describes the collective suicide of the women whose fathers, husbands and
brothers could not defend the fortress. Their enemy has killed all the soldiers
and has entered the fort. But they find no women or children inside. There are
only tremendous pyres, their flames covering
the sky. Jauhar. The women of the caste of Rajput knights follow a
strict type of monogamy. If the husband dies, his widow will die with him on
the pyre, in order to maintain her dignity. Such a death is also a way to
reduce the burden that would fall on the community. The community will not be
disturbed by young widows who would not be permitted to marry again. Moreover,
they might fall into the hands of the enemy.
Chittorgarh fort is near
the desert in the west of India. It had fallen three times. The defenders were
massacred three times. The women committed mass suicide three times. The Rajput
caste would always choose to die fighting rather than be captured as prisoners
of war. Once the men were killed, the only choice for their women, as we have
seen, was to die together. The first time the fortress fell was in 1303. The
second time was in 1535. And the third was in 1568.
story was about the most tragic time:1535.
day, Manju had helped to build the pyres, along with the rest of of the women
and children, assisted by companies of soldiers. The pyres were set up around a
lake with a circumference of over one kilometer. To construct them, the people
dragged whole logs and trees and
complete sets of furniture: beds and cupboards, doors and windows, to the
various locations. Everything they ownded had been torn out, dismantled and
carried away. Once it had all been been moved, it was chopped to pieces and
piled up. The pyres were a meter higher than ground level, and had steps built
into their sides. Each was twenty meters long. Each was ten meters wide.
Hundreds of pyres surrounded the lake. Ready.
almost ten o’clock at night when Manju returned home. She opened her trunk to
find the proper clothes for the next day, finally choosing her white saree. An
Indian woman wears white for her husband’s funeral. Tomorrow all the women and
children would wear white. Next, Manju looked for her husband’s robe. Tomorrow
all the soldiers would be clad in saffron robes, the color symbolizing the
courage and sacrifice of the Rajput caste. It was the symbol of fire, which
burns all that is filthy, and which made saffron the purest and proudest color.
could have predicted that her man’s robe, used only for important rituals,
would be taken from the bottom of their chest for this last sacrifice. Tonight
all the women had taken out such robes. The robes of their fathers, uncles,
husbands and brothers. Robes the color of fire. Tomorrow these robes would be
dyed with blood. Blood and fire.
late. But Manju was not able to rest. Tonight no one in the fortress was able
to rest. Manju had unfolded the garment and only then she remembered. There was
a tear in her husband’s robe that she had intended to patch up just that day,
but she had forgotten. Now here it was, in the flickering light.
couldn’t find needle and thread. Probably the sewing box had been displaced
somewhere after all the doors and windows had been torn out and furniture
moved. She was nineteen years old and had been married for two years, with no
children, and so was not used to sewing like other women. It was not unusual
for her to forget where she left her needle and thread.
have a needle and thread at home?” she whispered to her neighbor. All of the men had gone up
to the watch towers on the rampart, including
Manju’s husband. Tonight he was commanding his company, guarding against
a pre-dawn attack by the enemy outside the gates. The fort would fall according
to the timetable of the defenders. It was not acceptable to let it fall to a
neighbour searched carefully all over her house, trying not to make a
sound. Her three children had been very
tired and now were deep in sleep. Today they had made the pyres, together with
the adults, though they didn’t know they would have to die tomorrow. The adults
had lied to them, told them that the pyres were for worship. The children were
so exhausted that they fell asleep immediately, as soon as they laid down. It
was a normal sleep, the way they always slept on other nights. Now their mother
searched for a needle and thread. But she couldn’t find them.
you got a needle and thread at home?” Manju, asked, going to another neighbor’s
young lady had been married for a year. Pregnant with a big belly. She was
toasting chappati bread and cooking bean soup. The last dinner. In a while her
husband would drop in. Everybody was hungry. The fort had been besieged for
over a month. Weapons had been exhausted. Food had been exhausted. It was for
this reason that the king chose tomorrow for the fortress to fall. If it had
just been a matter of morale, Rajput had enough to fight on for years.
pregnant lady could also not find anything in her house.
went to her other neighbors.
It was a
starry night. Chilly air was blowing in from the desert, permeating the
fortress, which was situated on the top of the mountain.
The Fortress. Standing
at the base of the mountain at that hour, looking up to the Chittorgarh fort,
one could believe this was the Great Wall of China. The fort’s walls run zigzag
from mountain to mountain. As if endless. Fires flaring on and off amidst the
rampart’s watch points. All as usual.
enemy outside knew that the people inside the walls were in peril, but they had
not known that the defenders of the fort had decided to make their last stand
the next morning.
didn’t go up to the rampart. Her husband was there but it was difficult to meet
him at night - it would violate military orders and laws. She was sure that her
husband would go home to get his robe, like all the other men.
robe. A tear in it. After their week-long wedding, the bride and the groom
would always be exhausted. Formalities. Numerous rituals. Guests to be
welcomed. It was all tradition. But after a week of wedding clebrations, the
bride and the groom would be so weary they could no longer stand. But not Manju
and Ravi. They had whipped their horses and galloped down from the fortress,
riding out of the gate and into the desert. Yellow sand dunes stretched to the
horizon. An ancient sacred river had once meandered here as if it had lost its
way in this desert, and then had disappeared completely.
