The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Pandava Pravesha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Deciding on Matsya
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 would have made 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.’
Assignment of Roles – 2
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 Urvashi. If asked, I will say that I was once Draupadi’s waiting woman. My name will be Brihannala.’
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.’
After the Pandavas have given themselves the roles they are about to take up in Virata’s court, they send away their chariots and servants to Hastinapur, instructing them that if asked about their whereabouts, they are to reply:
‘We do not know where the princes and Draupadi went.’
At the time of parting, Dhaumya gives Yudhishthir (and by extension to all of them) some advice on how to handle oneself in the presence of a king.
‘Living in the court of a king is a difficult art,’ says Dhaumya. ‘You must always be on your guard for formalities, for there are many. Since you have always been in the position of receiving them, remembering to give them without fail will be a tough task for you.
‘For instance, you must always enter the king’s presence after seeking his permission at the outer gate or the main door of the hall. Only after your name is announced can you present yourself.
‘Rely on the sweetness of your tongue, for even the mightiest monarchs have a liking for flattery. But do not stretch the truth too much in your bid to impress your master, because the best of rulers can sniff out an impostor.
‘Entertain the king and the princes with your wit and wisdom, but when called upon to give advice, make it frank.’
After passing along some more advice in the same vein, Dhaumya blesses the Pandavas and goes to Panchala.
Draupadi then leads her husbands around the fire and out of the forest of Dwaita.
The Hiding of Weapons
On the outskirts of Matsya, the Pandavas stop for a couple of hours to rest. Yudhishthir asks Arjuna then about how to conceal their weapons. ‘The Gandiva and all the other weapons you have procured from the celestials certainly give you away, O Dhananjaya.
‘Our weapons too are very distinctive, and there is no hope that we will stay unrecognized as long as we carry them. We must find a way to hide them in a safe place so that they will not be stolen.’
Arjuna tells Yudhishthir that there is a cemetery not too far away from the city, surrounding a giant Sami tree. ‘It is not a place that is frequented by many people, Brother,’ he says, ‘because it is a resting place of the dead.
‘The few who come there also leave very quickly, taking care not to make eye contact with anyone. The tree itself is large and unscalable; we can conceal our weapons on its highest branch.’
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.
A Fake Corpse
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.
With all these preparations done, the Pandavas finally enter the court of Virata.
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.
Bhima and Draupadi
The next to arrive is a mountain of a man who calls him Vallabha (or 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, for where is a woman such as I to turn in a world of men? 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 lustful men.
‘If I am to wait upon you, my lady, please grant me this wish that my virtue will be protected.’
‘So be it!’ says Sudeshna.
Sahadeva the Cattle Keeper
Sahadeva 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 Arishtanemi,’ replies Sahadeva (different, somehow, to the aforementioned Tantripala). ‘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.
Nakula as Granthika
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 suspensions of disbelief.
The First Ten 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 women’s’ 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.
The Fourth Month
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.
And 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 to impress all the people who have come from distant lands.
The intention here is to give a good account of Matsya’s wealth and prowess.
Murmurs Reach Hastinapur
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 that seemed to be flourishing under this eunuch named Brihannala.
Tales of these men travel around the land, and some suspicious people wonder how a kingdom like Matsya – otherwise small and insignificant – has managed to grow in wealth to such a degree in such a short time.
The murmurs reach Duryodhana eventually, and he despatches 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.
The Pandava Pravesha Parva thus ends, making way for the Kichaka Vadha Parva.