Continued from last week:
‘How many more secrets do you hide in those dark depths?’
The last words of a drowning man kept echoing in the ears of Professor Gautam as he picked up the journal.
His eyes zeroed in on the loose top sheet. It was a short memo scribbled by one William Smith Nesbitt Esq., Assistant to the Collector of Kistna. There was a faint noting by the Marquis of Dalhousie, the Governor General. He was rather apologetic about agreeing with something that he found ludicrous at the same time. And, the final closure was made by none other than the Secretary of State with a comment, ‘Nesbitt is an idiot,’ before it was confined to its resting place.
Gautam wondered, what could be so ‘ludicrous’? And, began reading Bradford’s letter from where he had left off…
As though the river had heard me, at that very moment the boat lurched wildly and turned over. I found myself sucked into a vortex of darkness. I had stopped struggling after an eternity, as warm waters engulfed me….
And, slowly I began to rise and when I broke through the surface, the landscape had changed… and she beckoned me.
She stood alone, a damsel, dark of skin, her beauty divine.
My inner voice told me that she wasn’t an ordinary mortal. She was naked except a diaphanous wrap of muslin tied loosely around her waist. Her hair fell in a myriad of braids, interwoven with pearls and lotus buds. She held out her hand, her arm covered in bracelets of pure gold alternating with mother of pearl rings.
I grabbed it. She pulled me out of waters with effortless ease in a single liquid motion. I stood there still feeling weightless, staring at her. Her hand held my wrist in a comforting grip. And, she spoke in most noble English, somehow I wasn’t surprised.
She said that her name was Kistna, and led me into the valley.
It wasn’t a wild jungle anymore.
Broad streets stretched endlessly and timelessly around us. We were in the heart of a city, a market place, and hundreds of men and women thronged the street. There were Romans in their white togas, Arabs and Persians in weird headgears and the Orientals in their most colourful attire.
She guided me through that human swamp from one shop to another, bedecked in flowers and drapes, and their wares as exotic. She opened the bails to feel the textures of muslins and silks, ran her hand through piles of spices explaining their worth, wore the ornaments of gold and piles of precious stones, swirling to flaunt their splendor, the welcoming pots and vessels of every make whose contents she offered me to sample, and of course the amphorae filled with exotic wines.
No one took any notice of us.
‘This is Bijavatika, Emporium of Andhras, and today is the first market day of the season,’ Kistna said as she passed through the crowd, her movement so fluid, I found it subtly erotic.
As we sailed through the streets, there were raised stands with singers and dancers, magicians and puppeteers, acrobats and soothsayers, entertaining the crowds. The atmosphere was festive.
Nothing hindered us, we were like a wave of flood smoothly moving into the houses and palaces, shrines of gods and cells of monks, and finally we stood in a grand pavilion on top of the mound.
Kistna was looking resplendent in the sun beating perpendicularly down, her skin shone in ripples of silver. Resting between her ample breasts suspended by a thread of silk, was the beauty – a black uncut diamond shining as brightly as the sun overhead. I stared at it mesmerized.
Her grip on my wrist tightened as she said, ‘Look’.
The landscape changed again.
We were surrounded by wide macadam roads if I may call them so, and bridges as though they were suspended from sky stretching across the river. There were colourful carriages that looked like beetles, one behind the other moving at great speed. Structures, manmade, stood hundreds of feet high scraping the sky, reflecting the sunlight in different hues. Huge metallic birds flitted to and fro like swallows in a park.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women were hurrying purposefully, everywhere.
‘These are my children,’ She said.
‘They will build what you see and their enterprise will give rise to the greatest financial emporium. Some day in future… gold shall rain here,’ her words had a prophetic ring to them.
‘Now, go and tell those who matter,’ she said and thrust the diamond into my pocket. ‘Here is the proof of the day that will come to pass,’ and she let go of my hand….
I gasped, my lungs bursting as I drew in a draft of air.
I was in the hospital bed.
It was Doctor Taylor staring into my eyes with a broad grin. I looked around, desperate to find the Damsel of the River, in vain. I felt a heavy lump in the pocket of my bush-coat. Taylor’s eyes widened with wonder, when I pulled out the stone, about the size of a hen’s egg, dark, uncut and probably weighed a couple of hundred English carats.
It was the diamond she gave… The Black Beauty…
The journal was signed by C. A. Bradford, stamped and attested by Dr. Taylor.
Dr. Gautam dropped the file on the desk as he rose and walked across to the window. The streets are lighting up with the sun rising behind the hill. He tried to imagine the last vision of Bradford, and… Her prophesy, wondering whether it would ever come to pass.
His mind said, ‘Yes’.
He rushed back to the desk to see what had happened to Bradford and the diamond. It wasn’t mentioned anywhere, not in the report of the doctor, nor in the memo of Nesbitt. Disappointed, he folded the stack to be shoved back into the Manila envelope.
At the last moment his eyes fell on a short noting in the corner, it was Dr. Taylor’s, a faint scribble in Indian ink…
‘Mr. Bradford was in my care for forty days. Never did his telling of the happenings of that fateful day vary. On the night he disappeared, I had enquired with the chowkie man at the hospital who swore that he had seen the white man walking away towards the river at dusk.’
That was the last anyone had seen Bradford or his diamond.
A thousand years ago, a famous military general called Pandaranga had the task of building a fortress in newly conquered territories. He needed an ideal city to model it after, very much like today, like one wants to model the new capital after a Singapore or some such prosperous and planned city. He had boasted in one of the earliest Telugu poems, immortalized in stone, that he had modelled the new town after Bezwada. The inscription proves beyond any doubt that there was a time when Bezwada was a prosperous city idealized by kings and poets alike. There is absolute unanimity among historians about the antiquity of the city but the name and its etymology remains still an enigma.
Legend has it that an early Andhra king had cut the rock face abutting the river here to build a wide road from his capital Srikakulam (Krishna Dist.) to Amaravati. Some historians have even claimed that it was the late Satavahana king, Bija Sātakanni (Sanskritized as Vijaya Satakarni in Puranas) and that he was the founder of Bijavatika a name that occurs in epigraphy. The attempts to associate the name Vijaya with the names of the Goddess Durga and the epic hero Arjuna do not pass muster as historical truth. The city of Bezwada had never been a political capital of any kingdom. Its fame and prosperity came from other means.
Bhōjas or Bōyas were the military officers with feudatory powers from the early historical times. Mahabharata calls them ‘Arāja’ meaning they are ineligible for kingship. Strategically positioned behind the hills, the plains west of Bezwada (facing the Vidyadharapuram Valley, now submerged under the lake) were best suited for a military cantonment of both ground and naval forces, overlooking the central delta to face any aggressors from sea. Further, Bhōjas could have been a synonym for Nāgas, once the rulers of the Krishna basin. And so a derivation from Bhōjavata for Bezwada is perhaps plausible.
Historically, Bezwada had been the commercial headquarters of Telika guilds, specializing trade in oilseed. Jataka Tales allude to a city of Andhras on the river Telivāha. Tila and Bīja are synonyms meaning ‘seed’ giving a probable root for the name Bījavatika.
Another inscription of the 9th century by one Trikūta Bōya calls the city by the name Pecchevada. Now this name is an entirely another matter for speculation.