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Manasa

by Sumanta Sanyal
Before getting on with this very interesting tale of religion and romance it is necessary to say a few words about Manasa, the Hindu goddess who plays a major role in it.

In most ancient Hindu religious texts Manasa is said to be the daughter of Kasyapa, a famous sage, and Kadru, the sister of the serpent-king Sesha. Unlike her uncle Manasa is still actively worshipped as a goddess who protects and saves humans from snake-bites. Her cult is most prevalent in Bengal where she is ceremoniously worshipped in temples. She is also attributed with the powers of curing infectious diseases like small-pox and of bringing wealth and prosperity. At the onset of the rainy season, when the snakes are most active, she is ritually invoked with sacrifices and offerings. She is probably a pre-Aryan goddess but this tale is of more recent vintage and comes from Bengal where she is most revered and tells how she gained recognition for herself as a potent member of the Hindu pantheon.

Not too long ago, in the fair and lovely land of Bengal, there lived a rich merchant named Chand. He was blessed with six sons but was, unfortunately a widower. Nevertheless he was always attentive to his sons' needs and they never felt the absence of a mother in their lives. They all lived in a beautiful mansion surrounded by colorful gardens nestling by the curvaceous banks of the Ganges. Chand was a devout worshipper of Shiva. He was so ardent in his devotions that he refused to acknowledge any other god or goddess. Manasa heard of this. At that time she had no devotees on earth and she became determined to force Chand to offer worship to her and become her first follower. Since Chand was well-known and widely respected she was sure that if she could get him to worship her other people would follow and she would soon have a large number of devotees. So Manasa approached Chand and ordered him to offer worship to her. Chand was not impressed with the goddess's demand. He ignored her and insulted her, calling her an ugly, black, one-eyed witch who ate frogs. He absolutely refused to give up worship of such a sweet lord as Shiva for a miserable creature like her.

Manasa was furious and, in retribution, dsestroyed Chand's beautiful gardens but Chand had been granted magical powers by Shiva and, with these, rebuilt his gardens instantly. So Manasa devised a new plan to ensnare Chand. She transformed herself into a beautiful maiden and appeared before Chand. Chand was a widower and was enchanted by the beauty of the maiden. He resolved to make her his bride and, without delay, approached her with his marriage proposal. The disguised Manasa was overjoyed with her success and very shrewdly told Chand that she would agree to become his wife if only he conceded his magical powers to her. Chand was so charmed by Manasa's outward appearance that he readily agreed and they were married with great pomp and glory. As soon as this was done, on their wedding night, when Chand approached his new bride, Manasa revealed her true self. She demanded, as before, that Chand forsake Shiva and take up worshipping her. Though greatly shocked Chand was adamant and absolutely refused to worship someone he thought of as the ugly snake woman. This angered Manasa even further and she destroyed Chand's gardens again. This time, as Chand had bequeathed his magical powers to Manasa, he could not rebuild them again. Yet he would not give in to the goddess's demand.

The infuriated goddess now resolved to torment Chand till he would agree to succumb to her wishes. First she had each of Chand's sons, one by one, to get bitten by poisonous snakes. They all died. When Chand still did not submit to her she had his cargo-laden ships capsized. He himself was cast away on a solitary island and he had to overcome a great number of hardships before he could get back home. Still he refused to become his devotee. He started his life all over again. Of all his near and dear ones there was no-one left. This caused him great sorrow but, with great perseverance and industry, Chand rebuild his fortunes and regained his former eminence in the community. He remarried and, soon, a son was born to him. With immense love and affection Chand named him Lakhinder.

The years passed gently and Lakhinder grew up to be a handsome young lad. Everyone loved him for his sweet nature. Chand began to look around for a suitable bride for him. Ultimately he chose Beulah, a lovely girl who he thought would make the perfect match for his son. The couple was betrothed and the wedding date was fixed. Manasa, who had not yet given up her resolve to subdue Chand, heard of this and approached him and again demanded that he give up worship of Shiva and become her follower. As usual Chand refused and Manasa grew furious at his insolence. She threatened him that if he did not do she wanted she would have his son Lakhinder bitten by a poisonous snake on his wedding night but Chand was not one to be easily intimidated. He began building a room made entirely of metal in which he resolved that Lakhinder would spend his wedding night with his bride Beulah.

