning walk along the river reminded Avishi of home, Naimisha.
“Hope you aren’t tired with the long walk, Avishi!” asked Shivani pausing to coax a straying calf to follow them. “We shall take a detour after visiting the Sacred Cave. You are welcome to explore the outskirts of Ashtagani with us.” She smiled as she realised that Avishi needed more than a long walk to tire her. “You travelled alone all the way?”
“There were a group of Rishis headed in this direction from Naimisha. But yes, the last two days, I was, more or less, by myself.”
Shivani looked at Avishi with admiration.
“Did you train in combative skills?” As Avishi nodded amicably, Shivani was immediately drawn to the new comer. One day, Avishi would join the hunter team or the military section of Ashtagani. Shivani would have loved Avishi to join the cowherds but she knew the calling of one’s passion.
“The Hill.” She pointed. “The opening to the sacred cave is towards the east.”
“Stone Paintings? This is what you worship? In the Ashram, we worship the Great Varuna the Agni, Mitra and the Sons of the Sun. Kulapati invokes the Pantheon comprising the known and unknown, seen and the unseen!”
“We do the same.” Shivani replied bringing the burning torch closer to the paintings. “But this cave sheltered our ancestors against the fury of nature for millennia. This is where they left the learnings of their life to their progeny.”
“These paintings must have been there since thousands of years.” Avishi remarked. “They must be the ancestors of half the population of the Northern plains of Jambudvipa. And that means that the cave should be revered by all of us, not just Ashtagani.”
Shivani sighed in response. “Unfortunately, the only ones who revere it are us. Years ago, the neighbouring Vrishabhavati had a King who wanted to break this hill for some metal.”
Shivani nodded and caught Avishi mouthing the word again. “Have you been there?”
Even as Avishi shook her head, she wondered why the name felt why it struck a sense of fear. A striking feeling of familiarity struck her. Like she had been in the cave before. Maharishi Vahni had meant that she was here to repay a debt. Was I here before? Her forehead began to throb like it did every time she saw the dreaded nightmare. Instincts warned her. About what?
Shouts outside the cave drew the attention of both the women.
“Wait here!” Shivani hurried out.
“The bull! It has gone rogue!” A young cowherd yelled as she emerged down the path. “Shivani! Watch out!”
The bull seemed like it was possessed by a demon as it charged, bellowing. Shivani saw that it had knocked off at least three of the able-bodied cowherds and the younger ones could not muster enough courage to stop it. Except one, a small boy.
“No! Just let him be! You will only end up enraging him more!” Shivani shouted at the boy who had managed to throw a noose around the bull; the animal now raging about with the boy’s strength unable to control it broke free and started charging right at Shivani.
The cowherdess stood her ground, undeterred at the menacing horns that rushed towards her. The younger cowherds shrieked while a couple of them raced towards her; Shivani, without moving from her place signalled them to follow the bull, while maintaining a safe distance. The bull charged, mindless of the humans ahead, perhaps smug in knowledge, that one with one sweep of its horns, it could throw the obstacle off its path. Just as the beast was about to lift her into the air, Shivani leapt towards left, her gaze keen on a dry tree trunk and caught hold of the noose.
“Quick! Around that tree, she whirled the loose end of the rope with her left hand, while trying to check the progress of the bull with her right, a force that clearly wasn’t enough to stop the bull. But to her dismay the cowherds were yet to reach the tree and she had to hurl herself bodily upon the noose, but in vain.
“Off the path!”
Still possessed by the blurred visions of the past, Avishi walked out of the cave. Guided by an invisible voice and a courage which most of the onlookers would look upon as sheer foolishness, she charged ahead towards the bull.
“No! Avishi! Stay off!” Shivani shouted, pulling at the noose hard and getting dragged along in the process.
Unmindful of the shouts, Avishi raced ahead and leapt into the air, landing right in front of the animal; catching it by its horns, she let the bull take the full impact of her landing. Dazed for a moment, the bull bellowed and once again charged with a lightning sweep of its horns. Even as her body whirled, Avishi held on. During the bull’s fourth attempt Avishi’s grip loosened. The onlookers gasped, their hearts beating wildly against their chests. The rocks were treacherous; with one violent fling, the bull could kill her on the spot. Unaware of the growing restlessness around her, Avishi arched herself around the bull and caught the ring of the noose around its neck and hauled herself upon its back. Shivani had not left the noose. The bull bellowed again, its progress now impeded by the combined efforts of two women, its annoyance increasing with the added weight upon its back
Avishi’s fist landed upon its forehead, shocking the bull and causing it to stop. The beast bellowed, exhausted and weak yet leaping nevertheless. With one final jerk, Avishi was finally flung off its back. The pain was excruciating but, Avishi held on to the horn and the noose.
“We got him! Leave him now!”
“Avishi, Leave him!”
She dropped to the ground unmindful of the hooves. But from the corner of her eye, she could see a tall and mounting figure secure the loose end of the noose to the tree. Avishi had not seen the man earlier. She rolled away from the bull which by now had ceased its attempts to break away from the leash and tried to stand. A wave of pain shot through her legs and back as she collapsed.
Avishi, Saiswaroopa Iyer’s second novel in available here.
Saiswaroopa advises start-ups in the areas of fund raising and market research. Struggles with multiple passions of Indian epics, history, economics, culture and Carnatic music. Currently lives in London, UK.
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