The small community of eight families lived on the fringes of the forest. Their makeshift huts enclosed a long courtyard where the women folk chatted, the children played and the men practiced their craft. They were a community of snake charmers. The men would catch snakes from the forest and travel to nearby villages and towns to show their act of controlling the dangerous creatures, along with some jugglery.
Their earnings were meagre, so to supplement their income, a few of them did another work on the sly, illegally. The snakes that had the most beautiful skins were transported to a nearby town, and sold to a trader who would smuggle the snake skins to faraway countries.
Winter had arrived and snow had started covering the ground around their hutments and the surrounding forest. The men were happy that they had a good catch to sell the trader before the grounds were frozen and they would be unable to hunt for the snakes for a few months. Their precious cargo, the last of this season, was kept in a large cane basket, ready to be transported the next day.
It was late evening, as they huddled together around the bonfire they saw him approaching. A tall man with unkempt hair, he looked like a tribal.
“Who are you, have you lost your way ?” asked Adhima, the eldest in the group.
The man only grunted in reply.
“Are you deaf or dumb, or you just don’t want to speak ?” queried Bhima, one of the younger snake catchers, clearly suspicious of the intruder.
As the man came closer to the fire, the gathered men were awestruck by his face. The unruly hair, the dusty clothes notwithstanding, none of them had ever seen such a striking face.
He didn’t speak a word, just stood quietly.
Adhima was now clearly quite fascinated by the good looking stranger. They made a place for him to sit near the fire, got him food and a warm blanket.
“You can rest here for the night. Tomorrow you can be on your way. There is a spare room where you can sleep. Come I’ll show you,” said Adhima, directing the tall stranger to the farthest hut.
As they entered the hut, Adhima showed the man the big basket that was kept in a corner, and warned, “Don’t you dare go near the basket or try opening it, there are dangerous snakes inside.”
The man just nodded, casually glancing towards the corner.
As Adhima walked towards his own hut, he wondered if the man would be able to sleep at all, knowing that a basket full of dangerous snakes shared his room.
It snowed heavily the whole night. In the morning, a sleeping Adhima was rudely shaken by his wife who was exclaiming loudly, ” Shiva … Shiva’s statue … outside.”
“What are you talking about woman ?” said an irritated Adhima, rushing towards the door.
What he saw, shocked him no less. It seemed overnight somebody had crafted a snow statue of Lord Shiva, complete with his long hair, the snakes around his neck.
The snake charmers and their families stared dumbfounded at the snow covered Shiva that had come up overnight in the courtyard. Then, one of the men exclaimed, “This is not Lord Shiva, he is the stranger who came last night … can’t you see ?”
Adhima rushed towards the farthest hut … it was empty and so was the basket.
“What did the foolish man do … did he free the snakes and went and sat in the middle of the courtyard, while the snakes crawled all over him ?” Adhima shouted, urging everyone to remove the snow that covered the man and the snakes.
They started poking the statue … but there was no man beneath it … just snow.
Adhima’s wife now started crying, bowing down before the snow idol, and said, “You foolish men, don’t you realise who was the stranger who came last night. Ask his forgiveness for killing innocent creatures so mercilessly for a few rupees. He has gone, taking his children with him and has left his snow replica to make you understand your mistake.”
The sun had come out … the men now gathered around the fast melting statue, with remorse and guilt in their hearts. All their life they had been worshippers of Lord Shiva, who was also called by another name, Pashupatinath – meaning the ‘Lord of all animals’. But they had never truly tried to understand what the name of their supreme deity truly meant.
Every living creature in the world, from a human being to a tiny mice, were his children. From the most loved and admired to the outcasts and rejected. Even that which was the most feared, disliked or reviled. He made no differentiation, no judgement, and embraced all.
He had come to rescue his own.