An excerpt from the book, Bhumika by Aditya Iyengar.

I began visiting court as an observer once a week. Not more, thankfully. I hated the drudgery and routine, and wondered how my father, his generals and ministers endured it, day after day.

A day in court normally involved father dispensing justice for a number of criminal cases, or presiding over tax and land disputes. Ministers and generals shuffled in and out of the court, but my father sat on his throne, his back straight, and his voice clear, throughout the day from sunrise to sunset. Only once the sun had set would my father call an end to the day’s proceedings, and stand up. I never appreciated how much willpower it would take to sit all day in one position and concentrate throughout its duration until the day of my marriage.

I would often stand behind my father’s throne, my mind happily wandering away from Mithila, and wait until the day was done, and I could accompany Father back to our quarters. I only spoke once during my court visits. And it happened in the strangest of circumstances.

A man had come seeking justice. A washerman, if I remember correctly. His wife, he claimed, had been unfaithful to him. He had no evidence, but he was certain that she had cheated on him.

‘My lord, I ask only what any man would ask in such circumstances. That my wife be asked to prove her virtue, her purity.’

His wife stood in a corner, her head bowed, more out of deference to the king, I suspect, than her husband. Her voice came through gritted teeth.

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‘Purity? As if I am a piece of gold that needs to be tested!’

Father’s head turned sharply towards her, and then to her husband.

‘So what do you propose?’ he asked both of them.

The husband spoke first. ‘The agnipariksha. I will only accept the decision of the God of Fire.’

The woman gasped. ‘You would send your wife into a fire just for your own satisfaction?’

He looked at her and raised his eyebrow. ‘If she has broken the sacred vows we took together, then yes. Only God can judge her.’

I did not know what the agnipariksha was. For some reason, my curiosity got the better of me. I turned to my father and asked him innocently, ‘What happens in the agnipariksha?’

Father regarded me for a moment, and then looked at the washerman. ‘Can you answer my daughter’s question?’

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The washerman bowed.

‘My lady, the agnipariksha is a test of purity. An individual walks into a burning pyre reciting mantras to the God of Fire, asking for his protection. If the individual emerges unscathed, then it is a sign that he or she is pure of heart and virtue.’ He paused dramatically. ‘I have never heard of anyone coming out alive.’

The audience shuddered collectively, reminded of the grave implications of the agnipariksha.

‘But if no one has come out alive before, how do we know that the God of Fire is really listening? Maybe it’s just being used as a convenient excuse to burn people,’I said sharply. I remember feeling angry that this man could send his wife to the fire so easily.

The audience was quiet. Father chuckled, and spoke loudly.

‘Can anyone answer my daughter? Has anyone survived the agnipariksha?’

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A few of the ministers said that they had heard of people surviving it, but had no actual evidence.

My father stroked his beard. ‘I too have heard of such people, but have never encountered one. I believe they must be demigods or blessed by the divine. The God of Fire is too busy to deal with the affairs of men, and that is why Mithila has Janaka. There shall be no talk of the agnipariksha in this kingdom, unless the ruler decides that a particular problem requires divine intervention.’

The washerman was about to say something when Father interrupted.

‘You’ll just have to make do with my judgement. Unless you feel I’m not qualified, as your king, to be able to make a judgement…’ He left the sentence hanging ominously, and the washerman took the hint and bowed.

Father declared that there was no evidence of adultery, and dismissed the case. The washerman and his wife left, though I suspect the washerman was a little unhappier than when he had arrived.

The agnipariksha would be used as a device for justice in Mithila only once again. And once again, I would be at the centre of it.

Image Credit: Hachette India/ Aditya Iyengar

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Excerpted with permission from Bhumika by Aditya Iyengar, Hachette India.

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