Then Hariśikhā said “Yes, this is indeed so. Virtuous women don’t even think of any man other than their beloved husband!” and began to narrate this story-
The Story of Guṇavarā and Rūpaśikhā
The prosperous kingdom of Vardhamānapura was ruled by the mighty King Vīrabhuja. He had hundreds of wives. Among them all, Guṇavarā was his dearest, whom he loved more than his own life. Vīrabhuja had everything, but there was still a big void in his life - he had no children.
He asked a doctor by name Śrutavardhana, if he knew a medicine which could help beget children. Listening to the king’s request, the doctor said that he would prepare medicine if he a wild goat could be brought. The king had the animal brought as per the request and the doctor prepared a decoction from its flesh in the royal kitchen. He asked his queens to come together. They all assembled. However, Guṇavarā stayed by the king who was performing devatārcanā. She was the only one who did not come upon the doctor’s call. The doctor, who did not know this, got some powder mixed to the decoction and asked all the queens to drink it. Sometime later, the king and Guṇavarā came there. The king asked – ‘What is this? Is there no potion for her? Didn’t we get that potion prepared for her, especially?’ He called for the cooks and asked if there was nothing remaining in the flesh. The cooks told him that only the horns of the goat were remaining. The doctor said – ‘I can prepare much better medicine using the flesh that is present within the horn.’ He mixed the powder with the flesh and offered it to Guṇavarā .
All the queens begot a son each. The son born to Guṇavarā was the youngest and the best in his noble traits. The king named him Śṛṅgabhuja. As the child grew up, he surpassed all other children not just in his physical appearance but also in his character. He was like Manmatha in his appearance, like Arjuna in archery and like Bhīmasena in his physical strength. Looking at the lovely son she had begotten, all other queens grew jealous of Guṇavarā. Ayaśolekhā, one among them gathered them all and came up with a crooked plan. Accordingly, when each one of them met the king in private, they complained to him that Guṇavarā was interested in Surakṣita, one of the young overseers of the antaḥpura. The wise king did not get carried away by anger. He decided that he should find out the truth and only then proceed in taking some action.
He called Surakṣita and expressed fake anger – ‘I have come to know that you performed brahmahatyā. Go, perform a tīrtha-yātrā and come back!’ He commanded. A shocked Surakṣita murmured below his breath – ‘When did I perform brahmahatyā?’’ The king said – ‘Don’t speak like an egoistic person! Go to Kāśmīra, visit Vijayakṣetra, Nandikṣetra, Vārāhakṣetra and other places; take a dip in the Vitastā river and come back. Don’t see my face until then!’ The king intelligently sent him away to a far off place.
Following this, he met Guṇavarā and appearing to be in deep thought, said – ‘Today a seer – a jñānī had come. He advised that you should be placed in the underground chambers for some time and that I should live the life of a brahmacārī. If we don’t do so, I will lose my kingdom and you will die, he prophesied. I am in great sorrow!’ The queen, Guṇavarā who was overcome with fear and because she was in deep love with the king, she did not know how to react. She said – ‘Āryaputra! In that case, why don’t I go to the dungeon right away? I don’t mind even if I lose my life – in fact, that is good for me. However, there must be no harm to you.’ She was in tears as she spoke the words. The king thought – There does not seem to be any blemish in her character and Surakṣita too seems to be innocent. He has not lost the charm on his face and he does not seem to be scared of anything. Still, I will need to ascertain the reality. He let her stay in the dungeon below the antaḥpura. He told the same story his son, Śṛṅgabhuja – just as he had told his wife Guṇavarā. Pativratās find pleasure in their husbands’ comfort - Guṇavarā too stayed in the dungeons considering it to be akin to svarga.
Ayaśolekhā then called her son by name Nirvāsabhuja and said – ‘The king has removed Guṇavarā away from us. He has thrown her into the dungeon. If we get rid of her son and shoo him away from the country, we can live here in peace. Thus, think of a plan with your brothers!’
One day, as they were practising archery, they spotted a huge baka-pakṣi (a crane) on the top of their palace. Looking at the strange bird, they were all surprised. A wise kṣapaṇaka who was passing by spoke to them – ‘O princes! This is a rākṣasa named Agniśikha in the form of a baka-pakṣi, who wanders about destroying towns. Hit him with a stick and shoo him away!” Ninety-nine of the brothers shot arrows. None of them were able to hit the bird. Then the naked kṣapaṇaka told them, “Let your youngest brother Śṛṅgabhuja strike the bird with an arrow; he is capable of doing so!” At that moment, Nirvāsabhuja felt that his opportune moment had come for the execution of his plan and was filled with great enthusiasm. He thought, Let us bring him Father's bow and arrows. If the bird is hit with the golden arrow and flies away, he will chase after it to retrieve the arrow. He will roam about the country in a desperate bid to find the arrow and lose his energy. He brought his father's weapons. Śṛṅgabhuja shot the arrow. It lodged into the bird, which began flying with the arrow still piercing its body. All his elder brothers began saying, “Bring us back the golden arrow that belongs to Father. If we don't bring it back, he will have us thrown out of the palace!” Seeing his brothers' obstinacy, he agreed to bring it back. He set out in the direction in which the bird flew away, following the track of the drops of blood that had dripped from the wound in its body.
