In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes.
This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 27: The Yaksha Prashna. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Choosing a Kingdom
After due deliberation on which kingdom to enter during their thirteenth year, the five brothers finally decide on Virata, the ruler of the Matsyas. No particular reason is given for this choice; Yudhishthir just mentions that Virata is ‘virtuous, powerful, and a friend to the Pandavas’.
In the choices that Arjuna gives Yudhishthir, there are Panchala, Chedi, Shurasena and Kunti as well. Interestingly, they don’t even consider Dwaraka, because it would be too obvious a choice.
Panchala would be too close to Hastinapur, not to mention that Karna had recently vanquished it. Shurasena and Kunti are the homes of Vasudeva and Pritha respectively, so the Kauravas would have them teeming with spies to spot any conspicuous entry by strangers.
Chedi, home to the late Shishupala, is a Kaurava ally.
So it appears that Matsya makes the grade by a process of elimination.
Assignment of Roles – 1
Now the Pandava brothers ask Yudhishthir the manner of his planned disguise. He answers, ‘I will present myself before the king as a Brahmin by name Kanka, skilled in and fond of dice play.
I shall become a courtier to Virata, and entertain him by becoming his chief partner in gambling. I shall, however, always discourage him from placing bets. If the king should ask, I will say that I was once the bosom friend of Yudhishthir.’
Bhimasena adds to this with an account of his plan. ‘I will become Vallabha, the cook. I am skilled in the culinary arts thanks to the blessings of my wife Hidimbi, and my tongue can distinguish between subtle flavours.
I shall perform all the chores of the royal kitchen, and befriend all the workers there. If any combatants challenge me to a fight, I shall do so, but I will not kill anyone. If someone asks, I will tell them that I was once a wrestler and cook in the employ of the great Yudhishthir.’
Arjuna next: ‘I will declare myself as a member of the third sex. I will conceal the marks of bowstring on my wrists with bangles, and with my hair in a braid, I will enter the inner chambers of Virata’s women.
I will instruct them in the modes of singing and dancing, which I learnt from Chitraratha in Amaravati. Thus I will also fulfil the curse that has been placed on me by Urvasi. If asked, I will say that I was once Draupadi’s waiting woman. My name will be Brihannala.’
(For a more detailed account of Urvasi’s curse, see: Episode 20: Adventures of Arjuna.)
Assignment of Roles – 2
At Yudhishthir’s bidding, Nakula is the next to speak. ‘Under the name of Granthika, I will become a keeper of horses in Virata’s stables.’
And Sahadeva: ‘I will become a keeper of cattle. I am skilled in milking cows and taming bulls when they become ferocious. Under the name of Tantripala, I shall perform my tasks deftly, and if asked, I will say that I was once engaged in looking after the cattle of Yudhishthir in Indraprastha.’
Yudhishthir now looks at Draupadi. ‘What about you, Panchali?’
‘My lord,’ Draupadi replies, ‘there is a class of women called Sairandhris, who serve royal women all over Aryavarta. I will serve Sudeshna, the wife of Virata, and if asked, I shall tell her that I once waited upon Draupadi at the court of Yudhishthir.’
The Hiding of Weapons
On the outskirts of Matsya, Arjuna suggests to his brothers that all their weapons ought to be concealed somewhere if they are to pass off as successfully as commoners. He tells them about a cemetery he had seen, which is not frequented by many people.
‘There is a sami tree in the middle of it, Brother,’ says Arjuna to Yudhishthir. ‘It is large and tough to scale. It is a place which people are always in a hurry to leave, so it is the perfect hiding place for our weapons.’
The Pandavas thus go to the place suggested by Arjuna. He unstrings the Gandiva first, then lays down each of the great weapons he has gained from his travels. The rest of the brothers also give up their arms.
Nakula gathers them up in a large piece of cloth and ascends the tree. He ties the bundle to the highest and sturdiest branch securely, and makes sure that it does not fall.
Before they leave, they hang up a corpse on the branch next to the weapons, so that anyone who sees it from below thinks that it is just a dead body, and that the stench from the rot would discourage them from climbing up the tree.
On the way back to the city, when shepherds and cowherds ask them who had died, they reply, ‘Our mother. She was one hundred and eighty years old. We have placed her dead body on the highest branch of that tree, in accordance with the custom of our forefathers.’
Then they assign themselves names to be used just among themselves (separate from the public aliases they will be using in Matsya). They are Jaya, Jayanta, Vijaya, Jayatsena and Jayatvala respectively in descending order of age.
Kanka and Valala
First to enter the court of Virata is Yudhishthir in the garb of Kanka, the Brahmin with a love of dice and gambling. He approaches the king and says:
‘Your Majesty, know me for a Brahmin who has lost everything he ever had, and is now in need for protection and subsistence. I shall be honoured to live in your court doing whatever chore you see fit for me, O King.’
Virata is struck by the appearance of the stranger, and he thinks to himself: He cannot be a mere Brahmin. He looks like a man who has had the entire earth by his feet at one time. He says he has nothing, but why does his face carry the assurance of Indra?
‘Where do you come from, good sir?’ asks the king.
‘I have served in the court of Yudhishthir before the Pandavas hit upon rough times,’ replies Kanka. ‘I am skilled in the play of dice, and I was formerly a friend of Yudhishthir.’
