The first decade of the 18th century is drawing to a close. For the first time, in nearly 150 years, the House of Amber, in what is today North-Eastern Rajasthan, was free of the Mughal Empire. Its young ruler, ‘Sawai’ Jai Singh, the one-and-a-quarter king, was in a quandary. He knew that his position as an independent monarch, ruling a kingdom a stone’s throw from the Imperial throne in Delhi, was fraught with danger. Even as a young man, Jai Singh displayed great political acumen. He knew that the people of Amber needed a gesture of defiance against the Mughals without drawing the Empire into an actual battle. He conspired with his advisers for days. What he decided to do next was a marvel of medieval PR, remembered in history as a masterstroke of political propaganda.
Just three months after ascending the throne, Jai Singh declared that he was ready to perform an ancient Vedic ritual known as the Vajpay Yagna. This ceremony had not been invoked for centuries and was deemed the prerogative of an absolute monarch. Jai Singh knew that the ritual was symbolically powerful to impress his subjects and neighbors, while essentially an empty gesture to the Islamic Empire. His entire court set about preparing for the elaborate occasion, gathering the required materials from near and far.
At the heart of the Yagna was the mystical drink, Soma. Believed to the beverage of choice of the gods, Soma is rumored to have magical powers. The Vedas tout Soma to be the essence of life and evidence indicates that Vedic priests consumed it in great quantities. What is Soma? Unfortunately, no one seems to agree. Some scholars claim that it is the juice of a creeper, some point to a leafless bush that grows in the upper regions of the Himalayas. Others are convinced that it is derived from opium and possibly a cocktail of various narcotics. In any event, Soma is widely considered a blessing of divine origin and Jai Singh made a very astute choice of ritualistic symbolism.
On the 14th of January, 1709, a cold winter’s morning, the king and his retinue assembled on the banks of Lake Man Sagar. The officiating royal priest, Pandit Ratnakar, was assisted by an army of disciples, each with a strictly defined role within the ceremony. Soma was symbolically ‘purchased’ from a Brahmin brought in especially for the Yagna and offered to Devas. The divine beverage was one of many exotic offerings, others included the milk of a goat suckling a male kid and a drink known as ‘paristrut’ purchased from a hairy eunuch. These unique offerings were then consumed by the king to indicate that he had been blessed by the gods.
The Yagna continued for nearly five days, and the arena reverberated with the continuous chanting of Vedic hymns. A large bonfire, a representation of the god Agni, was kept alive with expensive fuel, pure ‘ghee’, clarified butter prepared from the milk of the healthiest cows of the kingdom. No expense was spared in making the ceremony as grand and showy as possible. Gifts of gold and silk were given to the officiating priests and large crowds of people were invited to share in sumptuous feasts organized through the week.
On the final day, the king organized a chariot race. A skilled archer was summoned to shoot an arrow seventeen times, picking up the arrow from the spot it fell last to determine the length of the race track. The young king was set up to win, even though he was given a chariot with three horses instead of the standard four, a handicap that ‘proved’ his superiority. With this stylized victory, he declared himself to be a skilled horseman, a brave warrior, a pious Hindu, an astute statesman, all-in-all, a ruler worthy of the House of Amber.
To ensure that this feat of shrewd political maneuvering found its rightful place in history, Jai Singh commissioned a poet to record the five-day event. The poet, Vishwanath Ranade, titled his fanciful work, Rama Vilasa Kavyam, an unabashed paean that compares the young king to Lord Rama, the ideal man and monarch. It is because of this poem of high praise that we remember what Jai Singh achieved by calling for divine approval.
In our next episode, we recount the return of Vijay Singh, Jai Singh’s younger brother and Mughal stooge to claim the throne of Amber for the Emperor. Palace intrigue, false promises, deceit and much, much more in Part 4 of The Story of Jaipur. Stay tuned!