4. Demon Rock
This cunningly contrived pageant of light and sound still had power to move Rajasinghe, though he had seen it a dozen times and knew every trick of the programming. It was, of course, obligatory for every visitor to the Rock, though critics like Professor Sarath complained that it was merely instant history for tourists. Yet instant history was better than no history at all, and it would have to serve while Sarath and his colleagues still vociferously disagreed about the precise sequence of events here, two thousand years ago.
The little amphitheatre faced the western wall of Yakkagala, its two hundred seats all carefully orientated so that each spectator looked up into the laser projectors at the correct angle. The performance always began at exactly the same time throughout the year – 19.00 hours, as the last glow of the invariant equatorial sunset faded from the sky.
Already it was so dark that the Rock was invisible, revealing its presence only as a huge, black shadow eclipsing the early stars. Then, out of that darkness, there came the slow beating of a muffled drum; and presently a calm, dispassionate voice:
“This is the story of a king who murdered his father and was killed by his brother. In the blood-stained history of mankind, that is nothing new. But this king left an abiding monument; and a legend which has endured for centuries…”
Rajasinghe stole a glance at Vannevar Morgan, sitting there in the darkness on his right. Though he could see the engineer's features only in silhouette, he could tell that his visitor was already caught in the spell of the narration. On his left his other two guests – old friends from his diplomatic days – were equally entranced. As he had assured Morgan, they had not recognised “Dr. Smith”; or if they had indeed done so, they had politely accepted the fiction.
“His name was Kalidasa, and he was born a hundred years after Christ, in Ranapura, City of Gold – for centuries the capital of the Taprobanean kings. But there was a shadow across his birth…”
The music became louder, as flutes and strings joined the throbbing drum, to trace out a haunting, regal melody in the night air. A point of light began to burn on the face of the Rock; then, abruptly, it expanded – and suddenly it seemed that a magic window had opened into the past, to reveal a world more vivid and colourful than life itself.
The dramatisation, thought Morgan, was excellent; he was glad that, for once, he had let courtesy override his impulse to work. He saw the joy of King Paravana when his favourite concubine presented him with his first-born son – and understood how that joy was both augmented and diminished when, only twenty-four hours later, the Queen herself produced a better claimant to the throne. Though first in time, Kalidasa would not be first in precedence; and so the stage was set for tragedy.
“Yet in the early years of their boyhood Kalidasa and his half-brother Malgara were the closest of friends. They grew up together quite unconscious of their rival destinies, and the intrigues that festered around them. The first cause of trouble had nothing to do with the accident of birth; it was only a well-intentioned, innocent gift.”
“To the court of King Paravana came envoys bearing tribute from many lands – silk from Cathay, gold from Hindustan, burnished armour from Imperial Rome. And one day a simple hunter from the jungle ventured into the great city, bearing a gift which he hoped would please the Royal family…”
All around him, Morgan heard a chorus of involuntary “Oohs” and “Aahs” from his unseen companions. Although he had never been very fond of animals, he had to admit that the tiny, snow-white monkey that nestled so trustingly in the arms of young Prince Kalidasa was very endearing. Out of the wrinkled little face two huge eyes stared across the centuries – and across the mysterious, yet not wholly unbridgeable, gulf between man and beast.
“According to the Chronicles, nothing like it had ever been seen before; its hair was white as milk, its eyes pink as rubies. Some thought it a good omen others an evil one, because white is the colour of death and of mourning. And their fears, alas, were well founded.”
“Prince Kalidasa loved his little pet, and called it Hanuman after the valiant monkey-god of the Ramayana. The King's jeweller constructed a small golden cart, in which Hanuman would sit solemnly while he was drawn through the court, to the amusement and delight of all who watched.”
“For his part, Hanuman loved Kalidasa, and would allow no-one else to handle him. He was especially jealous of Prince Malgara – almost as if he sensed the rivalry to come. And then, one unlucky day, he bit the heir to the throne.”
“The bite was trifling – its consequences immense. A few days later Hanuman was poisoned – doubtless by order of the Queen. That was the end of Kalidasa's childhood; thereafter, it is said, he never loved or trusted another human being. And his friendship towards Malgara turned to bitter enmity.”
