It was 6 o’clock in the morning when a servant came knocking at Raja sa’s door.
“What is it, Madri?”
“A woman has come to see you, sire.”, bowed Madri.
Pulling on his choga, Raja sa announced that he was coming, “Ask the woman to wait in the Darbar. I will be there shortly”
Behind the door, Raja sa could see a woman standing in traditional Lucknowy libaas. She turned around to reach the darbar hall when she heard Madri asking her to wait there.
“Durga Devi”, Raja sa sighed.
The darbar was as grand as it was expected to be. A throne sat at the far end of the hall. Bejewelled with one single green diamond and several colourful carvings in the marble. The darbar stood on twelve pillars, six on each side. They were so high that 5 men would have to stand on each other’s shoulders if they wanted to steal the gems from the grand chandelier. Five such chandeliers lit the hall. Thick but translucent curtain hung on the gallery above the throne for the queens and their servant women to watch. Two hand-knitted dans were spread across each side of the throne with lined up wooden chairs on it for the commoners.
Durga Devi waited sitting on one of those chairs. She was anxious about this meeting. The past was flashing too vividly for her to ignore it.
“Ghani khubsoorat se tu chhori. Nazar ka teeka laga lio.” three women giggled looking at Durga while she dressed herself up.
Her long black hair fell to touch the floor when she sat on the chair. Her eyes, big and dark, turned even darker once she put kohl under them. Blue like diamonds, they shone too brightly for a man to not fall in love with them. She milled dried roses and red dahlia with olive oil to colour her lips. A round nath, as big as the wrist of a petite woman, adorned her nose. Made of gold, it had more than a hundred little diamonds studded in a triangular pattern. In the middle of this nath was a trail of sixteen bigger diamonds in green and red colours. They were studded in a curved ‘U’ shaped fashion. In between them was a single blue diamond that was twice the size of the bigger ones. It was dark and in the shape of a thin aspen leaf. Golden beads surrounded it. The nath looked charming.
“Raja sa’s gift.”, said one of those women to another. “Humara kaha aisa bhaag.” she scoffed in jealousy.
Durga turned her face from the mirror to look at her, “It’s not what you think, Kaashi. He presented it to my dance. Not me. Certainly, not to me.” No one could tell whether it was grief that they heard or just a matter of fact. However, it surely suited Kaashi’s ego and she smiled in agreement, “Of course.”
Durga tilted a small bottle slightly and quickly to get attar on her fingers. She gently rubbed the fingers against her neck.
“Lavender!”, a women exclaimed. “You know what it does to men, don’t you Durga?” the women giggled.
“Stop teasing.” she shied.
“Are you ready yet Durga? Men have come to escort you to the palace.”, an older woman entered the room announcing.
Durga stood up. She was wearing embroidered ghaghra choli that shone from afar. Copper colour embroidery stood out on the contrast pink silk fabric. The sleeves of her choli ended just below the elbow and haathphool laced her fingers. Its hem tugged tight at her breasts, showing off their perfect bust. The curves of her lean waist were dressed in a beaded kardhani. Heavy white bangles made of laakh and studded with gems filled her arms. A beautiful maangtikka borla made of pearls and pure kundan sat on her forehead pinned under a red-coloured odhni. Its crescent shape dangled just above mid-brows whilst the pearl strings twined in her hair. Her ears were dressed with matching jhaale. Polki necklace and thick ghungroo anklet made her look ravishing. If the people didn’t know her class, they would have almost thought her to be a bride.
The woman who came to take her stood speechless. For a second, no one moved, making Durga a bit anxious.
“What happened? Do I look fine?”, she asked.
“Haa… haa. Najar na laage chhori, tu toh ghani futri dikhye. ”
“Aaj na rok saake Raja sa aapne ko!” giggled one of them.
“Don’t make Hukum wait much. You must leave for the palace now.”
“Ji sa” Durga smiled and regarded her fondly before leaving.
The palace stood high in front of her. Surrounded by lawns on three sides, it had an ineffable granduer. Jharokhe were all carved with fine details. These overhanging enclosed balconies were jutting forward from the wall planes. Durga Devi was born and brought up in Rajasthan but this splendor was still new to her. The kothi she lived in was not half the size of this mansion. Even chhajjas were bigger than the railing on her house’s terrace.
Her eyes were stuck on the men standing on the dwaar. She had seen long moustaches but none of those fell till the chest. These two men, who stood still like statues, their eyes were dry as if made of mirror. She felt sad for them.
She walked through the huge wooden door. The gallery was so big, she felt small and timid. The beautiful jhoomars and curtains were spell-binding but their grandeur intimidated her.
“You can dance Durga, you will dance well.” she kept telling herself.
The gallery was lit by hundreds of candles. It opened in several directions – every gallery was as much of a maze as this one.
“How do people live here? One could easily get lost in this maze.” she exclaimed.
“They do, Durga.” the woman who had received her said, smiling sadly.
They kept walking for more than ten minutes. Gallery to gallery, Durga saw splendid show of light and luxury. She could have gone blind with the brightness of diamonds, gold, and silver.
The staircase was in sight. She could see them through the blind of her purdah. They looked like big square stones stacked one on the other. She felt anxious. Her lehenga and jewellery were already weighing her down. She began counting the number of stairs.
Twenty-three stairs felt nearly impossible to climb. Durga was getting tensed up.
“Kaha jaa ri se kanchani? Idhar nahi udhar. Mhaare gher chal.” the woman said sharply.
She saw them turning towards a slanting surface that elevated upwards. She had heard about how heavy clothes and jewellery maharanis wore and wondered how they managed to walk with their weight?
“So the slope is the answer.” she laughed at herself.
They were about to arrive at their destination. The terrace was spread for about twenty meters. There was a two-story structure surrounding the terrace. The up most had a throne sitting on it while the one in the middle had comfortable seating with hookahs and candles.
“Beautiful” she wondered.
The evening fell like a blanket on the day. Candles shone brighter and the burning koyela in the hookahs were visible from a distance. Women were dancing in colourful lehngas. She saw maharanis sitting. Three of them sat together. The one in the middle sat more proudly, wore more jewels and sat on a higher platform than the other two queens.
She saw Raja sa arriving to the throne. He was dressed in silk angrakha and held a jewelled scabbard. An emarald shone at its grip. He wore a golden paggar on the head that matched his attire. Raja sa walked with his head high and shoulders crossed. His sharp jawline was draped in beard and moustache.
Durga could hardly see his face clearly, but she was sure that he had dark brown eyes. She wondered how lucky his queens were to be able to see him close but also pitied them for having to share him among each other and many more women.
Imagining the eyes of her majesty, she stepped on the terrace. The sound of marwari folk and her ghungharoo echoed everywhere. She saw no one but him, still wondering what colour are those eyes.