The Sarasvati river. It
only still existed as a myth. As a name. Sarasvati is the name of the wife of
Brahma the Creator. She is the Goddesss of Knowledge and Poetry, Music and
Arts. She is worshiped by intellectuals, artists and men of letters, and by
those who want their children to become educated. Parents would name their
daughters after her.
newly married couple had ridden their horses into an oasis. The heat of the sun
couldn’t compare the heat inside themselves. The trees created a cool haven for
them. The couple hoped to find a trace of the desiccated river lost in the
desert. The river had dried up and
disappeared completely, thousands of years ago, but perhaps it was lying still
under this oasis, under these sand dunes and those cactuses. The Goddess of
Knowledge had silently shrouded her face, for real knowledge seldom reveals
down near the cactuses and suddenly the fence of cactus had loomed higher than
the lying couple and had hidden them in the heart of the oasis. And now the
whole mighty river flooded in.
for the lost river. An unforgettable memory in their life. Only one problem
marred the day: The thorn of a cactus had torn a hole in Ravi’s tunic. Their momentous
pleasure, taken by the side of the cactus, had resulted in the tear.
Manju regretted that she had not mended the robe for two years. Destiny forced
her to recognize her mistake only on this last night.
returned home to see Ravi had come back.
couple without children. Their advantage was that they could go out at midnight
without any worry. Just go. But this time the fort was surrounded and they
could not leave, even though they both knew that outside the fort lay immense
liberty. An immense desert. The couple could sense the desert from the chilly
air blowing in to them, from the smell of sand in the air. From the river which
still lay under the numerous layers of sand.
couple fell on each other hungrily in an orchard near the market. No one at all
in that place, which was so crowded during the day. They lay under an ancient
Ashok tree. Their last night. Only God knew if it was the last time that all
the couples in that place would be able to make love. They snatched at that remnant
of time. The soldiers had scheduled the relay shifts so that everybody
could visit his home. That night the wives didn’t sleep. They all had been
waiting at home for their husbands. Would the haunting knowledge of tomorrow’s
imminent and collective death prevent them from achieving climax now?
uttered a cry. She had often cried out at such times. And her scream was indeed
the scream of orgasm, but the words she shouted did not seem to belong with
that sound. It was as if she had been possessed by a ghost.
needle and thread in the fort tonight!” She cried.
reminded her husband about the hole in his robe. But they did not have much
time. They could not rush to all the houses and ask for needle and thread. They
could not disturb all the couples, together in their last hours.
the morning the couple bid each other farewell. Ravi returned to his company,
which was regrouping beside the main gate of the fortress. Manju went to house
after house, inducing the women to wake their children up. Formations of people
in white were heading to the lake. Pressing but silent. As if they were joining
in the funeral of someone else. The pyres were alloted according to areas,
zones, quarters and districts. Neighbors would share a pyre, providing their
own oil for their own fires.
had been ordered to stand on the rampart to watch. It was her duty to signal
when it was time to lit the pyres.
There was no more than a ray of hope that the outcome of the battle might be
reversible. It would take no less than a miracle from Vishnu the Protector. But
there were no auspicious occurances in the last minutes. The king ordered the
suicidal counter-attack. He himself rode on a mighty horse on the first
formation. The general and his officers were also on the first formation. More
than thirty thousand soldiers. They were all clad in saffron robes.
from a cannon resounded. It was the signal for the army. The enormous gates
were opened with unprecedented swiftness. Their hinges had been repaired and
oiled yesterday. The doors, each of which weighed tons, opened as if the walls
had been torn out.
of the suicide troops. Over thirty thousand cavalry men and their mounts
charged out from the fort.They fought a bloody face to face battle with Bahadur
Shah’s Islamic troops. High on the rampart, from the watch point, Manju saw the
soldiers in fiery-colored robes rushing out from the fort. Troops swiftly
spread out and surged over the enemy’s formation. A saffron river.
crashed. Shouts. Arrows hissed. Lances tore against the wind to thud into their
targets. Sliced and shredded. Until the saffron river could no longer be seen.
Until it was broken into pieces and scattered by the overwhelming numbers of
turn had come for the women waiting on the pyres. Now it truly was hopeless.
All their men were dead outside the walls. There was no one left to protect
them. From the watch point high above, Manju raised her arms. Are you ready?
