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 28: Entry into Virata’s Court. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
The First Three Months
In the Samayapalana Parva, we get a short account of how the Pandavas spent the first ten months under Virata’s protection. Yudhishthir, by virtue of being a courtier, keeps earning gifts from the king, and enjoys the highest quality of life from a material perspective. He distributes all the wealth that he receives from the king between his four brothers.
Bhimasena sells to Yudhishthir meat and other food items that he makes in the kitchen, for a price. He also shares portions of his food with the other three siblings.
Arjuna smuggles out garments and cloth from the womens’ chambers and gives them to Nakula and Sahadeva so that they can get new clothes woven from them.
Nakula also shares with his brothers all the wealth that he gains from the king in the capacity of being the supervisor of stables. And Sahadeva sets aside portions of milk, curd and butter from the cows that he looks after.
They meet with Draupadi only when required, and in secret, but always keeping watch over her from a distance. Three months thus pass, with the Pandavas living in Virata’s palace while caring for one another, as though they are sharing a womb.
A Festival for Brahma
In the fourth month, a festival is celebrated in the Matsya kingdom in honour of Brahma. Many athletic events are conducted as part of this festival, and competitors come from all over Aryavarta to take part.
In these contests, the people of Matsya perform very poorly, and in a desperate bid to protect his kingdom’s honour, Virata orders Bhima to step into the wrestling arena.
It is with reluctance that Bhima obeys the king, knowing that his prowess might enable some of the spectators to recognize him. He intends to stay away from the main battle, but a wrestler called Jimuta – as powerful as Vritra himself – fights his way up to the very top of the ladder.
It is left to Bhima to protect Matsya’s name. In a long and furious match, he defeats Jimuta (also kills him for good measure) and wins many gifts from a grateful Virata.
It is also during this festival that Brihannala is ordered to come out into the open so that his dance and music could be displayed. Horses trained by Nakula and cows tended to by Sahadeva are also brought out in order to impress all the people who have come from distant lands.
This is the first time during their stay that the Pandavas are made to appear in public. Some of the people who come to this event from Hastinapur wonder at the great strength of the wrestler Vallabha, or the wonderful horses bred by Granthika, or the arts and culture scene is flourishing under this eunuch named Brihannala.
The murmurs reach Duryodhana eventually, and he dispatches some spies into the kingdom of Virata, just in case.
Seven more months pass without incident. But just as the Pandavas are beginning to hope that their year of hiding is coming to an end, an incident happens that forces them to reveal themselves.
Kichaka Desires Draupadi
Trouble enters the Pandavas’ lives in the form of Kichaka, brother of Sudeshna, commander of Virata’s army. He happens to spot Draupadi waiting upon his sister, and wishes to possess her.
(This is not unreasonable behaviour from a man of high status such as Kichaka; waiting women and maids are often summoned to their masters’ beds to satiate their lust.)
‘Who is this damsel, Sister?’ he asks Sudeshna. ‘I have never seen her before in this palace. She is like the finest wine that maddens a man with its fragrance. With your permission, I would like to approach this lady of divine beauty; why, I might even make her my queen.’
(We can safely assume that Kichaka had no intentions of marrying Draupadi. He just wants to sleep with her, and like any desire-ridden man, makes empty promises of raising the status of the woman in question.)
It is not clear in the text whether Sudeshna consents to have Kichaka pursue Draupadi. In all probability, she must have warned him that doing so would be breaking Virata’s command, and it would only have served to make Kichaka more determined.
In any case, he approaches Draupadi the following evening and showers her with praise. ‘Your eyes are beautiful and large, like lotus-petals, Fair One,’ he says, ‘and your voice resembles that of a cuckoo. Even Rati, the wife of Manmatha, must not be as beautiful as you are.
‘Who is there in this world that would not succumb to desire at the sight of your face? Accept me into your embrace, my lady, and I shall see to it that you will be treated better than Queen Sudeshna herself.’
Draupadi, needless to say, is not impressed by this.
Draupadi Rejects Kichaka
But Draupadi replies, ‘I am just a maid, O Lord, of low birth and status. It does not befit a man of your station to approach me like this. Remember the tenet of morality that men should take pleasure only in their wedded wives. I have already been betrothed to five men, Gandharvas who would be displeased indeed if they came to know of your advances.’
