It is on the shore of this sea that the gods and demons had congregated at the dawn of time—or so believe the Hindus. As their mythology says, the gods and ogres had gathered there to churn the mysteries of the sea, shortly after Creation, in their quest for the greatest treasures of the cosmos.
After eons of toil, they had succeeded in their quest, and Laxmi—the Goddess of Wealth—had emerged from the primeval sea. She had arisen, along with many other extraordinary riches, with many other things both noble and vile—such as the ambrosia of immortality and the poison of annihilation.
And, also, the only philosopher's stone in this world, the stone that transmutes base metals into gold at the merest touch, and which is said to lie even now on this seashore.
With his long hairs matted and grimy, his naked torso covered with mud and filth, his body very much like a thin dirty shadow, the mad monk has been walking along the shore of the sea as far as they can remember. His lips pressed together in grim determination, his eyes burning like fireflies in the night that seek to illuminate their way with their own light, he searches endlessly for the elusive philosopher's stone. He has no home, no family, no place to call his own—poorer than the meanest roadside beggar, he is clad only in a piece of loincloth and a chain-belt of iron.
It is his certitude that keeps him going, his certitude that one day he will find the fabled philosopher's stone.
For him, all the gold and silver in the world hold no meaning, all the kings' riches are of no use to him—people laugh at him as they watch him rove endlessly in his quest, the quest for the ultimate treasure of all, the source of all the wealth in the world.
The crazy mendicant keeps on searching tirelessly on the seashore. He has lost all hope, perhaps, but not yet the habit of searching by the sea.
It laughs at the madman, rising with its waves to the sky, growling and hissing and sputtering, as if to tell him its secret. The secret of where the stone lies, it seems to know where he will find it—the sea is witness to so many secrets, so many mysteries.
Who knows what the sea seeks, raising its arms beseechingly to the sky every day, every hour, every moment—whom does the sea seek among the sun and the moon and the stars? What riches does it hope to find? Like the unceasing movements of the planets, like the clockwork diurnality of the sun, moon and stars, like the endless beseeching of the sea, like the lonely bird on a treetop that calls for its mate throughout the night's darkness—the crazy monk seeks untiringly, fruitlessly, for the stone that would transmute his fortunes.
Then, one day, a little boy from the nearby village asks him—"Old man, what's it that I see on your waist? From where did you get that golden belt?"
He looks down, startled, and finds—to his consternation and bitter despair—that the iron chain on his waist has indeed turned to gold one of these days, without him noticing it! He takes it off and examines it carefully, rubbing his eyes again and again, as if to check whether he is dreaming!
But no! It is truly of gold!
With a plaintive cry of desperation and grief, he falls down on the ground, looking hither and thither with crazed eyes, tearing at his matted locks with his filthy hands.
From the force of habit, for many years, he has been picking up pebbles and stones from the seashore, striking each of them on his iron chain, and then tossing it away without a second glance at his belt—and that was how he had lost his philosopher's stone even after finding it!
The sun is setting, a golden dream: the sky is an auric color and the sea is molten gold. The golden fever has gripped his heart and soul, and the mendicant now turns back, retracing his steps in a renewed quest for the fabulous treasure he has lost. But now, he is drooping like a felled tree, he is weak and exhausted, his body is a burden for this broken man.
So near and yet so far!
That dreary dead route by the seashore lies before him, stretching away endlessly to the infinity of the horizon. Millions of stones and pebbles lie on the sand, stained by the deepening shadows of his approaching night of unending sorrow.
Half his life has been spent searching for that which he had touched, briefly, for just a few seconds—and the remaining half would be another quest for that which he had gained and yet lost in his carelessness—the philosopher's stone, the greatest of all treasures, the key to all the wealth in the world.
The Iron Chain is a free rendering into English prose of the Bengali (Bangla) poem Parash Pathar ("The Philosopher's Stone") by Rabindranath Tagore. It was written in 1892 and appeared in the collection Sonar Tari ("The Golden Boat").
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize, is widely considered the greatest Bengali poet of all time. He is certainly one of the finest writers of the world in the past century. Apart from poetry, Tagore wrote novels, essays, short stories, plays, belles-lettres, travelogues, humorous sketches, political commentary, creative non-fiction, literary criticism—almost everything literary. He was also an accomplished singer, musician and painter.