(Sketch from an ancient Portuguese manuscript)
1600 AD, MarakkarKotta (Marakkar’s Fort):
The canons occasionally blazed from the northern side of the fort breaking the tranquility of the early morning, done more to intimidate than injure. It was a reminder to the people inside the fort that they had no escape. The air was full of smoke, the smell of gunpowder but more importantly, fear! If it had not been for the heavy stone walls of the fort, the enemy would not have played the waiting game.
The majestic fort stood on the banks of the MooradRiver; a massive stone complex, built by the late Kutty Ahmed Ali (Kunjali Marakkar I), admiral of the Arabi-kadal. The admiral had always been an advocate on the importance of a good defense and there was not a more impressive fort built on the mysterious land, said to have been reclaimed by Parashuraman’s mighty axe.
The Portuguese fleet on one side with their heavy battleships on the Moorad River and the army of the king of Kozhikode on the other; the situation looked bleak for the people inside the MarakkarKotta, for people still loyal to Mohammed Ali (Kunjali Marakkar IV), the current admiral and the great grandson of Kutty Ahmed Ali. The army of the Admiral was a motley mix of mercenaries who had come to serve the admiral; Hindus, Muslims and Christians who had all come in search of something exciting instead of the banal. They were men who had thrown away their mundane lives in exchange for glory and riches. They were men of the sword; neither religion nor caste separated them as they lived the sailor’s life with impunity. They were all armed to the hilt and ready for a fight; all waiting for the admiral’s command.
The Marakkar stood casually with one foot resting on the walls of the fort, coolly assessing the situation; an aura of supreme confidence as if this brush with defeat and death meant little to him. His mere presence inspired confidence in his men. Dressed in a sailor’s tunic, the man held his golden sword casually and those electric eyes coolly took in the entire scene. Legends said that his ancestors had come to Keralam from the Egyptian coast many generations back as traders and it showed in his sharp features and his olive skin, which looked distinctly different from the rest of his men.
Vikraman, a brooding beast of a man, stood along with his admiral assessing the situation biting his finger nails, supervising the troops and desperately searching for an opening, any weakness which they could use to their advantage. He was one of the admiral’s closest friends and he had spent over ten years of his life with the admiral. Built like a bull, he was dressed in heavy armor, which gave him an imposing look.
“So what do we do now admiral? The men are waiting for your command,” Vikraman asked.
“Let’s see if the paranji (Portuguese) fleet backs down. I am not worried about them as yet and our walls are strong. But I definitely am worried about the army on the other side. Right now, they are just waiting, ensuring that we do not escape. But if they also jump into the fray and lay siege, then we will not have much of a chance. Our resources are already stretched thin.”
Wringing his hands in frustration, he added as an afterthought, “Why didn’t our spies report this to us? The king could not have bought them off.”
Vikraman’s thoughts went back to a time over ten years back when he had first met this legendary man! They were younger and adventurous back then and at Kozhikode, the coastal port town, the admiral had invited him, a young teenager to join their expedition to protect the trade routes between Hindustan and the Arabian Peninsula from the paranji fleet. Vikraman had grown up on the streets of Kozhikode; an orphan who had to fend for his own self from an early age and the lessons that he learnt early in his life were some of the most important.Kozhikode was then a bustling little port and people from all corners of the known world came over for trade including the Arabians, Africans and the Europeans.
After joining the admiral, he had worked his way up the ranks and now, was one of the admiral’s most trusted aides. He could only marvel at the changes that had happened over the ten years. The paranji had come over as traders but increasing tried to assert their will over the people and the Kunjali Marakkars had led most of campaigns against them. The Kozhikode king along with the others had initially supported the Marakkars, but the current Marakkar had lost the king’s approval and started acting as a free agent. Vikraman, at times, compared himself with Karnan; who never left his king’s side.
Just then the Marakkar said, “Damn; my sister should not have visited now.”
“Where is she now?” asked Vikraman, intrigued. He had never seen any of the family members of the admiral, who all lived to the north near the village called Thallasery.
Just then, a woman came up the stone steps leading up to where they stood. One look at her, and Vikraman’s knees went weak. She was the most beautiful woman that he had seen in his life. He had travelled all over the western coast of Hindustan, been to the Arabian Peninsula and the Maldives, but he had never seen an apsara quite like her. Her dressing was simple and elegant but Vikraman found it hard to look past her beauty!
“Brother,” she asked; “What is the situation here?” Just like her brother, her voice commanded an innate respect.
Their eyes met and Vikraman felt the spark of desire singe his heart. It had never happened to him before in his life and he felt mildly unsettled. As the Marakkar explained the situation to her, all Vikraman could do was look at her. He could not take his eyes of her!
Suddenly, the Goddess turned to him and as recognition flooded through her visage, she asked, “Are you Commander Vikraman?”
“Yes, I am!”
“I am Ayesha. I have heard a lot about you, including your exploits at the Lakshadweep Islands.”
Vikraman smiled and replied, “I hope he has left the bad parts out.” And they had a laugh about it.
“Vikraman; hold the fort. I need to speak to my sister in private,” the Marakkar said and went below to his quarters along with his sister.
For the next couple of hours, Vikraman stood there on watch, but his mind was not in it. The girl kept flashing before his eyes and he found it hard to concentrate on the task at hand.
Around 2 PM, he was invited to dine with the admiral and they sat around the table; the Marakkar, Ayesha and Vikraman. Lunch consisted of a simple rice broth filled with meat and a lot of fruits.
After the meal, the Marakkar said, “Vikraman, I called you over to have lunch with us because I have a request to ask of you.”
