Savitri

Savitri the beautiful princess shed her exuberant silk
dropped her pearls and gems, the fragrant flowers
that knit her hair, clad in simple robes of rough cotton
she assisted her husband perform sacrificial rites.
This glowing daughter of the Sun who carried a dark secret
remained anxious of shadows lurking near her conjugal nest.

She sat in the evening under the banyan tree
as birds settled high in the branches
thickening with darkness, her mind clouded
owing to fatigue, parched dry the tongue
stuck at the roof of her mouth. Pools of sadness
gathered in her eyes that drooped like wilted lotus.

Satyavan emerged from the forest
sweat on his sinewy arms that labored collecting wood
for the sacrificial fire. The smoke of that day’s oblation  
hung like a dark cloud, the hut barren like an ascetic’s
carried smell of fire that licked as the
sun ascended the heavens.

He spread himself like a panther on the kusa grass,
she brought wild berries she collected near the clearing,
the milk she pressed from the almonds that hung
like sore nipples at the trees.
Since she hadn’t eaten for three days
the smell of boiled wild rice nauseated her.

He turned towards her inviting,
the coarse cotton barely concealing his desire;
as he ran his lips down her throat, saliva
from his mouth froze like snow on the Himalayas   
and she saw the dark figure of Death
penetrate her: lifeless wood inside her.

He looked into her dark eyes,
in her compliance was defiance,
inscrutable from the day of their marriage.
He was aroused and disturbed at the thought
of the silent lover lingering every night of their union.
She refused to receive his seeds in her burning womb.

It was his last day on earth, her mind
feverish with prayers and mantras
refused to descend in response to his touch;
a trail of chillness, remoteness laced her
caress,
rejecting yet again his attempt to impregnate her.
She had to remain an empty vessel while bargaining for his life.

As Yama resplendent in red stood before her
the beautiful descendent of the Sun dared to brook his stare,
poetry she read sitting in the scented garden of her father’s palace
lay like a treasure that offered words to praise the Lord of Death,
dialogues with ascetics during her journey along the Ganges
helped Savitri engage Yama in talks on metaphysics.

Honeyed words like wild bees hummed in the forest,
mesmerised by her intelligence and wisdom
Yama granted her a boon. As a fruit for a year’s austerity
she asked for a hundred sons from her husband. For this
Satyavan had to live, for this seeds she had allowed to waste away.
The glorious lord of Death, the silent lover smiled at Savitri.

( In the Tamil calendar at the confluence of the months of Maasi and Panguni, at the very hour of the union of the months prayers are offered after a day-long fast to the illustrious and pious Savitri who dared to fight her husband back from Yama, the Lord of Death. The story of Savitri and Satyavan from the ancient epic ‘Mahabharata’ has over the centuries acquired folkloric and mythic qualities among various communities in India. Celebrated in different ways and at different parts of the year Nombu or Savitri Vrat is replete with simple rituals that echo local interpretations of the tale.

This poem is in response to Big Tent Poetry’s prompt to write a celebration poem. Here I celebrate the way a story that is only an upakatha  (a sub narrative)  in the large epic has stood out and acquired an existence of its own because of the strong protagonist Savitri. She in my opinion stands shoulder to shoulder with Sita and Draupadi , the two powerful women from ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’.)     

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6 thoughts on “Savitri

  1. Thank you for the story, Uma. And for the note that gives it a setting. Since it is new to me, I was hanging on–triumph? tragedy? what’s going to happen? Your telling is beautiful, though. “Honeyed words like wild bees hummed in the forest,” Love it.

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