A tranquil dawn was filtering through the clouds, and the forest had just woken up to the chirping of birds and the humming of bees. The banks of the river Ganges were tinted by the glorious sunrise. Nocturnal animals had left their imprint on the muddy slopes that led to the river, which looked cool and inviting. The place was distant from civilization, but a cursory glance would reveal human presence in the neighborhood. Shortly, a group of saffron clad monks, carrying earthen vessels and kamandalus, emerged from the thick woods and advanced towards the water. They were chanting some ancient mantras, as they trudged carefully through the bushes that lined the water edge.
The last man in the line did not enter the water immediately. He looked distinctly different from the rest. He was much taller than his companions, and while the others offered their morning prayers, he inspected the surroundings with keen eyes. He carried a massive bow on his sinewy shoulder, and a quiver of arrows was attached to his back. His broad chest was uncovered, exposing scars and gashes, reminiscent of many duels in the past. The man caressed his bow lovingly, as if gently stroking the curves of a woman's body. He pulled the bowstring effortlessly producing a deep sound, which resonated across the forest. "This should keep away the wild animals," the archer thought.
The other sages had finished their prayers, and were taking a dip in the river. They kept close to the bank, since the current was swift and the water was deep. As they splashed around, their gaze fell on the silent man sitting on the shore. They looked at him lovingly, a genial smile touching their wise faces. The man had walked into their hermitage a fortnight back, carrying his bow and arrows. He had stood before them humbly with folded hands, seeking their blessings and companionship. The monks were instantly impressed by his magnificent physique, simple attire and gentle demeanor. The seers were not entirely surprised by his sudden appearance.
But they still asked, "Who are you young man? It is apparrent that you are a Khsatriya. Why do you need shelter from us?"
The man spoke in a stately tongue. "My Lord, I am Arjun, the son of the illustrious King Pandu, and the younger brother of Yudisthir, the ruler of Indraprastha. Presently, at the command of my elder brother, I have set out to explore Bhaartvasrha. I would be roaming freely for the next twelve years."
The hermits knew exactly why Arjun had been forced into exile for twelve years. However, they did not press the point any further. They had recognized Arjun, even before he had spoken. The description of this resplendent warrior was famous across Bharatvarsha. The sages warmly admitted Arjun into their abode. They soon discovered what a brilliant pupil this Khsatriya was. Although the seers lived in the woods, they possessed a vast repository of knowledge about ancient history, politics, statecraft and diplomacy. Arjun demonstrated a voracious appetite to absorb the wisdom that these mentors had to offer. He must have been used to the many comforts of the palace. However, he made himself equally at home within the hardships and paucities of the hermitage. He would wake up with the other monks, collect wood and dry leaves from the forest, hunt wild boars and deers, help the munis in their daily chores, sit attentively through the sermons, and following the evening vespers and a meagre meal go off to sleep under the starlit sky. Within a fortnight the hermits became genuinely fond of Arjun.
As Arjun sat at the water edge, his mind drifted off to Indraprastha, the kingdom of the Pandavas, which he had forsaken a couple of months back to embark upon this peregrination. The Pandavas had received Khandavprastha, a vast wasteland, as part of their inheritance from their uncle Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapur. Within a very short time the Pandavas had transformed the barren land into a beautiful city with gardens, meadows, temples and palaces. Yudisthir, the eldest Pandava, ruled wisely and fairly, and before long Khandavprastha started to resemble the glamorous court of Indra. The city became a thriving hub of trade and culture, and its magnificence earned it the name Indraprastha.
Arjun had played a significant role in building the empire of Indraprastha. His divine weapons, namely the Varun and Vayevya Astra, allured rain and wind from the heaven and the oceans, turning the dusty, grey terrain into fertile fields and serene lakes. He subdued all local unrests with his masterful archery, and instilled a regime of firm law and order across Indraprastha. The unity among the Pandava brothers (Yudisthir, Bheem, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev) was also exemplary. The four brothers wholeheartedly accepted Yudisthir as their leader and king, while Yudisthir, in turn, reposed his fullest trust on his younger siblings. After suffering a decade of schemes and conspiracies at the court of Hastinapur, the brothers found peace and joy in their newly founded empire. However, a cost had to be paid for that.
