The Coolies of Kishkindha

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It was early summer, but the sun was hardly very hot for the time of the year. There was even a pleasant breeze blowing and the path ahead was a stunningly scenic one.

And yet, every passing day, the comrades were dropping dead by the wayside, some succumbing to disease or injury, some just too tired to continue.

Nila stopped and looked back at the long trail of vanaras behind him. The able-bodied among them were carrying the sick and wounded, while the less-abled were barely carrying themselves along. And all of them were hungry, without food or water for many days now.

These were the remnants of the vanara army of Sugriva, which had helped the deva prince Rama defeat Ravana, the rakshasa King of Lanka. There was still a 1000 miles or more to go before they got home, to the Kingdom of Kishkindha, in the southern part of the land called Bharat and the journey was killing many of them.

The story of how they had been abandoned and left to fend for themselves after the war would never be recorded in the annals of any epic anywhere.

As he trudged along, carrying Nala, his sick brother, Nila remembered vividly the day the war had ended. Everyone was celebrating the killing of Ravana and the release of Sita from his custody. There was a mood of jubilation among the vanaras. Their decision to side with good against evil, to join the fight for justice had been rewarded at last.

Just then, a huge roar went up amidst the crowd as the flying chariot, the Pushpaka Vimana, took off into the air, carrying with it the three devas on behalf of whom the entire war had been fought.

“WTF! They have left? Not a word to us about how we are supposed to get back home from this goddamn island? No arrangements to treat or care for our injured soldiers?” an incensed Nila had told Nala then, his face contorting with great anger. ( He was the original angry vanar in all history)

His grievance was justified. The war against Ravana and his rakshasa forces had been a brutal one. The vanaras led by Hanuman, their Commander-in-Chief had put in everything they had and suffered great casualties, thousands of comrades killed, injured, many disabled for life and in need of both treatment and care.

Yes, they had won but were still stuck in foreign, hostile territory. How were they supposed to make it back home without food, water, medicine and any means of transport? Why were they being taken for granted like this – as if they were worth nothing?

“It is not that they don’t care. Apparently, the deva prince had an urgent appointment back home and had to rush back by the first flight” said Nala trying to justify their abandonment by the man they had fought and suffered for all these days.

An urgent appointment after 14 years in exile?

“You are beginning to sound like a real bhakt Nala. It is one thing to help out someone in trouble and something else altogether to mortgage your brain to him” retorted Nila, as he stomped off in search of the Sugriva and Hanuman. It was their friendship with the deva, from the northern territories, that had gotten all of them into this battle with the rakshasas in the first place.

As he made his way through the battlefield, still strewn with the corpses of both vanaras and rakshasas, Nila could not but remember the prophetic words of Vali, over a year and half ago.

Vali, who was still their king then, had sent Nila and other vanara generals a message: “You are free to take sides in the dispute between me and my brother Sugriva as you think fit. I will not hold this against you at all, but don’t let any outsider meddle in our affairs. That will be the end of our existence as a free and independent tribe. You will all end up being slaves forever.”

Just a few days later Vali was killed through trickery by Sugriva’s deva friend. Too afraid to confront the powerful vanara king directly, he had shot him with an arrow, while hiding behind a tree. As part of the deal, Sugriva took the throne of Kishkindha and put his troops at the service of the foreigner in his fight against the rakshasa king of faraway Lanka – who incidentally had been a good friend of Vali.

The vanaras had done all the heavy lifting in the war. Nala, a genius architect, was the one who organized the construction of a bridge across the straits off the coast of Rameswaram, that allowed the troops to march to Lanka. Hanuman, the ablest of all the vanaras was the commander, Angad was chief of spying operations, while Nila was the main general, who led the actual attack on the rakshasa kingdom.

