The Bridegroom’s Widow
O Mother, give birth to sons like Rana Pratap
Whose heat dries the blood of emporers, who wear dangers as their crown
A bell rang high above the silence. In the towers and the ramparts of the fort the watch changed. The captain of the first watch handed over the charge to his peer. Soon however, the commotion died and the night fell asleep again.
And then a black mass crept up to the fort. Undetected, it passed the watch towers and walls in the front and disappeared. Once beyond the main watch, it took the shape of a man. He moved slowly but steadily in the darkness, towards the rearmost tower of the fort.
A low whistle - a signal - that was returned with another whistle from above. Then a rope ladder was let down the tower wall. With practiced hands the man scaled 25 feet of granite.
"Rajkumari" he whispered in the darkness. A woman emerged and immediately clung to him. The couple stood there, locked in passionate embrace, their mouths seeking each other. Lost in passionate love-making, they forgot everything around them. The gong for the third quarters watch brought them back to the present.
The lovers separated and listened intently with bated breath. Noises in the distance. But here on the furthest tower, nothing. No footsteps, no noises. They breathed a sigh of relief.
"Kunwar, it’s been three months since I saw you last. These separations are becoming unbearable now. Each day seems a century. And maharanasa is looking for suitors for me. He has taken a liking for Bikram Bhalla. I cannot hold him much longer. You must go and seek my hand from him. "
Kunwar Mangalsingh stood up and walked to the edge of the tower. He stood there staring into the dark expanse before him.
"Rajkumari, I come straight from meeting Maharana Ummed Singhji."
"You met maharana sa!! Where? When? How? Did you ask my hand from him? What did he say?" Rajkumari Nishigandha’s voice had both surprise and apprehension.
Kunwar Mangalsingh turned to face her. A wry smile on his lips. "Too many questions Rajkumari.” he came and sat close to her, holding her in his arms.
The Rajkumari made a half-hearted effort to push him away, but remained in his arms, "Please Kunwar, this is no time for romance. I cannot bear this separation and secrecy any more."
He let her go this time. The smile faded from his lips. The amorous glitter in his eyes faded into a faraway look.
"I met Maharanasa at the annual fair of the goddess Kali at Chikola. Did you know that your uncle has set a price for your hand? Or should I say a competition - the winner of which shall carry you away.” the Kunwar stopped and looked at her questioningly.
"Kunwar, I beg of you. Don’t speak in puzzles. The night will soon be gone. Tell me all you know for I know nothing of this, except that Bikram Bhalla has approached my uncle for my hand."
"Yes. And your uncle would have had you married to him. He has his own interests in doing so. The military strength of Bikram Bhalla's mercenaries makes him a lucrative choice as a nephew-in-law. If you had been the Maharana's own daughter, you would have been Bikram's bride by now. Mother Kali be praised you are his neice and he is not as free."
"At the fair of Chikola I upset your uncle's plan by asking for your hand in public. Rajput law ordains that he must now seek your will, for he is your uncle and not your father. If you choose either of us the matter is settled. If you stay silent, there will be a duel." Kunwar Mangalsingh stopped and looked at Rajkumari Nishigandha.
She had been listening silently. Slowly she realized the predicament she was in. In the distance, the first fingers of dawn were visible, peeling off night’s black veil. As the light outside grew, she felt darkness within.
"What is the duel?" she asked, without meeting Mangalsingh's eyes.
"On the day of Devi amavasya, the one who wins Devigarh for the Maharana will obtain your hand in return."
Dark despair set on the princess's heart. Her uncle had set an unfair duel. She knew that Mangalsingh would never be able to win.
Devigharh - the mountain fort of Kali. A fort protected not by armies but the blessing of the Goddess. Devi amavasya fell on the fifth night after the fair at Chikola. Legend had it that the crown of Devigarh belonged to the royal head that touched the Devi's feet and sacrificed a life at the altar on this night.
"Rajkumari", the Kunwar's voice broke Nishigandha's reverie. "By Rajput law your uncle cannot give your hand to someone without your consent. Nor can he hold duel if you chose someone first. I am a banished prince with no army. I have just 50 loyal followers. Bikram Bhalla's mercenaries will form a wall that my men will never be able to cross. I cannot go into battle with them for it would mean suicide for my men. They would not stand a single chance and will all be wiped out. I am not a coward. But neither am I heartless. I will not lead my men to death for my personal gain. Tomorrow at court the maharana will ask your wish. Say the word and I shall carry you away as my bride. But if you choose to stay silent, I will have to go into battle to protect my family name. It is not for me that I ask you this. It is for my men.”
