June, 28th, 1999
Akhilesh Mithal

The Legend of Shesha Naga

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The belief was that the earth rests on one of the myriad heads of the great snake, Vasuki, or Shesha Naaga.


iron-pillar.jpg (89623 bytes)


The Iron Pillar was conceived, cast and embellished as a kind of nail or fastener to pin the earth onto the head of the snake.



Those who think and imagine that the reading of history is all joy and entertainment should think again. If the student is sentimental and believes in arcane ideas and ideals such as “the greatest good of the greatest number” and is disturbed by the occasional twinge of patriotic feeling like pride in the heritage, there is much more sorrow than joy in reading history.

It is like a few moonlit nights followed by tens of dark ones. An example from the history of Punjab is that of the short-limbed Sikh kingdom. Out of the shambles of the Mughal Empire, a Ranjit Singh built a kingdom literally brick by bloody brick.

He is succeeded by an imbecile son and everything starts coming apart. It is because of inept rulers succeeding great ones that Indian history moves from cohesion to disintegration and not on account of any mysterious forces at work from underneath the earth.

Let us see the myth of the hidden forces beneath the earth. Readers, especially those from Dillee will recollect having seen the Iron Pillar at the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in the Qutb complex of monuments.

The legend is that a Rajput ruler manufactured it with all the incantations, rituals and rites necessary to perpetuate the rule of his dynasty. The belief was that the earth rests on one of the myriad heads of the great snake, Vasuki, or Shesha Naaga.

When the load-bearing head wearies of the strain, he tosses the earth up and it shudders and shakes and twirls and thrills until it lands on a fresh head. This makes the Naaga comfortable but causes cataclysms, earthquakes, typhoons and cyclones on the earth. Thrones get shaken up and rulers come tumbling down. Others straighten the thrones and occupy them.

Our Rajput ruler of Dillee wanted to perpetuate his dynasty. The wise ones and the seers were consulted. They thought that the basic cause of change had to be addressed. If Vasuki or the Shesha Naaga could be prevented from the head change exercise there would be eternal rule by the dynasty.

The Iron Pillar was conceived, cast and embellished as a kind of nail or fastener to pin the earth onto the head of the snake. It was inserted with all the ceremony and ritual and when it took its place in the earth there was a tremor. The Pandits said “Ahha! The point is now buried in the scalp of the Great Snake, our effort has been successful!”

They collected their rewards, presents and bounty and went home. The dynasty comfortably went through many generations taking the trials and tribulations of rulership in its stride and it began to appear that they would reign and rule for ever and ever. Then fate took a hand.

A doubter came to the throne. He thought the story of the earth resting on the head, one of a myriad, of the great snake Vasuki or Shesha Naaga so much baloney. He said he would disinter the iron column. If it came out with that buried end bloody it would prove it had indeed lodged in a living creature.

If not the tribe of priests and soothsayers would be exposed as charlatans interested only in what they could swindle out of the rulers by their confidence tricks. The news of the king’s intentions spread throughout the empire.

It was greeted with joy by those who wanted the dynasty out. Others who wanted things to remain as they were asked the king to resist from courting disaster. The remonstrations and requests asking the king to desist from his plan to extract the Iron Pillar made him all the more obstinate. He was quite rude and abrupt with all those who opposed his plan.

“Those the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad. In the time of disaster the mind goes awry.” On the day designated, the gangs of labourers skilled in moving building material tied the ropes around the pillar and loosened the earth around its base by digging deep into the earth.

Then a great heave and the pillar started moving. At this juncture there was a great movement of the ground under the feet. The first great jerk was followed by a number of quakes diminishing in intensity.

Some of those present were to swear to their grandchildren that they saw smoke arising to envelop the pillar and smelt something very acrid at that time. The king was intent on examining the end of the buried pillar and all this had no effect on him.

