Shadows and Secrets – The Pataliputra Conspiracy (TreeShade Books) by Harini Srinivasan is a historical fiction set in the Gupta period during the rule of Maharaja Chandragupta II Vikramaditya. An intriguing blend of historical context, intrigue, and mystery set against the backdrop of the Gupta Empire, the book will be released on January 16.
Following is an extract (Page 1 – 4) from the book:
Jyeshtha 459-460 Vikram Samvat/May 403 CE
“Another warm day, like any other in the month of Jyeshtha. But something isn’t right today. O Surya Devta, why do your rays—scorching my old skin—feel hotter? O Ma Gange, why are you in such a temper today? O Devatas, what trouble awaits us foolish humans? Are you all passing on some message or is it my old age?” rued Acharya Brihaspati to himself, as he walked back to his ashram, having finished offering his morning prayers to the rising sun, his daily ritual, near the Ganga.
A few kos outside the ramparts of the magnificent city of Pataliputra, closer to the banks of the river Ganga, stood Acharya Brihaspati’s ashram. The great Maharaja Samudragupta had requested him, innumerable times, to move his ashram closer to the palace, within the city walls, but the Acharya would not hear of it.
As the preceptor of the royal family, Acharya Brihaspati had spent most of his early days in the palace and hence desired to retreat to a peaceful place in his final days for moments of serene contemplation and silence. His wish had been fulfilled. The kind Maharaja granted him a piece of land, upon which the ashram, which also served as a gurukul, came up.
Lost in his thoughts, the revered Acharya walked back until he was stopped in his path by a timid fawn following him at a distance. He drew closer, with a warm smile clearing up the frown on his forehead, and bent to pet the gentle creature. As he looked up, following the twittering and chirping birds, and listening to the sounds of a new morning, his sense of unease increased. A deep sense of foreboding—a premonition that something somewhere was not right—permeated his entire being. Closing his eyes, he prayed for his people, the city, the bhuloka, fervently wishing that the day, and the days ahead, would pass off without any major occurrence.
It was after all not just another day! It was the day before the annual procession—the one that Buddhist viharas took out, to celebrate and honour the Bodhisattvas every year— that would be held on the eighth day of this month. A much-awaited occasion, the procession captured the imagination of the magnificent city of Pataliputra, dominating each and every discussion for days before and days after.
Straightening himself, Acharya took a longer stride, opting this time for a shorter route through the patches of the tall holy kusha grass growing behind the ashram. The meek fawn hopped along playfully, leaping a few steps ahead of him. She stopped suddenly as if she had stumbled upon something and started moaning. Acharya snapped out of his reverie upon hearing the whimpering fawn. He put a forceful stop to his foreboding thoughts and walked faster to see what had caught the fawn’s attention.
One look and a deep sense of disquiet and worry and a heightened dread set in—this time in full force. Hidden in the grass was a body of a mlechha, a foreigner, cold and dead, with the face surprisingly calm and not reflecting the horrors of death. Shocked, Acharya was quiet for a few minutes, centering himself, before hastening towards his ashram.
Spread over an expansive piece of land, the ashram was divided into two clear sections: the outer enclosures, where Acharya welcomed daily visitors, royal and common, and the inner enclosures, which housed the gurukul, Acharya’s own ashram, and the homa area. The visitor enclosures included an at it higriha (a guest house with a row of rooms), a small area designated as a kitchen to provide for their welcome and refreshments, and an inner chamber reserved for confidential discussions. When the great king, Maharajadhiraja Samudragupta, was alive, he made it a point to visit Acharya Brihaspati (also his guru-bhaiat the gurukul). Maharaja Chandragupta continued the tradition, visiting often when he was a new king, and so did the rest of the royal court members—ministers, higher-placed administrative officials, and others. Of late, the outer enclosures hadn’t seen much activity, as the royal visits had become less frequent.
A large garden, laden with plants and trees and flanked by two broad pathways on either side, divided the outer and inner enclosures. The inner enclosures comprised mainly three buildings. The gurukul, which currently housed approximately fifteen resident students learning the Shastras; the main griha, where small deities were placed and where all the sacrificial, ritualistic, and prayer-related offerings were carried out; and a small building where Acharya and his wife Guruma Rukmini lived. It was behind this inner enclosure, on the way to the river, that one came across the patch of the kusha grass. And this was where the dead body lay.
As he reached the rear entrance of the gurukul, the full burden of what he had witnessed descended upon the Acharya. His knees sagged. Slumping onto one of the steps that led to the back door, he called out in a shaky voice, exclaiming, “Shyamal, Naga, Puru—is someone inside? I need help!”
Some of his students, who were preparing for the morning pooja nearby, heard his feeble cry. They hurried towards the gurukul.
Nagabhushana, a studious-looking young man, was the first to reach the
“Acharya, what happened? How can I help?”
“Naga, go immediately and call Veerabhadra right now! Ask him to come here at once!”
Naga was stunned. Veerabhadra was an assistant to Arya Devarata, the current head of the police or the Dandaposika of Pataliputra. Since he was a former student of Acharya, Veerabhadra was often seen at the gurukul. Yet, the summons by Acharya on a day when the Dandaposika would be extremely busy, did not bode well.
“I will go at once to the police constabulary and request the Dandaposika
to come or anyone else if he is not there.”
“Yes, do that. Go immediately. Tell them that amidst the tall kusha grass, behind the ashram, there is a man—cold and dead.”
Naga then understood the urgency in Acharya’s voice, and without asking any further questions, he set off as quickly as he could.
“Puru and Shyamal, come with me. I will show you the spot. Guard the body and do not touch anything.”
Instantly, Acharya Brihaspati’s ashram in Pataliputra was abuzz with activity and a strange morning had commenced.
Watching this flurry of activity from afar, as Acharya and his disciples swarmed around the dead body, crouched, and hidden among the tall sheaves of the kusha grass, was a man—a stranger whose face was flushed with a wave of hatred and cold rage.