Arjun watched as his companions started to fill up their vessels and kamandulus with the water of the Ganges. "No need for that," Arjun called out over the gushing sound of the river. In one fluid motion, he reached out for his quiver, fetched an arrow, and attached it to the bowstring. He pulled the string of the bow with enormous strength, and the arrow soared through the air in an uncanny trajectory. It gathered unbelievable speed in its course, and finally plunged into the river with great force. Nothing happened for a short while, and then a huge fountain of water rose from the river, filling up every vessel and pot in a matter of seconds. The munis stood speechless, stunned by the magical power of the Parjanya Astra. They blessed Arjun . "Arjun, have your bath and join us in the hermitage," they shouted out warmly, as they set off towards the forest.
The river bank became empty, and Arjun moved his weapons under a tree trunk. As he started to disrobe his thoughts again wandered towards his beloved kingdom, Indraprastha. But, this time a black rage and a wild urge began to stir restlessly inside him. He unsuccessfully tried to shut out the image of a dark face and a voluptuous form, whose memory tormented him all the time. Draupadi - the princess of Panchal, the daughter of King Drupad. Draupadi had herself emerged from the fire. The flames of her beauty stoked the lust of every man, young or old, throughout Bharatvarsha.
Arjun had seen Draupadi for the first time at the royal court of Panchal. The Pandavas had arrived at Panchal in disguise. Their rivals, Duryodhan, Karna and the Kauravas were also present among the other Khsatriyas, who had gathered in large numbers to win Draupadi's hand. At the centre of the huge room a heavy bow and five arrows rested beside a disc-shaped pond. Drupad had invited the entire Khsatriya clan of Bhaaratvarsha to take part in this competition. A fish was moving at a great speed in a circular trajectory just above the pond. The challenge was to pierce the eye of the fish. However, the marksman was not allowed to aim directly at the target. He had to hit the mark by observing its fleeting reflection on the pond. The successful contender would receive Draupadi as the coveted prize.
As soon as Draupadi entered the arena, a hush fell above the court. The warriors could not believe their eyes. The sight of the long hair, the dark eyes, the dusky skin, the deep naval, the slender waist, the curvaceous breasts, and the haughty swing of the hips set the audience ablaze with a cruel fire of envy and desire. Jarasandha, Shalya, Shisupal, Duryodhan, Dushasan, Karna and all other Kshatriyas were riveted to Draupadi. The Pandavas also gazed thirstily at the unearthly beauty. They knew that only Arjun had the capability to win the competition. Nevertheless, they felt helplessly attracted to this gorgeous woman.
The Khastriyas soon find that the challenge was not easy. Jarasandha, Sishupal, Duryodhan and many others failed to even lift the bow. It required extraordinary force and uncommon skill to simply raise the bow and tie the bowstring around it. The court roared in laughter as many of the kings fell on their backs, or broke their knees, trying to budge the bow from its reclined position. Then, Karna, the king of Anga and friend of Duryodhan, stepped forward. He grasped the bow, pulled it upwards with a powerful jerk, and expertly tied the bowstring. He was about to take aim, when a deep, husky voice carried clearly across the room. For the first time the court heard Draupadi's voice.
"Karna! How can I marry you? You are a son of a charioteer. I cannot be the wife of someone of such ignoble origin."
Karna looked at the beautiful woman in dismay. "You should have made that criterion clear right at the beginning. It would have saved me this humiliation." The disappointed Karna walked back to his seat. The Pandavas heaved a sigh of relief.
Yudisthir nudged Arjun to step forward. The court was again in a state of uproar.
"How can a Brahmin take part in this competition?" Arjun's strong built and powerful physique were hidden well under ordinary white clothes, usually worn by Brahmins. But many shouted out their support as well. "Look at his handsome face, and his confident gait. He would surely become victorious."
