- short story by Raj Sharna  

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The waters of the Euphrates were rising with the onset of spring. It was brief in this land which virtually had only two basic seasons: winter and summer. Each lasted about six months, and by the end of March, the snows had thawed in the far north and the cold winds blew no more.

The rains that came in the thick of winter were also practically over. They watered the crops and the season of harvesting was on in the southern valleys. Gudea, whose farms lay alongside the river, often stayed at his country cottage in spring to supervise the work till all the barley was safely cut and stored in the barns. Sesamum, vegetables and date palms that grew there on the land had to be looked after too. Kishar was also there along with her mother, Nammu. Gudea had worked hard for a fortnight to see that everything was over before Akiti, the big new year harvest festival began. He was a tough taskmaster and had driven his thirty slaves hard to finish the job on time.

“Ah, I tried and tried, but not everything is in our hands,” he said, his voice thick with regret.

“Don’t worry,” Nammu said. “Anni will look after everything.” He was a nephew, whom they’d brought up after the sudden death of his parents during the course of a flood ten years back.

The floods often swept away hundreds of people, though they kept repairing the embankments. But after all, these were only makeshift walls of reed and clay. And when the waters surged high, they breached the frail man-made barriers easily.

No one was more saddened by such recurrent devastation than their emperor, Hammurabi.

And none had fought harder to make his people safer than the big-hearted ruler. He’d made it his mission to create a network of canals to absorb the excess water of the floods. Stronger embankments had been built and the people were grateful. The harvests had been more abundant since then. The fury of the moody Euphrates had also abated appreciably.

Now only five days remained for the big event and the family will have to leave by next day. Kishar wandered happily through the fields even as the slaves worked hard to harvest the rich crop.

Nearly a fifth of it stood in the fields still and windsong rose to an octave as it blew through the upstanding crop. The coarse blue, red and yellow tunics of male and female slaves dappled the fields. There were olive green date palms in the orchard beyond and the brown waters of the river sparkled in the bright sun.

She loved these rare outings away from the city where the family stayed. It was big, but also crowded and dirty at the best of times. Village folks came from far and wide to gape at its grandiose temples and palaces.

They came specially for the twelve day festival, bringing their daughters along with. There was nothing in the world like Babylon during the spring festival, they proudly said.

But she who had grown up in it, wasn’t impressed. How could she when she saw garbage piled at every street corner? It stank when the rains came and the gutters overflowed with filth and the brick- paved streets became almost impassable. The countryside seemed cleaner. True it was muddy there, but not filthy. Gudea was not entirely happy when they left the farm next morning. Left to himself, he would’ve stayed on, ignoring the festival. But Nammu was worried.

The middle-aged couple had discussed it all in the quiet of the night before going to bed. “Why don’t you see that she is a kid no more? Our daughter is fifteen. Mind you, fifteen! It’s time we found a groom for her.”

“Oh, that’s not such an age as to make us fret ourselves to death,” he casually said.

“Fie, you men!” she said contemptuously. “You’re all so out of touch with things. You can’t even see that she’s almost a woman by now.”

“ A woman?” he said, looking surprised. “She’s just a chit of a girl, who runs around the fields like a little gazelle, with not a care in the world!”

“You know little about her then. Of late, she has often been visiting her girl friends and all they talk about is the festival. Yes, of how they’d go to the temple and what sort of young men they’d find there then.”

“Shall we really take her there? I thought we could delay it for a year or two.”

“No!” she exclaimed emphatically. “We can’t delay it any more. She’ll go, like her friends.”

“But they’re mostly older than her, if I know correctly,” he said timidly. He didn’t venture an opinion on women whom he knew little about. Specially not before Nammu, who became aggressive when talking of her daughter.

“Some are older, but some are not,” she said. She must go and learn to behave like a woman. I’ve seen much younger girls getting engaged for marriage. I can’t sleep at night thinking of her.”

“Alright, as you wish,” he said pacifying. “We shall leave tomorrow morning.”

They’d covered the ten miles to the city from the village in a day by their bullock cart and were back in the city by evening.

