MAHADIV BISHTA - ROBIN HOOD OF KASHMIR
(ROBIN HOOD OF KASHMIR)
hough I do not vouch for the historical authenticity of this tale, I believe it in some form. It is part of the folklore of Kashmir. While the tale describing the “fine art” of thieving is about courage and chivalry, it is also shrouded in romance and excitement.
More than one and a half centuries ago, when the city of Srinagar had not spread to its present dimensions; there on its outskirts, by the flanks of the renowned fresh water Dal Lake, lived the Robin Hood of the city. He grew in a three storied house of stones, mud, bricks and timber. The house was roofed with sturdy deodar beams crisscrossed by heavy rafters, topped with wooden planks compressed by a thick layer of alluvial soil on thin sheets of bhoj patr (ancient paper peeled off the bark of a tree) which ensured waterproofing of the roof. His house stood by the side of the meandering outlet of the Lake in a medium sized yard of green turf hedged with rows of different colors of roses and marigolds. Roses were planted to spread ethereal fragrance all-around and marigolds were cultivated to make offerings of their petals both fresh and dehydrated to Lord. Shiva. At the advent of spring in the Valley, the roof of the house would turn into golden yellow with mustard bloom, interspersed with creamy daffodils and scarlet tulips. In the centre of this charming lawn stood up a stately magnificent Chinar the foliage of which turned bronze in the fall before shedding. The setting of this charming house would present a tapestry of color and design when one would watch it from the elevations of Shankracharya Mountain or fort Haribarbat in spring. At that time, the entire cityscape would be heaving with pink blossoms of almond plantations. In this magical house of color and charm, enhanced by the murmur of flowing water from the stream, amid a juxtaposition of shades and hues of flowers, was born a baby to a happy couple. He was named as Mahadiv meaning Lord of the lords. His father died young of some unknown ailment, the details of which were not available. It was whispered that he died of tuberculosis which was incurable then. Now it fell on the robust and rotund mother of the boy to grow and groom the sharp baby. So he was sent to a Pathshala (school) in the neighborhood of Rainawari which at that time imparted both temporal and religious education to children.
Mahadiv was clever and smart, shrewd and intelligent. Yet he was kind and caring too. Unfortunately he fell in bad company as he had no father to watch over his activities. Panditjee of the Pathshala tried his best to mend the boy and motivate him back to studies. But Mahadiv would prefer to play truant rather than study. So one day Panditjee sent for the mother of the boy to discuss Mahadiv and his behavior. At the Pathshala she was horrified to learn that her son was wasting his time in other unsocial activities rather than studies. She reprimanded her son and denied him his day’s meals as punishment. Panditjee of the Pathshala ordered for a stack of fresh green nettles to punish him with When a bundle of green nettles was brought forth, Panditjee covered his hands with a piece of thick cloth and picked up the stack to rub on the hands, legs, feet and arms of Mahadiv. It sent electric vibrations into the entire body of Mahadiv causing excruciating pain and severe allergy to his body. This was enough to ignite the lava of revolt in Mahadiv and he started bunking his classes regularly then onwards. He would join those boys who were mischievous with others. He started to lead and command them and became notorious for his truants and tantrums. His mother made hectic efforts to counsel him to mend his ways but it fell on deaf ears. He had grown from a cute child to an over-smart boy to a spoiled adolescent and to a crazy youth of 6 feet. He had lost his fair complexion because his skin had started to tan with weathering of the sun and snow. But despite his foibles he was honest and sincere. He had no personal greed but felt that he had a social obligation to help the needy. He did not relish the luxuries of life. He mastered the art of thieving as it had both excitement and thrill in it. He perfected his profession with subtle dexterity and élan to create records of sorts. He would steal from all irrespective of caste and creed. But he ensured that he did not thieve from the poor and dispossessed. Besides, he saw to it that he did not use the proceeds of robbing for his own comforts. He robbed the rich to feed the have-nots. He did not spare the affluent as he worked to uplift the needy. It is said that he arranged the marriages of grown up daughters of poor people with the proceeds of the loot and ensured that poor people sent their children to school. He ensured that no one within his neighborhood died for want of food and treatment. He also saw to it that widows, desperate and sick people were fed properly. He controlled his domain countenancing no challenge from other robbers and rouges and no one had the permission to transgress into his area. Personally he lived a simple and saintly life bordering on severe austerity. So he became very popular and people started to respect him for his latent philanthropic virtues. They felt proud of him. News of his chivalry and benevolence spread far and wide.