“Nor was this the only trouble that stemmed from the death of one small monkey. By command of the King, a special tomb was built for Hanuman, in the shape of the traditional bell-shaped shrine or dagoba. Now this was an extraordinary thing to do, for it aroused the instant hostility of the monks. Dagobas were reserved for relics of the Buddha, and this act appeared to be one of deliberate sacrilege.”
“Indeed, that may well have been its intention, for King Paravana had now come under the sway of a Hindu Swami, and was turning against the Buddhist faith. Although Prince Kalidasa was too young to be involved in this conflict, much of the monks' hatred was now directed against him. So began a feud that in the years to come was to tear the kingdom apart.”
"Like many of the other tales recorded in the ancient chronicles of Taprobane, for almost two thousand years there was no proof that the story of Hanuman and young Prince Kalidasa was anything but a charming legend. Then, in 2015, a team of Harvard archaeologists discovered the foundations of a small shrine in the grounds of the old Ranapura Palace. The shrine appeared to have been deliberately destroyed, for all the brickwork of the superstructure had vanished.
“The usual relic chamber set in the foundations was empty, obviously robbed of its contents centuries ago. But the students had tools of which the old-time treasure-hunters never dreamed; their neutrino survey disclosed a second relic chamber, much deeper. The upper one was only a decoy, and it had served its purpose well. The lower chamber still held the burden of love and hate it had carried down the centuries – to its resting-place today, in the Ranapura Museum.”
Morgan had always considered himself, with justification, reasonably hard-headed and unsentimental, not prone to gusts of emotion. Yet now, to his considerable embarrassment -he hoped that his companions wouldn't notice – he felt his eyes brim with sudden tears. How ridiculous, he told himself angrily, that some saccharine music and a maudlin narration could have such an impact on a sensible man! He would never have believed that the sight of a child's toy could have set him weeping.
And then he knew, in a sudden lightning flash of memory that brought back a moment more than forty years in the past, why he had been so deeply moved. He saw again his beloved kite, dipping and weaving above the Sydney park where he had spent much of his childhood. He could feel the warmth of the sun, the gentle wind on his bare back – the treacherous wind that suddenly failed, so that the kite plunged earthwards. It became snagged in the branches of the giant oak that was supposed to be older than the country itself and, foolishly, he had tugged at the string, trying to pull it free. It was his first lesson in the strength of materials, and one that he was never to forget.
The string had broken, just at the point of capture, and the kite had rolled crazily away into the summer sky, slowly losing altitude. He had rushed down to the water's edge, hoping that it would fall on land; but the wind would not listen to the prayers of a little boy.
For a long time he had stood weeping as he watched the shattered fragments, like some dismasted sailboat, drift across the great harbour and out towards the open sea, until they were lost from sight. That had been the first of those trivial tragedies that shape a man's childhood, whether he remembers them or not.
Yet what Morgan had lost then was only an inanimate toy; his tears were of frustration rather than grief. Prince Kalidasa had much deeper cause for anguish. Inside the little golden cart, which still looked as if it had come straight from the craftsman's workshop, was a bundle of tiny white bones.
Morgan missed some of the history that followed; when he had cleared his eyes a dozen years had passed, a complex family quarrel was in progress, and he was not quite sure who was murdering whom. After the armies had ceased to clash and the last dagger had fallen, Crown Prince Malgara and the Queen Mother had fled to India, and Kalidasa had seized the throne, imprisoning his father in the process.
That the usurper had refrained from executing Paravana was not due to any filial devotion but to his belief that the old king still possessed some secret treasure, which he was saving for Malgara. As long as Kalidasa believed this, Paravana knew that he was safe; but at last he grew tired of the deception.
“I will show you my real wealth,” he told his son. “Give me a chariot, and I will take you to it.”
But on his last journey, unlike little Hanuman, Paravana rode in a decrepit ox-cart. The Chronicles record that it had a damaged wheel which squeaked all the way – the sort of detail that must be true, because no historian would have bothered to invent it.
To Kalidasa's surprise, his father ordered the cart to carry him to the great artificial lake that irrigated the central kingdom, the completion of which had occupied most of his reign. He walked along the edge of the huge bund and gazed at his own statue, twice life-size, that looked out across the waters.
“Farewell, old friend,” he said, addressing the towering stone figure which symbolised his lost power and glory, and which held forever in its hands the stone map of this inland sea. “Protect my heritage.”
