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Karna’s Anguish

March 21, 2013

It was a hot, humid day and Krishna had taken him out of the capital of the Kuru Dynasty, Hastinapura into the forest to the north. They had not spoken much during the journey and the normally cheerful Krishna looked grave and solemn. And so Karna had decided to let the silence linger on, till Krishna broke the ice and stated what was on his mind. After all, it was Krishna who had requested the meeting. Karna at first was surprised when Krishna’s messenger came bearing a message that Krishna wanted to meet him and he, against his better judgment, decided to accept the offer. He was intrigued because it was a forgone conclusion that the Great War would be fought in the coming days between the Pandavas and Kauravas, to determine the fate of Bharatvarsha. So the very next day, they had both travelled up north in Krishna’s chariot, accompanied only by Krishna’s friend, the mighty warrior Satyaki.

As soon as they reached the foothills of the mountains, they left Satyaki at the chariot and walked deep into the forest where no one would spot them.

And finally, Krishna broke the silence. “Karna, you are a man who has studied and practiced Dharma all your life. The wise say that you are greatest of givers; greater than even Lord Parjanya (Indra). They say that your knowledge of the Vedas is second to none; greater than even Yudhisthira. So why do your side with the sinner Duryodhana? We both know that the war is going to be fought in the future and the blood of many Kshatriyas is going to be spilt on our divine Aryavarta all thanks to Duryodhana’s ego.”

Karna sat down under the shade of a large banyan tree and replied, “My Lord; I may be the greatest of givers. I may also be well read in the Vedas but if there is anyone to whom I owe my life, it is Duryodhana. When the world censured me for a sutaputra, it was Duryodhana alone, who stood by me and made me the king of Anga. When Bheema mocked me that day during the tournament, and when Arjuna’s words were filled with contempt, it was Duryodhana alone, who stood up for me and offered his friendship. You know very well that I swore my life to my friend that very day and in his happiness alone, lies mine.”

“But what about Dharma? The code that you are supposed to protect?”

Karna looked at Krishna with a calm gaze. He was crystal clear in his thinking even though Krishna was trying to sow the seeds of doubt in his mind. “My Dharma is to my king just like yours is to the Pandavas. I have promised him that I will slay the Pandavas and make him the king of Aryavarta. Nothing can steer me away from the path that I have chosen.”

Krishna looked away for a second, “What if your parents advised you against going to this war?”

“My father Adhiratha and my mother Radha both know that I am a karmayodha (warrior of Karma) and they will back me up in any decision I make.”

Krishna looked at him and said very slowly, “But what if your real parents advised you against going to this war?”

A strange fever gripped his body as he looked at Krishna and he felt faint. “Who is my father? My mother?” he shouted aloud, hoping against hope that he would finally get an answer to that question that had troubled him, his entire life; the enigma of his birth.

Krishna looked at him with utmost pity because the lord knew the circumstances of his divine birth. After a long pause, Krishna finally said, “The time has come for you to listen to the most jealously guarded secret ever. The Sun God; Lord Surya whom you worship daily at noon is your father. Your mother is also the mother of five other great warriors, the likes of whom the world has never seen till now.”

“Krishna! It cannot be,” Karna cried out in despair as he sprung up to his feet, tears flowed down his cheeks; “I am but the son of a humble charioteer.”

Krishna shook his head in infinite sadness and continued, “But her heart still longs for that baby whom she set floating on the Ganges with that bright armor and those beautiful earrings, praying to the Gods that someone would take care of her child. She did not have any other option back then.”

The blue eyes of Krishna crackled with an unknown energy and his expressions, poignant. “Karna, my dear cousin; you are not a Radheya (son of Radha) but the eldest Kaunteya (son of Kunti). It is time for you to know the story behind your divine birth.”

And Krishna proceeded to tell Karna about his birth. Karna stood in stunned silence as Krishna continued his narration. He heard all the words but his brain refused to process any of it. He did not know how to react; his sworn enemies were his brothers and this secret had been kept away from him all these years all because a woman chose to protect her honor.

After Krishna finished his narration, Karna sat down in disbelief; the weight of what he had heard was too heavy for his feet. And his mind scrambled to make sense of it all. Karma had come back again to kick him in the gut like it had always done in his life; but this was its cruelest trick.

After a good few minutes, watching the fine sand particles slip and pour out through his fingers, Karna finally said aloud, “Karma is the great law of unerring, never-failing justice; the mysterious workings of which stretches from the innermost atom to the outermost cosmic space; from the birth of a thought to that of the universe. And it had done me over again. All my life, I have taken the blows of Karma and continued to move forward but this time, I don’t think I can stand up again. Why me? Surely sage Parashurama must have known through his accumulated tapas that I was a Kshatriya and hence cursed me. The strange irony is that sage Drona refused to teach me and sent me away because he thought that I was not a Kshatriya.”

Krishna came over to him and placed an arm over his shoulder reassuringly. “It is still not too late. Why don’t you join the Pandavas? You will be made king and your brothers will worship the ground you walk upon.”

Karna replied, “Alas Krishna, don’t mistake my pain for weakness. My loyalty to my king is greater than everything else in the world. A man has got to keep trying in what he believes in. Your dharma is to the Pandavas and mine is to Duryodhana even though I know that it is a lost cause!”

And he continued, “Krishna, my lord. In your love of the Pandavas, you have disclosed this secret to me. I am good at reading the omens and I can see the future. In my heart, I already know the outcome of the Great War. My lord, when you decided to side with the Pandavas, I knew that we had already lost the war. But promise me one thing. Grant me a boon.”

With tears in his eyes, Krishna replied, “And what is that?”