When the loosened pillar finally became horizontal upon the earth on which it had stood vertical for all this time the king hurried to the newly exposed portion. The pointed end was covered with gore and the smoke coming out at it was evidence that the point had freshly emerged from a live body. The King was now struck dumb with the horror of consequences.

The enormity of his stupidity assailed him. He went round with folded hands rubbing his forehead at every pandit’s feet asking for help to undo what had happened.Some Chandraswamis were around even in those days and they took large sums of money to stick the pin back into the earth.

Although they claimed that the point had penetrated the new load-bearing head of Vasuki/Shesha Naaga, there was no way of ascertaining the veracity of their statement. The Turko-Pathan invasions of the erstwhile slave Subuk started at about this time.

The invader became Amir Subuktagin and his son assumed the canopy (Chhattar) of royalty under the title Sultan Mahmoud, and the Rajput dynasty who were to reign as long as the Sun and the Moon are in the firmament disappeared from the annals of Indian history after 1000 AD.

The Sultanate of Dillee achieved its greatest spread in area in the reign of the Khilji Sultan Alauddin. This illiterate ruler collected what must have been the richest treasure of any man in the history of the world.

He won the Deogir fort with an accumulated treasure of 25 generations of Yadava Kings. In Warangal, he dismantled a temple which was pure gold right down to its foundations buried in the earth. He struck two billion gold coins. One tola gold mohurs.

Eighty of these make a kilo approximately and readers can work out how many tonnes this treasure represents.All this came in handy for protecting the country from Mongol invaders. The rest of Asia and in particular the then “Islamic” countries like Iran, Iraq, Transoxiana were overrun by the heathen Mongols.

In 1258, Baghdad was looted, burnt and sacked by Hulaku. The Khalifat-ul-Momineen (Caliph) was killed. Everyone who could, fled to India. Dillee became the greatest city in the world of Islam. It was called Qubbat-ul-Islam or the Dome of Islam.The safety and security of the State depended upon the large army raised and maintained by Alauddin.

He also controlled the prices in a manner which was to become an exemplar for future generations. A copper coin was of such great buying power that it could maintain a horse and its rider for a whole week! Alauddin maintained very good relations with his praja or subjects.

When a Qazi questioned him on various aspects of his rule and complained that the Hindus are recalcitrant and uppish and not servile and supplicatory to all Muslims as would be the ideal of a good and well run Islamic kingdom, Alauddin sent him packing.

Success in realpolitik requires consensus so that everyone co-operates in fighting the enemy from without. Unfortunately, Alauddins’ successors, except for Ghiyasuddin Tughluq (Ghazi Malik) and his son Fakhruddin Muhammad Jauna Shah, better known as Muhammad bin Tughluq, frittered away the empire.

Alauddin’s example was followed by Ghiyasuddin Tughluq and even more notably by his son Fakhruddin Muhammad Jauna (bin Tughluq). Firoz Shah’s reign saw disintegration set in and when he died (1381) no one could hold the polity together. In 20 years, the bulwarks raised against foreign invasion collapsed and in 1398 Amir Teymour conquered Dillee and had the Khutba read in his name at the then Ja’ama Masjid.

Communalists should remember that the Muslims of Dillee who wished to escape the massacre of the inhabitants of the city by Teymour’s soldiers by taking sanctuary in the Ja’ama Masjid were all slaughtered down to the last man, woman or child. The last great ruler of 20th century India was the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The successors both in and outside his family did not have the qualities of heart and mind to become great. Now we appear to have come down to the dregs of the parliamentary system and unless there is a cleansing from within, outside forces will be tempted to interfere. We shall in another column tell the story of what happened 600 years ago in 1398 AD.

Readers will see that reading history also means bemoaning the fate of the generations cut off in the flower of their youth because they happen to be born when the rulers were inept and contemptible. Also living in the fear of history repeating itself. But, like Urdu, beloved history is fascinating all the same.

Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1998. All rights reserved.
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