Kaikeyi was the youngest wife of King Dasharatha; she was not the fairest, but she was the most favored. In the midst of the rainy season, Kaikeyi and her two sister wives struggled to conceive heirs for the kingdom of Kosala, and the king’s favor for Kaikeyi declined. She and the other two queens wept in their chambers, much to the displeasure of the kingdom. They desired to hear their children laugh down the halls of the palace; they desired to bear strapping boys who would grow into men that would make the kingdom swoon at their looks and their talent. Alas, the rainy season passed into another, and there were no heirs for the kingdom once more, and so the queens wept with the sky above.
Kaikeyi was the daughter of Ashwapati, king of the Land of the Finest Horses, and he awarded Kaikeyi a fine golden steed on her wedding day. Now Kaikeyi’s father possessed the gift of telepathy with birds, and thus heard a great many things of love and wisdom from the creatures that soared high above the earth and witnessed many happenings. The conditions of his blessings, however, prohibited him from speaking to others of the nature of his gift, threatening to take his life if he did so. Kaikeyi never knew of her father’s blessing.
Kaikeyi and King Dasharatha had a beautiful marriage ceremony, attended even by the most prominent nobles of the neighboring kingdoms. There was dancing and song, and Queen Kaikeyi was overcome with joy at the beginning of her new life with Dasharatha and his first wife, Kaushalya. Despite the splendors of the evening, Kaikeyi found herself wrought with anxieties on her wedding night. As a child, she sought comfort in the royal stables, and thus ventured into the night to see her new steed. As she stood in the coarse hay, she stroked her horse’s fur and whispered her fears to him. The steed nuzzled against her, and Kaikeyi found herself overcome with emotion; her body was warmed like honey flowing, and there was golden music of violins that moved her to bittersweet tears. Her hands trembled as she petted the silken coat of her steed. She heard a voice in her head, speaking to her of the wonderful life that awaited her. He declared that he would be there to advise her in her toughest moments, as long as she could keep the nature of his magic a secret. Kaikeyi felt a sense of bravery, and after thanking her enchanted horse, departed back to the King’s bedchambers and was taken into his arms.
In the years following, Queen Kaikeyi’s struggle to conceive a son caused her to feel troubled. Again as before, Kaikeyi ventured out to the stables to visit her mystical steed and listen to his sage wisdom. Once again, she stroked his honeyed fur and her tears began to fall. Her horse advised her to perform a sacrifice in honor of the gods, and to use his enchanted body as the offering. He spoke to her of the great wisdom she would acquire from his freed spirit if she released him from his earthly body. She presented the instructions to her King, careful not to divulge the origin of the idea. Dasharatha proclaimed that the Ashwamedha would be held in offering to win the favor of the gods.
The next evening, Kaikeyi released her steed to wander, and the king’s warriors stalked him for a year, observing his majesty and protecting him from anyone who dared to challenge him. When the year passed, the stallion was led home to Ayodhya, and the chief queen Kaushalya slaughtered him. As the adhvaryu priest dismembered Kaikeyi’s stallion, the horse’s spirit was released and absorbed by the heart of Queen Kaiyeki. Overcome with joy and emotion once more, she felt a great wisdom enter her body. That night in their chambers, Kaikeyi told the King and her consorts that they would conceive a great many sons. This was pleasing to the King, and he rewarded Kaikeyi with two favors, which she held thenceforth close to her heart.
Author’s Note: I have altered a the details of the story of Kaikeyi and Dasharatha; in the original episode from the Ramayana, Dasharatha is moved to perform the horse sacrifice, the “Ashwamedha,” so that the gods will look in favor on him and grant him sons. The Ashwamedha was performed by releasing a stallion to wander for a year, while the priests perform certain sacred rituals and mantras. The ceremony is also very territorial, with the king’s warriors battling anyone that challenges the authority of the king as the horse wanders into neighboring territories. When the stallion was returned home a year after being released, Kaushalya, the eldest and favorite queen, slew and dismembered the horse upon an altar, and the three queens sat beside its smoldering body for the night. There are other parts to the ritual, including the sacrificing of additional animals and the symbolizing of the birth of a new king, that you can read about here. I changed the details of this episode, adding in Kaikeyi’s gift and relationship to her horse, in order to spotlight Kaikeyi, and to add some significance for her to the ceremony beyond that of the other two queens, raising the stakes for her as the protagonist of my story. I took the inspiration for this story from what I learned of Kaikeyi’s background upon further research. Her father had the gift of speaking to birds, and I wanted to see this gift manifest in Kaikeyi, using the horse in order to tie into the tradition of the sacrifice. I desired to see Kaikeyi portrayed as a strong heroine with a selfless nature. In the Ramayana, the two favors that Kaikeyi is rewarded at the end of my story were actually received years earlier and used to exile Rama after Kaikeyi’s nurse convinced her that her own son should be king. I wanted to use the favors as a reward for her helping the king through the suggestion of the ceremony and the sacrifice of her beloved horse because I thought Kaikeyi, as the most cunning queen, could also be kind, and would have shunned the words of her nurse.
Ramayana episode used: