Thursday, February 25, 2010

Things fall apart: The story of a conquest -- Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2. This part, the final one, continues from when the new king, AH, hurls a "box" given to him. For the sake of continuity, I have repeated the last paragraph of the second part. I have also provided a couple of pictures: first a rendition of AH's capture; and second a glimpse of the mountainous landscape of the region whose history this is (not to be confused with where the battle took place). I took the picture during a visit last December.

From the next post on, I promise not to speak in riddles and hints.

Please also pardon the typos -- will try to fix them in the next couple of days. The last two pieces had some horrendous ones.

In his other hand, the oddly attired man held that looked like a rectangular box, which he gave to AH. But it did not "contain" anything. The cover opened to one side revealing a cluster of rustling, thin and creased pads, one laid over another, and with strange symbols on them. A wonderful aroma wafted from the pads. Though as beautiful as works of art, the symbols made no sense to AH. Yet, the interpreter, who was translating, repeatedly mumbled something about “submission”.

It sounded like nonsense to AH. Irritated, he threw the box from the perch of his litter.

And all hell broke loose.

Later, in captivity, AH would regret that gesture: had he not been so arrogant, he might have slyly outmaneuvered his opponents and trapped them later. But at that moment, drunk from his military victories and the triumphant march from the northern city, Q, to the provincial town, M, control of the kingdom well within his grasp, AH could not have responded in any other way.

The hurling of the “box” was akin to igniting a conflagration. AH had touched a very raw nerve. With loud cries that conveyed unequivocally the insult they had experienced, the warriors exploded out of their positions from the buildings surrounding the square. They seemed prepared for this very moment; the fact that they were impossibly outnumbered did not deter them. Mounted high on their beasts, they attacked with surprising vigor and speed.

But more than anything else, it was the fate of the king that left his massive army in a state of paralysis.

AH’s litter was being carried by his chiefs. The warriors slashed their sharp metal rods to deadly effect, severing off the chiefs’ arms. And yet, in a dizzying exhibition of loyalty, the limbless chiefs continued to support the shaking litter with their shoulders. And when they fell, others would take their place; the warriors would then chop fresh limbs. This continued for a while until the litter itself was tilted and AH was captured alive and taken by the captain FP.

It was inconceivable that the king, considered divine and invincible, should be kidnapped in this way.

The man pulling AH down from the titled litter is FP, the captain of the warrior army. To the left of the painting, holding aloft the symbol with the intersecting pieces is the same man who gave AH that puzzling thing with the strange symbols which he threw in irritation, triggering the warriors' fury. This rendition of the capture is appropriately the cover of Jared Diamond's famous Guns, Germs and Steel.

Taking advantage of the enemy's disbelief and paralysis, the invading warriors charged into the ranks of the countless foot soldiers. Seated on their beasts, which reared, neighed, raced and trampled, they killed at will. Stupefied at the capture of their new king, and terrified by the unprecedented assault, AH’s men fled. At the end of the battle, the plain was littered with dead men -- and all dead men were AH's men.

Incredibly, a hundred and fifty men had defeated an army of a hundred thousand men and had not suffered a single casualty. Only one of the invading warriors was injured. For that reason and because of similar successes in future battles, the warriors – and their beasts especially – would be regarded as powerful as Gods.

In captivity, AH was given his privileges; he kept his servants; he still wielded authority. The shrewd man that he was, he began to understand the weaknesses of his captors. He even became friendly with them; FP chatted with him quite amiably. AH became an expert at the game of moving pieces on a checkered board that FP had taught him. And with that, the invaders’ aura of invincibility faded. AH realized they were men just like him. He understood their greed: they were crazy for metals that shone; they had come to the kingdom primarily in search of them. AH cleverly negotiated his release by promising to deliver a roomful of these metals. There was plenty of it available in his kingdom: in temples and religious places and in shrines where the mummies of his ancestors were kept with care.

But AH ultimately underestimated his captors. These were treacherous and willing to go to any extent to achieve their ends. Once AH had delivered the metals, he was suddenly hanged, by the same men he had become friendly with. The men obeyed orders that came from some distant land, from a different monarch, to whom they proudly owed allegiance; and this distant land kept sending more oddly attired men who preached with great determination, an unparalleled sense of righteousness, and wore pendants that had the same symbol -- the ubiquitous intersecting lines – that AH had seen at the square of M just before his capture; but most importantly, this distant land sent more settlers and beasts – and what terror the beasts wrecked! – so that it became impossible for his people rebel successfully against them.

This was no simple kidnapping and ransom procurement mission; this was settlement on a permanent basis; plunder was institutionalized for perpetuity.

After AH’s death, another brother, TH, emerged and became the invaders’ puppet king; but he died of disease soon. Yet another brother, MC, came forward; he too was treated initially as convenient figurehead, but broke away and organized cleverly thought out rebellions. But in the end, the military might of the invaders and the manner in which they exploited alliances with the local tribes -- who had not forgotten their own subjugation, only a couple of generations ago, by HC and his ancestors -- ensured that MC had to recede with his followers into to the eastern part of the kingdom, where mountains jostled with dense jungle.

Society changed irreversibly during the conquest. The efficient administration the kingdom had possessed gave way to cruel system of exploitation where impossible tributes were levied by the settlers on the natives. The discovery of new ores for metals propelled a vicious cycle of forced labor, misery and demographic decline. The settlers also demolished what they saw was the idolatry of the natives, who worshiped the sun and the earth; they supplanted it with their own faith.

AH’s dramatic capture and his execution a few months later thus marked the beginning of the end. It was a pivotal moment in the history of his kingdom. Nothing would ever be the same again.

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