It took Nishigandha a few minutes to mask the tempest raging inside her heart. When at last she spoke, her voice was ice cold, devoid of any emotion, "Kunwar Mangalsingh, deep is my love for you, but deeper still is my sense of duty for my uncle and his house. After the death of my beloved father, the Maharana has brought me up like his own daughter. It is only right now that I act like a daughter of this house. I will not speak tomorrow at court. I shall choose to die than cause disgrace to my uncle and his house. You must win me in the duel. And, mother Kali forbid, if you lose, Bikram Bhalla shall find a dead bride on his wedding night."
Without waiting for Mangalsingh's reply, without even looking at his face, princess Nishgandha ran into the darkness, towards her quarters.
Kunwar Mangalsingh stood for sometime looking into valley below. Then he climbed down the way he had come and disappeared into the early morning fog.
The fort of Devigarh stood on the eastern edge of the Chikola lake, surrounded by a vast expanse of cultivation. A silent guardian of the point, where the three most powerful provinces of Rajputana converged - Hadot, Mewar and Shekhawati.
It was a small fort, built on a gradual slope that rose to a height of 70 feet at the farthest end. On one side it overlooked the lake. The main entrance faced the cultivated plains of the valley. It had low walls of average thickness that started at the foothill and skirted the entire hill. At the very centre of the fort stood the Kali mandir - the nerve centre of the fort, with the goddess distinctly visible from far outside.
The fort was evidently not made for any military purpose. There were no moats or trenches around. There were no watch-towers, no nail studded, narrow doors, no steep tortuous stairways. Its door had never been shut and its ramparts had never been watched over by sword bearing soldiers. Devigarh's construction had more symbolism than martial tactic or political will.
Devigarh had never seen a siege, nor been transgressed by an army ever. What use was a fort that had no military significance? A fort which was the centre of strong religious beliefs of the entire Rajputana was more of a political liability than a strategic asset. Kings of the province had always let Devigarh be - governed by its head priest - waiting for a royal heir to claim it by fulfilling the legend.
But all that changed that year, on the morning of Devi amavasya. At the break of dawn there came the sound of men and animals outside the fort. When the priests came out after the morning aarti, they were greeted by a sight that none had seen ever. Armed men had surrounded Devigarh from all sides. The siege of Devigarh had begun and Bikram Bhalla waited at the gates, for evening to arrive so that he could enter and perform the sacrifice.
Sometime in the afternoon Maharana Ummed Singh arrived and camped at a distance from the fort. In the camp was also princess Nishigandha, staring at a small vial in her hand, her face as pale as the early morning sky. With supreme fortitude that was characteristic of a Rajpoot woman, she had resigned herself to destiny. As news of the duel spread, hundreds of men from nearby villages, gathered on the plains.
But it seemed like vain siege. Kunwar Mangalsingh was nowhere in sight. The sun traced its trajectory in the sky, and dawn turned to dusk. As the hour of sacrifice approached, the princess heaved a sigh of sad relief. At least the Kunwar had not been foolish to ride to his own death.
Meanwhile Bikram Bhalla, with a smile on his face prepared for the pooja and sacrifice - ready to be crowned king of Devigarh.
As the sun started setting, the priests started preparing for the sandhyaarti. In another hour the duel would be won. Bikram Bhalla's thoughts were about the body of the princess, praises of whose beauty he had heard far and wide.
In the midst of drums and trumpets a goat was prepared for the royal sacrifice - washed in milk and chandan and fed green leaves. Amidst much fanfare and cheering from his men, Bikram Bhalla started walking the fifty metres from the gate of the fort to the temple. His men followed, leaving there posts and breaking the siege.
And at that moment, over the horizon, the silhouette of two riders could be seen against the red glow of the setting sun. They rode fast, one with a naked sword and the other with a raised spear at the tip of which fluttered the standard of the Hada family.
