The Tightrope Walker

Srīvara’s Sanskrit account of the final days in the life of Sultan Zayn begins with a rather beautiful and evocative vignette of a tightrope walker who had arrived from Central Asia to perform for the king.  During the show, the spectators and nāga-s become upset, but above the tumult below, the tightrope walker hovers, suspended against the background of the sky.  The first eight verses are translated below:

“If a king is generous, the people too show the whole variety of their own skills. When the cloud pours rain in the rainy season, then the joyfully dancing cātaka bird too becomes a source of happiness for his people.  Once, a certain Muslim, expert in the art of tightrope-walking, came by the northern passes to the Sulṭān, who was famous for his generosity.  On one occasion, the Sulṭān, adorned by his retinue, went to a Muslim festival at the place called Viṃśaprastha to see him.  Ready to display his own skill, he connected high posts, which were 20 yards apart, with long ropes.  The Nāgas from Rajjupura and elsewhere became agitated (kaluṣa), apparently because they anticipated some sort of bodily harm to the Sulṭān, who was their devotee.  Then, fearless like a bird up in the sky, [the tightrope walker] swung himself up with a single rope fixed to the ground.  There, this true master of his art performed extraordinary steps without any mistakes which could have [caused him to] fall, captivating the attention of the people. [In so doing] he was like a poet composing extraordinary series of poetic lines, in which [the position of] the particles was faultless. As he walked high above, like a planet moving through the constellations in all their splendor, the place of this wonderful performance rewarded all those men [watching].”

The vignette itself is packed with intriguing detail: how this Muslim entertainer came to the valley, how he set up his equipment, and how he actually performed for the Sultan.  The element of danger is highlighted, and strangely, the threat to the performer is transferred as a threat to Zayn himself.  The Nāgas themselves, the autochthonic guardian spirits of all watery places in the Valley, become agitated.  This sense of unease permeates the account with only the tightrope walker seemingly immune to the turmoil on the ground beneath his feet.  Significantly, the final two verses compare the tightrope walker first punningly to a poet and second to a planet amidst the stars of the Zodiac, a human embodiment of Fate.  Here I think this evocative image hints at Śrīvara’s larger project; the turmoil in the world below can be perceived and organized by only the skilled poet and Fate.  Perhaps Srīvara hints here that the Sultan too is like the tightrope walker, suspended between heaven and earth during his last days as ruler of Kashmir.

Here’s the Sanskrit:

dātā bhavet kṣitipatir yadi sādaro ’yaṃ loko ’pi darśayati tat svakalākalāpam |

varṣāsu varṣati ghano yadi cātako ’pi nṛtyan mudā bhavati taj janarañjanāya || 1 ||

athottarapathād dānakhyātakīrter mahīpateḥ | rajjubhramaṇaśilpajñaḥ ko ’py āgāt yavano ’ntikam || 2 ||

viṃśaprasthābhidhe sthāne kadācid yavanotsavam | taṃ draṣṭum agamad rājā parivāravibhūṣitaḥ || 3 ||

dhanurdaṇḍaśatāyāmāntarasthān dīrgharajjubhiḥ | uccān stambhān abadhnāt sa svaśilpaprathanodyataḥ || 4 ||

abhavan kaluṣās te ye nāgā rajjupurādiṣu | bhāvisvabhaktabhūpāladehāniṣṭekṣaṇād iva || 5 ||

atho bhūbhāgalagnaikarajjumārgeṇa nirbhayaḥ | āroham akarot tatra patatrīva nabho’ntare || 6 ||

nipātāskhalitāṃ tatra lokacittānurañjikām | kaviteva sa śilpejyaś citrāṃ padagatiṃ vyadhāt || 7 ||

anīcavartinas tasya grahasyeva phalapradā | suraśmirāśigasyālaṃ babhūvāścaryabhūr nṛṇām || 8 ||

One comment on “The Tightrope Walker

  1. Anubhuti says:

    I like how your man Srīvara populates the three lokas – the tightrope walker in the sky, nāgas in the water, Zayn in the middle.

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