Romancing the shoe through myth, fiction and reality
Never perhaps was there a story about a shoe that was as popular as Cinderella's. The charming lady, who was part of our childhoods, was in reality modelled upon a young servant girl from Lydia in western Turkey. Rhodope joined a Thracian household where the not-so-good-looking Aesop, the man of the fables, served as the perfect foil to her loveliness.
Rich men lost their minds over her and showered expensive gifts many of which found their way to the temple of Aphrodite for she was a pious little girl. The poetess Sappho's brother succumbed to her charms as well. Sappho has left behind eloquent appeals for divine intervention to free him of his malady.
Rhodope's sandal was stolen one day by an eagle and dropped at the palace in Memphis.
Enchanted by the tiny slipper of fur, note it was not glass, the king launched a hunt and found not a servant with a mop but a confident young woman in a becoming outfit. She became his queen sending the court ladies into a tizzy.
On them subsequently the stepsisters were modelled. Verre (glass) was substituted for vair (fur) by a delusional Charles Perrault quiet oblivious to the material he was trying to squeeze a tender young foot into. Bringing little girls up on this story is never a good thing for there were never enough kings to go round and they get scarcer with every passing year.
"Beam me up Scottie" must surely be a lost Sanskrit mantra for the rest of our gods felt no need to soil their feet for the sake of travel. They whizzed rapidly though time and space. But in the world of mortals a pair of slippers, wooden khadaus (paduka) most probably, once ruled the kingdom of Ayodhya.
They sat on the throne during the years Rama was in exile and his brother Bharat executed what would have been Rama's will.
Unlike India, Greece and Rome appointed a patron god for shoemakers. At the entrance to Sandaliarium victis (sandal street) where cobblers abound, Augustus Caesar placed a statue of Apollo. By its sandalled feet is a crow which was a popular pet amongst those that plied the shoe trade.
While the barefoot Indian fakir dominates western mind, Admiral Nearchus who came to India with Alexander the Great in 326 BC wrote: "They have slippers of white skin, and these too made neatly; and the soles of their sandals are of different colours, and also high, so that the wearers seem taller."
Chandragupta's feet no doubt merited special treatment for Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador, writes: "His slippers being after this taken off, his feet are rubbed with scented ointments".
Chinese Buddhist monks, Hieun Tsang included, visited in the seventh century and testify that the Buddha who lived 11,000 years before them, left a print of his shoe on a rock some "eighty li" to the north of the royal city. Most, except the wealthy traders, went barefoot is the consensus.
The first detailed examination of the people of north India was carried out in 1030 CE by the Al Biruni who accompanied the Sultan of Ghazni on his invasion of India. While the Sultan busied himself with Emperor Prithviraj Chauhan's armies, the scholar conducted interviews. The strange observation, "They keep the shoes tight till they begin to put them on. They are turned down from the calf before walking", forces one to suppose he is talking about boots that get turned down from the calf. The Rajput cavalry perhaps?
Shoe stories abound. Prince Prithviraj Sisodia, the half brother of Maharana Sanga, is known to have scaled the fortified walls of the Sirohi fort and entered his brother-in-law's room by stealth. The errant prince of Sirohi was forced to place his wife's, that is Prithviraj's sister's, slippers on his head and swear never to ill treat her again.
It cost Prithviraj his life. Not by the blade of his brother-in-law's sword but by poison that had been slipped among the sweets sent along from the Sirohi kitchen. The work of a Sirohi cook or a member of the zenana. The brave and beautiful Tara Bai rushed down from Kumbhalgarh to his side and committed sati on his pyre.
The Pathar Masjid or the Mosque of the Slipper on the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar is an elegant building reflecting Nur Jahan's refined taste. Sadly, it is used as a granary for it was deemed unworthy after the empress callously remarked that it had cost no more than her jewelled slippers.
Stockings, noted Bernier, were not in use in Mughal India but reference to socks or mozas have been found. Shoes were pointed in front, open above with low heels that could be slipped on and off with ease. Muslims wore low heels but bunya traders wore high heels to help them walk swiftly.
Swiftly away from irate customers is the insinuation. Bernier, the physician was a little challenged when it came to the science of physiology! Pyrard saw Brahmans of Calicut put on brown slippers pointed in front, the point raised high. Poor women moved about barefooted but rich women wore red slippers bedecked with gold and sliver.
A really good shoe story belongs in every land and one of the finest belongs in India. It is the story of how Surya the sun god got his boots. Rejected by his mother's womb, the unformed ball of flesh was cared for by his older brothers who crafted for him a wonderful body. Martandya, the abortus, became Surya who won for himself the daughter of the first engineer. Unable to bear his radiance she fled back to daddy.
The unhappy husband was consoled by his father-in-law who offered to clip some of his beams off. But when he reached the legs Surya stopped him.
"I will wear boots," he said, "and my chariot will provide yet another screen." It is a story that ends happily-ever-after and a good story for little girls to grow up on.