Then, closely watched by Kalidasa and his guards, he descended the spillway steps, not pausing even at the edge of the lake. When he was waist deep he scooped up the water and threw it over his head, then turned towards Kalidasa with pride and triumph.
“Here, my son,” he cried, waving towards the leagues of pure, life-giving water, “here – here is all my wealth!”
“Kill him!” screamed Kalidasa, mad with rage and disappointment.
And the soldiers obeyed.
So Kalidasa became the master of Taprobane, but at a price that few men would be willing to pay. For, as the Chronicles recorded, always he lived “in fear of the next world, and of his brother”. Sooner or later, Malgara would return to seek his rightful throne.
For a few years, like the long line of kings before him, Kalidasa held court in Ranapura. Then, for reasons about which history is silent, he abandoned the royal capital for the isolated rock monolith of Yakkagala, forty kilometres away in the jungle. There were some who argued that he sought an impregnable fortress, safe from the vengeance of his brother. Yet in the end he spurned its protection – and, if it was merely a citadel, why was Yakkagala surrounded by immense pleasure gardens whose construction must have demanded as much labour as the walls and moat themselves? Above all, why the frescoes?
As the narrator posed this question, the entire western face of the rock materialised out of the darkness – not as it was now, but as it must have been two thousand years ago. A band starting a hundred metres from the ground, and running the full width of the rock, had been smoothed and covered with plaster, upon which were portrayed scores of beautiful women – life-size, from the waist upwards. Some were in profile, others full-face, and all followed the same basic pattern.
Ochre-skinned, voluptuously bosomed, they were clad either in jewels alone, or in the most transparent of upper garments. Some wore towering and elaborate head-dresses – others, apparently, crowns. Many carried bowls of flowers, or held single blossoms nipped delicately between thumb and forefinger. Though about half were darker-skinned than their companions, and appeared to be hand-maidens, they were no less elaborately coifed and bejeweled.
“Once, there were more than two hundred figures. But the rains and winds of centuries have destroyed all except twenty, which were protected by an over-hanging ledge of rock…”
The image zoomed forward; one by one the last survivors of Kalidasa's dream came floating out of the darkness, to the hackneyed yet singularly appropriate music of Anitra's Dance. Defaced though they were by weather, decay and even vandals, they had lost none of their beauty down the ages. The colours were still fresh, unfaded by the light of more than half a million westering suns. Goddesses or women, they had kept alive the legend of the Rock.
“No one knows who they were, what they represented, and why they were created with such labour, in so inaccessible a spot. The favourite theory is that they were celestial beings, and that all Kalidasa's efforts here were devoted to creating a heaven on earth, with its attendant goddesses. Perhaps he believed himself a God-King, as the Pharaohs of Egypt had done; perhaps that is why he borrowed from them the image of the Sphinx, guarding the entrance to his palace.”
Now the scene shifted to a distant view of the Rock, seen reflected in the small lake at its base. The water trembled, the outlines of Yakkagala wavered and dissolved. When they had reformed, the Rock was crowned by walls and battlements and spires, clinging to its entire upper surface. It was impossible to see them clearly; they remained tantalisingly out of focus, like the images in a dream.
No man would ever know what Kalidasa's aerial palace had really looked like, before it was destroyed by those who sought to extirpate his very name.
“And here he lived, for almost twenty years, awaiting the doom that he knew would come. His spies must have told him that, with the help of the kings of southern Hindustan, Malgara was patiently gathering his armies.”
“And at last Malgara came. From the summit of the Rock, Kalidasa saw the invaders marching from the north. Perhaps he believed himself impregnable; but he did not put it to the test. For he left the safety of his great fortress, and rode out to meet his brother, in the neutral ground between the two armies. One would give much to know what words they spoke, at that last encounter. Some say they embraced before they parted; it may be true.”
“Then the armies met, like the waves of the sea. Kalidasa was fighting on his own territory, with men who knew the land, and at first it seemed certain that victory would go to him. But then occurred another of those accidents that determine the fate of nations.”
“Kalidasa's great war elephant, caparisoned with the royal banners, turned aside to avoid a patch of marshy ground. The defenders thought that the king was retreating. Their morale broke; they scattered, as the Chronicles record, like chaff from the winnowing fan.”
“Kalidasa was found on the battlefield, dead by his own hand. Malgara became king. And Yakkagala was abandoned to the jungle, not to be discovered again for seventeen hundred years.”