Kichaka, predictably, is not used to hearing the word no. ‘The people of this kingdom look toward me for protection, Sairandhri. I am the most powerful man of the land; everyone knows that.
‘If you walk by my side, you will become the mistress of this country, respected ahead of Sudeshna, Uttara and others. Why must you worry about morality when such celestial beauty is yours?’
‘No matter what you say, O Kichaka,’ says Draupadi, her tone now becoming firmer, ‘you shall not have me. My five husbands will forever protect me, and they are far more powerful than you are.
‘Do not act like a child who, from its mother’s lap, wishes to touch the moon. Admire me from a distance if you will, but do not endanger your life by wishing to have me for yourself.’
Thus spurned, Kichaka goes in a huff to Sudeshna and tells her to think of some means by which his wish could be fulfilled. ‘That arrogant Sairandhri of yours has rejected me, Sister,’ he says. ‘Now I trust that you will by some manner or ploy send her to me. I must have her, with or without her consent.’
Sudeshna is torn between love for her brother and the promise she gave Draupadi earlier. Reluctantly, she favours Kichaka, and promises him that she will do what she can.
Kichaka Resorts to Force
Sudeshna requests Draupadi to repair to Kichaka’s chambers to bring some wine. Draupadi expresses consternation at this. ‘You have known your brother to behave inappropriately toward me, O Queen,’ she says. ‘Why do you then send me into the cave of a lion knowing full well that he intends to pounce?’
‘Kichaka knows that you are my Sairandhri,’ Sudeshna replies. ‘He will not make the mistake of approaching you. Go there bravely, my girl, and bring me the wine because I am thirsty.’
On her way to Kichaka’s room, Draupadi prays to Surya, who arranges for an invisible Rakshasa to watch over her. Kichaka again tries to seduce Draupadi, unsuccessfully, and then attempts to force her into his bed.
Wrenching herself free of his grip, she runs in the direction of the main hall where the court is in session, with Virata presiding.
Kichaka pursues her into the hall, half-drunk, and kicks Draupadi while in full view of the king. Seated among the courtiers are Yudhishthir and Bhimasena, disguised as Kanka and Valala respectively.
Bhima grinds his teeth in rage at the conduct of Kichaka, but Yudhishthir stills his younger brother with a subtle shake of the head.
At this moment, the Rakshasa appointed by Surya gives Kichaka a shove against a pillar, and the prince falls down unconscious. A weeping Draupadi approaches Virata and asks him for protection.
Draupadi in Virata’s Court
‘But I do not know what transpired between you out of my sight, O Sairandhri,’ says Virata, reasonably enough. ‘How can I pronounce punishments without knowing the full facts?’
‘What more facts do you need besides those you see, Your Highness?’ asks Draupadi. ‘A waiting woman in the employ of your queen is dragged to the middle of your assembly, and she is kicked by a man drunk on his power. And you still say you need facts?’
Her words might have been directed at Virata, but they might just as well have been intended for Yudhishthir and Bhima. The former gets up on his feet and says, ‘Sairandhri, do not stand for much longer here in this hall. This is no place for a woman.
‘Go to Her Majesty Sudeshna’s chambers. Your five Gandharva husbands will come to your aid, the gods willing. This is not the time or the place for you to weep like an actress and disrupt the happenings of court. Go now, and have faith in the natural justice of things.’
Draupadi, with her face reddened with anger and shame, returns to Sudeshna, who asks her what had happened, and after listening to the whole story, says, ‘If you wish it, O Sairandhri, I shall have my brother sentenced to death.’
And Panchali replies, ‘I think he has already been sentenced to death, my queen, alas. Those he has wronged have come to know of it, and they will punish him at a time they see fit.’
Bhima Advises Draupadi
That very night, Draupadi goes to Bhima’s quarters and rouses him with these words: ‘How do you sleep, Vrikodara, knowing that your wife has to spend each moment of her life looking over her shoulder, shivering in fright that her honour will be compromised by that man Kichaka?
‘How do you sleep knowing that Draupadi – your Draupadi – will become someone else’s? For far less that what this prince has done, you have vowed to drink the blood of Duhsasana; why do you let this man go free? Just because you intend to stay undiscovered?
‘What use is there of a life that we lead in such shame and ignominy, just because we hope to avenge our many ills in the future? Arise, O Bhimasena, and see to it that the man who approached your wife today does not live to see tomorrow’s sunrise.’