“Promise me that you will keep the circumstances of my birth a secret till I die. Yes, I see that happening as well but I will surely die trying. I can already see a legion of warriors going towards Lord Yama. The war is going to be fought and only then, will I be assured a place in the heavens. Only then will Karma stop following me like a rabid dog.”


The night before the 17th Day of battle:

Memories were all that a man in his position could hope to hold on too. A refreshing cool breeze bearing the scent of roses wafted into the tent as the wounded man was lying down on his soft bed and the effects of which, were remedial to a certain degree. It was as if mother earth was doing her bit to bring some peace to the battlefield of Kurukshetra and the insanity of the last sixteen days of war.

It was close to midnight but the man could not go to sleep in spite of his weariness. The sixteenth day of the Great War had ended and it looked like the beginning for the end for his army; the great army which had started with 21 akshauhini. Thousands of warriors had fallen over the last 16 days!

Earlier in the evening, after his dinner, he had a taken a long bath, hoping that it would erase the pain, but it had not. Now as he lay still on his soft bed after consuming many cups of wine, he knew that the next day would bring about the battle that he had waited for his entire life and possibly, release from the wretched life that he had had to endure for so long.

His heart was heavy, full of pathos and he felt like he had a huge burden was on his shoulders. He was like a cobra, which in the last minute had been removed of its venomous fangs. The meeting that he had had with Krishna and his mother Kunti had not just dented his conviction to kill his own brothers, but it had also removed the hatred that he had harbored for the Pandavas. How could he hope to fight without hate?

His son Vrishasena walked into his tent at that moment; his son who was a splitting image of himself.

“Father, even I cannot sleep today. I am excited about tomorrow when you will meet the Pandavas and destroy them single handedly.”

“Oh, the sheer exuberance of youth is a like a delicate yet dangerous flower. What these kids lack in experience, they make up with passion,” Karna thought to himself. This was the first time that his son was in a major battle and Karna could see the same eagerness, fire and passion within him that he himself had had, many years ago.

“Yes, my dear son, we will win the war for our king tomorrow but that will happen only tomorrow. Time does not fasten for anyone; not even the Gods. Even Lord Indra cannot command Time. Go sleep now, you will need all your energy for the battle tomorrow.”

And after a warm embrace, his son left him alone. Karna could not bear to think of what would happen to his son in the coming days. He still could not sleep as his memories kept tormenting him. He knew that he would face the Pandavas the next day. He had promised his mother that he would spare the lives of Yudhisthira, Bheema, Sahadeva and Nakula but not Arjuna. The world would see the battle between the two great warriors. It was a fight, which they both had waited for. There was only space for one person in the world; one who could command the title of the greatest warrior!

He closed his eyes, desperate to get some sleep but yet again, his life; the memories flashed before his eyes!


For as long as he could remember, Karna had paid his respects to Lord Surya at noon without fail every day. Even before he realized that the Sun God was his father, he had instinctively shared an inexplicable bond with the Sun. At noon, he would perform the Surya Namaskara and pay his respects to his ista-deva.

One fine day in Hastinapura after Krishna had failed in his mission for peace even after disclosing to the world that he was an avatara of Narayana by showing his Vishwaroopa; Karna was performing his rituals on the banks of the river Ganga. The radiant Sun God blazed down upon the earth as if he was extremely angry. The air was stiflingly hot and dry and the Ganga seemed unusually sedate. When he opened his eyes, he suddenly spotted an old women standing under his angavastra which he had held out, shielding herself from the Sun, unable to bear the piercing rays of the Sun.

“Who are you?” he exclaimed, but then, suddenly when realization struck, he continued, “Wait, I have seen you before.”

“Where have you seen me before?” she asked, startled. That was not a response that she’d expected.

“You were the women who used to come in my dreams long back when I was a kid. It was the very same face, though you looked younger in the image that my mind conjured up. But then slowly, as time passed on, you rarely came to my dreams and then you stopped; maybe because you were busy with life.”

The old women started sobbing on hearing that. She covered her face with her hands unable to look at the handsome man standing before her. It had taken her many days of guilty contemplation to gather up the courage to finally meet the man; her own son.

He led out of the shallow waters and as they both sat down on the banks of the river, Kunti looked fragile, raked inside with internal conflict. Karna’s heart melted at the plight of his mother and he decided to let her know that he knew who she was. He had pictured this meeting in his head many times and thought of how he’d react, but one emotion which had never come to his mind until that day was pity!

“I know who you are,” he said. “You are Kunti devi; mother of the Pandavas and I will also put you out of misery.  I also do know that I am your son!”

She exclaimed in surprise, “How long have you known this?” unable to believe her ears.

“I have known this for a few weeks now. Lord Krishna told me everything.” It was a painful moment and as he rested his head on her laps as he could not bear to look at her directly.

She said, “My dear son, why did you not come to me after learning the truth?’

“A woman knew this secret all her life and she did not once come and claim her son. What did you expect me to do? I am pretty sure that you would have recognized me many years back during the tournament when I announced my arrival by challenging Arjuna.  Mother, I strode in like a lone lion, covered by my bright kavacha and kundala. You could have just stood up and claimed me back then and history would have taken a different course but you chose to remain a mute spectator that day. What do you want now mother?”

Kunti replied, “My son, I have come to reclaim you as the eldest rightful Pandava. Please come with me and join your brothers.”

There was a distant look on his eyes as he replied, “There was a time for that to happen but the woman kept mum as I was being insulted by her sons. Even then she did not speak and let the wounds fester till it burnt me from within. Surely, it is too late for that to happen.”

Had she come to reclaim him in this last hour or had she come to ensure the protection of her children? Was it truly love that brought his mother to him or was it all just fear wrapped in a cloth called love? He did not want to answer the difficult questions in his mind nor did he want his mother to answer them. He did not know and at that moment, he thought of his foster mother; Radha.

