The Virata Parva of the Mahabharata begins with the arrival of the Pandavas in Matsya, the kingdom of Virata, and ends with the dramatic single-handed victory of Arjuna over the Kaurava army.
And here it is! From reasons for choosing Matsya to the hiding of weapons, from cooks who wrestle to eunuchs who fight, these twelve stories have a bit of something for everyone. Enjoy!
Table of Contents
- Reasons for Choosing Matsya
- Assignment of Roles
- Hiding of Weapons
- Entry into Virata’s Court
- The First Ten Months
- Kichaka’s Desire for Draupadi
- Appointment at the Dance Hall
- Stealing Cattle from Matsya
- The Trigartas Lose to Matsya
- The Ten Names of Arjuna
- Brihannala Fights and Wins
- The End of the Virata Parva
- Further Reading
Reasons for Choosing Matsya
During their deliberations on which kingdom to enter during their thirteenth year, the Pandavas 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 Sisupala, is a Kaurava ally.
So it appears that Matsya makes the grade by a process of elimination.
Assignment of Roles
In choosing their respective roles, the five Pandavas stick to their strengths:
- Yudhishthir dons the disguise of a Brahmin who is well-versed in the science of statecraft and the Vedas. As a former king and as an exiled person who has spent twelve years listening to discourses from Brahmins, this is the perfect fit for Kunti’s firstborn.
- Bhimasena, true to his love of food, chooses to be a cook. It also bears mentioning that Bhima is the most conspicuous of the Pandavas, so tucking him away inside the royal kitchen is a good strategy.
- Arjuna, using his skills of dance and music learned from Chitraratha in Amaravati, and making convenient use of Urvasi’s curse, goes into hiding inside the ladies’ chambers of Virata’s palace.
- Nakula becomes a keeper of horses in Virata’s stables. Sahadeva takes up employment as a cattle-keeper. In both these choices, the twins pick roles that allow them to practice their respective crafts while remaining inconspicuous.
Draupadi, however, owing to her gender, has a far narrower range of choices. In order to remain close to her husbands while maintaining anonymity, the only viable option is to become one of the queen’s waiting women. This is what she does.
The names that the Pandavas use during their year in Virata’s court: Kanka (Yudhishthir), Valala (Bhimasena), Brihannala (Arjuna), Granthika (Nakula), and Tantripala (Sahadeva).
Draupadi does not take a name. She chooses to be called by the name of Sairandhri, which is a class of women that serve as attendants in royal palaces.
Hiding of Weapons
On the outskirts of the kingdom of Matsya, Arjuna finds a Sami tree in the middle of a cemetery that he thinks is the apt place for hiding all their weapons.
‘It is not a place frequented by many, Brother,’ he tells Yudhishthir. ‘The few who do come here also leave very quickly, taking care not to make eye contact with anyone. The tree itself is large and sturdy; we will conceal our weapons on its highest branch.’
Yudhishthir agrees, and after all the weapons have been bundled up, it is Nakula who carries them up the tree and ties them securely to the Sami tree’s branch. Before they leave, they also tie a corpse to the bundle so that anyone coming that way would be discouraged from climbing 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.
Entry into Virata’s Court
The Pandavas all enter into Virata’s court claiming to be past employees under Yudhishthir the Pandava. For instance:
- In his disguise as Kanka, Yudhishthir tells Virata that he has served in the court of Yudhishthir before the Pandava was sent into exile. ‘I am skilled in the play of dice,’ he says, ‘and I am a friend of Yudhishthir.’
- As Valala (sometimes called Vallabha), Bhimasena carries a giant cooking ladle mounted on his shoulder and tells Virata that he used to work in the royal kitchen of Hastinapur, and that he is even a part-time wrestler.
- Draupadi gains employment as Sudeshna’s (Virata’s queen) waiting woman after disclosing that she once served Draupadi in her quarters. She also places a condition that none of the royal men of Virata’s court should ever approach her with desire. ‘My five Gandharva husbands wish it so,’ she says.
- Nakula and Sahadeva procure discreet employment without ever meeting with Virata, but in due course of time the king spots them and promotes them to prominent positions in the stable and the cattle sheds respectively.
It is a little unrealistic that six people who are trying to keep a low profile choose to live at the king’s court as opposed to adopting small and unknown lives as peasants or water-carriers and such. You would think that it would be easier to stay hidden if you were a simple citizen as opposed to a king’s employee.
There must be good reasons for that, which we will explore in another post.
The First Ten Months
The Samayapalana Parva records the first ten months of the Pandavas’ stay in Virata’s court.
