Stories of Jivavarta: The Priest of Vanpore
By Shon Mehta
Viprasta did a lot of things he didn’t want to. He wanted to sleep till noon, but instead he got up before dawn. He wanted to take a hot water bath, but instead he took a plunge into the lake’s freezing water. He then stood in the water, chanting the hymns he knew by heart, and hated, since his childhood.
He got out of the water, and walked towards his house. It was still dark outside, and there was a lamp burning in his house. His ceta, a slave boy of ten, was up and had plucked fresh flowers for the god of gods, Sarvabhu.
Viprasta examined the flowers. A few of the flowers were wilted. He called his ceta, and scolded him.
“You are becoming lazy.” Viprasta said, by way of a warning. “You need a flogging.”
The boy cowered in a fear. He knew that his owner is a man of his words, and will do as he says.
Viprasta wore his best maroon Tapasi robe, the one he wore every year on the day of “Dhi”. Dhi was a yearly festival in Vanpore. Viprasta wanted to look his best. The robe smelled partly of a damp old wooden box, and partly of a fragrant pandanus flower.
Viprasta walked towards the temple. His head was still spinning due to his plunge into the cold water that morning. A street dog came running to him, wagging its tail, in the hope that Viprasta will give it something to eat. But Viprasta picked up a large pebble, and hit the dog hard. The dog yelped in pain, and ran as far away as it could.
Once he reached the temple, Viprasta started decorating Sarvabhu’s statue. The statue depicted Sarvabhu as a child. Although the temple where he was a priest was one of the smallest in Vanpore, it was popular on Dhi because everybody worshipped the child form of Sarvabhu on the day. Viprasta hoped he will be given a better temple next year, but for that he will need to serve the visiting nobles well.
He decorated the statue with ornaments and silk clothing, brought all the way from Sonira, and then sprinkled some fragrant water around it. After the decorations were complete, Viprasta opened the temple door to the devotees, and waited for the nobles to arrive.
The nobles of Vanpore arrived in their finest festive dresses, accompanied by their wives, sons, and daughters. They prayed to the god, and took blessing from the priest. They all bowed in front of Viprasta with all their devotion. While blessing one such family, Viprasta’s hand lingered on the back of the noble’s nubile young daughter. Viprasta felt a shiver of excitement, and guilt, in his spine. He hoped nobody noticed.
Nobody noticed. For them, Viprasta was not capable of such vice. He was not an ordinary human, he was the priest to the god of gods, Sarvabhu.
Another noble pulled out a silver karshika from his pouch, and dropped it into the donation box. Unknown to him, a second karshika fell out of the pouch. Viprasta noticed the coin, but he didn’t tell anyone. When the noble left, Viprasta quietly picked it up, and put it in a small pocket inside his priestly robe.
The whole day went by. Families of the nobles kept visiting, one after another. In the afternoon, he accepted some food brought by a devotee as an offering to Sarvabhu, and distributed it among the poor. Although Viprasta was hungry, and feeling weak, he couldn’t eat. Tapasi rules said that on the day of Dhi, the priest should fast from dawn till midnight.
After dusk, as the moon came up, Viprasta performed the evening prayers, and then closed the temple door. He removed the ornaments and clothes from Sarvabhu’s statue, and kept them carefully in a locked chest, to be taken out for the next Dhi festival.
By the time he had finished the work and left the temple, it was late. The people were fast asleep, and guards were patrolling the streets. The dog from the morning looked at Viprasta from a distance, and growled at him, as if resenting Viprasta’s very existence.
Viprasta reached his house. As compared to the temple, with its dazzling lights, the house looked rather gloomy. Viprasta realized how tired he was. Although he hadn’t eaten anything that day, he had lost his desire to eat.
His ceta had dozed off while sitting in the corner, waiting for his master to come home. He was trembling in the cold. Viprasta felt pity for the young boy — he looked so innocent.
That innocence reminded Viprasta of the Dhataki girl he was once in love with. Viprasta loved her so much, and wanted to spend his life with her. He didn’t care that she was a lowborn Dhataki, while he was a highborn Grahvar.
Viprasta’s father was a devout man. When he learned about the romance, he had the Dhataki girl killed. Then, he took Viprasta to the grand Tapasi temple for his punishment.
“It is sin to love a Dhataki.” declared the old chief priest, in disgust. “Your repentance is that you will remain unmarried for life, and serve as a priest.”
Viprasta’s father felt guilty that his son will now have to spend his whole life as a priest. But once the chief priest tells you to renounce the society, you have no way out.
Viprasta was sent to Vanpore to become a priest. Since then, he had no family, and no friends. His father relieved himself of the guilt by gifting him the young ceta as a help.
The old memories angered Viprasta. He felt angry at the girl he loved for being a lowborn. He felt angry at his father for pushing him to the life of priesthood. He felt angry at the smiling faces of the nobles, their families, and their perfect lives. He felt angry at the girl in the temple for tempting him. He felt angry at his ceta, who was sleeping while his master worked the whole day. He felt suffocated and helpless in the life he had never wanted.
The helplessness turned into bitterness, and an uncontrollable rage came over him. Viprasta grabbed a stick, and started beating the ceta. The young boy woke up in pain and shock, tried to save himself from the beating, and pleaded for forgiveness for a mistake he had no idea about. Viprasta beat the ceta until he was unconscious.
Viprasta then dropped the stick, and walked towards Sarvabhu’s statue in the corner. He kneeled in front of the statue, lit the incense, and chanted a few hymns. He prayed in the hope that god will forgive his sins.
Image credit:Drawn One / Paul Klee
Jivavarta is the fictional world where the novel “The Timingila” by Shon Mehta is set.