They were victorious of course, but the costs were horrendous on both sides. Thousands of vanaras and rakshasas were killed and many thousands more maimed for life. The year-long battle had ruined the Lankan infrastructure and agriculture thrusting millions into penury and hunger. Back home in Kishkindha too, with all the youth away at war and no one to work in the fields, there had been a deadly famine.

The vanaras had been told they were fighting on the side of good against evil, but as the war had dragged on, many questions had haunted Nila.

What was the need for a war in the first place? Why hadn’t the foreigners apologized to the King of Lanka for assaulting his sister and cutting off her nose? She was a state official after all, who had only come to check their identity documents, as they were trespassing on someone else’s territory without permission?  A man attacking an unarmed woman, wasn’t that just so obnoxious?

What Ravana did in retaliation was surely wrong but why did Sita refuse Hanuman’s offer to fly her back on his shoulders after he located her at the Ashoka Vatika? There would have been no war if she had only agreed to this sensible proposal. Was there an arms dealer lobby at work somewhere – making profits from the war?

And during the course of the war while the magic Sanjeevani herb was used to revive an injured Lakshman, why wasn’t it available to save the lives of any vanara soldier? Also, if the devas had access to this shiny new flying chariot, why couldn’t it be first deployed to fly the critically injured out of the battlefield for treatment?  What was this apartheid-like policy all about ? Didn’t vanara lives matter?

And by the way, why were there no devas from Ayodhya who had come to fight on behalf of their prince when he was in such dire trouble? Why were the vanaras the only ones making all the sacrifices?

With these blasphemous doubts still buzzing in his head as Nila went searching for his bosses to get some answers, he suddenly stumbled over the body of a rakshasa. He nearly fell to the ground before recovering his balance. It was getting dark and it was difficult to see but the rakshasa, dressed in fine battle armor, seemed to be still alive.

“Water, some water please!” said the dying warrior.

“Holy smokes! Is that you Prahasta?” said Nila, as he got a closer look at the rakshasa’s face. It was indeed him, the maternal uncle of the King of Lanka and the commander-in-chief of the rakshasa army. It was Nila himself, who had knocked the rakshasa general out of action, felled him with a well-aimed rock. The fierce battle had lasted for many days and was a turning point in the entire war.

“Thank you”, said Prahasta, as he recovered his voice after drinking some of the cold water and splashing some more on his face. And then he added, ‘Thank you, my dear coolie from Kishkindha’.

“Coolie? I am a vanara general!” said Nila, feigning anger. He was aware of what Prahasta was really alluding to. He did not feel like much of a general any more.

He suddenly realized, this was the first time he was speaking to any rakshasa in his entire life. He had fought them under orders from above without really knowing much about who they were and what they were really like. That’s what most wars were about – people who had much in common constantly pitted against each other – on behalf of someone else.

The conversation that ensued between the two was not very long but was an intense one.  Prahasta confirmed what had already dawned on Nila.  The simple vanaras had got tricked into fighting the rakshasas, with whom they had no prior enmity at all. The vanaras had not been the ‘warriors fighting for justice’ as they had been falsely told. Instead, they were mere pawns, foot soldiers in the grand scheme for domination of the sub-continent called Bharat by the devas.

Sugriva had done to the vanaras what Vibhishana did to the rakshasas – betrayed his people’s future for a temporary gain. The war had ended up weakening both tribes forever, to the advantage of the northerner devas.

As he trudged along, carrying the weight of his brother on his back, Nila recalled weeping when Prahasta finally breathed his last. It was the first time in his life tears had welled up in the great vanara general’s eyes. Tears of both sorrow and anger.

Yes, Prahasta was right. The proud vanaras had indeed been turned into the coolies of Kishkindha.  And as long as the devas dominated, this would also be the fate of every other tribe in Bharat – the rakshasa, asura, naga, yaksha, nishada, daitya, danava, garuda – it was a long list.

They would all be nothing more than mere migrant workers forever – to be used, manipulated and discarded at whim by their deva masters.

Satya Sagar is a journalist and writer who can be contacted at




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