The first thing that hits you as you read this book – The Seal of Surya – is the amount of research put into it. There are bits of trivia, allusions and hints that any lover of history would find rewarding. The author weaves his novel into a world well aware of its position in time, and sets it alongside contemporaries such as King Enmerkar of Uruk – a known figure of ancient history.
The protagonist, Ikshvaku, is a much revered but largely unknown figure in Indian mythology, but the book does not approach these stories as myths. The primary question, it seems, is that if these myths were based on truth, what would the truth have looked like? Mythology tells us that Ikshvaku was the first King of Aryavarta, son of Vaivasvat Manu, and founder of the Suryavansha dynasty. It tells us nothing about his life, his quests and his motivations. The novel fills these gaps with imagination and a due regard for historicity.
The novel begins with Ikshvaku as a young boy, proposing to his father Vaivasvat that their divided Suryavanshi clans need a leader to yoke them together and fight against the growing strength of Anarya tribes – Rakshasas, Gandharvas and Yakshas. The story jumps quickly from here on, and some readers may be put off by its swift transitions. Ikshvaku becomes King in the fourth chapter itself, and halfway through the book the story has moved past more than a decade.
Much of this journey is devoted to his search for the seal of Surya, a mysterious relic that once belonged to his ancestors and casts undisputable legitimacy on its owner. But even the seal is found well before the end, and we begin to realise that the novel is essentially Ikshvaku’s biography. It chronicles his endless battles against Yakshas, Rakshasas and even rebels in his own tribe alongside his attempts to be a good son, brother, father and to a much lesser extent, husband. Even in a crisp read, the novel is packed with several characters.
There is the adventurous and loyal friend- Haryashva, the stern and reliable mentors- Ardra and Drishta, a well etched father- Vaivasvat Manu and the enigmatic Maharishis – Vasishtha, Atri and Kashyapa. The only gap, if one may want to look for it, is the lack of a strong female character. But the author is well aware of this, and promises that his second book will feature a female protagonist. A considerable time is spent on the geography, with the descriptions of cities, rivers and forests taking the reader well into India’s ancient past.
In the final analysis this novel is more about the history of Aryavarta than about any particular character. The author reiterates it by setting Ikshvaku’s story as being narrated a thousand years later to Sudasa, a young prince of the Bharata tribe, by King Bhagiratha of the Suryavanshi. Along this journey he poses some intriguing questions, such as how and when did the Suryavanshi migrate from the Sindhu to the Ganga, and who founded Ayodhya? How did Aryavarta go from being the land of Suryavansha and Somavansha to a nation ruled almost entirely by the Bharatas? Luckily, this novel is only the first of many stories set in this universe, as the author informs us.
The front cover, apart from featuring the author’s name, also lists a website – www.scrollsofaryavarta.com. A visit to this website illustrates the vast and vivid world that Pandey has imagined. He has loaded the website with articles, short stories, descriptions of tribes and cities, maps and family trees- leading to an experience that is nothing short of immersive.
A question may arise that how is The Seal of Surya different from Amish Tripathi’s popular Shiva triology? Tripathi started with a bang with The Immortals of Meluha, was able to maintain interest with The Secret of the Nagas but lost the plot in the third volume, the most voluminous of them all, The Oath of the Vayuputras. In case of the volume under review, author Amritanshu Pandey has done well to wrap his story through a very crisp narrative in 222 pages.
And the author makes no bones about it. In the epilogue to the novel he writes, “I see this novel as only one story in the vast world that encompasses all of ancient India’s history. This history to me, ends where the Ramayana and Mahabharata begin. Indeed, Sudasa’s time is some 500 years before the reign of Rama of the Suryavansha. But there is only so much I would be able to capture through the novels, and I fear I cannot dedicate my life to this like Ashok Banker has to his Epic India series.” However, Pandey promises that, like Ikshvaku, he has a few more stories of similar heroes of largely unknown era lined-up. I could look forward to it.
The reviewer is associate professor of history, Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi