Shom and Rajam were brothers, sons of the chief in a little tribal village in southern India. Their tribe of Ahamors, like most indigenous communities, laid a strong focus on their identity. A distinctive feature of their tribe was, decoration of their faces and arms with tiny white dots, made with sandalwood paste. The Ahamors believed that they beautified themselves as a form of worship to the greatest beauty in the whole world, Athama, the forest deity, whose whole body was covered with white dots.
She had appeared down the ages to the lineage of chiefs and whoever saw her was mesmerised by her unearthly beauty. The last to have seen her was Shom’s great grandfather, who said that Athama seemed like a human but was not. Nobody had seen her for many decades after that, though sometimes they did hear her voice in the forest. While outsiders would call it the wailing of the wind, for the Ahamors, it was their revered Athama singing in ecstasy.
The boys believed all the stories told to them by their parents and village elders, but they hated being decorated with the white dots every morning. It was a challenge for their mother to make them sit quietly while she completed the task of beautifying them.
One morning, after another heated argument with their mother, the boys took their best friend, Kromja the buffalo, inside the forest. They had no plans to return home anytime soon, so they kept going. As the forest started becoming denser and darker, they got a little apprehensive and were thinking of turning back when they noticed a green shimmering glow. They walked towards it and saw someone sitting beneath it caressing her arms. They observed she had a third arm behind her, or maybe a tail, which was so long that it went almost above her head. She was covered with dots, almost similar to theirs, but whiter. At first she did not seem to notice them, but then looked up. She was so fascinating and beautiful that the boys forgot to feel afraid, even when she stood up and showed them her very tall form.
Then she spoke looking directly at Shom, “Some years from now you will be the chief of your village so it is necessary for you to understand the great responsibility your tribe carries.” She continued, “The marks that you see on my body are not of beauty but of disease and pain. I am the mother of the forest. All the trees and plants are my children. I absorb all their pain and afflictions on my body and that is how the dots appear.”
What she went on to reveal was contrary to what they had always believed. Athama said, “You are all so dear to me, not because you emulate my beauty, but because you share my pain.” She added that she had explained the same to their great grandfather. That she appeared to every fourth generation in the chief’s family to reaffirm their faith and make them understand their responsibility.
Shom was young, but he understood very well what the forest deity had communicated. He took his brother’s hand and walked home with Kromja. They did not tell anyone of the encounter in the forest, but from the next day onwards sat down quietly to get the dots made. Beauty might not be a badge of honour, but sharing someone’s pain surely is. In time, Shom became a great chief and ensured that for the next few generations they continued the tradition.