Nammu started making preparations for the big festival in earnest. Kishar helped. Their house lay in a narrow lane a mile away from the great temple. Babylon had been a much smaller city once. But Hammurabi had built an empire through his conquests and money had flowed in. It was being used to broaden the city streets and build temples. But that was going to take time and much of the city was still a maze of winding streets and lanes, with houses huddled close to each other.

The dwellings of the middle class neighborhood where they lived, were made of sun-dried brick. Bitumen, plentiful in this area, was used as mortar to hold the brick walls which had the thickness of half a kanu at least. This gave them strength and also kept off the heat. The wealthier folk did not hesitate to make them twice as thick.

The living rooms were usually built around a courtyard, the size of which varied. The wealthier folk built large courtyards about eight kanu long and quite as wide, the less affluent like Gudea were content with half that size. His house had four bed rooms; there was also a small kitchen and a toilet. The courtyard was open to the skies to let in air and light; it also served as a vent for the smoke from the hearth that lay in the courtyard. The inside kitchen was used in the wet season.

The two women spent the day cooking special dishes for the festival. A part of these were reserved for the temple where they were offered. Later, friends and relatives came to visit each other and they were offered these special dishes.

The crops this year had been good and Nammu had decided to make fruit cakes. For this she took a cup of butter, one third cup white cheese, three cups of finely grated dates and one third cup raisins. All these were blended with fine flour. Desserts from apples and pears were also made by them.

They looked happy when in two days the cooking was done. The meat dishes, made from mutton and pork, as also from fish, would be cooked only when the festival proper began.

Kishar had to have at least half a dozen dresses to wear for the twelve day festival and they were hectic days as they shopped for linen and handed the material to a tailor. Most important was the dress Kishar would wear at the temple of the goddess Ishtar. She was the goddess of fertility and every virgin sought Her favor to find a good match.

The festival began at last with much fanfare in the third week of March. The whole city wore a festive look. The streets were cleaned up, flowers festooned the major streets and the great temple of Marduk was lit up with hundreds of earthen lamps at night. Crowds assembled outside the temple while chanting went on inside to seek the favor of the gods.

Kings and emperors wanted to be remembered, above all, for building new and grandiose temples, and Hammurabi was no exception. The temple he’d built spread over four buru and ran to a length of nearly sixty kanu. The natives proudly claimed that it was the biggest temple in the world. Folks certainly came from far and wide to see it and seek the blessings of the deity dwelling in its precincts.

The foundation of Babylonian economy was farming and Marduk was the farmers’ god. His symbol was marru, a spade. The world was a battleground between forces of good and evil, and it was Marduk who symbolized the power of the good and sustained the moral order in the universe. Naturally, the assembled devotees sought his blessings to carry on the relentless struggle against evil.

For the first four days, chanting of hymns by priests to invoke the favor of the god would go on. Then the king would leave for Borsippa, amidst festivities, to fetch the image of god Nabu. He was brought each year at this New Year festival to pay His respects to His divine father, Marduk, and was the patron deity of learning and fine arts.

Gudea and the others in thousands watched as the king, after bringing the image by boat, kneeled in supplication before the gods. A hush fell, as divesting him of his royal insignia, the high priest slapped the king: a symbolic gesture indicating the dominance of church over state, of gods before men. Bending on his knees, the king humbly swore that he had not abused the authority entrusted to him; had not sinfully forsaken the interests of Babylon, its people and its god. The high priest slapped him again till tears flowed from his eyes, a sign of genuine contrition.

There were also tears in the eyes of Gudea and the assembled thousands watching, and a reassurance among them that their ruler will look after their interests earnestly, as he should.

Men and women all lined the streets on the eighth day when the image of Marduk was taken amidst much pomp to the temporary shrine of Nabu. Then all the gods, including local deities brought by country folk from their villages, were taken out in a spectacular procession through the streets of Babylon. Marduk led the procession, riding a golden chariot encrusted with precious stones. They passed through the Ishtar Gate and after crossing the river, the procession ended in the city park. Here the gods rested in a temple filled with sweet smelling plants and flowers.

