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Monday, December 14, 2015

Episode 3/Chapter 22: What, If Our Dreams Come True!

Chapter 22

It took some time for the dust and fumes that burst out from underground to die down. “The fumes could be poisonous,” Sudalai had warned us.

“Let me go first and find out what is lying there” offered Sudalai.

We were unsure whether Sudalai should be risked in our project. We couldn’t respond spontaneously. He took our silence as our concurrence. He went forward and peeped into the opening. Welsch directed his powerful torchlight inside the opening. Sudalai squeezed his eyes several times before he declared, “There seems to be a flight of stairs below.”

We all rushed forward. All the time, the camera was focused on all our activities. Donald, the cameraman filmed every action. Curiosity and fear were written very large on all our faces.

“Give me the lamp.” Even as he said this, Sudalai readied himself to step into the opening.

“It is very unfair to expect you to get into this,” I told Sudalai hesitantly. ‘Who knows what could lie beneath?’

“Never mind Sir, I have lived my life with ghosts and spirits of dead bodies. They did nothing to me.”

He took the hurricane lamp we had brought and lighted it. Holding a long stick with a hook to which he fixed the light, he slowly dipped it into the opening and waved inside.

“Excepting dust and mud, I don’t see anything else.” Saying this, he took his first step into the opening. His ankle and then his knee disappeared while he held the light firmly in his hand. Welsch stooped down, beamed and circled his powerful torchlight.

“There seems to be a mound just below the flight of stairs,” Welsch shouted. I translated that to Sudalai.

“Yes, I also see that now. It seems to be a snake’s mound. Mostly these mounds are empty. Even if there were snakes they won’t hurt me particularly. I have a promise from ‘Nagadevatha,’” replied Sudalai laughingly, from inside the opening; his full body had now fully disappeared into the opening. His laughter from inside produced a terrible echo.

Adhi Kesavan suddenly ran to his bicycle, saying he would be back shortly.

Donald was the one to follow Sudalai with his camera on. He wore heavy rubber shoes that went up to his knees. Englishmen always come well prepared for any eventuality whereas we were just bare footed.

Sudalai carefully took one step at a time, climbing down the stairs and went close to the ground. The picture was clearer to him.

“There are at least twenty steps as I count them. The place is full of dust and debris. Cobwebs are hanging loosely from everywhere. I can see several insects crawling on the ground. At least one snake is just popping its head out of the mound. It might be unsafe for you all.” Sudalai shouted from below.

“What else do you see?” I shouted back.

“There is a narrow passage all through and there is a bend after some distance. I don’t see what things lie beyond.”

“Sudalai, please come back. We might need to take further precautions before we proceed further.” I was really concerned for Sudalai.

By that time, Adhi Kesavan returned with a long, but narrow ladder. “I thought this might be useful.” He had also brought a host of other miscellaneous things.

“You all stay back there. Let me jump over the mound. It is not big. Let me walk up to the bend to see what is behind. It seems to be a real long tunnel. Where it leads, I can’t say right now,” shouted Sudalai.

“I have brought a ladder. You might probably use it to cross over.” Adhi Kesavan shouted from here.

“Push it down the stairs.”

The ladder was gently pushed down the opening. Sudalai deftly received it, climbed over the ladder, squatted and slid down holding on to its side rails. Before we could say anything, he had used the ladder as a bridge and was already on the other side. It was a delicate piece of an action. Once he was on the other side, he shouted, “Let me walk to the bend and see what lie behind. You all stay back until I return.”

Donald was capturing everything on his movie camera sitting on the steps inside the opening. The light was just sufficient for his camera.

As we all stayed back, Sudalai walked cautiously inside the tunnel and shouted, “The tunnel is tall enough for Welsch.”  Welsch was nearly six feet tall. Everyone waited with great anxiety. In the next few minutes, Sudalai disappeared behind the bend and there was no further sound from him.

For the next several minutes, we kept shouting for him from the opening, but there was no response from Sudalai. We were all terribly worried. There was suspense and horror. Marimuthu offered to go behind his father, but we stoutly refused. I suggested that we should wait for Sudalai to return and report.

“What if something had happened to him? What if snakes had bitten him? What if he was attacked by some poisonous insects from all sides?” Adhi Kesavan bombarded me with questions and doubts.

“Don’t worry! Nothing would happen to him.” I assured him, even as I tried to rein in my own doubts.

When nothing happened even after about half an hour I volunteered to go in. Adhi Kesavan resisted.

“Look, Adhi Kesavan! I am the most dispensable person here, should anything happen. You have your high stakes in the matter. I don’t want anything to happen to the Englishmen. Don’t worry! You don’t know really. I have an agreement with Lord Siva. He would ensure that nothing happens to me.” I told him.