Thus, following the blood trail for a long time, he reached a distant forest. Within it was a great city. In a garden of that city, he sat down under a tree to get some rest when he saw a divinely beautiful damsel approach him. She looked like a combination of amṛta and viṣa that were created by Brahmā to give life to lovers in union and take away life in separation. When he asked her who she was and where she had come from, she replied with her head lowered [in coyness], “This is Dhūmapura. Here resides a rākṣasa called Agniśikha. I am his daughter Rūpaśikhā. Who are you? Why have you come here?” He told her his story. She said, “There is nobody in the three worlds who can match you in beauty and in archery. Your aim so accurate that you hit my father who was in the guise of a crane. I have taken your golden arrow and kept it with myself, as a toy. With the help of viśalyakaraṇī and other medicinal herbs, the minister Mahādaṃṣṭra cured his wound at once. You have captured my soul. So, I shall go and tell my father the whole story and after I come back, I will take you to meet him.” Saying so, she went away to meet her father.
“Father! A prince named Śṛṅgabhuja has come here. There is nobody to match him in beauty, lineage, character, age, qualities, and so forth. He is verily a divinely imbued person, not a mere mortal. If he doesn't become my husband, I shall commit suicide and that's final!” The rākṣasa said, “O daughter! Humans are our natural food! But if you insist upon it, then bring him here and we shall take a call.” She brought him to her father. The rākṣasa said, “O rāja-putra! If you can do every single thing that I order you to do, then I shall give my daughter Rūpaśikhā's hand in marriage to you!" Śṛṅgabhuja bowed down with humility and said, "So be it, I shall obey all your orders!" The rākṣasa said, "Alright, go and have a bath!" and then told his daughter, "Go and bring all your younger sisters!" Both of them went away as ordered.
As they were walking away, Rūpaśikhā told him, "Ārya-putra! I have a hundred sisters who all look like me. We not only look alike, we also have the same clothes and ornaments. All of us wear an identical kind of necklace. In order to confuse you, Father is asking us all to assemble at one place. He will tell you to choose whoever you wish from the group of maidens. At that exact moment, I shall take my necklace and tie it to my hair. Using that cue, garland me (with the wedding garland)! My father is gigantic in size and possesses great brawn but lacks subtle intelligence. Even in the future, he might tell you things in order to cheat you. Just say yes to whatever he says. I’ll teach you how to achieve it!’ saying so she went to where her sisters were residing.
Śṛṅgabhuja followed her instructions, remembered and looked for the signs she had told and garlanded her. The rākṣasa said, ‘We shall have the wedding tomorrow,’ and sent away all the girls. He then instructed Śṛṅgabhuja, ‘Go to the outskirts, with the oxen, till the land there and sow the mustard seeds which are lying there!’ Śṛṅgabhuja told Rūpaśikhā about this. She replied, ‘O son of the noble one! Don’t worry about it; I’ll do it for you, just go to the fields!’ He did so. Before he reached, the fields were already tilled and sown. He came back and reported the completion of work to the rākṣasa and he said, ‘Nothing useful will result from sowing these seeds; collect them all again and make a pile!’ Rūpaśikhā again chipped in, created innumerable ants and made them bring out all the seeds and pile them up!’ Again he reported that the task has been completed, the rākṣasa said, ‘Travel a distance of two yojanas south, there is a dilapidated temple of Śiva in the forest where my brother Dhūmaśikha resides. Tell him - the wedding of Rūpaśikhā is scheduled to happen tomorrow; his brother Agniśikha invites him, and come back!’ He informed this to Rūpaśikhā who gave him clay, water, thorns, fire along with her horse and said, ‘Take my horse, invite him and leave as soon as possible; if he follows, throw these towards him one by one; that should stop him.’ He agreed and reached the temple.
Śiva resided in the middle while towards his left was Gaurī and towards his right was Vināyaka; he bowed down before them, shouted his message to Dhūmaśikha and started his return journey the next moment. The next moment he saw that he was being followed by Dhūmaśikha. Seeing this, Śṛṅgabhuja threw the clay towards him. It became a huge mountain. The rākṣasa crossed it and followed him. Then he threw water; it became a huge river; the rākṣasa swam across; he threw the thorns which turned into a dense forest; the rākṣasa again navigated through that and followed him; finally he threw fire; the forest burnt like the Khāṇḍava-vana; a frightened Dhūmaśikha hastily retreated. Śṛṅgabhuja thus returned to Dhūmapura safely, gave the horse to Rūpaśikhā and reported back to Agniśikha, ‘I’ve invited Dhūmaśikha as per your instructions.’ He was surprised. To doubly confirm Śṛṅgabhuja had indeed been to the place, Agniśikha asked him to describe the place. Śṛṅgabhuja said that he saw in the devakula Pārvatī to the left side of Śiva and Vināyaka to his right. Agniśikha was shocked at the accurate description and was now sure that he had actually been to the place. He thought - How could my brother not eat him! He isn’t a human being; he must be some deity; a befitting match to my daughter! with these thoughts he sent him back to Rūpaśikhā.
To be continued...
The current article is a translation of Prof. A R Krishnasastri’s Kannada classic Kathāmṛta along with additional segments added from the original Kathā-sarit-sāgara (of Soma-deva). Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī (of Kṣemendra) and Bṛhat-kathā-śloka-saṃgraha (of Budha-svāmin) have also been referred to. The translation has been rendered by Raghavendra GS, Arjun Bharadwaj, Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.