He could not bear to look at her as he knew that his words would further wound her. “Mother, I will give you a boonof my own accord in front of my chosen Lord Surya. At the end of this war; either way, you will still have five sons. I promise not kill any of my brothers except Arjuna. Our enmity is like the rivalry between the Devas and the Asuras during the churning of the cosmic ocean. Let the world know me as a Radheya and not as a Kaunteya.”

With that final remark, he got up and walked away from his mother; not once did he look back. He could not bear to look back at the past; only the unknown future lay before him.


The 17th day of the Great War:

They were both caught in a circle of death as their charioteers expertly commanded their horses to move in what had become a circle with both of them stuck at the ends of an invisible diameter. It was going to be a fight to the finish and neither warrior was ready to back down. His armor felt heavy and wet as both blood and sweat poured down his brow. His bow was in a full arc as he released arrow after arrow. The space between them was full of arrows as Arjuna countered Karna’s arrows and vice versa. Karna was full of admiration for his younger brother, Arjuna who fought so valiantly. Even the armies on either side had stopped fighting to watch this epic battle. It almost looked like a battle between the gods.

The tempo of the battle was slowly picking up and both the warriors were totally in it. Karna was injured in numerous places where the armor was weak and so was Arjuna. In such battles, the trajectory of human emotions always remained the same; aggressive intent, anger, rage beyond care.  The tempo of their battle was slowly reaching the second stage.

Karna suddenly decided to invoke the Agni-astra to change the balance of the fight. As his arrow spitting fire descended upon his enemy, Arjuna dispatched the Varuna-astra to counter it. A great wall of water smashed into a wall of fire and the echo of which was heard all around Aryavarta and the shockwave injured many of the spectators standing around them.  Even the Gods had come out to the sky to watch the battle between the two greatest warriors in the world.  And they kept fighting; sending astras, counter astras, javelins, and mighty arrows till the tempo of the battle had risen to the third stage. It was also time for fate to make its own move.

Karna caught in this sea of emotions, decided to invoke the Suryastra but suddenly realized that he had forgotten the incantations to the missile. Fate had dealt its cruel hand again and Karna was reminded of his guru Parashurama’s curse. He did not have time to think about it as he had to continue fighting. His charioteer Shalya too, was attacked by Arjuna and Karna felt the rage burst out from within him. His eyes glowed red; much like the color of the setting Sun and he attacked Arjuna and Krishna with renewed vigor. His mind was weak with the efforts of remembering the divine incantations but his body kept releasing arrow after arrow like a machine.

Karna then realized that he still had the Nagastra with him. His sights were set upon the target as he steadied the powerful Nagastra with his mighty bow. He knew that it was going to be his final chance and if he missed now, everything would be lost!

As his charioteer steered the chariot around for another pass, Shalya shouted out aloud. “Aim for the chest; aim for the chest, not for the head!”

It was after all his younger brother Arjuna. Did he have it in him to slay his own brother? He had to make a painful choice.

Invoking the mantra, harnessing the divine powers of the astra, he shot the arrow and watched the projectile knife through the atmosphere at tremendous velocity, through tear drenched eyes………


He was standing on the battlefield covered in mud, holding his dazzling bow in his mighty left arm. He bit his tongue in despair as he tried his best to remove the right wheel which had sunk into the mud. The pyrrhic war was coming to a close and he knew that his death would signify the beginning of the end. The curses that he had to endure early on in his life were coming back to haunt him and he knew that he was just another cog in the mysterious plan of the universe. As he kept watching, a spotless white chariot came into his view from the right side and the archer atop, readied to loosen another volley of arrows taking aim. He knew that it was the end; the writing was on the wall and he heaved a sigh of disappointment as he took one final look at his magnificent bow. He could not bear to part with it; the majestic bow given to him by his guru.

At that moment, he turned to Shalya and said, “Tell Duryodhana that I am sorry.” And with that, he closed his eyes, and dedicated all this thoughts to his chosen Lord Surya…………

PS: In the final epic battle between Karna and Arjuna in the Kurukshetra war; Karna almost kills Arjuna with the Nagastra. As the story goes, Karna aims for the head but thanks to Krishna who lowers the chariot by a few inches, the powerful missile strikes Arjuna’s crown and the man survives. But what if Karna aimed a little too high intentionally as he could not bring himself to kill his younger brother? An interesting thought! We can talk about it, write stories about it but we will never know the “real anguish” of the greatest hero in the Mahabharata: Karna!



January 27, 2013

The last few months have been interesting to say the least, both on my personal/professional front, but one thing is certain…. I got engaged this weekend! This blog has been an account of many things which have happened in my life and this signifies the start of another chapter in my life and I had to add this event into the blog! 

Cheers to all! 


October 23, 2012

May, 1792 AD, Tripunithara, Kerala:

The ancient Perunninakulam Shivan temple, at the base of the Hill Palace in Tripunithara turned out to be the army’s temporary base and bustled with activity that eventful night as entire battalions of Nair soldiers and their feudal lords, made their way in from the south. The Kochi Maharaja had personally thrown his kingdom open to the forces of Dharma Raja, the Travancore king as they faced an invasion from the north! The namboothiri priests, said to be the most orthodox and conservative among all the Brahmin communities within Bharatham and followers of the very ancient Srauta theology were busy organizing the yajna, chanting slokas from the divine Vedas, invoking the blessings of Lord Indra and Rudra for the skirmishes ahead. Those were tumultuous times for the Travancore kingdom. Wedged between the sea and the Western Ghats, the specter of invasion loomed upon the kingdom from various forces, all involved in a power struggle.  The advances of the Mysore kingdom from the north and the growing power of the paranji forces from Madras were developments hardly encouraging.