Gudea had stayed there with thousands of other devotees, while festivities went on for three days. Finally, the procession headed back to Babylon and the sacred image of Nabu was carried back to its original temple at Borsippa.

No one was allowed inside when the last major ritual was performed. But Gudea and the others knew what it was. In a miming of the love affair of the passionate Ishtar with the divine shepherd Dumuzi, the king made love to the priestess of the temple dedicated to the goddess. The ritual was supposed to help in renewing the fertility of the land.

The symbolism was carried further. Nubile virgins were expected to assemble at the temple of Ishtar. Kishar had naturally gone there with her friend Tashmit, accompanied by her mother in the modest family cart. Girls from richer families came in gaily decked carts, along with female attendants. Wearing wreaths of flowers in their hair, they would sit down inside the temple in separate rows marked by ropes. Kishar was nervous as she sat, hoping for a young man to arrive. They all waited there, nearly a thousand girls. She knew she was young and buxom, but plain looking. The best looking girls were the first to be picked and taken away by their lovers to the specially built rooms inside the temple.

A girl sat just a little way off from her. She was tall and pretty and obviously from a rich family. A young man came and threw a piece of silver in her lap. She promptly got up and followed the lover into the temple. She saw a dozen others going similarly in. She knew what happened there. To please the goddess of fertility, they made love there and then went their separate ways, never to meet again.

She waited and waited like her friend Tashmit, but no one glanced at them. To keep their spirits up, they kept smiling and chatting, but could not feel glancing with envy upon their more fortunate rivals who received prompt attention from young men and were taken within.

But when will they get their chance to go in? Kishar. The word meant the earth, and she had already bloomed into the fullness of womanhood at fifteen. She had broad hips, capable of bearing many children. She had a charming smile and she wore a lovely linen tunic of sea green.

Yet she was not tall and her snub nose and biggish mouth did not make her attractive at first glance. Perhaps that was why she remained ignored.

She had not attended a school either. Only boys went there. Or else girls from high families who were to become priestesses at the temple of Ishtar.

Yet she, like other girls from middle class families, knew many tales from their great past. They’d learnt them as they grew up. The girls had learnt all about their gods and goddesses too. She knew all about Marduk, the presiding deity of the city.

She also knew about Lama, the female deity who offered her worshippers protection and about Lisin, another mother-goddess worshipped from old times. Then there was Damkina, wife of the water god Enki, and mother of Marduk.

But the most popular of the goddesses was Ishtar, to whom there were temples in every city. She was the goddess specially of the young. With her countless lovers and insatiable appetite for sex, she represented the powerful sexual urges that filled the hearts of boys and girls as they started growing up. Yet sex was important only because it ensured the continuity of the race through marriage. And such sacred rituals at the temple also ensured the fertility of the land. Abundant harvests followed, naturally.

Stories of sexual adventures in the epics were also symbolic. She knew the story of the great epic hero Gilgamesh and his adventures through the land. He was a great lover too who had had many women in his prime.

And it was a woman who had taught the ways of humans to the jungle-bred Enkidu. He’d been brought up among animals, but was strong and fearless like Gilgamesh himself.

The woman was not bashful, but had bared herself to Enkidu and invited him to her bed. For six days and seven nights they’d made ardent love till he was satiated. Then she’d let him go.

Kishar had also many a time witnessed the coupling of animals on the farm. And she knew how harlots roamed the streets of Babylon in the evening, seeking clients. Sex was no mystery to her then. Girls like her knew all about it and accepted it as a matter of course, though parents jealously guarded their virginity.

Girls were decidedly not allowed to go out with boys. Mostly, the girls and boys did not even know each other at the time of marriage for it was a serious business to be settled by the elders of the two parties. Boys and girls had no say in the matter. As for this act of giving oneself to a stranger, it was sanctioned by centuries of custom. The community promoted it because it was only through such a ritual that the goddess Ishtar could be propitiated.