The riders approached at lighting speed towards the fort. And as they came closer, people recognized with a gasp of surprise that it was Kunwar Mnagalsingh and his trusted lieutenant Yudhvir Singh.
Neither Bikram Bhalla nor his men saw the riders approaching. Rapidly the riders covered the ground, past the stupefied villagers, past the camp of the dumbstruck Maharana, closer and closer to the fort. No one knew what was going on. Kunwar Mangalsingh had arrived, but why was he alone? Where were his men? How would he stop Bikram Bhalla from performing the sacrifice and winning the duel?
Princess Nishigandha ran out of her tent, tears streaming down her cheeks. She caught a glimpse of her prince striding by on horseback, 6 feet of shining metal armor, and a resolute face. That fleeting glimpse of the Kunwar’s face was sufficient to tell her the entire story. She understood his plan immediately. At that instant she felt a surge of pride and great love for this man who rode to his death. Pain was the last thing on her mind. Like generations of Rajpootanis before her, she bade goodbye to her warrior with a smile on her lips and a glitter in her eyes.
All eyes were now on the two riders. They expected them to dash into Bikram Bhalla’s men and be killed in an instant.
Then, something strange happened. Yudhvir singh slowed down and the Kunwar started gaining speed. When the Kunwar was fifty metres from Bhalla and his men, he gave a heart rendering roar that rose above the noise of the drums and trumpet and for a second froze everyone to their spot.
"Bikram Bhalla, I challenge you", the Kunwar raised his sword and came to a grinding halt.
Bikram turned, mockery written all over his face. The game was up. There was no way Mangalsingh could win the duel now. His men formed an impregnable wall between the Kali temple and this man.
"Kunwar Mangalsingh. The duel is over. There is no way that you can cross my men and reach the Devi's temple before me. Don’t be foolish. Accept defeat and go back. I spare your life on this happy occasion", Bikram shouted back.
“You fool, you mercenaries will never understand the value of honor. We Hadas care more for our honor than for our lives. The duel is not over yet.” and saying so, he raised his sword in the air and shouted "Maa kaali ki jai".
As if at a signal, Yudhvir Singh, who had now fallen about hundred metres behind his prince, gained speed and started down like a lighting towards the prince. As he approached he increased his speed. 75 metres and more speed. 50 metres and more speed. And now Yudhvir Singh raised his spear and leveled it for a throw. Kunwar mangalsingh stood still in his tracks, with sword raised in mid air above him.
What happened next has gone down in the history of Rajputana as one of the bravest acts ever performed by a king to protect his name and his men. It happened in a flash, before anyone could even realize it.
As Yudhvir Singh came close, with another sky-tearing cry of "Jai Maa Kaali" Kunwar Mangalsingh, raised his hand and with one single stroke cut of his own head. The body stood still for a fraction of a second, before beginning to limp. But at that very moment, Yudhvir Singh caught the falling head of his prince in his spear, and sped onward towards the dumbfounded men around the fort.
And then, at the peak of his momentum, when he was just going to crash into the first line of Bhalla's men, Yudhvir lifted his arm and let go of the spear with one mighty heave, Mangalsingh's head impaled upon it.
The projectile flew, over the low walls, past the men, past Bikram Bhalla, and with uncanny accuracy, landed at the temple steps, near the feet of the Goddess Kali. At the impact, the royal head, now mutilated by the spear, came lose and skidded across the floor to touch the feet of the goddess.
Yudhvir Singh crashed and broke through the lines of Bhalla’s men and shouting “Maharana Mangal Singh ri Jai”, crashed into the walls of Devigarh.
It all happened in five minutes. Like some well rehearsed trapeze act in a circus. The speeding lieutenant with his leveled spear, the prince cutting his head off, the impaled head on the spear and the mammoth throw. To those who saw it happen in front of their eyes, it seemed like a bad dream. But the headless body of the Kunwar on the field and the royal head on the Devi’s altar told them all that it was not.
At that very moment, the sound of a conch declared the duel complete and the legend fulfilled. In those five minutes, Devi Amavasya had started and the priests began the aarti of Kali. In the camp of Maharana Ummed Singh, princess Nishigandha emerged from her chamber, clad in white, like a widow. She had a proud look in her eyes as she set off towards Devigarh - to collect the head of her dead husband - late Kunwar Mangalsingh - Maharana of Devigarh.