The seventeen year old Krishnan Kutty Nair, cold to his bones, slowly walked into the camp to the sounds of the Vedic chants with his platoon after a brutal march that had lasted the entire day and slowly, a smile spread across his visage. The thought of a hot bowl of kanji was the utmost thing on his mind at that moment. He had spent the entire day manning the cannons and he was in charge of buffaloes used to move the heavy equipment. Amidst the long punishing march, the deluge from the rainclouds coming in from the Indian Ocean was the only thing that Krishnan Kutty Nair remembered! The rains had been the only steady thing in the last week as he and his battalion raced up north to Kochi from their capital, Padmanabhapuram. Their march had been slow that week, as the rains had made travelling difficult and the path slushy and they also had to setup cannon batteries, dig ditches along the way for defense at key locations. The water had seeped into everything; their clothes, their food, their cannons and their gunpowder but more dangerously, the cold water had sapped their energy as well. Many of the warriors had lost all their appetite for war and longed for a dry bed, where they could rest their tired souls. But it was in their karma to keep marching north! Many young warriors like him from various kalaris, had been pressed into service from all corners of the Travancore Kingdom as an even bigger storm brewed near their northern territory.

“Moving cannons was something that I did not sign up for. I just want to fight,” he sighed to his friend Ramanathan Nair, as they both sat down under a banyan tree just outside the walls of the temple. Even though he was caked with many layers of dried mud, Krishnan had ensured that his sword and his tobacco remained clean and dry for most of the day. His sword, a gift from his guru when he turned sixteen was his most prized possession and he was itching to use it. As he rolled his beedi, he saw that a group had collected inside the temple walls and a man, strode onto the stage like a tiger. Krishnan recognized him immediately as it was one of the heroes of the Travancore kingdom: Dewan Raja Kesavadas.

Dressed splendidly, the man said out loudly, “The Nedumkotta has fallen to those philistines from the north and if we are to protect our kingdom, our faith and our way of life, we have to win the battle tomorrow!”

As Krishnan Kutty watched on, the man droned on about how they had to win the war; about how they had no other option. It was his first experience of war of any kind and he loved every minute of it. It was something that he had trained for, his entire life. The atmosphere was electric with rising emotions and the air was thick from the smell of sweat and smoke from various bonfires as it spread through the entire area aided by a zephyr.

Their own unique way of life was under threat from a power crazy, marauding religious fanatic and Krishnan Kutty, the son of a low ranking Nair military man, had been the first in his kalari to join the Nair pattalam when the messengers riding south, came down to the capital bearing the news that the famed Nedumkotta had been breached by the forces of the infamous Tipu Sultan.

The Nedumkotta was a defense fortification built by their king, Dharma Raja, to protect the kingdom against invasions from the North. It started from the Krishan Kotta on the west coast, above Kodungallur, and stretched up to the Western Ghats and it had protected their kingdom up until then, against the onslaught of two rather poor specimens of humanity: Hyder Ali and later his son, Tipu Sultan. The Hindu, Christian and Jewish refugees who had flooded into the Travancore kingdom had many terrible stories to tell and the king, Dharma Raja had vowed to protect his kingdom and every asylum seeker from the ravages of war! Only a few months back, the Travancore army had repealed the Sultan’s first attempt to break down the wall but this time around, he had taken control of the wall and was determined to march south. Where the Sultan went, destruction followed!

After sometime, Krishnan Kutty, along with Ramanathan walked to the stall serving the hot kanji. As he walked through the camp, he could see the toll that war had taken on his people. Soldiers; the healthy, the wounded and the sick all crowded around the camp waiting for instructions and the dawn of another day.

After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, they finally got their rations and went outside the camp to their spot under the banyan tree and began eating when from the road ahead, a man walked painfully up to them from the darkness into light, slowly dragging his left foot.  The blood that had oozed out of his wound had long dried and the wound had festered with infection. The old man looked like he was fighting death with every determined breath that he took and there was enormous pathos written across his face. He had the look of a man who had lost everything dear to him and every step that he took was becoming harder.

At once, Krishnan Kutty ran up to the man and carried him over the last 20 yards; finally resting him under the banyan tree.

With a plea, the man cried out, “Please Sir; food and water?”

And at once, Krishnan Kutty gave the man his rations; or what was left of it.

“Where are you from?” asked Krishnan as soon as the man had finished drinking his kanji.

“I am from Chalakudy. Tipu Sultan raided and ransacked my village and I was one of the lucky few to escape even though I was injured and ever since then I have been travelling south, hiding during the day and travelling during the night. And I have not eaten for the last two days.”

Krishnan Kutty at once felt anger grow within him. War was supposed to be honorable; meant to be fought by equals! This raid of Tipu was not a war, but genocide! Suddenly, sensing something wrong, Krishnan Kutty turned back and spotted his friend standing about 10 paces away from him. Ramanathan looked like an angry cobra as he kept pacing back and forth.

“Now what is wrong with you?” asked Krishnan Kutty.

Ramanathan pointed furiously at the man and said, “How dare this old man walk up to the temple and desecrate this sacred spot? He is a…. the man is a pariah!”

And Ramanathan raised his sword and ran towards the man with the sole intent of attacking him. The poor man had no energy left in him and merely looked on with defeat in his tired eyes; tired because while the enemy had killed his family, his own people had killed his soul force.  It was the story of his miserable life and he sat there waiting for sweet release.

Just as Ramanathan was about to strike, Krishnan Kutty tackled him, using the man’s momentum to his advantage. And they both immediately stood up, swords in arms.

“I cannot let you do that,” Krishnan Kutty told him calmly, looking into his eyes.