Virata is overjoyed to have a friend of the Pandavas at court, and appoints Kanka immediately to an important office.
The next to arrive is a mountain of a man who calls him Vallabha (used interchangeably with Valala), a cooking ladle mounted on his shoulder as if it were a mace. He introduces himself as a part-time wrestler and full time cook, and gains employment in Virata’s kitchen.
Draupadi, disguised as a common woman, presents herself in court someone in great distress. ‘I am a Sairandhri whose husbands have departed to distant countries, O King,’ she says. ‘I desire protection while they are away. Will anyone in your palace keep me as a waiting woman?’
Virata’s wife, Sudeshna, examines Draupadi and says, ‘You look like you have been a mistress to many servants in the past, my girl. Your heels are not prominent. Your thighs touch each other.
‘Your toenails and your palms are unblemished, your hair is beautiful, your voice as sweet as that of a swan. Your eyelashes are curved, your nether lip red as the earth. You must be a Gandharvi, or a Yakshini or an Apsara. Who are you?’
‘My queen,’ Daupadi says, bowing, ‘I am none of those. I am just a woman that belongs to the Sairandhri class. But I have served only royal ladies in my time, who have looked after me well. I have waited upon Satyabhama, the wife of Krishna in Dwaraka, and upon Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas in Indraprastha.’
‘Then you will attend to me,’ says Sudeshna, and beckons to her maids to take her away into the inner chambers.
‘My only condition, Your Majesty,’ says Draupadi, ‘is that neither His Majesty Virata nor any of the men of the royal household should be allowed to take me to his bed. It is the wish of my husbands – and mine too – that I shall not be sullied by other men. Please grant that my virtue will be protected.’
‘So be it!’ says Sudeshna.
Sahadeva does not enter the court of Virata, as befitting a cowherd, but takes up discreet employment at one of the many cattle sheds under the king’s control.
However, Virata does spot him one day and summons him to his side. ‘Who are you, young man?’ he asks. ‘I have never seen you here before, but you look not like a cowherd or any Vaishya.’
‘My name is Tantripala,’ replies Sahadeva. ‘I was once employed in the service of the Pandavas. I looked after their cows. But ever since they have been sent into the forest, I have been left without a patron. I wish, O King, that you will allow me to remain here.’
And Virata replies, ‘If you have looked after the cows of Yudhishthir, then you are good enough to take care of mine. I have a hundred thousand kine divided into distinct herds. I place them and their keepers in your charge from now on.’
Next to arrive in the city, and at the court, is a well-built man dressed in the garments and ornaments of women. He wears conch-bracelets overlaid with gold, and his hair is tied in a braid, and his earrings look as though they belong on a warrior.
‘I am proficient in dance, song and musical instruments, O King,’ he tells Virata. ‘Assign me as master to your daughter, Uttara. As to how I have come by this form, it is a story of much pain to me, and there is no need to narrate it. Just accept me as Brihannala, a son or daughter to neither mother nor father.’
Virata tests the skills of Brihannala, then, and after consulting with his ministers, gives him up to examination by the women of the house.
After his impotence is confirmed, he is assigned living quarters within the ladies’ chambers, and is welcomed with all manner of rituals and rites by Uttara and her companions.
The last to arrive is Nakula, and one look at him is enough for the courtiers in Virata’s hall to speculate whether he is the embodiment of Surya himself. He salutes the king and says,
‘No animal in my care ever becomes weak or ill, Your Majesty. I have spent many a year in the stables of Indraprastha, when it was ruled by King Yudhishthir. Even mares in my hands will fight like brave stallions. My name is Granthika.’
‘Welcome to our humble city, O Granthika,’ says Virata. ‘From today, you will be in charge of all my stables and horses.’
With that appointment, the entry of the Pandavas into the court of Virata is complete. It is strange that not one among Virata’s ministers catch the hint that five men and a woman come from ‘Yudhishthir’s city’ at about the same time the Pandavas’ exile is ending, but I suppose we must accept such hard-to-believe details for the story’s sake.
Why did they stay at a king’s court?
The rules of the agnyaatavaasa (or ‘the year of incognito’) do not specify that the Pandavas should stay at a king’s palace. They could easily have chosen to live as nondescript Brahmins in one of the smaller village of Matsya.
But they make the conscious choice to live in Virata’s place, ‘hiding in plain sight’ as it were. Why?
One possible reason is that a king’s palace, once you gained entry into it, is pretty secure from spies. Whereas Duryodhana’s employees would have been continually combing the villages and towns of Matsya, they would not have had easy access to the palace itself.
This is especially true of Bhima, Nakula, Sahadeva, Draupadi and Brihannala – who all gain access to private places inside Virata’s palace. Who is going to search the ladies’ chambers, for instance, or the king’s kitchen or his stables?
The only risky aspect of this decision is Yudhishthir’s position as Virata’s courtier. But this also has an advantage in that it allows the Pandavas to have one finger on the geopolitical pulse of Aryavarta. What are the kings thinking? Is Duryodhana making any moves? Are the Pandavas in danger of being found out or is the plan going well?
These elements would have been absent if they had chosen to live as commoners in a village. In that case, all their hopes would have rested on the possibility of not being seen by any of Duryodhana’s spies.
The choice – and their plan – goes well for the first ten months of the year. Then Kichaka enters the scene and shakes the pickle jar. We’ll see how in the next episode.
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