The Great God Ram

THE Wellspring of Life, the city of the Sikhs, lay spent beneath the sun, and sick for rain.

Fierce heat dragged out old secret moistures from between her stones, and wrung up fumes of stench from hidden places. And winged pestilence went up and sat upon her gates, and cast deatli down upon the people, as sowers fling forth grains of wheat at seedtime.

The gods were angry.

Fathers of sons went early in the morning to the temple, bearing gifts, and praying that the priests would earnestly perform their offices, and render honor to the gods for them, and pledge obedience for their children also.

Mothers lay upon their faces before household shrines, quivering with fear, and raining tears till they could weep no more ; and then rose up and served their children ceaselessly through all the bitter heat of all the day.

The sacred scripture of the Sikhs lay swathed in rich cloth wrought with gold, upon its dais beneath the great dome of the golden temple in the midst of the still lake. The wall about was deep and high and full of caves where holy men, grown weak by pilgrimage from far, stretched themselves out on damp stones in the dark, to gather strength for bathing in the holy well.

These prayed ; and all the priests prayed also ; and the people bowed themselves and gave of all they had the utmost they could give, to win the gods back from their anger till they should send rain.

But it was not sufficient.

Then the priests went out at nighttime, along the narrow winding ways within the city walls, and up and down between her gates. And when the morning came, no father rose to go with gifts of grain, or spice, or uncut gem, or finewronght fabric, toward the temple gate ; but each man lay and beat his brows upon the earth, beside a woman, at the household shrine. For in the night, by all the paths the priests had trod, a word had passed.

The gods required a sacrifice. A Perfect Sacrifice. It would be difficult. The foreign people, who had come to rule the land and hold its many peoples subject to their government by strange relentless power, were ignorant of custom. They had no gods. They gave not gold to gain their souls from death, but sold their souls to death to gain more gold. These could not understand a perfect sacrifice. They would disturb — preventing ; and so cause shame.

Therefore those working must move softly, and the gates be kept.

Many children had been pledged unborn against this day. These their fathers knew, but not the women. Women will save one child and lose a race. The gods themselves watched not so tirelessly as did those mothers, bending on the roofs above the slender panting children while they slept, — knowing not that they were yet to work the sacrifice which should appease the gods and save the city, bringing rain.

They were due the gods. Were they not given by the gods, and others also ?

These were but one child from every house where any man had loved a woman unto that degree whereby he pledged his third child to the temple service if the gods would give a son to him and her before the time appointed should be passed. So might his house and honor stand, and she remain his wife in peace, alone. And surely it was better to have one son and another child, — which by good fortune might he a son also, —rendering for the safety of these the third, than to have no son at all, but only the confusion of another marriage, and a second woman to drive this one, with scornful words, dull-eyed and heavyfooted, into servitude. Also, the gods do only sometimes gather need for children : and if they are not called, the mothers may remain without fear, being ignorant. If, being men, they are called for priesthood, that will be later ; and a woman will let her son slip from between her fingers without sorrow if his sinews have grown strong. If, being but women, they are required for temple service, it will save the difficulty of their marriage ; and no mother would keep her daughter till she is old, for without early marriage is disgrace.

So, in the evening of the third day, after the word had passed, those fathers who had pledged children which were come to the age of running went up softly to the roofs where they lay, and lifted them from beneath the hands of the women which bare them.

In that hour went up a great cry from the city, —the first cry of the sacrifice. From the lips of many women it went up, on the hot throbbing air, past the temple spires, into the curtainless vastness toward the gods.

But they did not hear.

Priests and messengers who served the temples were out gathering the little children from the hands of their fathers ; at the doorways, and at the gates of courtyards, and at the mouths of alleys. These carried them gently, and refreshed them with water, and kept them quietly, and taught them in the night till near the dawn of day.

Before dawn came, all the children had been taught that the gods were angry, and had cursed the city that no rain could fall ; that all the offerings of the people had been refused, and now the sons of every house would die, and every name in all the city would perish miserably in death and shame, unless the voices of the little children could reach the gods. But if they could persevere

and cry, and not cease, and the gods would hear and send rain, they should be called the children of the gods, and lifted up in honor, and borne in the hands of men, and given rich garments and garlands, and a great feast in the presence of all the people. Their fathers had rendered them up to do this, and their mothers were hidden away from them.

Into their hands were put cymbals and bells and drums, and every manner of instrument to beat with the hands, and they were placed in companies, with those older, such as could run with sure feet, before ; and the younger, whose steps were uncertain, behind. And back of each company went four strong men who served the temples, carrying long staffs pointed with sharp steel.

The cry of the children was to the name of the great god Ram : —

“ Ai, Ram ! Ram!
Hum lok ko pani do !
Hum lok ko pani do !
Hum lok ko pani do !
Ai, Ram ! Ram ! ”

So they were sent forth at the beginning of dawn to go forward through the city up and down, to beat with their hands, and to cry ceaselessly until the gods should hear and save the city for their sakes, Sending rain.

They went forth slowly, because their feet were young and not swift. They went bravely, lifting up their faces to the dawn, and beating with their small hands, and crying with their voices, clear and high.

This was the second cry of the sacrifice, which went up at dawn ; for the first was smothered against the earth, deep in the houses where the mothers lay.

But the gods heard not.

Then the sun rose, and the children’s voices broke and failed in the parching pain of their throats, and they called bitterly for the mothers whose faces were turned away from them upon the earth. The heat smote down between the high walls, and wavered in quick quivering waves before their eyes, and struck them on the brow and on the breast, and with shrieks they turned to fly, and met the sharp steel points of the staffs and went back, —forward, toward the sun. Then the knees failed, and they fell; for they could not sit because of the sharp steel; or eat or drink, for there was naught ; or cry any more, for they were choked with the pain of the Striving blood in their breasts: so they died.

One by one ; and each was carried by a messenger softly and laid in the place of sacrifice near some temple. And the place of the dead was filled by a fresh child, that the number should not wane for the gods to see.

The day went over slowly with the stain of blood in its face, and the children of the sacrifice staggered forward so long as they endured to live ; and the numbers of the companies were not allowed to wane.

And the cries went up, on into the fierce night heat; and the places of sacrifice near the temples were filled with long rows of the little bodies of children which had cried to the gods in vain.

Then, in the midst of night, after the raging anguish of strong sobbing men was spent, when the spirits of some mothers had gone out after the sacrifices they had given, — out through the pitiless haze of heat, up through the measureless heights of space, toward the gods, — at that time there fell on a roof one drop of rain, and on seven other roofs fell drops of rain.

And a cry went up from the city so mighty that it tore the heavens open, and the rain came.

It was the third cry of the sacrifice.

Men rushed like mad beasts along the streets toward the great temple, each man to see if his own yet lived.

The children which remained were caught up, every one, and carried high with shouts of honor and praise. Some were laid in their fathers’ arms alive, and some just before their spirits got away.

Many men stood with their hands empty, and returned so to the women; having no child to give back alive. These went at dawn to the place where the sacrifice was burned.

At the same hour a great feast was made for the children which remained, and they were given rich garments, and garlands of tuberose and marigold and jasmine flowers, and were called the children of the gods before all the people.

Willimina L. Armstrong.