“He is a vermin, not allowed here.” Ramanathan’s voice on the other hand was edgy and furious.

“What is the difference between you and Tipu Sultan?  You claim to have joined this army to protect our sacred way of life but this is a way of life which needs to be changed; has to be changed. So don’t even think about hurting his old man here.”

Just then, a voice full of authority and power, from the entrance of the temple boomed, “Stop fighting at once!”

Krishnan Kutty and Ramanathan both looked for the source of the voice and it was none other than the Dewan; Dewan Raja Kesavadas! The man walked over to them, surrounded by his entourage and pointed out to Krishnan Kutty. “What this boy says is correct. We need to stick together if we are to repeal this invasion.” He then ordered his men to take the old man to the infirmary.

“What is your name and whose retainer are you?” the man asked Krishnan Kutty.

“Sir, I am Krishnan Kutty Nair, son of Sivadasan Nair. I serve in Aaromal Pillai’s regiment in charge of the cannons!”

The Dewan put his arms on the kid’s shoulders and led him into the temple. “You have a heart kid and I like that. From today, you will serve under me directly.”

As they both walked into the temple, the Dewan asked him, “So what are your thoughts about this fight?”

“Sir, I am itching to fight the invaders. But warfare in this modern age seems so strange with the cannons and the matchlocks. All I know is my kalaripayattui and the powerful thrust of my sword!”

The Dewan laughed out aloud and replied, “War is just not people fighting one another as it is taught in the Kalari. War is about propaganda, emotions, tactics, disease, confusion, cannons and more importantly hunger. You will learn that tomorrow but you now need rest!”

And Krishnan Kutty spent the night at camp, waiting restlessly for the Sun to rise like many others. He badly wanted to unleash his sword, his khadgam from its scabbard.


The army of the Travancore kingdom had collected on the southern banks of the Periyar River the next day on one of its important distributaries. Most of the strategists had agreed that this would be the place where Tipu would attempt his crossing and the scouting cavalry had only reaffirmed their theory. The Sultan’s army had been marching that day up to Aluva from Chalakudy.

“So what makes you think that the Sultan will try crossing here?” Krishnan Kutty asked the Dewan.

“The mighty Periyar River is in spate now as I had our men break down the dam at Bhoothathankettu and I also had our men destroy all the boats dispersed across the river. This is the only option left for that devil as he badly has to press on.”

“But why is that Dewan? Will he not wait for reinforcement or supplies?” asked the ever curious Krishnan Kutty.

“Two words: Disease and rations! He has a lot of the former in his camp and precious little of the latter. The devil has to press on if he wants to conquer our land and his ego will not let up. Get ready to use our sword. I think the time has almost come.”

“Why don’t we attack first?”

“We are too few in number to mount an offensive attack. But if we play our cards right, the Sultan will not be able to cross this river. ”

And just as the Dewan had predicted, the Sultan’s army began pouring on to the northern banks of the river. While the Travancore army was well set in its defensive position, the Sultan’s army swelled on the northern banks. Both the sides maintained their position till it was dusk. The emotions before the fight were increasing as they stood in battle formation. From the southern banks, the Travancore soldiers could see the Sultan on his raised palki, ordering his troops around and organizing his cavalry. There were now thousands of soldiers on either side.

And then it began…….

The Sultan encouraged by his superior numbers ordered the first attack. Krishan Kutty stood on the front line under the able commander Kali Kutty Nair as the cavalry, followed by an initial wave of infantry bore down upon them. The fighting was fierce as the Travancore soldiers managed to hold their line against the horses.  Krishan Kutty was in the midst of things as he used his sword and his superior training to pick the ragged soldiers out. He was in his own zone and he even kept count amidst all the blood, gore and death. The matchlockers in the Sultan’s army were rendered ineffective as the battle was going on beyond their range and the rains. And finally, after a deadly fight, the initial wave was repelled by the Travancore army and it gave them confidence. They quickly retired to their defense position and cheered on as the Sultan’s forces retreated. Krishnan Kutty ran up to the Dewan, who watched the proceedings from a safe distance to congratulate him on the victory.

“So will the Sultan attack again today?

The Dewan smiled at him and replied, “I don’t think the Sultan is going to attack us again.”

“And why is that?”

“Kid; there are many things that you need to learn about warfare. When you punch an enemy, you’ve got to follow that up with a finishing blow. While you were busy fighting delivering the initial blow, I was delivering the finishing blow. We have struck a deal with the British convincing them to declare war on the Mysore kingdom. I also had bribed messengers deliver the very same news to the Sultan and that the British army had starting marching east from the Madras cantonment! The Sultan has to turn back to Coimbatore now; he has no other option.”

Krishnan Kutty looked at the Dewan in complete awe. He had much to learn from the genius but with a twinge of pain, he looked at his sword. He would not get to use it again!

Seeing this, the Dewan said, “As long as we stick on to the old ways of war, we will lose. Hold on to your sword as it will remind you of who you are. The way of warfare might have changed but the way of the warrior never changes. The sultan might attack tomorrow, he might come back after a few months or he might never threaten us again in his life, but as long as we remain prepared, we will not be defeated. Hold on to your code!”

Krishnan Kutty slowly went to the banks of the river which was covered in bodies. He looked at the cold water flowing calmly and realized the truth in the Dewan’s words. Countless men had split their blood on this sacred soil but the code of the warrior never changed!

He sheathed his sword; his khadgam looking at the northern banks of the river. His fate had changed in the span of a single day and he wondered if the Sultan would mount another attack in the future….