Arjun paused in front of the bow, and paid his obeisance to the king. His heart twitched wickedly, as he briefly glanced at Panchali's eager face. She was standing beside the throne, a garland stitched with colorful petals held closely near her breasts. The disciple of Drona had never felt such a surge of overwhelming passion. Then, he summoned his focus and approached the bow. He touched it lightly, and almost in a blur thrusted it upwards with impeccable technique, swiftly stringing the bowstring around its end. Next, he picked up the arrows, oblivious to the tremendous applause from the crowd. He fixed his vision on the swirling shadow of the fish. The spectators waited with bated breath. "Who was this archer? Would he succeed?" Arjun's arrow swam through the air with a gentle hum, and penetrated the eye of the fish in a flash. His next arrow brought the fish to the ground. The court erupted in delightful appreciation. The Brahmins were specially excited. They thought that one of their own had prevailed over the insufferable ego of the Khsatriyas.
Arjun strode towards the royal bench, without abandoning the bow and the arrows. His astute mind already sensed trouble. He stood before Panchali, and addressed her graciously.
"Princess, if you think that I deserve your hand, please honour me with your Vaarmala."
The dark Panchali met Arjun's eyes with evident consent. Draupadi did not know who this unannounced marksman was, but she felt protected in his presence. Arjun bent slightly, as the princess put the exquisite garland around his neck. A sharp shiver of pleasure went through Arjun's body, as Draupadi's fingers grazed his chest. However, Arjun hardly found any time to admire his bride. A huge chaos had broken out in the court of Panchal. The Kshatriyas felt outraged by the fact that a Brahmin had outwitted them in weaponry. Together, they attacked Arjun. Arjun stood unfazed. He unleashed a volley of divine weapons which cut through the bows, arrows and maces of his adversaries. Bheem also rushed to his brother's aid. Soon the kings gave up, realising that they were up against two formidable warriors.
Bheem and Arjun left the palace almost unnoticed, with Draupadi walking alongside them. The brothers were silent, each lost in his own thought. Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, was cooking inside their small hut. Bheem called out to her jovially, "Mother! Look what wonderful alms we have received today."
"Well, whatever it is, share it fairly among the five," came Kunti's prompt reply.
Draupadi and the five brother stood in a shocked silence, as the implication of Kunti's enjoinment dawned upon them. How can a woman be divided among five men? However, as they pondered over the propriety of their mother's proposal, a tide of amorous craving swept through all of them. Draupadi's appeal was so overpowering, that the brothers forgot all codes of civility. They did not even care to hide their state of heightened arousal. Yudisthir's throat was parched, and he dared not look into the eyes of Arjun. At the same time the eldest Pandav realised that should Draupadi belong only to Arjun, the inevitable sexual jealousy among the brothers would destroy the unity of the house of Pandu. How avidly his enemies would relish that.
The Pandavas finally decided that they would follow their mother's instruction in letter and spirit. Yudisthir, Bheem, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev would all marry Draupadi. The great monk Dwaipayan Vyas arrived at that opportune moment, and made things more convenient for the Pandavas. Vyas was a well wisher of this family. He clearly foresaw the potential schism that Draupadi may cause among the brothers. He was also aware of the social outrage that this polygamous arrangement would incite. King Drupad, father of Draupadi, was especially worried about his daughter entering such an unprecedented matrimony. Hence, Vyas took it upon himself to allay the royalty and the society.
"Draupadi, in her last birth, was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. She prayed to the God for a worthy husband - someone who would be the wisest, bravest, strongest, and the handsomest man on earth. Shiva granted Draupadi her wish. However, it is impossible to find so many virtues in a single man. Yudisthir is the wisest, Bheem is the strongest, Arjun is the bravest, Sahadev is the handsomest, while Nakul is the most courteous man in the modern society. Draupadi, you asked for the impossible, and it has been fulfilled."
Arjun had to agree with the arrangement, since the integrity of the family was at stake. It was decided that Draupadi would take turns to spend her conjugal life with her five husbands. For the first year she would be Yudisthir's wife. The Pandavas had, by then, settled at Indraprastha, and the days of political turmoil were behind them. One day the monk Narad visited their palace. At length he spoke solemnly.