Her neighbor raised her own arm to signal an answer. We’re ready. Manju dropped
her arm swiftly and resolutely. It was the signal to light the pyres.
women assigned to watch near the pyres immediately snatched up the oil barrels
already there. Running in a circle, they poured the oil onto the wood pyres.
All the oil, until now kept in storage, had been gathered: a kind of butter oil
purified from milk for use in the sacred rites.
had been placed in the barrels before the pyres were lit. Manju could see her
neighbor covering the eyes and noses of her two children who were standing
nearby, with her hands. Some children
were crying and coughing desperately, suffocating from the smoke. The women
immediately covered the children’s mouths and held them hard, not permitting
them to break formation. There must be in order, even on the pyre. The women
themselves closed their eyes and murmured their prayers, or perhaps chanted mantras. The murmur rose and spread out.
After a while it resounded all over the lake, .all over the fortress.
left the watch towers and ran downstairs. Glancing around, she saw that groups
of enemy soldiers had begun to ride into the fort. She ducked down at the base
of a rampart as a cavalry unit galloped by towards the pyres. Manju gathered up
her saree, freeing her feet to run. She
ran and stumbled and fell. She had to die on the pyre. The fire would destroy
and remove all the filth and shame of the earthly world. The fire would purify
a human being. She kept running. Stumbled again. Fell again. Then she sprang up
and continued to run.
cavalry man closed in on her. Just five steps more and she would reach the
pyre. The horseman bent down and managed to grab a flap of the saree at her
shoulder. Manju kept running. The six-meter saree gradually spun out as she
ran, spinning her like a top. The invaders had found this an effective way to
cpature women. They just had to snatch an edge of the saree and pull. The saree
would spin until all six meters of material were stripped off and the woman
would find herself almost naked. As a natural reaction, she would try to run
back. And that meant she would give herself up to the enemy.
didn’t surrender herself. Her whole body was spinning. Slick as a humming top.
Completely focused on the pyre. Her saree was swiftly snatched away from her
body. A natural ivory statue winged up from the saree. A pink shadow flew onto
the scorching pyre.
nick of time, the horse neighed in terror and reared up, its two front legs
kicking the air, the horse repelled by the wall of fire.
In 1535 Bahadur Shah
from Gujarat came to encircle the Chittorgarh fort until it fell. It was the
most tremendous tragedy in the fort’s history. 32,000 Rajput knights opened the
fort’s gate to charge out and fight unto death. Meanwhile, 13,000 women and
children chose to die by collective suicide on pyres.
the fort, a general of King Bahadur forced his horse to gallop over the Rajput soldiers
lying in pools of blood all over the battle field. Because of the desert
climate, it was scorchingly hot, even this early in the morning. The blood
began to stink as soon as it left the corpses. Flocks of enormous vultures
darkened the sky and began to land. Flocks of crows flew sluggishly above them,
waiting their turn. The general spotted Ravi. A lance had piereced him through,
chest to back. He had fallen from his horse in a sitting posture, as if he were
bending forward and embracing the lance. How strange, the general thought, the
lance had entered him at one point but it had torn his robe at another.
Translated by Ho Anh Thai and Wayne
Ho Anh Thai was born in
Hanoi into a family of journalists and writers. He graduated from the Hanoi
College of Diplomacy, and then earned a Ph.D in Oriental culture. Ho Anh Thai
works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he is the elected Chairman of the
Hanoi Writers' Association. A novelist and short story writer best known for
his novels Behind the Red Mist (Curbstone Press, USA), The Women on
the Island (University of Washington Press, USA) and his short story
collections Fragment of a Man, and The Goat Meat
Special, Ho Anh Thai has published 30 novels and story collections. As an
Indologist in the last twenty years, including six years in India, he has
written some books about India such as the novel The Buddha, Savitri and I
which became a best-seller in 2007-2008, A Sigh
through the Laburnums, published in his anthology Behind the Red Mist,
and Aventures en Inde (Editions Kailash, France) and Namaskar,
welcome to India!
Nhà văn Hồ Anh Thái hiện là chủ tịch Hội Nhà văn
Hà Nội, đồng thời làm việc tại Bộ Ngoại giao. Là tiểu thuyết gia được biết đến
nhiều với tiểu thuyết Trong sương hồng hiện ra, Người đàn bà trên đảo, Cõi
người rung chuông tận thế, Mười lẻ một đêm và các tập truyện Mảnh vỡ của
đàn ông, Món tái dê; ông đã xuất bản 30 tiểu thuyết và tập truyện ngắn. Nghiên
cứu Ấn Độ trong hai thập kỷ qua, trong đó có sáu năm trực tiếp sống tại Ấn Độ, tác
phẩm về Ấn Độ của Hồ Anh Thái gồm có tiểu thuyết Đức Phật, nàng Savitri và
tôi, tập truyện Tiếng thở dài qua rừng kim tước và cuốn sách Namaskar,
xin chào Ấn Độ!