  1. The Sultan eventually retreated to his kingdom and never returned to Travancore. After his second unsuccessful bid to conquer the Travancore kingdom, he never got a chance to look south ever again.
  2. This is a work of fiction based on historical records (at least based on my research) and the title in Malayalam means “The Sword”.
  3. The Travancore kingdom, even though it eventually became a tributary of the British Raj, paved the way for the creation of the modern state called Kerala. The land, which was back then steeped in age old beliefs would eventually throw away all the vestiges of feudalism in the 20th century and forge a new Malayalee identity thanks to the efforts of countless people.
  4. The remains of the Nedumkotta can still be found in many places in Kerala.

Alexander and the Gymnosophists

March 28, 2012

325 BC:

A specter of total annihilation seemed to haunt them all as the slushy terra-cotta mud weighed down the army as it defiantly marched east; hoping to reach the very edge of the world to catch a glimpse of the mighty ocean, which would extend to eternity. Strange forces were at work that day; evil omens in that strange land which the army did not like.  Maybe it was just hallucinations at play; maybe those were the early signs of mental trauma but for many soldiers, the stress was real; for they had been marching with their king for the last eight years from the cool temperate climate of the Mediterranean to the hot tropics of India. Many had given up all hope of seeing their country and their loved ones again; and many had turned to religion for they feared death! They had performed many sacrifices that day to please Zeus and Poseidon; but the heavens did not seem to care about them. They had never seen rain like that before in their lives. The dark swollen clouds moving in a north-easterly direction managed to hide the Sun but not the heat; which took its toll on the foreigners who were not used to it.

The young king Alexander; descendant of mighty Hercules himself on his father’s side and the great warrior Achilles on his  mother’s and emperor of the Hellenic, Egyptian and the Persian world,  had sent his scouts ahead, swift horsemen recruited from Bactria as he marched his army through the wet jungles of India. The light cavalry unit of 7000 men from Central Asia had become a useful asset to his army especially in this terrain. He did not seem bothered by the sweltering heat, the incessant rain or the distress in his army as he wore his red cape and famous golden helmet with youthful arrogance but his weary commanders were! They knew that their composite bows and their spears would get completely damaged by the rain and their Mediterranean bred horses tired by the heat but no one had the courage to tell the king that they longed to go back home! Apparitions of various family members seemed to haunt the men and they even took to drinking the Indian rice beer which they did not like. There were the beginnings of discord in the ranks and the commanders were aware of it but choose not to see it. The last battle that they had fought on the banks of the Hydaspis (Jhelum) had only dented their air of invincibility when they got introduced to the Indian style of warfare, which placed heavy emphasis on the battle tank of the ancient world; the fearsome elephant and scythed chariots said to have been invented by Ajatashatru, the founder of Pataliputra! 

Actually, everything about this land seemed strange to the Greeks, from the flora to the fauna; from the people to the culture. When Omphis (Ambhi) surrendered without a fight and invited the Greeks into great city of Takshashila, they found the customs and the culture of the land to be radically different from their own.  In one of the cultural capitals of India, the Greeks found many people who lived in the city but who were not possessed by it. Many monks, some of them naked roamed the city, but enjoyed none of the material pleasures that the city had to offer. The Greeks called them the gymnosophists! The Greeks stayed in the city for five months where they met many intellectuals from all walks of life! One of the naked monks whom Alexander had befriended was Calanus (Kalyana) who had taught him the basics of Indian philosophy and had promised to introduce Alexander to his guru, Dandamis who lived in the east near the Hyphasis (Beas) river. 

Even the bizarre tactics shown by Porus (Purushothama), the Paurava prince who ruled the land between the Hydaspis and the Hyphasis had stunned him.

“I still can’t understand why the man waited for over two weeks on the eastern side of the Hydaspis River, waiting for us to make our move. It was his land, the topography and the logistics favored him but still he did not fight,” asked Alexander to his favorite commander Coenus as they marched at the head of the army.

What Alexander did not know at that time was that this particular battle of his would become legendary and his tactical brilliance studied by many generals in the future; right from his planning and executing the crossing the Hydaspis River, at the middle of the night seventeen miles north of base camp!

Coenus was a war veteran who had been serving in the Macedonian army from King Philip’s time. “Maybe he was just afraid,” he answered.

“I don’t think it was that. I can sense courage in a man and Porus had it even when he was defeated!”

“But you shouldn’t have given Porus back his kingdom,” replied Coenus.

“If there is anything I respect; it is dignity and honor in a man! And even though we defeated him and killed his son in battle, he never really lost that courage. I could see it in his eyes. He asked me to treat him like a king, which is exactly what I’ve done.”

“But don’t you think you are being idealistic?”

Alexander laughed out loudly on hearing this and replied, “Even though Zeus is with us on this journey, we do need our earthly allies so far east. Omphis and Porus are two of our main allies now on the eastern side of the Indus River.”

At that moment, Alexander’s new monk friend, Calanus who was riding with the two men said, “Forgive me but I could not help but overhear your conversation about Porus. Maybe the man did not attack first because he did not want to fight and be the cause of much bloodshed!”

Alexander turned his favorite horse Bucephalus around. “But that man was a king! A king has to fight and conquer territories!”

“A king is a king no doubt; but it does not mean that he cannot be humane! Maybe it was all meant to be. Who can question niyati (destiny)?”

Alexander was amazed at the response of his friend. “But then why fight if all things are up to destiny? Surely that it is a fatalistic approach to life? It does not solve any of the problems in life!”

“I am an ajivika. My beliefs are very simple; not only are all things predetermined, but their change and development is all just a cosmic illusion of the mind. Problems are relevant only when the mind perceives them as issues which need to be addressed.”

Alexander shook his head in disappointment. “You Indians and your philosophies; you have the Jains, the Buddhists, the Ajivikas, the Vaisheshikas, the Samkhyas, the Nyayas, the Mimamsas and the orthodox Brahmins. Who is right?”

