Book 2 | Chapter 38 | Pictures that told a Story

Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, Anuradhapura. img src: wikimedia commons

The Prince paused and asked, “Did either of you hear any footsteps?”

Nambi and Vandhiyathevan had been so engrossed in listening to the Prince’s story that they had not heard anything.

Nambi however said, “But the place I am sitting in seems to be a little hotter than before.”

Vandhiyathevan also added, “And I think I smell some smoke too. Do you think this place is safe, Sire?”

“Do not worry. If there is any danger, Goddess Kaveri will come and warn us.”

The Prince continued, “We moved camp the very next day. Still, ten of my warriors got the fever. This fever can break the bravest of warriors down.”

“She started following me everywhere. She has saved me from dangerous animals, natural calamities, and even hidden enemy soldiers. She will appear abruptly and also vanish equally silently. Soon, I also got to understand her sign language. I started to understand what she was thinking. Sometimes, I even realise that she is nearby, without even seeing her.”

“Why, even now…,” the Prince stopped in mid-sentence.

“I think you both should sleep now. We need some rest.”

No one could sleep. Suddenly, they heard a hissing sound. And they could see a dark shadow near the window of the room. It was the same person who had saved them from the crumbling building earlier. The Prince leapt up and walked up to the window. The lady said something in sign language. The Prince motioned to his companions to quickly follow him. The three of them left the room and followed the lady into the darkness. After walking for a little while through dense shrubbery, they stopped at a clearing.

In the clear moonlight, Vandhiyathevan saw a large herd of elephants guarding a stupa. Vandhiyathevan stopped dead in his tracks. The lady however walked bravely towards the beasts.

Nambi whispered in Vandhiyathevan’s ears, “Notice how realistic these elephant statues are.”

And Vandhiyathevan breathed. Until then he thought that they were real animals. They passed through the herd of elephant statues. Vandhiyathevan noticed that there were probably a hundred such elephant statues. They were majestic beasts carved out of rock. Out of these elephants, there was one elephant, whose tusks were broken. The lady moved a rock below the feet of this elephant, and a flight of steps appeared below. She motioned them to follow her. The Prince and his companions went down the secret flight of stairs.

After walking down the passageway for a little while, they reached an underground hall. There were two lamps on either side of the hall. The lady picked up one of the lamps and motioned for the Prince alone to come besides her. She motioned to the Prince to look at the wall. There were paintings on the wall. The panels seemed to describe the events in somebody’s life. It was the life of a lady. And the facial features of the lady in the paintings seemed to resemble the features of the lady holding the lamp.

The Prince tried following the story on the panels. It showed a girl on an island, whose father had gone fishing in his boat. There was a young warrior, who looked like a prince, sitting on a tree. A bear then started climbing the tree. The warrior had not noticed the bear. The young girl screamed and distracted the bear. The bear then started chasing her. At this time, the warrior noticed the bear and attacked the bear with his spear. After a prolonged fight, the warrior killed the bear. When the warrior approached the girl and thanked her, she did not have any words for him. She just had tears in her eyes. She then went and brought her father, who had explained that her daughter was mute. The warrior first felt sorry for her, and then fell in love with her.

The panels further showed them spending time very happily on the island, until one day, a royal vessel came looking for the prince. The prince consoled the girl and promised her that he will come back. After a few days, the father and the girl crossed the seas and reached a lighthouse on the Indian mainland. It looked like they had family living there. The whole family got on to a bullock cart and headed towards the capital. From the walls of the capital, they could see a large crowd. They soon realised that it was the coronation ceremony of the prince.

The grief-stricken lady ran towards the shore, scaled the lighthouse and jumped into the sea. But the sea did not give up on her. A fisherman rescued her and brought her ashore. He thought she was possessed and took her to a temple. The temple priest performed some occult rituals to cure her. On that same day, there was also a queen from the palace who was visiting the same temple. The queen was pregnant and realised that the mute girl was pregnant as well. Out of compassion, the queen took the mute girl to the palace. The girl gave birth to two children in the palace. The queen offered to raise one of the children in the palace. The girl first hesitated. After deep thought, she decided to leave both the children at the palace and she ran away into the dark of the night.

