Kurush, Gopal and Shiva approached the platform at the lowest point of the valley. The platform was at its tallest here, nearly twenty metres high. A massive ceremonial gate had been erected at what was obviously the only entry point into the city. The road was surrounded by high walls on both sides, and narrowed down as it led to the well barricaded gate. Looking admiringly around, the warrior in Shiva understood that the approach to the city gates perforce funnelled an attacking force into a narrow neck, thus making defence easy for the Parihans.
The massive ornate city gates had been hewn out of the local brown stone that Shiva had frequently seen en route. The gate itself was flanked on either side by large pillars, on which crouched two imposing creatures, as if ready to pounce in defence of their city. This unfamiliar creature carried the head of a man on the body of a lion and sprouted the broad wings of an eagle. Parihan pride was unmistakable in the features of the face: a sharp forehead held high, a hooked nose, neatly beaded beard, a drooping moustache and lengthy locks emerging from under a square hat. The aggressive, warrior-like visage was tempered somewhat by calm, almost friendly eyes.
Shiva noted that Kurush’s conversation with the gatekeeper was done. He walked back and spoke respectfully to Gopal. ‘My Lord, the formalities have been completed. Please accept my apologies that it took us so long to get here. Shall we?’
‘There’s no need for an apology, Kurush,’ said Gopal politely. ‘Let’s go.’
Shiva quietly followed Kurush and Gopal, keenly aware of the gatekeeper’s quizzical, perhaps even judgemental eyes.
They crossed a massive tiled courtyard, guiding their horses onto the cobbled pathway leading to the top of the platform. The gradient was gentle, making it easy to negotiate the single hair-pin bend they encountered. A few pedestrians sauntered along the accompanying steps, provided with long treads to facilitate the climb. All along the pathway, the rock face of the platform had been carved and painted. Against the relief of glazed tiles, sculpted Parihans gazed at passers-by with their distinguished features, long coats and square hats. As if from nowhere, water rippled down the centre of the rock face, leaving a lilting musical sound in its wake. Shiva made a mental note to ask Gopal the secret of this water source in the harsh desert.
Shiva’s questions were quickly forgotten as he reached the top and exclaimed with wonder at the sheer beauty of all that he beheld.
‘By the Holy Lake!’
He had just had his first vision of the exquisite, symmetrical gardens of Pariha. These artificial heavenly creations were so extraordinary that Parihans had named them Paradaeza, the walled place of harmony.
The Paradaeza extended along the central axis of the rectangular city, with buildings built around it. The park and the city extended all the way to the edge of a great mountain at the upper end of the valley, which had been named the Mountain of Mercy by the Asuras. A water channel emerged from the heart of the mountain, flowing through the garden in an unerringly straight line, filling up large square ponds intermittently. The ponds themselves had flamboyant fountains constructed in the centre, spewing water high into the air. The left and right halves of the gardens, divided by the water channel, were perfect mirror images of each other. The entire expanse was covered with a carpet of thick and carefully manicured grass, which provided the base around which flower beds and trees were arranged in perfect harmony. The flora had obviously been imported from around the world; roses, narcissus, tulips, lilacs, jasmine, orange and lemon trees dotted the landscape in poetic profusion.
Shiva was so lost in the beauty of the garden that he didn’t hear his friend call.
‘Lord Neelkanth?’ repeated Gopal.
Shiva turned to the Chief Vasudev.
‘We can always come back here, my friend. But for now, we need to retire to our guesthouse.’
Shiva and Gopal had been housed in the state guesthouse, reserved for elite visitors to Pariha. Here too, the duo encountered the Parihan obsession with beauty and elegance.
Dismounting from their horses, Shiva and Gopal strode into the building. The entrance led to a wide, comfortable veranda lined with neat rows of perfectly circular columns providing support to a great stone ceiling. The columns were coloured a vivid pink all the way to the top, at which point, near the ceiling, it contained discreet etchings of animal figurines. Shiva squinted to get a better look.
‘Bulls,’ remarked Shiva.
Bulls and cows were sacred amongst the Indians, central to the spiritual experience of life.
‘Yes,’ confirmed Gopal. ‘Bulls are revered by the Parihans as well. They’re symbolic of strength and virility.’
As they reached the other end of the veranda, they encountered three elegantly dressed Parihans. The one in front held out a tray with warm, moistened and scented towels. Gopal immediately picked one up and went on to wipe the accumulated dust and grime from his face and hands. Shiva followed his example.
A Parihan woman walked up to Gopal, bowed low and spoke softly. ‘Welcome, honoured Chief Vasudev Gopal. We can scarce believe our good fortune in hosting the representative of the great Lord Ram.’
‘Thank you, My Lady,’ said Gopal. ‘But you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name and I do not know yours.’
‘My name is Bahmandokht.’
‘The daughter of Bahman?’ said Gopal, for he was familiar with their old language, Avesta.
Bahmandokht smiled. ‘That is one of the meanings, yes. But I prefer the other one.’
‘And, what is that?’
‘A maiden with a good mind.’
‘I’m sure you live by that name, My Lady.’
‘I try my best, Lord Gopal.’
Gopal smiled and folded his hands into a Namaste.
Unlike most Parihans who had studiously ignored Shiva all this time, Bahmandokht addressed the Neelkanth with a polite bow. ‘Welcome, Lord Shiva. I do hope we have given you no cause for complaint.’
‘None at all,’ said Shiva graciously.
‘I know you are here on a mission,’ said Bahmandokht. ‘I do not make so bold as to speak for my entire tribe, but I personally hope that you succeed. India and Pariha are intertwined by ancient bonds. If something needs to be done that is in the interest of your country, I believe it is our duty to help. It is the dictate that Lord Rudra laid down for us.’
Shiva acknowledged the courtesy and held his hands together in a Namaste. ‘That spirit is returned in full measure by my country, Lady Bahmandokht.’
Bahmandokht glanced at a woman standing at the back towards the end of the lobby. Shiva’s eyes followed her and rested on a tall woman, dressed in traditional Parihan garb. Despite the attire, it was obvious that she wasn’t native to Pariha. Bronze-complexioned with jet black hair, she had large attractive doe-eyes and a voluptuous body, unlike the slender locals. She was a gorgeous woman indeed.
‘Lord Shiva,’ said Bahmandokht, pulling the Neelkanth’s attention back. ‘My aide will show you to your chamber.’
‘Thank you,’ said Shiva.
As Gopal and Shiva were escorted away, the Neelkanth looked back. The mystery woman had disappeared.
Shiva and Gopal were led into a lavish suite of rooms with two separate bed chambers. The suite had been furnished with every luxury imaginable. Door-length windows at the far end opened on to a huge balcony with large recliners and a couple of cloth-covered pouffes that could double up as tables. The living room contained a mini fountain on the side, its cascading waters creating a soothing tinkle. Delicately woven wall-to-wall plush carpets covered every inch of the floor. Bolsters and cushions of various sizes were strewn on the carpets at several corners, making comfortable floor-seating areas. An ornately carved oak table was placed in one corner, accompanied with cushioned chairs on the side. Another corner was occupied by Parihan musical instruments, keeping in mind the role of leisure in hospitality. Lavish gold and silver plated accoutrements decorated the mantelpiece and shelves on the walls. This was ostentatious even by the standards of Swadweepan royalty.