This period is largely uneventful: we’re told that the Pandavas keep a watchful but distant eye on Draupadi at all times. The brothers share their spoils with one another – the gifts that each of them receive from the king or from their direct employers are distributed between the five of them equally.
However, in the fourth month, a festival is conducted in Matsya in the name 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 in order 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.
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.
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’s Desire for Draupadi
It so happens during the tenth month that Kichaka, the brother of Queen Sudeshna, sees Draupadi and desires her for his bed.
One must make a quick pause here and refrain from painting Kichaka as a bad man for behaving like this. Kings and other prominent royal men in every court of every kingdom were used to taking women of their choice from the ladies’ chambers. It came with the territory of being a powerful man, and also with the territory of being a woman in the queen’s employ.
This is one reason why women employed by the queen were expressly forbidden from marrying (or being married).
So if anything, it is Draupadi’s situation that is exceptional here. First, she is married to five Gandharvas. And second, she has placed a condition that she will not sleep with any of the royal men of Matsya. Both these conditions are highly unusual, and were only tolerated – one assumes – because she came with good credentials of having served in Yudhishthir’s court.
In any case, Draupadi rejects Kichaka’s advances – first sweetly and then with increasing fervour. Things escalate to a point where Draupadi is chased to Virata’s court by Kichaka, and for a second time in thirteen years, she faces the possibility of being disrobed in front of a full assembly.
This time, though, the Pandavas resolve not to accept the humiliation lying down. They hatch a plan to exact vengeance for Draupadi’s lost honour.
Appointment at the Dance Hall
We must appreciate right at the outset the enormity of the Pandavas’ decision here.
First, their thirteenth year of exile is almost ending. The most prudent and practical way of dealing with this issue would have been to suggest to Draupadi to manage it on her own: either by yielding to Kichaka or by using Sudeshna as a tool to ward him off.
Second, Kichaka is not a small man in Virata’s court. Indeed, as the brother of the queen and the commander of Virata’s army, he is quite possibly the second most powerful man in Matsya. Fostering enmity with him so late in the piece means that the Pandavas are running a big risk of (a) attracting Virata’s anger, and (b) being found out.
But despite this, they make the decision purely on ethical grounds to avenge Draupadi’s insult.
We should also note that thirteen years ago, when Draupadi’s honour was similarly destroyed in the court of Hastinapur, the five brothers were not able to summon the courage to fight. Here, despite the timing being inconvenient, they choose to do it.
That is the growth that the Pandavas have experienced during their exile years: now they’re prepared to fight on principle for their honour regardless of circumstances.
Once the decision is made, though, the retribution is swift. Arjuna and Bhima ask Draupadi to lure Kichaka into the dance hall at night, and when he arrives half-intoxicated with wine, who he finds welcoming him is not Sairandhri but Bhimasena in a woman’s disguise.
For good measure, Bhima also kills all hundred and five brothers of Kichaka when they carry Draupadi away and threaten to burn her alive.
Stealing Cattle from Matsya
The killing of Kichaka happens exactly thirteen days before the thirteenth year is up.
In these thirteen days, Duryodhana – at Karna’s behest – decides that this is a good time to make a bid to steal Virata’s cattle. Now that Kichaka is dead, the army of Matsya is not as strong as it used to be.
He brings Susharma, the king of the Trigartas, to attack the Matsyan kingdom from the southeastern border so that the army of Matsya can be engaged with the Trigartas. Meanwhile, he plans to bring a portion of the Kuru army into Matsya from the northeastern side in order to steal Virata’s cattle.
By the time these two divisions line up in their respective positions, we’re five days away from the end of the Pandavas’ exile.
The plan, of course, is quite foolproof. Matsya is a small kingdom. By using the Trigartas as a diversionary force, Duryodhana risks none of his own resources. The force that he will need to lead over the northeas will need to be only a small one, because they’re expected to face no resistance whatsoever.
He will just march in, maybe take care of some sentries and guards, and take the cattle home. If there was ever a sure thing, this was it.
Except that it does not work out that way.
The Trigartas Lose to Matsya
The first blow comes on the southeastern border, where Susharma is handed a solid defeat by the forces that Virata leads into battle. Of course, he also takes Valala, Kanka, Tantripala and Granthika with him, and the four men distinguish themselves by performing great feats of valour and skill.
The second – and perhaps bigger – blow occurs in the main capital city of Matsya, where Duryodhana captures sixty thousand cows and prepares to drive them off to Hastinapur.
When the cowherds come to Uttara, Virata’s son, and asks him for help, the prince rides out with Brihannala as his charioteer.