She roamed through the forests for the next few years. She yearned to see the children often, and she would go and watch from a hidden perch near the River Kaveri. There were times when she would glance at the King and the Queen cruising and she would watch the children play. During one of those cruising holidays, she noticed one of the children fall into the water. She dived into the water and saved the boy, handed him over to the King and quickly swam ashore and disappeared.

This story was beautifully depicted on the walls of the underground hall. When the Prince and the lady came to the last panel, the Prince motioned to her that the boy was himself, and the lady who saved him was she. She had tears streaming down her eyes and hugged him tight.

She then took the Prince to the opposite wall and showed him some of the dangers that the Prince had faced and would be facing. They spoke in sign language for a while. Vandhiyathevan and Nambi watched all this from a corner of the room. Vandhiyathevan could still see similarities in the facial features of the Pazhuvoor queen Nandini and the lady in front of him. All kinds of thoughts flooded his mind. Several doubts. But he decided that this was not the time to clarify them.

The four of them climbed back up the stairs of the underground hall guarded by the elephant herd statues. The lady motioned to them to follow her. They climbed some steps towards the upper floors of the stupa. She climbed the steps lithely. They reached the top floor of the stupa. She pointed her finger to the corner of the city, where there was a big fire burning.

The Prince exclaimed, “Aha, that is the palace of the Emperor Mahasena, which is burning.”

Nambi gasped, “That is where we were sleeping just a little while ago. If we had stayed there, we would have also succumbed to the fire.”

Vandhiyathevan asked, “How can you so clearly find out that that was the place where we were sleeping?”

“Vandhiyatheva, that is the language of those pictures that I saw in the hall. They spoke to me.”

“Prince, how come I never heard anything?”

“Haha! You need to understand the language of pictures to be able to decipher. The pictures also told me to be very careful and of all the dangers that I would face. The pictures asked me to leave Lanka.”

“Excellent. I win the bet then. Let us leave for the mainland. Long live the language of pictures.”

Nambi interjected, “Hmm, I thought the pictures just told you to be careful of walking too close to the walls of houses, and not go in the open too much.”

“Nambi, that is true. How did you find that out?”

“I may not understand the language of pictures, but I can read facial expressions. I deciphered all this from the facial expression of the lady with the lamp.”

“Hmm. Anyway, there is only very little of the night that is left. Let us sleep right here on the terrace of this stupa, and leave at daybreak.”

The sharp rays of sunlight woke Vandhiyathevan. Deaf and mute people, people setting fire to palaces, bears climbing trees, Buddhist monks and crowning ceremonies had filled his dreams. The bright sunlight cleared all of that. He woke up to see that the Prince and Nambi had gotten up already and were preparing for their journey.

The three of them got down from the stupa and walked through the main streets towards the grand garden of Anuradhapura. In the centre of the garden was the 1500-year-old Bodhi tree. There were Buddhist monks and others who were paying their respects to this tree. The Prince also bowed and paid his respects to the tree.

The Prince looked around and found what he was looking for. In a corner, there were three horses all saddled up. Three men were holding the horses and smiled warmly when the Prince accosted them. The men explained that they were very happy to see the Prince, and they had been apprehensive that we had succumbed to the fire in the palace last night.

The Prince and his companions got on to the horses and rode swiftly through the northern gates of Anuradhapura. No one noticed them in the bustle of the festivities. They headed towards the small town of Mahindalai – the town where Emperor Ashoka’s son Mahindan first set foot on Lanka to preach Buddhism.

Soon, they heard the sound of hooves, and a dozen warriors galloped towards them with their spears glinting in the morning sunlight at a distance. Vandhiyathevan gripped his sword.