The Marakkar walked up to the window, with his back turned on Vikraman and continued, “We both know that it’s the end of the road for us. We just have a 2 day supply with us and then we are out. I am thinking of surrendering.”
Vikraman, at once jumped up and said, “You just have to command us. We can take this fight to the finish! Our men will gladly lay down their lives for you! We cannot surrender to these barbarians.”
The Marakkar looked at him with a sad smile and said, “Vikraman, you are young and temperamental. These men have been with me for many years now and I do not wish to be the cause of their deaths. Allah would never forgive me for that.”
Vikraman put his hand up in exasperation, “Oh, here we go again.”
Just then, Ayesha interjected, “Commander; do you not believe in God?”
In the heat of the moment, Vikraman had completely forgotten about her!
Vikraman looked at her and replied, “I believe that consciousness ends with death. The Atman ends when the heart stops beating. I am a Carvakan.”
At that moment, the Marakkar walked up to him, clasped his shoulders. “Do me this favor for old time’s sake. I am going to surrender this evening. They probably just want me and not our people. I want you to rescue Ayesha and take her to our ancestral home in Thalasherry. She will be protected there.”
In the years that he had known the admiral, he had never seen the Marakkar make a request before.
“Ok, I will,” Vikraman replied wiping away a tear from his eye. As much as he hated to leave the Marakkar’s side, he knew that he had no other option but to obey.
“As you know, we have a secret passage under the fort from this very room, which opens upstream. Get her out of here as soon as I raise the white flag.”
There was an outcry among the men as soon as they realized that the Marakkar was going to surrender. But they knew better than to disrespect him. They all waited patiently for nightfall; for dusk and at 6 PM, Vikraman and Ayesha slipped through the trapdoor as soon as they saw the Marakkar raise the white flag. The image of the Marakkar would remain etched in his memory throughout the rest of his life! With one last glance, he slipped through, followed by Ayesha.
The passageway was constructed when the fort was built and had never been used until then. It had become home to a vast number of insects and ancient cobwebs covered the dark tunnel. The walls of the tunnel were damp as water trickled down and Vikraman used his torch to clear the way for Ayesha. As Vikraman knew, the tunnel ran for about a mile underground before it opened into a clearing near the banks of the river.
He had to stop thinking about the past and start thinking about the future. Hand in hand, they inched forward in the tunnel, hoping that it had not caved in. Inch by inch, step by step, they eased forward through the slush as the insects crowded around them; the intruders who had disturbed their peace. Ayesha’s face by completely covered with her robe to protect her from the insects and her eyes glowed red thanks to the torch flame that he carried. He was not claustrophobic but as they walked forward, he felt the heat within him escape from every pore of his body due to the oppressive humidity!
His love was turning into reverence minute by minute, an obsession and he could not do anything about it. He could not let anything happen to her! After about 50 minutes, they burst out into the open under the moonlight sky
Vikraman took a deep breath, the clear air clearing his head and they both sat down on the banks of the river. From a distance, they could spot the brightly lit fort.
“So what do we do now?” asked Ayesha after a few minutes after regaining her breath.
“We eat first and then start moving upstream towards the mountains. Taking the coastal route will be suicidal now,” Vikraman replied and they both had their dinner; some bread and fruits that they had packed with them.
And they started on their journey, inland, away from the barbarian fleet!
They walked steadily upstream for the next couple of hours as it was still enemy territory; their fears adding fuel their internal resolve until it was time to sleep. Vikraman had his sword unsheathed for any emergency. Finally at around 11 PM, exhausted, they both sat down under a huge banyan tree.
“Commander, will my brother be ok?” Ayesha asked. It was the first time she had spoken during the long trek. It was a question asked more out of human despair than anything else.
Vikraman feared the worst but he could not bring himself to answer that question. He looked away as his eyes were filling up. Ayesha at once came over to him and put her hand on his shoulder. And he knew that he had to tell her that he loved her, even though the moment was all wrong.
Ayesha said, “I know that you don’t believe in God but I do! Allah will take care of him.”
Vikraman looked up at the moon and said, “I never said that I don’t believe in a higher power.”
“So what do you believe in?” she asked, clearly confused.
“Advaitham,” he said, “What I believe in is Advaitham.”
He then said, “I also have a confession to make. Right from the moment I saw you, I have been madly in love. I cannot think of anything else.”
Her expressions remained unchanged as he delivered those words. Without saying a word, she then embraced him and gave him a passionate kiss which lasted a full minute.
Vikraman felt intoxicated and lost all his weariness. Nothing else in the world mattered to him at that moment.
“But what is Advaitham?” she whispered softly into his ears. Her warm breath felt like hot embers of coal.
He looked at those beautiful eyes, those full lips and replied, “It is spiritual state of mind when two people cease to be two different people but become one. It is that state of mind when the future of our souls is intertwined in a single path by fate or accident. It is that state of mind where the world becomes a mayam (illusion). It is that state of mind when physical quantities like time, distance become irrelevant and rules set by man are rendered meaningless. It is a quintessential existence closer to the supreme where one remains incomplete without the other. Neither Life nor death can separate us now.”
The twinkle in her eyes suggested that the night was not yet done and that she was impressed. Sleep would have to wait; the entire cosmos would have to wait for them that night!
With a smile, Vikraman said, “Lokham dvaitham; pranayam advaitham.” (The world is dual; love is non-dual)
- This story was written based on a conversation that I had recently. And in that conversation, I ended up classifying true love as “Advaitham” (based on Advaita-Vedantam). And this post is to make sense of what I said that day.
- The Marakkars ruled the Arabian Sea in the 16th century leading many of the campaigns against the Portuguese. They are our heroes who organized the first naval defense of our country against imperialism.