No snake would ever be able to get into the thoroughly sealed metal cabin. Manasa heard of his plan and appeared before the architect who was to build the metal bridal chamber. She was terrible to look at and was known to be vengeful and bad-tempered. The architect was easily intimidated by her reputation and when she told him that she wanted him to leave a small hole in the door of the metal chamber he fearfully agreed. So Lakhinder's bridal chamber was built. From the outside it look invulnerable but the architect had, in mortal fear of Manasa, left a small hole at the bottom of the only door.

The wedding of Lakhinder and Beulah took place as scheduled with appropriate ceremony. Chand did not spare any effort or money to make the wedding of his only son and heir a memorable event in that part of the country. After the ceremonies and celebrations were over and it was night the bridegroom and bride were led into the metal chamber and Chand himself locked the door from outside. Night fell and the couple, thinking that they were safely ensconced in that impregnable room, observed their first rites of love. Soon after, Lakhinder fell asleep but Beulah lay awake for some time. She was nervous and alert despite the reported security of the room and her fears soon proved to be true. A snake came slithering into the room through the hole in the door. She offered it a dish of milk and it was so grateful for this favor that it left the room without harming her husband.

After this snake after snake slipped into the room through the small aperture the architect had left but Beulah offered each a dish of milk and each went away without harming Lakhinder. At last, however, Beulah could stay awake no more. She was too tired after the day's festivities. Soon after she fell asleep another snake slipped into the room and bit Lakhinder and went away. His cries of pain wakened the entire house but no-one could help. He died, as Manasa had threatened he would if Chand did not obey her command.

It was the custom in the Bengal of that time to set afloat on the river the bodies of persons who had died from snake-bites. Though the custom may seem strange there was logic in it. It was the general belief that a person who had died from snake-bite still had life within his or her body and it needed only an expert snake-charmer to bring such a person back to life.

Thus the dead body was not cremated. It was set afloat on the river in the hope that a snake-charmer may see it and help bring it back to life. So a raft was built and the grief-stricken father arranged for his son's last rites. When the body was ready to be placed on the raft and set afloat Beulah expressed the wish that she too would accompany her husband's dead body on its last voyage. She said that she had come to love him too much to be separated from him even by death. So she too was placed on the raft with Lakhinder's dead body and the raft was set afloat on the surging waters of the broad Ganges.

The raft, with Beulah and the dead body of Lakhinder, drifted down the river for many days and many miles till it reached the estuary where the river met with the sea. This place, The Sunderbans (Beautiful Forests), was a network of distributaries that spread like an intricate cobweb through dense mangrove forests. Very few people lived here as fresh water was scarce. Here, at a bathing place, Beulah saw a washerwoman washing clothes. Her little child was there on the bank and he was crying bitterly, probably demanding something or other. He kept crying till, at length, she became incensed with his tantrums gave him such a hard slap that he died on the spot. Beulah was amazed at this but said nothing. The raft had got struck in a maze of mangrove roots and Beulah could do nothing but sit and watch the woman perform her daily chore. When the woman had finished washing all the clothes she got onto the bank and spread them on the grass to dry. Then she went over to the dead body of her son and sprinkled some water on his face. Beulah was amazed to see that the boy got up and, smiling, took his mother's hand and they both started to walk away.

Beulah realized that the woman was no ordinary mortal and had magical powers and she saw an opportunity in this of reviving her dead husband and called after the washerwoman. She got out of the raft and went up to the woman and told her what had happened to her husband. She pleaded with her asking her to revive her husband as she had done her own child. Actually, the woman had been sent by Manasa to work her miracle with the child before Beulah so that she would be induced to seek her help. Manasa's plan worked and when Beulah asked the woman to help her she immediately led her to the goddess.

When Beulah reached Manasa's abode and asked for her blessing in bringing back her husband to life the goddess told her what she had done. She told Beulah that she was willing to bring Lakhinder back to life only on one condition. That was, that Beulah went back and converted Chand, her father-in-law, to her worship. Beulah readily agreed and, accordingly, Manasa revived Lakhinder. Beulah was overjoyed and, together, husband and wife asked for Manasa's blessings and set off for their home on the same raft that had been used for the terrible journey with Lakhinder's lifeless body.

When they reached home Beulah told her father-in-law about Manasa's condition and that the goddess had threatened to have Lakhinder bitten by a snake if Chand did not obey her. Faced by the pleading eyes of his beautiful daughter-in-law Chand's resolve broke at last. He agreed to offer worship to Manasa but he compromised and, during the rites of worship, used only his left hand to perform the ceremonies.

Nevertheless Manasa was pleased and she blessed Chand and his family with peace and prosperity. Her fame on earth was also established after this story spread and many devotees thronged to her altar. Manasa became a goddess to be feared and revered.


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