With a broad smile, Calanus replied, “Maybe we are all wrong! Maybe there is no God; a position maintained by our illustrious Charvaka brothers. It does not matter what discipline we follow but what matters is how we follow it.”

Sensing that he had confused Alexander enough, Calanus added, “Wait till we reach the Hyphasis River. My Guru will answer all your questions for you. Have patience my friend!”

And they kept marching on for next few hours till evening, when finally the army reached the banks of the Hyphasis River and set up camp along the river bank. Seeing the magnificent spread of nature around him, Alexander said to Coenus, “This country, the Sapta Sindhu is truly blessed to have so many mighty rivers. I am eager to see the legendary Ganges River to the east.”

Later in the evening, the men had cooked an assortment of wild game from the jungle accompanied by bread and rice for the evening feast. As Alexander enjoyed a piece of roasted peacock leg along with his Grecian wine with his other commanders, Coenus walked into the camp, looking distressed.

“My king, the scouts are back. They say that across the Ganges lie the Nanda kingdom of Magadha and the Gangaridai kingdom of Anga, both of whom having put aside their differences have amassed a massive army of eighty thousand horsemen, two hundred thousand footmen, eight thousand chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants on the eastern banks of the Ganges! The scouts have already passed on the news to the army and the men are afraid!”

In his inebriated state, Alexander took another bite of peacock meat, “With Zeus’s blessing, we will march on and we will conquer them. What is life without a good fight? What is life without honor in battle?”

Coenus unsheathed his sword, “My king, the blade has seen action alongside you for the past eight years but will continue to do so; but please think about our men! An army which fears is not an army worth having. I am merely suggesting what our men have been thinking for a long time but have been afraid to say it to you.”

Coenus waited for a dramatic second and said out aloud for all the commanders to hear, “Maybe it time for us to turn back and go back home!”

On hearing this, Alexander violently got up from his cushioned seat and walked out of his tent only to see his men waiting outside; their faces grave.

“Lord Zeus is with us on this epic march! I have fought alongside you guys riding first into battle! We will surely defeat all our enemies!” He shouted out aloud for his men to hear.

Clearly there was dissent in the ranks and for probably the first time Alexander, felt it! Many of his faithful soldiers started shouting at the same time and he did not know what to do. Many of the men threw down their arms and said that they’d had enough! The last thing that Alexander had expected was a revolt from his very own army. He tried talking to the men; but the man’s voice was overrun by the fear of thousands!

Without looking back, Alexander quickly walked back into his tent, followed by his commanders. The air was full of tension as his men waited outside the emperor’s camp as the commander tried to talk Alexander into retreating.

Even after an hour of negotiation, the king did not back down; his ego not letting him do so! Just then, in the heat of the moment, Calanus walked into the tent slowly with an old fragile Gymnosophist.

“Alexander, meet my guru Dandamis,” he said.

Alexander at once got up from his seat and ushered in the guru, paying his respects to the old man.

“So what was all this heated discussion about?” asked Dandamis as soon as he was seated.

“My men want me to turn back and go back home but I want to continue marching east,” replied Alexander

“But why go east?” Dandamis asked innocently.

“I want to conquer the whole world.”

Dandamis smiled on hearing this. “Why do you need the whole world when all you need is about three paces of land to rest your body upon?”

His warped mind did not like to admit it; but he wanted everlasting glory like Achilles. “I want immortality, everlasting fame and riches.”

“Immortal we all are; we just need to realize it. A man on the path of immortality has no thought of pleasure or riches. He loves the divine and accepts death whereas you love pleasure, riches and conquest. You fear death and despise God! Surely you are on the wrong path!”

With that, the old man walked out on the emperor as he looked on; a frail old man walked out on the greatest emperor of the world!

Ceasing the opportune moment, Coenus hastily added to the emperor, “My dear King; the men long to again see their parents, their wives and children, their homeland. This might well be the last opportunity to do that!”

After a moment of consideration on seeing Coenus’s desperation, Alexander walked of his tent, raised his glass of wine and said to the men who had been waiting outside. “We all go back to Greece tomorrow morning!”

PS: This is work of fiction. What history reports is that Alexander was forced to turn back once he reached the banks of the Beas River due to an army revolt and along with him on his return journey to Babylon was an Indian monk called Calanus. There are also many stories about how the man met various monks in India including Chanakya . This is just another take on all those tales. Takshashila, during the Axial Age (800 BC-300 BC) was one of the greatest cities in the world; the center of Indian socio-political change and a hotbed of Indian philosophy! I am pretty sure that there must have been a lot of exchange of ideas between the ancient Indians and the Greeks.

The legend of Alexander lived on in the Indian subcontinent in many forms; the South Asian name “Sikander”, the Indo-Greek kingdoms and art, which lived on for the next three centuries in the North Western part of the Indian subcontinent; the cultural exchange (many interesting parallels between Greek and Indian mythology) and unfortunately, also the high prevalence of Thalassaemia in certain South Asian ethnic groups!

The Divine Debacle

March 9, 2012

The road ahead shimmered in the afternoon heat as the car moved at a modest speed of 50 km/hr. It was peak summer and A/C was turned on in the car to get some respite from the heat. They had just escaped the crowded streets of Haripad and were moving up north. The roads in Kerala were among some of the very worst in the country and it was something that every malayalee complained about. But the ever resourceful malayalee took it in his stride as it was also a curse that could not be avoided.

“Man, this highway is a wreck,” exclaimed Kumbalam Hari who sat on the passenger’s seat, throwing his hands up. “I think I will need to throw up if this continues for some more time.”

The driver of the vehicle, Tony Kurushingal smiled on hearing this as he deftly put the car into fourth gear. The delicate constitution of Hari’s stomach was legendary. Epic paeans had been written about various incidents involving his friend.

