Draupadi was one of the most beautiful women of her time. She had a dark complexion and silky hair as black as the night. Draupadi’s father desired for his daughter to be wed to Arjuna, royal son of the kingdom of Hastinapura. Now to earn the hand of the maiden Draupadi, Arjuna was sent on a quest to defeat a great rashaka that had been tormenting the people of the kingdom. Arjuna came to Draupadi the night before his departure, offering robes of beautiful golden silk as a token of his affections. Draupadi smiled and bowed in thanks, but would not look the handsome young prince in the eye.
She was absolutely inconsolable at the idea of being forced to wed the prince, convinced that none other than her first love, Karvanda, could offer her a lifetime of fulfillment. Karvanda was the court’s dance instructor, who choreographed all of the dances performed by the young ladies of the palace in honor of the king. Karvanda was much older than Draupadi, some fifteen years her senior, but had taught her to dance gracefully and eloquently from the time of her youth. He would commend her performances with much enthusiasm, each time placing a gentle kiss in her perfumed hair and saying, “like the wind, my andhra pradesh (lotus flower); you dance freely, like the wind.” As Draupadi matured into a young lady, she became the most envied female in the kingdom. Every eligible suitor attempted to court her, and she would always accept their requests for a dance with a coy smile and a seductive twinkle in her eye. Each time she took the floor, however, she would sneak a glance at her sweet Karvanda, who would smile brightly and wink at her.
When it came time for Draupadi’s father to choose a husband for her, her face was downcast for the time being. One afternoon, after a dance lesson, Karvanda approached Draupadi, who sat on the soft earth in the garden with tears in her eyes. “Oh my sweet andhra pradesh, why do you allow your spirits to be dampened? When you smile, it brightens even the gloomiest day. Let the world see your light shine today.”
“Oh Karvanda,” she spoke, “I am unable to bring myself to be happy. My father has betrothed me to the cocky prince Arjuna, and I am now to be miserable forever.”
“Silly girl,” Karvanda replied incredulously, “your married-life will be filled with wealth and prosperity. You disrespect the gods by denying your blessings. The future of our kingdom is entirely reliant on this union; you will be favored for your actions in compliance with your father’s wishes.” Draupadi heard his words, and her heart burned as she yearned to tell him of her love for him. She looked away so he would not see her cry; tears began to fall from her eyes. Karvanda departed from her company, gently placing his lips to her forehead. Draupadi felt her heart break in that moment.
Three days passed, and Arjuna returned to Panchala to claim his bride. Draupadi wept as she awaited his arrival, but remembered Karvanda’s words to her. She sat at her vanity and braided her long hair, reflecting inward on the responsibility that was given to her. She prayed to Krishna to guide her and give her strength. Krishna, touched by her humility in spite of her heartbreak, whispered to the wind to carry courage to the young maiden. Draupadi wiped the tears from her eyes and powdered her cheeks. As she arose from her vanity, perfuming her wrists with rose water, she felt a newfound sense of gallantry. She knew in her heart that Karvanda had spoken the truth, and that her marriage to Arjuna would allow her to do great things for the people of their kingdoms. She said goodbye to her childhood home, and the people she loved, with bittersweet tears in her eyes. She departed Panchala with Arjuna, turning to look back at her home. She saw, as she always did, her love smiling at her with pride. He bowed his head at her and whispered. Though she could not hear his words, she felt in her heart the words which he had spoken: “harmony to you, my andhra pradesh.”
Draupadi and Arjuna arrived in Hastinpura late that evening. Draupadi did her best to be brave, keeping the strength of Krishna in her heart. Arjuna led her to the throne room, putting his new bride on display for his mother and four brothers. Draupadi bowed humbly, as Arjuna’s mother motioned him to her. She whispered something in his ear; Draupadi held her pose, outwardly calm. Arjuna looked troubled, then slowly walked back to his bride.
“My mother orders,” he explained slowly, “that my brothers and I are to share you.” Draupadi rose slowly, her heart racing, as she locked eyes with the queen.She remembered her prayer to Krishna, and the moments of courage that followed. Feeling a sense of peace, she decided to be brave, and swore that she would thenceforth be brave in all that she said and did.
“As you wish, my queen,” she stated simply, fiercely holding her gaze with Kunti.
I took this story from the Mahabharata, in which it is decided that Draupadi will be shared as a wife by the Pandevas, or rather that Draupadi will have five husbands because of a prayer she made in a past life. In the original story from the Mahabharata, Draupadi is born by fire, created by her father to bring an end to the Kurus. She is won as a bride by Arjuna-in-disguise in a contest of strength, held by her father. Arjuna, in disguise, shot an arrow through the eye of a fish, which was spinning on a rod in a pan of oil. Krishna, and the king Karna, also shot the fish’s eye successfully, but Karna was considered too low of birth-caste to marry Draupadi, and Krishna was only present as a spectator to ensure the betrothal of Arjuna and Draupadi; therefore, Draupadi was awarded as the bride to Arjuna. Kunti, the Pandevas’ mother, instructed the brothers to “share the prize” when they informed her that Arjuna had won a prize in a contest.
There is not much about Draupadi’s childhood in the Mahabharata, so I decided to concoct some possible ideas of one. Karvanda is a completely fictional character of my own making, but I liked the idea of this fierce woman having to make such a drastic choice early on in her life. I desired to give Draupadi, one of the most influential women in the Mahabharata, a chance to display her innocence and the struggles she may have faced in order to develop into the strong and brave woman that she was.
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.