The night was dark and tempestuous. Jet-black nimbus clouds had blotted out the moon and the stars, making the darkness near total. The winds howled through the Kingdom of Matsya, uprooting trees, breaking branches, blowing dead leaves and foliage in the palace compound, through the open windows and into the chambers of those who slept inside. It broke open windowpanes, smashed the lamps, and sent curtains flying here and there. Open doors and windows clanged, making a ferocious noise, adding to the cacophony of the storm. Foot servants and guards on duty ran to secure the panels, fasten window latches and lessen the damage being wreaked by nature. The dark clouds overhead growled ominously, thunder crashed and the occasional lightening bolt seared the breast of the sky, turning night into day. To add to the mayhem, rain poured incessantly, in sheets, drenching everything in sight. The continuous patter of rain gave a background to the whole heavenly orchestra being played out.
The men and women of the Kingdom of Matsya cowered in their bedrooms, filled with foreboding, afraid that the end of the world was near. None of them, not even the most elderly, had seen such a storm. Lesser dwellings were blown away and flying trees reduced the humble quarters of several citizens to rubble. Dogs barked maniacally and hyenas could be heard laughing at the edge of the forest. In the royal stables, the horses strained at their leashes, and stamped their hooves on the ground; fear driving them insane. While the people hid in their bedrooms, praying to the Gods to bring an end to this destructive storm, Brihannala played the mridangam in her apartments.
Brihannala was the court eunuch, and also the dance and music teacher of Princess Uttara, the daughter of King Virata of Matsyadesh. She beat the drum furiously as hot tears of anger and shame ran down her face. She was angry at the state of things, angry at her helplessness, also angry that she had to become Brihannala. Before she and the others of her family had come to Matsya, she had been Arjuna, the third of the Pandavas, the Princes of the Kuru Kingdom, the true inheritors of the empire with its twin capitals of Hastinapur and Khandavaprastha.
He along with his mother Kunti, brothers Yudhishthira, Bhim, Nakul and Sahadev and their wife Draupadi were exiled from the kingdom following certain political developments and a lost gambling match. They had barely escaped with their honor when, Dushasana, the cruelest of the Kaurava brothers had tried to disrobe Draupadi publicly in the royal assembly. The memory still flooded Brihannala’s mind with anger and shame. After their loss in the gambling match and Draupadi’s miraculous escape from being disrobed in the royal assembly, the Pandavas had been banished to the forests for twelve years followed by one year of ‘Agyaatvas’, a period in which they had to live incognito and avoid being spotted by Kaurava spies.
They had chosen to come to the Kingdom of Matsya, ruled by the benevolent King Virata. Disguising their true identities, they had pretended to be a well-educated but extremely poor family, and had sought employment with King Virata.
The eldest Prince, dharma-incarnate, master of statecraft and the wisest of the brothers, Yudhisthira, became Kanka, courtier and advisor to the King. Kanka entertained the King with his gambling skills and advised him on religious and administrative matters, soon winning his confidence.
Bhim, the tallest, strongest, and most volatile of all the Pandavas, became Ballabh, the cook, due to his love for food and also to keep him out of mischief. Bhim was a giant of a man, excelled in wrestling and wielding the mace, had a quick temper and loved food. He was soon a popular figure in the royal kitchen, teaching new recipes to the staff and encouraging the cooks to participate in wrestling matches in their free time. The staff of the royal kitchen marveled at his culinary skills and his voracious appetite.
Arjuna, was the most difficult to disguise. He was well known throughout the land for his exemplary archery skills. His handsome face with its arched eyebrows, almost feminine in their beauty, was a familiar sight in all archery matches throughout the country and his divine bow, the Gandiva, was the most feared weapon in the whole land. Trying to hide him was like trying to hide the sun in broad daylight. And so the Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, decided to hide him in the ladies quarters, disguising him as a eunuch; this was the least likely place the spies would dream of looking for Arjuna. So she disguised him as Brihannala and advised him to stay well covered and never leave the palace of the Princess.
Nakula became Granthika, and tended to the King’s horses in the royal stable and Sahadev looked after the cows as Tantipala.
Draupadi, the Pandava’s wife, born of fire, offered her services as handmaiden to the Queen. She called herself Sairandhri and dressed simply, to hide her exquisite beauty. Even with her plain dressing, her royal upbringing and her piercing beauty showed through the drab clothes she wore, and people would often question her regarding her background. So she told them stories about herself, and let it be known around the royal household that she was actually from a far-off magical land and was married to the celestial Gandharav warriors, passionate lovers, skilled at war craft and quick to temper.
Thus the Pandavas tried to live out their days, hiding in plain sight in King Virat’s royal household. But as luck would have it, before their period of hiding was over, Sairandhri was spotted by Keechak, the general of King Virat’s army. Keechak was related to the Queen and, therefore, had free access to the Queen’s quarters. He was also arrogant, cruel and had the Kingdom in his firm grip. People often whispered how helpless the poor King looked in front of Keechak. He was an accomplished warrior and was built like a bull. His military and amorous exploits were well known throughout the Kingdom and no woman was safe from him. He was instantly smitten by the beauty of Sairandhri, when he saw her, and he had shamelessly asked her to be his consort. Sairandhri had refused, gently but firmly, citing that her Gandharva husband would be very angry and would wreak havoc upon the Kingdom if she was seen with any other man. She had told him, in clear terms, that the Gandharvas were powerful and celestial beings, and could be very cruel when angered. They could change form at will, roam around the land invisible to the common eye and were masters of divine warfare. Hence angering a Gandharva warrior will not be a good idea for both Keechak and Sairandhri.
Keechak had initially relented, having been counselled by the Queen herself, but later, as he kept coming to the ladies quarters to see Sairandhri, his lust for her had overcome his logic. He had become more and more audacious and had, at several times, tried to pull Sairandhri by her hand. She had been alarmed and had run to the Queen seeking her protection. This went on and on, till, even the Queen realized that Keechak would not give up. She had gently hinted to Sairandhri to accede to his wishes, as she could not protect Sairandhri forever. Things came to a head when Keechak started bothering Sairandhri even in the presence of the Queen, and she chose to remain silent, gauging Sairandhri’s reactions. Sairandhri had fled from the Royal quarters, hot tears of anger and humiliation streaming from her eyes, reminded once again of her vulnerability.
At night, she had been inconsolable. The family had sat together and worked upon a plan. It was obvious that Keechak could not be held off for long now. He had to be dealt with in a manner, which would solve the problem without blowing their cover, and would allow them to continue in the royal household for the next few months of agyaatvas. The whole night they pondered over the question and, by daybreak, as the distant storm clouds started to roll in towards Matsya, they had worked out a plan.