The Pāṇḍavas spent twelve years in the forest in this manner. One day, Dharmarāja called his brothers and said, “It has been twelve years since we left our kingdom and we are now in our thirteenth year. It’s difficult to spend this year under the conditions our enemies have put down for us. Where shall we live incognito without them discovering our whereabouts?”
Arjuna said, “There are several kingdoms around the Kuru country. They are beautiful and can keep us safe and secure. Pāñcāla, Cedi, Matsya, Śūrasena, Paṭacchara, Daśārṇa, Navarāṣṭra, Malla, Śālva, and Yugandhara are some of the countries around us. We can go to the place you think is suitable for us to live under cover.”
Dharmarāja, upon hearing these words, said, “The country we go to must be beautiful, pleasurable, and well protected. In my opinion, it is only the country of Matsya that will suit our needs. The king, Virāṭa is strong, dhārmic, generous, rich, and learned. Thus, we may spend this year in Virāṭa’s court. Tell me, what kind of jobs can we all take up?”
Arjuna replied, “We will take care of ourselves, brother. What do you think you will engage yourself with? You are soft by nature and kind-hearted. You are known for your honesty, adherence to dharma, and your humility. You have suffered a lot too.”
Dharmarāja said, “I’m thinking of being his companion in the court. I will put up the guise of a brāhmaṇa by name Kaṅka and pretend to be skilled in the game of dice. I will claim to have been a close friend of Yudhiṣṭhira. I will show him the special dices and the pawns made of precious gems, gold, and ivory. I’m sure that he will feel delighted looking at what I possess.”
Bhīma said, “I’ll call myself Ballava, skilled at cooking. I can impress the king by cooking better the best of his cooks. I will also display my strength – I can carry a hundred logs of firewood at once. I can fight elephants and bulls and win them single-handedly. I can also defeat those who claim to be champions in bull-fighting. If asked, I’ll claim to have been employed by Yudhiṣṭhira on the same job.”
Arjuna said, “I have planned to don the clothes of a woman. If not, I will not be able to cover my biceps to hide the mark of the bow-string that has constantly wounded and left its mark on me. I will also deck myself with earrings, have a long plait, and will name myself ‘Bṛhannaḻā.’ I’ll reside in the King’s harem, narrating tales to the inmates, and will train them in the art of song and dance. Should any ask me, I shall say that I was employed by Yudhiṣṭhira to take care of Draupadī’s household.”
Nakula had an idea too and presented it before his brothers. “I will call myself Granthika and will take care of Virāṭa’s stables. I’m well-versed in training of horses and know horse-medicine. I love horses just as you do, Arjuna!”
Sahadeva said, “I will take the name of Tantipāla and take care of Virāṭa’s cows. I understand the heart of cows very well. I know how to make adamant cows conceive with the help of a capable bull. I can make the cows listen to my words and I can tame them. I am skilled in all activities related to cattle.”
It was now Draupadī’s turn to speak of her job. She said, “I will be an assistant to the queen, plait her hair, and take care of her needs. I will call myself Sairandhri.”
Dharmarāja consented to his brothers’ and wife’s opinion. He said, “Let Indrasena and the others take our chariots to Dvārāvatī. Let Draupadī’s assistants and the cooks head towards Pāñcāla! If the servants are asked of our whereabouts, train them to say that the Pāṇḍavas left us behind in Dvaitavana, and headed to a place of which we have no clue.”
[After taking a decision of how they will spend the one year incognito, the Pāṇḍavas took the advice of their purohita Dhaumya. He straightaway approved their plans and offered them counsel about how they should conduct themselves, how they (particularly Arjuna) should protect Draupadī, what they should be wary of, and what they must avoid.]