Bhima draws Draupadi into his embrace and consoles her. ‘I wanted to kill Kichaka in court today while everyone watched, O Panchali,’ he says. ‘But Brother Yudhishthir bade me otherwise. No matter. There is a dance hall of Virata where the girls practice during the day, but at night it is deserted. Do you know of it?’
And Bhima tells Draupadi what she must do.
Appointment at the Dance Hall
Draupadi returns from Bhima’s quarters impatient for the next day to dawn. As planned, she goes to Kichaka alone in the afternoon and says:
‘The very first day you approached me, Prince, I wished to accede to your request. But I need to be secretive, married woman that I am. I do not wish my husbands to come to know of my infidelity. So I beg that you come to the dance hall tonight, after dark, so that we could unite there, away from prying eyes.’
Kichaka is delighted that his quarry has come round. At night, intoxicated on wine, he arrives at the hall and finds a figure clad in a sari lying down on the bed, facing away from him. Thinking it to be Draupadi, he places a hand on its arm.
He says, ‘I have often been called a great lover by women everywhere, my lady. Come to my arms. Let me show you the pleasures of heaven.’
But the figure is in reality Bhimasena in disguise. Casting off his garment and springing to his feet in menacing laughter, he grips Kichaka’s neck in his arm and wrestles him to the ground. ‘If it is left to me, O Foul One,’ he says, ‘you will drown in the fires of hell for the rest of eternity.’
Kichaka does put up a bit of a fight, but of course he is no match for Bhima. The Pandava kills him by breaking his backbone on top of his knee, and also twists his neck out of shape.
After the deed is done, Bhima slips away quietly to his chambers, and Draupadi alerts the keepers of the dance hall to the fact that the queen’s brother had been slain.
‘I do not know how he was killed,’ she tells them. ‘But the violent manner in which his body is contorted suggests that it was the work of a powerful Gandharva. Does it not?’
Draupadi is Sentenced
At the death of Kichaka, his relatives of the Suta caste approach the king and demand that the arrogant Sairandhri be punished. Virata, assuming that Draupadi has had something to do with the death of his brother-in-law, passes the order that she must be burned alive on his funeral pyre. ‘
It is for her sake that Kichaka has died,’ he says. ‘Let her be united with him at least in the next world.’
The Sutas then proceed to carry Draupadi away to the outskirts of the city. While she is being manhandled this way, she cries out, ‘May Jaya, Jayanta, Vijaya, Jayatsena and Jayadvala listen to my words. May the powerful Gandharvas that bear these names hear my wails. The Sutas are carrying me away!’
It is Bhima once again that comes to her rescue. Without being seen, he climbs a back wall of the palace and hurries to the cemetery where the Kichakas had gone. He uproots a large tree to act as his weapon, and brandishing it over his shoulders, rushes in rage toward the funeral pyre.
Watching him come, the Sutas tremble in fear, and whisper to themselves, ‘Is that the Gandharva that they say is this woman’s husband? Let us flee, because we cannot possibly withstand the might of this man. Free the Sairandhri!’
But before they can do so, Bhima catches up with them and, by means of his tree-mace, kills all hundred and five of the Sutas present there.
Loosening Draupadi’s restraints and comforting her, he says, ‘As long as I am alive, O Krishnaa, you need not fear any man on Earth. I shall forever be your saviour. Now let us return to Virata’s palace before anyone sees us.’
The Last Thirteen Days
When Virata learns of the carnage at the cemetery, he welcomes Draupadi back into the palace – more out of fear than anything else. But on the advice of Sudeshna, he tells her that she must leave immediately.
‘Go where you wish to go, O Sairandhri,’ he says. ‘The kingdom of Matsya is too small to hold a being of your effulgence, and too weak to withstand the looming threat of your Gandharva husbands who are prone to violence at the slightest provocation.’
To which the Sairandhri replies, ‘O King, please allow it so that you will suffer my presence at court for no more than thirteen days hence. My husbands will return from their exile in this time.
‘You have looked after me for a whole year, Your Majesty; can I request that you extend your generosity for a mere fortnight more?’
Virata agrees, not knowing that in thirteen days from the death of Kichaka, the thirteenth year of the Pandava exile is slated to come to an end.
The last thirteen days, of course, also see a lot of action. More of it in the next episode.
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