December 26, 1798
British traveler Jonathan Dinegar Goldingham strolled along the beach south of Chennai, where he was spending part of his winter holiday. His cousin, Elizabeth, a descendant of George Earl of Cumberland, had invited him to Calcutta, from whence Jonathan would travel to outlying areas as much as time allowed.
He’d found the India of his dreams. Dinegar, as he was known, was happy to breathe in the cold, salty air of the sea pounding southern India. Mahabalipuram was indeed a fortuitous discovery, one of those gifts of travel that occurred to those with the money and leisure time for indulging the spirit of Wanderlust.
As he walked, he pondered the ancient civilization that was said to have existed here five thousand years earlier. Strains of the Bagavad Gita came to Dinegar, and he recited aloud,
He who neither likes nor dislikes, neither bemoans nor desires, who has renounced both the auspicious and inauspicious and who is full of devotion to me – he is dear to ME.
In his travelogue entry, he would write about the lost city under the sea, an Atlantis of Asia , the splendor of which surpassed mankind’s wildest dreams. After all, Mahabalipuram’s beauty was allegedly so great that the jealous gods wreaked punishment. In a colossal storm, they covered Mahabalipuram with water to keep it forever hidden from man’s admiration.
Children’s voices interrupted Dinegar’s private musings. Native urchins scampered along the shore looking for God only knew what. Tiny, skinny little boys — were there no girls in this village? — wearing only their dark brown skin or perhaps a filthy loincloth.
They were the perennial small boys to be found in impoverished countries anywhere in the world. Young as they were, they knew that a foreign visitor might mean money.
With the innate cleverness of survivors, the children sized up this white man.
Far taller than any men they had seen in their native village. Skin a strange white, hair a shade not to be seen on any head in Chennai — blond — the visitor wore a white linen suit, a vest and pocket watch. He walked, stiff and upright, with a cane.
Rani, the tallest of the urchins and the best dressed, if loincloths could be considered dress at all, greeting Dinegar in an alien tongue. He held his hands in the universal greeting of “Namaste.” When Rani smiled, his face was quite handsome. What might this child want of him? What might he be offering?
The child thrust his hand into a black pouch hanging from his waist. He held out a gray piece of something to the British traveler. Was it a pebble?A shell?
Dinegar took the tiny stone fragment from Rani. “Ah, I see you have a relic, my boy.” The item was a hand attached to a severed wrist. It was pocked by erosion. Dinegar thought immediately that it must have come from the lost city of Mahabalipuram. He was immediately interested. Apparently it had been presented by the sea at high tide. This enterprising little fellow was harvesting the ocean’s gifts to sell them.
Sensing the interest of his prospective customer, Rani began speaking English with astonishing proficiency. “Sahib, this is the hand of Ganesha, the son of Shiva. It is I am certain from the ruins beneath the sea.”
“Yes,” said Dinegar. “I know of the lost city of Mahabalipuram. It is in fact what brought me to your part of the world. That and the poetry of Coleridge.”
Rani waved the hand in front of Dinegar, holding it between his thumb and index finger. “Sahib, the hand of Ganesha is good luck. Is rare and valuable. You will not find another. Most of the relics from Mahabalipuram are in museums.”
“But I cannot take it if it belongs to India,” said Dinegar. It must be turned in to the authorities.”
“No, no. I am allowed to keep what I find. Name your price and it is yours.”
“Well, I don’t know…” began Dinegar.
Rani pressed the small object into Dinegar’s large palm. “Buy?” he pleaded.
It was such a small thing. Surely no one would miss it. With all the statuary allegedly buried under the sea, this was no more important than a grain of sand. After all, mused the professor, he could add it to his travel collection of shells, stones and mysterious objects from around the world. He relented.
“Only English money,” Dinegar said. “No rupees.”
“No problem, English money. Please, Sahib, buy,” Rani tapped his mouth and then patted his stomach, which looked as though it hadn’t been filled for a very long time. This foreigner could not miss the message. Rani would do whatever it took to make his sale. Dinegar took a shilling from his pocket and handed it to the boy.
“Good?” he inquired.
The answering smile of the boy made him think that he’d paid to much. No matter; the child had to be commended for his business sense.
“Good,” said Rani. “Brings luck. Luck good.
“Ah, I understand. This hand of Ganesha may change my fate for the better. Well I need that.” By now, Dinegar was surrounded by young boys, all of whom held bits and pieces of stone or brass, all of whom wanted a sale.
“No, money finished. Done. No.”
The small mob engulfed him, and Dinegar was forced to use his cane as a prod to make his way through the throng. He walked very briskly away from the shore, encouraged by the fact that a strolling couple, other British tourists, were nearing them. He hoped they would serve as a distraction while he made his escape.