Everything followed once She got pleased. The cows calved, the earth yielded bumper crops and no one starved. The coupling of virgins with young men in the precincts of the temple was also an act of prayer. That was why so many virgins of Babylon came to the temple. The goddess was supposed to bless them personally, if they came. They would find good matches and bear many children if they took part in the ritual.

Yet no young man had approached her still and that bothered her. Was she so ugly? So undesirable? She kept sitting on the second day. To while away the time she chatted with Tashmit. She was also plain and dark like her, though a little taller. They were wearing new dresses to day. She wore a pale cream dress that reflected light and made her look a bit fairer. Tashmit wore a light pink gown. They wore golden necklaces too and had applied perfumes and make-up to look more attractive. After all this preparation, they still hoped they would find suitors. But the morning had passed away without any visitors. Quite a few other girls had been picked up during those hours by young men. There was Abba who lived some lanes away in the same neighborhood. She was two years older and was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. She too was average looking but wore a fancy gown and much gold. A young suitor had taken her away. It was late afternoon now and half the girls still waited for boys. Luckily, it was not hot, for a huge purple cloud covered half the sky and a breeze sprang up from the river, cooling the temple courtyard. There were many jacaranda trees around and they blossomed in spring. She felt revived looking at them, in spite of the tedium of waiting.

She felt happier still as a cuckoo broke into song. She’d always loved birds and butterflies. She’d often watched cranes and egrets as they flocked to a pond near her father’s village farm. Birds of bright plumage like parrots and lovebirds would come there too.

She closed her eyes to enjoy the song better. The bird broke out in little bursts of melody, stopping momentarily, then starting again.

Suddenly she felt something dropping into her dress. Startled, she opened her eyes.

A young man stood before her. He was of medium height but strong in build. He wore his hair long as youngsters often did, and had on a pleated kilt of fine linen, which suggested his good birth. “May Goddess Ishtar bless you!” he said, as was the custom, after throwing the silver piece into her lap and smiling.

She got up nervously and with head bowed, followed him in. She had imagined this scene many a time and had rehearsed how she would go with a proud, confident gait. But she had been unable to look up at him or speak a word.

He’d sensed how she felt and taking her hand in his, he patted it lightly as if to reassure her that all would be well. She kept her head bowed still and prayed to the goddess fervently.

The sun was setting as she stepped out of the temple. The west was a blaze of color behind the casuarinas and date palms. A medley of sound burst from the trees as hovering pigeons, parrots and crows sought their nests. The long day was done and it was time for resting.

She too felt as if she had been far, far away. Her feelings were all a jumble: too many things had happened in the two hours that she’d spent with her male companion. She would think about them for a long time.

Maybe she would tell some of it to her mother. She ran to Nammu who waited anxiously outside and held her, tears in her eyes. The older woman understood. She too had passed through the ordeal once. It had been going on thus from generation to generation. A hush fell with the dusk as the two girls got into the family cart. Other folks were all leaving the temple too and only the priests and priestesses remained inside, reciting the evening prayers in honor of the goddess.

Big torches lighted the way for the devotees and the young men and women who were coming out. Stars glimmered high up but folks carried torches as they moved through the dark city streets.

The trusted slave, Sabium, drove the oxen through the crowded streets, bringing the girls home.

Kishar sat still, her eyes closed, perhaps she was seeking to come to terms with all that had happened. She’d come through it quite well, she thought.

A good lover, he had led her on. Dropping her modesty, she too had joined eagerly in the game. She’d boldly taken as much as she gave. Had she stepped overnight into womanhood? She won’t certainly be afraid of men any more, she thought.

And she hoped to bear sons and daughters when the time came. Yes she would be a good wife and mother. The future beckoned and she was ready. The stars were burning brighter by the time she got back home with her mother.

Raj Sharma is a retired professor of English and taught 39 years at universities in India, Iraq, and the U.S. Publications include a story collection (IN MY ARMS AND OTHER STORIES, Calcutta,2000). A novel will be out by November 2005 and a second collection of short stories early in 2006. Publications include 10 other stories in leading Indian magazines and over 100 articles.

Contact Dr. Sharma at ramrajkishore@yahoo.co.in .

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