St. John’s Storytelling Festival 2018: Tales From Near And Afar

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When I moved to St. John’s a few months ago, I was reading stories about Signal Hill. Those murdered pirates, ghost ships through the mist, the tragic drownings. They say Signal Hill is haunted. Just like Signal Hill, in India, where I come from, we have a hill, about 700 million years old. Those who are from those times would remember. In this story, we will travel to that hill together in this journey and explore the connection.

चैतन्यम सर्वभूतानां विवृतं जगदात्मना ।
नाद बृह्म तदानन्दं अद्वितीयमुपास्महे ।।

Naad Brahma is the life and consciousness, and music is the soul of this universe. Music, in far distant echoes, is what I am listening to as I stand alone in the middle of this dirt road close to midnight in Spring of North India. Imagine the darkest room you’ve ever been to. This road is still darker despite some petty lights far behind my back, but absolutely nothing in front. The stillness so loud, that sound of my own footsteps is piercing through my ears. Just two minutes ago I fought with a pack of three hyenas, so I am breathing heavily. They had blood on their mouth, which means there is a fresh kill somewhere around. My heart still beats in my throat as I walk past many abandoned houses on either side on the way to this hill on the edge of Thar Desert.

There is a temple atop the hill and castle on the base. It is said, the castle and the city around it was built many centuries ago by a king for his middle son. The priest of the temple, Sage Balu, who was also the Guru of the kingdom, allowed the construction only on one condition, ‘The day your castle cast shadows on my temple, this city shall be in ruins!’ Later, the descendant prince built more floors in the castle, and eventually, it did cast the shadow on sage Balu’s forbidden retreat. Today, the castle and the city is in ruins under the curse. Sage Balu is said to be buried in his grave inside the temple to this day on the top of the hill, keeping an eye on every movement – still guarding the fortress.

I walk further deep on the road, the faint music gets louder and it appears to be coming from the direction I am moving. It stops as I reach the end of the road. I stand in front of a door made of steel bars, thinking should I go back, or take a brave step to go through the door? Seeing my flashlight, suddenly, someone rushes towards me from behind the bars. He is the man guarding the doors of historic ruins. I offer him a bribe, a bottle of cheap wine, – to my luck – he accepts and lets me in. Angry, he says “We can not allow you to enter the fort. No one has permission for that. You can see the ruins, but, stay with us at all times. Leave your bag here on the gate. But, why did you come alone?” I stay silent with no answer.

As I sit on the porch of a small temple at the gate, I think of the afternoon when I was running towards this place. People don’t talk about this place, such is the fear of unknown. And those who dare, have some of the craziest narrations to recite. It’s cursed. It’s haunted. It’s the most storied ruin of the world. The Bhangarh Fort! Entrance to the fort is banned after sunset by law. It is said, Whoever has dared to enter after sunset or before sunrise, has never returned – Dead or alive!

I remember what the man I met during dinner was telling me. He said, In the fort lived the Princess of Bhangarh, Ratnavati, the most beautiful woman of her time. There also lived a sorcerer named Singhia, who enchanted by her beauty of Ratnavati,  decided to charm her maid and sent the magic oil, so princess would surrender to him once she uses the oil. However, the princess being a well-learned woman, got to know and foiled his plan by pouring it on a boulder. The same boulder then crushed Singhia to death. Dying, Singhia cursed the princess and the city leading to a near overnight collapse. Following that, the kingdom perished. Legend says the residents of Bhangarh still live there and the city comes alive in the night. The locals claim of hearing loud music from the city every other night and they believe the empire of Bhangarh is waiting for its princess to return to put an end to the curse.

When I told the man I was going to enter the fort, he laughed saying “Don’t be stupid” Before we parted, he said, “Remember, you were warned!”

Thinking of all the stories from people I had met, I’m scared. Earlier in the evening when I had visited the fort, I could hear people talking in a rotting remnant of a royal mansion, when I was the only person there. The mansion had some old wall art of demons. Sitting on the porch, as others taste the wine, I ask myself, Does the city really come alive in the night? Are all those stories from centuries, real?

I know, the only way to know the answer is to step inside the oblivion and explore for myself. But, is it worth the risk? I do, what any intelligent human would have done in such a situation. I stand up, look at the guards, turn around and begin walking deep in the ruins with them and the dogs. As we walk on the trail, the ruins get denser, suddenly, both dogs run back to the gate. I’m happy they are off as they were walking between my bare legs, but I’m thinking – why did they run away? A few minutes later, I see a couple of shadows on the trail under flashlight on my right. Are there people inside!? I shout out to guards and quickly run to the right towards the shadows. The shadows are still as I reach closer. I realize, I only hear my footsteps, guards are not following. As I turn back, I do not see their flashlights. I reach closer to the shadows and freeze in shell shock. The shadows are not people, but half walls. Size of a human. They are not people, but piles of rocks!

I quickly turn off my flashlight. Now, I don’t want to be seen by guards, and I slowly continue towards that rotting remnant, to check if I still hear voices. The place had a weird damp smell – rotting carcass, fresh cut grass, ammonia, and more. As I reach the mansion, I hear voices again. This time much better than day. There are whispers, one of them is a woman. Now breathing heavy, scared, with an austere feeling something may happen, I quickly turned my flashlight on, and start running back. I still don’t see the guards. I run straight through the infamous lane that is believed to play music and reach the gate of the Bhangarh Fort.

The Fort is standing tall, in all its might, on the other side of the bars. The dense hanging roots of trees spread all around the walkway, the huge gate, the broken walls and oddly stacked rocks, it is nothing less than a jaw-dropping nightmare. It has everything to make me think over and over about “Remember! You were warned.” All the stories I had read before coming here, the conversations I had since morning are flashing in my head like a movie looped in fast forward. I can see rabbits running on the ground, monkeys jumping on trees, snakes crawling, things flying past my eyes and back of the head – that are not there. Am I hallucinating? In a panic, I crash on the ground for a minute or two (or maybe more). A few minutes I gain my senses back and decide what to do next.

I get up and start running back towards the gate. While praying to all million Hindu gods, I can feel blood rushing in my head, as if a hand is pulling my guts out of my mouth. Not knowing I am rushing in the wrong direction, disoriented, I’m lost in the ruins. After struggling for what seemed like a lifetime, I give up and prepare myself to die. Slowly, a white light descends and shines in my eyes

“There you are! We were looking for you for the past two hours. Where were you? We were worried.”

Guards are mad at me and I’m smiling in relief. Probably, this makes them angrier, and they continue to talk. Finally, they have found me and I’m not going to die. Not tonight.

Five years later, as I stand on the haunted Signal Hill I still don’t know what exactly happened that night. Dogs ran away from the ruins. Did they sense what we easily miss out? The legend is over centuries old. The fiction of one generation becomes a legend or historic fairy-tale for next. Is that hill one such plot of fiction of medieval times? I still have my apprehensions, but, one thing that is certain, I will never dare visit that place in the night again. Have a safe escape from the hill. Thank you!

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