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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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