"Yudisthir, I reckon that all of you have married the beautiful Panchali. However, you should never allow your shared love to sow the seeds of rivalry."
"We are careful of that, my Lord!" Yudisthir replied.
"I am sure you are. But, there are certain things you should keep in mind, especially in view of the unusual arrangements of this marriage. There are many instances in history, remote and recent, where men, who were otherwise great friends, have fought deadly duels and perished over women. You cannot imagine the kind of rage that may consume you, if you stumble across an intimate scene between Draupadi and one of the brothers."
Thus, the stringent rules of conjugal life between Draupadi and the five brothers were laid down. During any given year Draupadi would remain dedicated physically and emotionally to one of the Pandavas, and the other four should treat her with due reverence. It was agreed upon, that if any of the brothers, inadvertently or by design, intruded upon the private chambers of Draupadi while she was in company of her present husband, the violator would be banished from the palace to lead a celibate life in exile for twelve years.
After Narad's departure the days went by peacefully. Arjun was left with the memory of that one brief night of fervent lovemaking with Draupadi -- the night of their wedding. The fire had singed him, and scarred him for life. Since that day he had distanced himself from that flame. Arjun instinctively knew that Draupadi loved him the most, but he made no attempt to exploit that weakness. One day, Arjun was making his way towards the palace grounds, when he saw a group of Brahmins frantically running in his direction.
"Robbers have stolen our everything. Our cows, our possessions and our little wealth -- all are gone. Arjun! We thought we are safe in this kingdom. It's your duty to recover our belongings."
Arjun hurried towards the arsenal to get his weapons. On his way he thought, "Yudisthir and Draupadi are presently residing next to the room where I have kept my bow and arrows. I would probably violate our code of conduct." But another craving lurked secretly in his heart. "I shall get a glimpse of Draupadi."
As Arjun stood at the entrance of the room which stored his arms, the blood bubbled in his veins. Draupadi was lying on the bed, naked, twisting and turning ardently in Yudisthir's arms. She looked up, startled by the sudden footsteps. Oh! those stormy eyes, fraught with desire and passion. A blinding wave of rage stabbed at Arjun's heart. "This love cannot be for any other man. How dare, someone else touch her!" Arjun trembled in unbearable agony. But, at that instant he remembered Narad's warning. He grabbed his bow, mumbled a word of apology, and hastily retreated from the room.
Arjun caught the dacoits easily, punished them condignly, and returned the cows to the Brahmins. "Time for me to leave Indraprastha. I have to run away from this obsessive love." Arjun decided.
Yudisthir, however, was not eager to see Arjun leave. He had not minded the incident. In addition, his kingdom was embattled by hostile tribes and nomads. They would definitely try to infiltrate the borders of Indraprastha in Arjun's absence.
"Your remorse is unfounded, Arjun. You were just carrying out your duty," Yudisthir insisted.
But Arjun was stubborn. "Brother, you have taught us to follow dharma. Whatever the reason might be, I am definitely guilty of transgressing the strictures. Pray, bless me, so that I may complete my penance in celibacy. I would also utilize my exile to learn about the diverse cultures of this vast country."
Arjun had completely disrobed.The last few days had been very pleasant for him. He would sometimes roam in the forest aimlessly, enjoying the pristine beauty of the mountains and the river. However, he was unaware that wherever he went, a pair of beautiful eyes followed him like a shadow.
Arjun dived into the cool water, and swam with powerful strokes against the current. The morning breeze blew across his face, while the foaming current rippled against his muscular limbs. The calmness suffused through Arjun's senses. He had swam a fair distance from the bank, when he thought of turning back. Suddenly, he felt a soft arm wrapping itself firmly around his chest. "Someone is trying to drown me," Arjun looked in despair towards the bank, where he had left his quiver. Arjun sank deeper and deeper, wildly thrashing all the time with his legs to set himself free.
Then, he heard a sweet voice whispering into his ears. "Do not worry, I am not going to hurt you, my love. I am Uloopi, princess of the Nagas. Arjun, welcome to my kingdom." Arjun fell into a delicious slumber in Uloopi's seductive embrace.
End of Part - 1.