He is filled with courage and confidence as they ride out to the battlefield, but on seeing the likes of Drona, Bhishma, Kripa and Karna lined up against him, Uttara loses his wits and commands Brihannala to turn back.
‘These are maharathas!’ he cries. ‘I am a mere boy! How am I to fight these men? Turn back, Brihannala. I have decided to retreat!’
Brihannala sighs and tells Uttara that they’re not going to run away from battle. Uttara then leaps out of the chariot and begins to run away in the direction of the city.
The Kauravas, meanwhile, are howling in laughter at this scene of a eunuch chasing after a prince and dragging him back by the hair toward his chariot.
‘If you do not wish to fight, Prince,’ says Brihannala, ‘take the reins. I will do your job of defending the city.’
With the roles now reversed, Brihannala first instructs Uttara to take him to a certain Sami tree where they may find some weapons.
The Ten Names of Arjuna
When they reach the Sami tree and Brihannala reveals himself as Arjuna, Uttara does not believe him. He asks Arjuna to tell him his ten names.
Arjuna replies, ‘By all means. My ten names are Arjuna, Falguna, Jishnu, Kiriti, Shwetavahana, Vibhatsu, Vijaya, Krishna, Savyasachi, and Dhananjaya.
‘‘They call me Dhananjaya because I have won much wealth from many countries during the course of my battles.
‘I am called Vijaya because I have never returned from the field of battle without having first secured victory.
‘The name Shwetavahana was given to me on account of the white horses decked in golden armour that always pull my chariot.
‘Falguna – because I was born on a day when the constellation of Uttara Falguna was in the ascendant. Kiriti – because of the resplendent diadem that Indra placed on my head after my victory against the Danavas.
‘Vibhatsu – because I have never committed a dishonourable act on the battlefield, and because I always fight while staying true to the conduct of warfare.
Savyasachi – because I can shoot arrows out of my Gandiva equally well with both my arms. Arjuna – because my acts are always righteous, and because my complexion is rarely found among men of the earth.
‘Jishnu – because I am second to none, unapproachable in stature and incapable of being surpassed. And Krishna, my tenth name, was given to me by King Pandu, my father, out of affection for his black-skinned son.’
This convinces Uttara that Brihannala is truly Arjuna, and now he gladly drives the chariot back to the battlefield where the Kaurava army awaits.
Brihannala Fights and Wins
What follows is probably the most remarkable one-man-show in storytelling history. With the entire Kuru army on one side and with Arjuna at the head of a small fighting division on the other, the latter decimates the former with no mercy or hesitation.
No one stands a chance, not Drona, not Kripa, not Bhishma, not Karna, not Ashwatthama. Arjuna is so versatile and quick and decisive with his work that the Kuru army is left with no choice but to flee.
Arjuna thus rescues Virata’s cows and brings them back home.
Of course, during the course of this battle, Arjuna fights with the Gandiva and in his own armour, with his disguise shed. So Duryodhana gleefully announces that the Pandavas have been recognized before their period of exile is up.
But Bhishma does a few calculations and determines that the thirteen years of the Pandavas’ exile, in fact, had ended on the day before the cattle battle.
So the Pandavas not only finish their exile successfully, but they also manage to pay their dues of gratitude to Virata for giving them shelter for that crucial thirteenth year of hiding.
The End of the Virata Parva
The Virata Parva ends with the following events:
- The Pandavas reveal themselves in Virata’s court and pay respects to him. Virata and Sudeshna, for their part, are consumed by regret at how they had treated these people over the last year.
- Virata offers the hand of Uttara, his daughter (not to be confused by his son of the same name), to Arjuna in marriage. Arjuna rejects this on grounds of being a father-figure to the princess. Instead, he accepts her as his daughter-in-law, as wife to Abhimanyu.
This union of Uttara and Abhimanyu gives birth to a three-way alliance between Indraprastha (because Abhimanyu is Arjuna’s son), Matsya (because Uttara is Virata’s daughter) and Dwaraka (because Abhimanyu’s mother is Subhadra, sister of Krishna and Balarama).
However, we must note that the children born to Uttara and Abhimanyu will not be in line for the throne in any of the three kingdoms. In Indraprastha, it will be Yudhishthir’s sons who will be expected to rule after him. In Dwaraka, it will be Balarama and Krishna’s children. In Matsya, it will be Prince Uttara’s sons.
So one might call this a ‘soft alliance’, an alliance where there is some alignment of trade and military interests, but not one that can alter the path of dynasties.
Or so they would have thought. As fate would have it, after the dust settles on the Mahabharata war, it is this son of Uttara and Abhimanyu that grows up to be the future king of Indraprastha.
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