Tony replied, “Don’t complain aliya. The poor roads do not stand a chance against the alternating seasons of monsoon and humid summer coupled with very poor structural engineering designed to keep the water on the roads instead of letting it escape into the clogged drains.”

“I dream of the day I’ll see a perfectly reasonable stretch of highway in this state.”

 “We may never live to see that day. A good road in Kerala is to KSEB, what the sight of a happy soul is to a dementor. Maybe it reminds them of their own inefficiency. I don’t know,” Tony replied shrugging his shoulders. “But rest assured; they will dig it up within 24 hours. If only they showed the same zeal in producing electricity!”

Conversations like these were commonplace in every part of the state. Though they had planned to leave Trivandrum by 6 AM; it was finally 9 AM before they started on their journey to Cochin; human performance rarely matched up to human aspiration. Tony knew that the shocks on his weather-beaten Maruti 800 would take a beating right throughout the 220 kilometers on the dreaded highway 47 but it was a drive that he’d always enjoyed.

“So how is work coming along?” Tony asked, knowing that his friend worked long hours in his office in Technopark.

Hari’s expression turned sour as he replied, “Aliya, why did you have to remind me of work on a Saturday! I wish I had Kumbakarnan’s life. Eat, sleep and not worry about anything else except the occasional duel. Life would’ve been perfect!”

“Such a life can only exist in stories and mythology. Don’t yearn for something that cannot exist.”

Hari, at once pointed an accusing finger at Tony. “Don’t call them stories or mythology. We already have the right term for the Mahabharatham and the Ramayanam; ithihasam or history.”

“Yeah right, and God created me on the seventh day when he took rest!”

Hari shook his head as he turned his massive frame towards Tony. It took some doing for the man who was over six feet tall and weighed a healthy ninety kilos to do that in the cramped Maruti 800 seat.

“Seriously dude, it’s not funny. Our ancients were an advanced lot. There can be no other plausible explanation for many of the concepts discussed in the books like pushpaka vimanas, nuclear warfare, epic weapons, test tube babies and so forth.”

Tony looked at his friend with a mischievous smile, “Have you ever considered the fact that the dudes who authored those texts might have been high on soma or on something worse? There is no physical evidence to back your claims and that is the simple fact!”

Hari shook his head even more vehemently this time. “Aliya; drunk or not; stoned or not; they could not have written about all these advanced things 2000 years back without having the technology.”

Tony shifted perceptibly in his seat on hearing this, ever watchful of the road ahead. “I could actually give you a theory which is actually more probable than yours.”

“And what is that?” asked Hari intrigued.

Tony switched off the music system that had been playing old Malayalam songs and then he lifted his free hand up, pointed to the ceiling and said, “Time travelers from the future!”

“That is by far the stupidest piece of -”

“Or maybe alien travelers who stopped over on some epic intergalactic journey,” added Tony as an afterthought.

“- stupidest, stupidest piece of science fiction that I’ve ever heard!”

“And why is that? Actually, if we are talking purely about probability; my theory is much more probable than yours. Just think about it. Human flight was thought to be impossible until the Wright brothers proved them wrong. Space exploration was just science fiction until we put a satellite into space. We once believed in a steady state universe until Mr. Hubble came running along with his telescope. So don’t say that it cannot exist.”

It was Hari’s turn to smile, “Aliya; don’t tell me that you’ve started drinking before sundown? It’s an unhealthy habit!”

Tony stopped the car in front of a small thatched roadside thattu-kada and they both stepped out of the car for a much need break.

After ordering two kattan chayas, Tony replied, “Human conditioning has taught us to accept certain things as valid and certain things as not but it is all in the human mind. Today’s science fiction might well be tomorrow’s science, maybe even the Holy Grail; the perpetual motion machine. Common sense would dictate that it is not possible according to the laws of physics!”

Hari scratched his head and asked with a sheepish grin, “What is a perpetual motion machine?”

Tony burst out laughing. “Mone; nee annu engineer (You are the perfect engineer)! Go check wiki later!” 

“So what are you trying to say now?” asked Hari.

“It is a very simple idea. Take all those stories from all the religious texts as mere stories and not as facts. All those prophets were probably great reformer in their times but we should not add the concept of divinity to their stories or lives. Many of the problems that currently exist in this world; the fundamentalism in thought and action can be solved the day when we all become moderate in thinking.”

Hari said, “Well, I’m not a fundamentalist!”

Tony took another sip of his chaya and replied, “All believers in the divine are fundamentalists in a certain way even if they don’t realize it. For e.g.: I believe in religion A or B. My philosophical system is the best; My God is better etc”

“But it all comes down to this question. How did this universe begin? Life?” 

Tony replied, “Scientists now predict that our universe originated out of nothing. Positive energy in the universe cancelled out by gravity which can be taken as negative energy. But more importantly, it is not God who created man. It is in fact the hominoid race who created God.”

“And why is that?” asked Hari.

“Ego! We are special because we are the chosen race; chosen people! God was created the minute our hominoid ancestors evolved to ask the basic question: What is life? Who are we? The answer logically had to satisfy the human ego back then.”

The breeze from the Indian Ocean came in hard at that moment bearing in the smell of salt and fish and from the spot Hari and Tony stood; they could see a beach in a distance and a group had collected on the shore.

After Hari finished his chaya in silence, he said “Let’s stop this discussion now. There is only one thing that I am really interested in at the moment.”

“And what is that?”

“It looks like the fishermen are coming from the sea now. Let’s see if we can buy some neimeen and make a wicked fish-fry tonight!”

Kollam aliyaaaa!” And they both started laughing as they walked to the shore.

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