Re-imagining Mohini and the Elixir of Youth

mohini-painting

In our mythology, one of the most dearly held legends of all is the churning of the Ocean of Milk. The Gods and Demons came together for this task, and with Vasuki as the churning rope and Mount Meru as the churning rod, they turned over the ocean’s depths in the hunt for Amrit, the nectar of immortality.

Prior arrangement was that it will be shared equally between the two races, but once the pitcher of gold appears, all thoughts of fairness vanish, and the Demons rush out to get their hands first on it. While the Gods sink to the ground in despair that the nectar is forever gone, Vishnu appears in the form of Mohini the enchantress, and coaxes the Demons to give her the pitcher, assuring them that she will fairly distribute its contents to everyone. She asks the Gods and Demons to sit in two rows facing one another, and proceeds to give a bowlful to each God, turning back over her shoulder every now and then to quieten the growing murmurs among the Demons with a charming smile.

After all the Gods have had their fill, just as the Demons were getting ready for their share, Mohini disappears. Ever since then, the Gods and Demons are forever locked in battle for the elixir of youth.

This is the story as it is told traditionally by storytellers and artists. In writing Winds, however, I thought it would be interesting to make the nectar a physical natural resource, like a lake. The water of this lake will have healing and life-giving properties, but the source of its magic is unknown at the beginning of the story. (The main plot point of the first part of the book is the probing of this mystery by Devavrata and Ganga.)

The Crystal Lake is talked about in hushed whispers among the Meru people throughout the book. In the Prologue, we find out that Ganga is old and dying. She says:

In telling this tale I may come across parts of it that I do not recollect well, and perhaps this might make my listener draw away, but I cannot avoid it. I no longer drink of the Crystal Lake, and my mind bears the same wrinkles of age that my body does. Also I speak of events that have occurred over four generations of men, so it is perhaps only just that my hold wavers here and there, more so on details that are mundane.

And later, when contemplating the coming death of a friend:

Even with the water of the Crystal Lake, Prabhasa did not look like he would last the decade. The water of the lake gave men who drank of it a long and healthy middle age; but once physical signs of age appear to the naked eye, it did not take long for the limbs to turn sickly, for spots to appear, for disease to set in, for death to occur. Ganga felt a little stab at the thought; she had known this man well. It would be painful to say goodbye to him.

This premise – of looking at Amrit as a lake – threw up new possibilities on how the Mohini myth could be re-imagined. If we think of the theme of the tale to be the Gods deceitfully cheating the Demons out of their share of the nectar, could we not perhaps write a new story with the Crystal Lake at its center, over which the two races of men fight?

Starting with this thought, I made Mohini one of the Dark Ones. When Ganga goes up to the Crystal Lake to perform a rite, this is what she sees:

In front of the high grey gate, raised on a pedestal and surrounded on four sides by dancing water fountains, stood a white marble statue of a woman. She stood with her waist bent to one side, and her arms wrapped around an ornate jar. On her lips lingered a smile, coquettish, inviting, and at the same time shy. Her garment was replete with hangings and design, with beads of different shapes stitched onto the fabric on her chest, around her neck, and on the ends of her sleeves that covered her upper arms. It was a world removed from the plain garments that women of the Meru preferred; and people who chanced upon the statue for the first time would wonder – if they did not know the legend – about the identity of the girl with the pitcher, whom the engraving at her feet lovingly called Mohini. Under the name there was a smaller engraving. It said: ‘the brightest of the Dark Ones.’

The story, then, took shape on its own. The Crystal Lake belonged to the Dark Ones before the Celestials came up from the plains of North Country to the foothills of Meru. The invaders know that they cannot match the natives in open combat, so they resort to deceit. Vishnu draws Mohini into a web of love and coaxes her to give his men some of the water of the Crystal Lake. In return, he says, he will marry her and see to it that the two races of men will live in harmony and friendship.

And so over the next one month, just before the sun would disappear over the Western Hills, Mohini would come walking down the grassy slope, the jingle of her anklets filling the air, pitcher held against her waist, a smile on her lips. And the Celestials would line up in a single file with earthen vessels in their hands, each one kneeling in front of her in his turn as she measured and poured out portions of water for them to drink. She became known as the girl with the pitcher.

But the promise, of course, is not kept, and on the first opportunity, the Celestials claim the Crystal Lake as their own and pillage the dwellings of the Dark Ones. When Vishnu speaks to them and declares that the land no longer belongs to them, and gives them the choice to stay back and serve them as slaves, Mohini walks up to him and spits in his face before leaving with her people in the direction of North Country.

Vishnu makes a request of his own people, then. Before retreating into the woods, he asks

[…]for the statue of Mohini be erected – not in the image of the vengeful woman who spat in his face, but that of the smiling girl in anklets who walked down the slopes of the mountain every evening at sundown with a pitcher poised over the curve of her waist.

So the Mohini myth turned into a story of love, deceit, greed and invasion. None of this was my conscious doing, it seems now. The great delight in writing fiction is to start with interesting premises and run with them as long as you can keep up to see where you finish. Often the destination is not as beautiful or grand as the journey, but sometimes it is.

This was one of those times.

Like this post? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Comments

  1. Actually reading through the first part, I was thinking how much of this was true and how much was the might of your pen 🙂 For not a moment am i saying that the entire plot surrounding any of our epics is completely true or completely false – that;s a debate i have never managed to answer. But having been exposed to various versions as well as some television series there are questions that come to mind when you read a different version. in that context was what i was wondering if devavrata had actually been raised in meru, if he was tutored by the Wise Ones etc. Since not much is known of Devavrata’s younger days thinking about it. So am still trying to decipher from your book which parts of your books had sources and which have come out of your fertile mind…lol.

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    • Raghu: Most of the first part came out of my ‘fertile’ mind. There is no written record anywhere of Devavrata’s childhood. This is just one of the ‘gaps’ in the Mahabharata timeline. There are others, like Kunti’s childhood (outside of the Surya incident), Gandhari’s childhood and youth, Amba’s time in the forest before she consigns herself to flames, etc. These are all under-developed, sometimes passed-over stories. I intend to write about them instead of adding ‘just another’ narrative to the much-described game of dice and the wiles of Krishna. At least what I write will be original, and will add to the story – hopefully in a good way.

      What ‘is’ known is that Ganga takes Devavrata and leaves Shantanu in a fit of rage for breaking his promise, and then comes back 16 years later. It is mentioned that he studies under Brispathi, Parashurama and Vasishta. So we can assume that she took him to ‘heaven’ (which is in my book the mountain Meru). What they did there for 16 years is a matter hardly ever explored, so I decided to do it.

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  2. winds of hastinapur.

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  3. See ..

    Geography of Ramayana, MahaBharat, Harappa
    http://saipapineni.blogspot.in/2012/11/geography-of-ramayana.html

    क्षारी-सागर में एनाकोण्डाओं की शैया पर आराम करते हुए भगवान विष्णु
    http://dnaofwords.blogspot.in/2012/05/blog-post.html

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Trackbacks

  1. […] only for the Gods to triumph owing to their superior cunning. It bothered me so much that I put an alternative version of the story into my novel, The Winds of […]

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  2. […] only for the Gods to triumph owing to their superior cunning. It bothered me so much that I put an alternative version of the story into my novel, The Winds of […]

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