Amba is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. She is the eldest daughter of King Kasya of Kosala (a city sometimes called Kasi). She has two younger sisters, Ambika and Ambalika.
Amba’s story arc begins when a young Bhishma arrives in Kosala to win the hands of the three princesses at their swayamvara. Instead of allowing the princesses to choose their husbands, Bhishma decides to abduct them by force.
In this post, we will answer the question: How did Amba kill Bhishma?
Amba’s role in the removal of Bhishma from the battlefield is an important one: she acts as Arjuna’s shield so that Arjuna gets a clear line of attack at Bhishma. Also, Bhishma’s actual death happens after Amba dies at the hands of Ashwatthama during the Sauptika Parva. Amba’s quest for revenge, therefore, remains unfulfilled.
(For a comprehensive guide on Amba, see Amba: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Heroine.)
The First Nine Days
The first ten days of the Mahabharata war are characterized by Bhishma leading the Kaurava forces. During these ten days, the Pandavas know that Bhishma will not fight against Shikhandi.
(For the purposes of this post, we will use ‘Amba’ and ‘Shikhandi’ interchangeably because they’re the same person.)
Despite this knowledge, the Pandavas are not able to make any dents to Bhishma’s armour because of two reasons:
- The Kauravas protect Bhishma from Amba. Whenever Amba arrives to challenge Bhishma, one or the other Kaurava warrior helps Bhishma out by engaging with Amba.
- Amba, by herself, is not powerful enough to defeat Bhishma – even when Bhishma is not fighting back. The gulf between the warriors is so immense that Bhishma can just receive all of Amba’s arrows on his armour without feeling a thing.
For these reasons, the first nine days of the war are quite frustrating for the Pandavas. They employ Arjuna as the main foil against Bhishma, but Arjuna has his own problems with fighting his grandfather.
Only on the tenth day, with Krishna deciding that enough was enough, do matters come to a boil.
The Tenth Day
The Pandava strategy on the tenth day – with Bhishma’s blessings, it must be said – is markedly different to what they had been trying until then.
On the tenth day, Amba (Shikhandi) is placed in the middle of the Pandava formation with one single brief: continually pummel Bhishma with arrows.
Arjuna and Bhima protect the wheels of Amba’s chariot, with the intention of warding off any Kaurava warriors that will ride up to defend Bhishma against Amba’s arrows.
The theory is that if Amba is given a clear path to Bhishma for one full day, and Bhishma does not shoot back at Amba, then sooner or later the grandsire will be weighed down by the sheer number of arrows that are flying at him.
But in truth, even this attempt turns out to be futile.
Help from Arjuna
As the tenth day progresses, it becomes clear to the Pandavas that even when Bhishma is unprotected and openly available, Amba does not possess the requisite skill to bring down the Kaurava commander.
Amba’s arrows are simply not powerful enough – not hefty enough – to pierce the armour of Bhishma. And Amba does not seem to have the skills necessary to shoot Bhishma in places uncovered by armour.
So around the afternoon of the day, Arjuna decides that the time has come for a change in plan.
Now, not only does Arjuna protect Shikhandi from Kaurava warriors (as originally intended), he also begins to shoot some of his own arrows at Bhishma.
Crucially, he does this from behind Amba’s chariot, while protecting the wheel. So Bhishma does not have a clear line of sight to Arjuna. He thinks that all the arrows flying at him are being shot by Amba.
Bit by bit, Bhishma begins to realize that Amba’s arrows seem to be wearing him down. He takes a closer look and realizes what is happening: mixed in with the mass of Amba’s arrows are some of Arjuna’s.
Bhishma tries to separate Amba from Arjuna, so that he might defend himself against the latter while leaving the former alone. But Arjuna and Amba are fighting so close together – with Arjuna situated behind Amba – that this turns out to be impossible.
More and more of Arjuna’s arrows begin to appear in the mix now. Some of them draw blood.
Bhishma knows that it is only a matter of time before he will be brought down. He announces to the world that he is not falling to Shikhandi but to Arjuna.
‘It is not Shikhandi’s arrows that are breaking my armour, but Falguna’s!’ he says, as he leaps to the ground, arrows sticking out of him.
After several more minutes of this, Bhishma finally gives up. He falls to the ground, and is propped up by the arrows that have pieced him.
Amba thus plays an important role in Bhishma’s removal from battle. In this sense, Shiva’s promise is technically true. In fact, we could go as far as to say that but for Amba, Bhishma would never have been vanquished.
Why? Because the only warrior on the Pandava side who maybe has a chance of defeating Bhishma is Arjuna. And Arjuna does not want to fight against Bhishma.
In any duel between the two, it is Bhishma who has the upper hand because of Arjuna’s hesitation. On the other hand, Bhishma throws himself at every challenge with gusto.
However, while Amba’s role is an important one, it is also merely an enabling one. Her primary function is to be Arjuna’s shield so that Arjuna does not have to bother about defending himself against Bhishma.
Amba does not shoot any arrows that pierce Bhishma’s armour – at least not until Arjuna has broken the old man’s defences.
Amba does not land any telling blows on Bhishma despite having a clear path to him for much of the tenth day.
Her most potent weapon against Bhishma is a rule that Bhishma has imposed upon himself: that he would not fight her or defend himself against her.
Despite the many machinations of the Pandavas and Amba, Bhishma still does not die. He remains alive on the bed of arrows right until the end of the Kurukshetra war.
He only dies – of his own will – after Yudhishthir has been made king of Indraprastha, and after he has imparted wisdom and knowledge to the emperor.
The moment of Bhishma’s death arrives long after Amba (in the body of Shikhandi) dies at the hands of Ashwatthama on the night of the eighteenth day – when the son of Drona avenges his father’s death by raiding the Pandava camp and massacring everyone in sight.
Ironically, therefore, Amba lives two lives – one as a woman, the other as a man – fuelled by one ambition: to kill Bhishma, and dies both times without seeing her wish fulfilled.
The most she gets to see is Bhishma fall on a bed of arrows as a result of her cooperation with Arjuna. She also sees Bhishma in pain for eight days as he is suspended on the arrows that Amba had shot.
Now, this is not nothing. Amba would have derived some pleasure out of this. But it is a far cry from what she might have expected from Shiva’s promise.
She would have thought that she would be the one to plunge the knife into Bhishma’s breast, and to twist it. But fate has other plans.
Complement thus post with the full story of how Bhishma falls on the tenth day of the Mahabharata war.