Once all the arrangements were made, they went around Agni, prostrated before the brāhmaṇas and the Pāṇḍavas along with Draupadī went ahead on their journey. They killed the wild animals they came across on their way and lived in caves, They traversed along the southern banks of Yamunā, walked between the Daśarna in the north and Pāñcāla in the south and between the kingdoms of Śūrasena and Yakṛlloma. As they finally neared Virāṭa’s kingdom, Draupadī said, “I am exhausted. Let us halt around the outskirts tonight and head towards the city tomorrow morning.” Dharmarāja did not agree. He offered a suggestion. “Let us not stop here in the forest. We should reach the city as soon as possible. Arjuna! Carry Draupadī for some distance!” Arjuna carried her and let her down at the entrance of the city. They thought that the citizens might get scared if they saw the Pāṇḍavas with their weapons. Moreover, they might also recognise their real identity. That will mean that they would need to re-do their twelve years of exile. They headed towards the cremation ground on the outskirts of the city and spotted a huge śamī tree there. They put their weapons together, put them in a bag that would resemble a dead-boy and tied it to the tree. The śamī tree was full of thorns and no one would come close to it. Moreover, people would mistake it for a dead-boy and would never dare come close to it. This gave them the confidence that their weapons were safe in the cremation ground. They spoke to the cowherds nearby and said, “Our mother passed away. We have hung her dead body to the tree as per our family tradition.” Dharmarāja also suggested that they have secret names – Jaya, Jayanta, Vijaya, Jayasena, and Jayadbala. In this way, after making a lot of arrangements, the Pāṇḍavas entered Virāṭa’s city to spend their days of living incognito.
Yudhiṣṭhira entered Virāṭa’s court first. He said, “I was previously a friend of Yudhiṣṭhira. I am a brāhmaṇa by name Kaṅka. I am skilled at the game of dice. I lost all my wealth and belonging and have come here to beg you for livelihood.” Virāṭa said, “I am fond of the game of dice and I like those who are skilled at it. You look like a devatā to me. You may stay in my court without any fear.” Thereafter, Dharmarāja stayed at his court and was treated with respect. No one could identify him.
Next, Bhīma entered the court carrying ladles and knives. He had disguised himself as a cook. He wore clothes that had turned black with soot. His clothes betrayed a sturdy and handsome youth. He addressed the king thus: “I am a cook’s assistant. I can cook delicacies and Yudhiṣṭhira was very fond of me. I can also fight elephants and lions – my strength and valour will certainly delight you. I have come here requesting a job from you. Virāṭa said, “It seems like the job of a cook does not suit you and you’re meant for something else. Your physique gives me this impression. However, I shall assign you kitchen duties as per your request. You will be our kitchen supervisor.” With these words, Virāṭa sent him away to the kitchen. Bhīma cooked delicious meals and impressed the king with his skill. Even those who worked closely with him could not recognise him at all.
Following Bhīma, Draupadī entered the city in the guise of a sairandhrī. She let loose her hair on the right side and wore dirty clothes. Men and women followed her and curiously asked her, “Who are you? What are you here for?” She replied that she was a royal assistant and had come there in search of a job. Virāṭa’s wife, Sudeṣṇā spotted her and asked her whereabouts. She gave her the same answer that she had given to those men on the streets. After deep thought, Sudeṣṇā said, “How can such a beautiful lady merely be a sairandhrī? You look like a beautiful horse from Kashmir. Who are you? Are you a devatā, a gandharvā or an apsarā?” Draupadī replied – “O mother! I am neither a devatā nor a gandharvā. I’m not an apsarā too. I will tell you the truth. I am a sairandhrī. I can comb your hair and make lovely braids out of it. I’m skilled at beautifying women and decking them with ornaments; I can artistically string flowers together. I was working for Satyabhāmā and Draupadī. My name is Mālinī. These days, I’m wandering here and there. I’m content with whatever cloth I get to wear, irrespective of its quality. I have now come to your place.” After listening to her words, Sudeṣṇā said, “I’m happy to appoint you as my assistant. However, even as you entered I see that all the women have fallen in love with you. It seems like the trees and plants also have fallen for you. What can we say of the men? Our king will desire to have you as his wife if he finds out of your existence. Just like him, the other men might also develop passions for you.”
Draupadī said, “Neither Virāṭa nor other men can have me. I’m married to five gandharvas. They are strong and always protect me. If someone tries to use their force upon me, they will meet their end that very night. On the other hand, those who treat me with dignity and not merely as a slave, will be held high by my husbands too. My husbands will be happy with those who are courteous towards me and don’t throw leftovers at me and wish their limbs to be washed by me.”
Sudeṣṇā agreed and appointed Draupadī as her personal assistant. No one recognised her real identity.
To be continued…
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.