Kashmir was ruled by a Dogra Raja at that time. The news of Mahavir reached the Raja. He got annoyed to learn that this thief of a man was more popular in his kingdom than he was himself. So he set his men to arrest this great robber red handed. It is said that Mahadiv was chased for decades by the men of the king but it was never possible for them to catch him red handed. They always reached late to the stage of the crime. The Raja became desperate as his inefficient staff was not able to haul up Mahadiv who had become a man of the masses by then. The Raja therefore, threw a gauntlet to this thief extraordinaire to ever try to enter the king’s palace and escape safely.
Such was the challenge for which Mahadiv had waited ages to prove his mettle. He accepted the challenge with nonchalance and sent a word to the Raja that he would enter his (Raja’s) bed room itself and leave back safe with the proof as a trophy. Security of the palace was beefed up and informers of the palace were let loose to collect intelligence about the movements of this popular thief. On the fateful night of ingression into the palace, Mahadiv devised a unique strategy for his clandestine entry in to the palace. First of all he arranged for a long, sturdy stalk of dry, hollow hay. Then he went to a mound of active ants. He sucked ants into the hollow cavity of the stalk and then blew them into a piece of muslin cloth. Then he tied a loose knot on the piece of muslin. Thereafter he took the path to the palace which was highly protected by the staff of the Raja, where Mahavir’s ingenuity was to be put to test. It is said that he flexed himself into the shape of a long feline cat and reached to the drain pipe of the palace. He started crawling slowly up the pipe along with his long stalk and pack of ants. When he crawled up to the level of the window of the room in which the Raja was fast asleep on his royal bed, the security staff around the palace felt a cat creeping up the drain pipe. They uttered “Bishta” the word Kashmiris use to scare cats away. Mahavir in the meanwhile opened the packet of ants and sucked the ants into the hollow of the stalk. After that he extended the long stalk into the room and pointed the tip of the stalk on the belly of the king. Thereafter, he blew into the stalk. Immediately the ants sprawled out and raided the body parts of the Raja. This caused great irritation and itching to the Raja, so much so that he was constrained to take off his clothes, including his pajamas. Mahavir was watching this naked dance of helplessness of the Raja with glee and mirth. He collected the Pajamas of the Raja with the help of the stalk as a proof and trophy of his great deed of dexterity. He slipped back down from the pipe and took his path home along with his trophy from winning the royal challenge.
The next day, when the Raja detected his pajamas missing, he was shrewd enough to understand that he had failed to track and tame Mahavir. Mahavir had created a history of sorts in his profession, showing perfection with artistic élan. The Raja too now empathized with Mahavir, bestowed him with a Jagir (landed estate) and named him as Mahavir Bishta meaning Mahavir the Invisible Cat. Thereafter Mahavir started to live as a saintly man keeping all anti-social elements at bay. His philanthropic deeds and humane gestures of goodwill to mankind, irrespective of caste and creed became legends to swear by. He was elevated to a saint from a thief because he genuinely cared for his deprived human brotherhood.
*P.N.Ganjoo was born in a modest Kashmiri family about 7 decades ago, lost his father early and was raised by his honest, hardworking mother. With her efforts he received his education in Srinagar and went on to serve in various Government Departments before retiring as a senior grade KAS officer.
Presently he is working on his varied interests besides being a consulting Director of a software services company.
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