I folded my ‘dhoti’ and tied it tightly around my loins and stepped into the pit. After the first few steps, I carefully stepped over the ladder, squatted and slid down. For a minute, I closed my eyes when I was passing over the snake mounds. But I managed to cross over and jumped onto the other side. Sudalai seemed to have cleared the passage, as he progressed forward inside the tunnel. Using the torch light I had from Welsch, I beamed it on all sides and took several steps. I held my breath briefly when I approached the bend. The suspense was growing in me as to what could be there on the other side.

When I reached the bend, I could see another straight passage. From the distance, I vaguely saw the silhouette of someone standing along the wall. That must be Sudalai. I was relieved and shouted to the people on the ground above, “I see Sudalai now standing near a wall.”

Slowly and steadily I walked towards Sudalai. I didn’t know how much time it took. I called out to Sudalai and he shouted back saying, “I am against the dead end of a wall.”

Soon, I was standing by his side. The tunnel ended against a wall and there was nothing more.

“I have heard myths that there were secret doors in palaces and temples. I am trying to find out,” said Sudalai.

We examined the wall with the help of shimmering hurricane light and torch. We knocked the wall and it was made of stone. It hurt our fingers. There were two carvings.

“I know what it means,” Sudalai told me. “One represents the Sun and the other Moon. Look at them closely. There seems to be nothing else. Did you notice? Maybe they represent the keys to the door. Only thing is, I tried and nothing happened. Maybe they are jammed.”

I tried. The carvings were delicate. I was moving my hands along the carvings and nothing was happening.

Then suddenly we saw some light behind us and there stood Donald with his camera. ‘Hey.’ He shouted from behind. He came close to us and his camera was on, capturing everything. Soon, Welsch too joined. Adhi Kesavan must have stayed back as the guard at the entrance along with Marimuthu, I surmised.

All of us tried our hands to uncover the mystery. We examined the ground, the side walls, the ceiling and the carvings, but we found nothing.

Probably, Adhi Kesavan must have felt uneasy waiting outside without any action. So, he too joined us in the next few minutes.

Frustration and dejection were growing in all of us.

“There must be an opening somewhere here,” repeated Sudalai. He picked up a small stone and drew some pictures on the ground. “I am sure the tunnel would be leading us somewhere, most probably inside the temple. Look at this.”

Then suddenly, he hit his temple with his hands, “What a fool I am! I missed the obvious.” Saying this, he leapt to the wall, keeping his fingers on the eyes of Moon carvings and pressed it hard. We heard a thundering sound suddenly. Startled, we all fell back in shock. Even Sudalai hurriedly took out his fingers and jumped out.

There we saw, the wall opening up by a few inches.

“There we are,” shouted Welsch.

A lot of dust and debris fell from the ceiling from above. Welsch moved forward and tried harder with the eyes of the Moon carvings. The door moved a few more inches. We tried repeatedly and the door opened inch by inch.

Adhi Kesavan was quite lean and could get inside the door. “There is a flight of steps going up from here. I am going up now.” He shouted from the other side. I also squeezed myself inside. Welsch followed me taking over the camera from Donald who was a little stout for the gap. We all climbed the stairs and were met with another dead end. Yet another stone wall!

The torchlight I took from Welsch was fading out slowly. Welsch quickly went back to get batteries from Donald, but soon returned empty handed.

“The spare batteries are missing from his backpack. He doesn’t know how. I have asked him to get back to the entrance of the tunnel and wait for our instructions. Anyhow, he won’t be able to get through the small opening here.”

The hurricane light was still with us, but even that was dying out slowly. We all examined every nook and corner from the top of the stairs. We could locate two more carvings of Sun and Moon similar to the ones that we had seen earlier down below. We tried our hands and fingers on them the same way. But nothing happened.

“See there, there is an arrow mark on the wall just above the stairs. I am seeing it on my camera view,” hailed Welsch.

We all looked up. Yes, there was a red arrow mark. “What does that mean?” questioned Adhi Kesavan.

The arrow mark from the ceiling was pointing towards the platform on top of the stairs, where we were all standing. We looked down and for the first time, we noticed that the platform was broken at several places unlike other stairs.

“Can there be something below this platform?” asked Welsch. I was the translator and interpreter for everyone, with my little English knowledge. As he was saying this, I saw him fiddling with the Sun carvings and what he did, I didn’t know, but, I heard another big rattling sound and the black stone wall rumbled and moved slowly.

And then, all of a sudden, we heard people shouting from behind our back and there were noises from our front too. A dozen or so villagers were standing behind us, carrying with them all types of tools like crowbars, sickles, hammer and so on. The opening in the stone wall in front of us led us to another small ‘mandap’ inside the temple and we were standing behind a statue. A small group of tourists in front of the statue looked startled and stepped back. Adhi Kesavan moved forward, followed by all of us and we were standing in front of another statue of Lord Siva surrounded by small statues of several other deities inside the small mandap. We were all caught red-handed.


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