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The Queens of Hastinapur by Sharath Komarraju

Read Online The Queens of Hastinapur by Sharath Komarraju Fantasy Book


Read Online The Queens of Hastinapur by Sharath Komarraju Fantasy Book
The Queens of Hastinapur by Sharath Komarraju


Overview: This is the story of Ganga, Madri, Pritha and Gandhari: women of the Mahabharata who, driven by their fears and ambitions, trigger events that lead to an epic war, propelling kings, princes and warriors towards glory and bloodshed, sin and redemption.
What came to an end in Kurukshetra took root in throne rooms and bedchambers, hermitages and sacred lakes, prisons and shrines, on horseback and under the stars.
This immersive, gripping retelling of the Mahabharata through the eyes of its female characters reveals how fates are sealed and destinies altered when women begin pulling the strings.


Read Online The Queens of Hastinapur by Sharath Komarraju Book Chapter One


The high metal gates opened. Ganga walked out through them into the garden, acknowledging the bowing guards with a swift nod. Her black cloak was draped around her shoulders, her hair thrown open to the morning air. If there was one thing she loved about summers, it was the dawn breeze that came running up the slopes from the east, leaving in its wake a trail of white roses in full bloom.
Even in the controlled environs of Meru there was summer, winter, autumn and spring. The hot months did not make you sweat as they did on Earth, and the cold ones did not make you shiver quite as much, but one could still tell one season from another. The Elementals strove to keep everyone on the mountain in comfort through the year, but hardly a day went by without Ganga hearing someone or the other complaining that it was either too hot or too cold.
She kept her grumbling to herself. Her skin had begun to dry up more in the last week. Twice in the last four days she had woken up on the stone ledge of her hut in the middle of the night, her throat parched. Evenings had become colder, it seemed, and nights had become warmer.
The Elementals said that nothing had changed, that they used the same Mysteries they had in previous years. What they did not say out loud – but thought in their minds – was that everyone who complained about the weather on the mountain seemed to be advancing in years. The Crystal Water delayed ageing but did not stop it. Sometimes, the Meru people forgot this and assumed that, like the mountain, they would forever be unchanging.
Ganga did not know how old in years she was now. Her hair had not yet begun to grey, but a few locks around her temples had turned a shade of reddish brown. The colour in her lips had faded, and when she looked into the mirror now, the eyes looked much like those of her mother’s had.
She pushed away these thoughts of decay and smiled into the morning. The eastern sky was just turning orange. The corners of her mouth were still wet with water from the lake. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her stomach felt cool and cleansed. A serene sense of vitality coursed through her veins. At this moment, she felt more alive than anything else in the world.
As Lady of the River, she had as much access to the Crystal Lake as she desired, but she did not go beyond two mouthfuls every morning. She went to bed every night with the hint of an itch at the base of her throat, and by the time she woke up it would turn into a mild burn. Only a drink from the lake soothed it.
She came to the fountain and sat by its edge, looking up at the granite statue of Mohini, the girl with the water pitcher mounted on her hip. A team of craftsmen was replacing the greyed-out pearls of her necklace with new, brighter ones. Of the heap of diamonds set in her hair, one or two had fallen off. The golden inscription at her feet required polishing. The Brightest of the Dark Ones, it said.
Ganga looked through the rippling water of the fountain at the snow-white marble floor. In her own reflection she saw the sad eyes of Devavrata, but his lips were set in a smile. When he had first left the mountain in a huff, she had thought he would be unable to stay away for longer than a few moons, that the lake would pull him back. The sages and the other Celestials had said the same. But now, fourteen years had come and gone since that day when Brihaspati had barked his curse at him. ‘Earth will spit you out, Son of Ganga,’ he had said.
But Earth had not spit him out. She had clutched him to herself. She had made him the great warrior of his age. She had given him more than the mountain ever could.
Why would he return? Why do you still have hope?
She heard footsteps approach. Hard, gem-encrusted sandals clacking on the dew-covered mud ground. The man approached her from behind and stood at a respectable distance. She knew who it was without having to look. Only one Celestial would visit the statue of Mohini this early in the morning.
‘Vishnu,’ she said, turning to face him, ‘I have not had an audience with you for the longest time.’
‘Yes, my lady,’ he said, bowing. ‘It has been way too long.’
‘And even when we do meet, it has to be by accident, in this manner.’
‘Actually, my lady, I came here today hoping to see you.’
‘It is I you have come to meet? Not her?’
‘That is so.’
‘Then it must be rather important.’
Vishnu inclined his head. ‘It is, my lady. Yes.’
Ganga looked over at Mohini’s statue. Three of the craftsmen who were standing by her looked expectantly at Vishnu. ‘I think the men over there want you to supervise their work. Return after you finish. I shall wait right here.’
‘Yes, my lady. I shall be no more than a few minutes.’
Vishnu circled the statue, pointing at spots the polisher had missed. He had the slender, wiry build of most Celestials. Something about the way he held his frame reminded Ganga of Devavrata in his early youth. His complexion and face were nondescript, and the only way in which he differed from other Celestials was that he wore his hair short, not shoulder-length. His ears resembled those of a baby elephant, pink and round. On his head he wore no crown. His fingers and ears were shorn of rings. He carried a wooden staff in his right hand, which people said held untold magical powers, but Ganga had never seen him use it.
He was one of the mountain’s three most desirable men.
Before every fertility rite, the people on Meru spoke about just two things: whether the three Wise Ones would partake in it, and if so, with whom. Among women the Lady of the River had once held a similar position, but ever since that spring of eight years ago, when she had gone to the rite with Shiva and failed to bear a son, she had heard her name being mentioned less and less among the mountain folk.
Vishnu came to her and joined his hands. No shade of red appeared in his hair. No dimming of the spark she had first seen in his eyes. It was the will of the Goddess that age enhanced a man’s qualities while a woman dwindled under its weight.
‘You do not come here every morning, do you, Vishnu?’
‘No, my lady.’ His voice carried an echo, like the sound of a pebble cast into an empty well. ‘I come when Mohini calls for me. I come at the onset of summer, because this is the month in which we declared our love for each other, all those years ago.’
‘Ah,’ said Ganga. ‘Did she ever return to the mountain?’
‘Not to my knowledge. I have heard a few wandering shepherds describe someone like her roaming the slopes, but they cannot be true sightings. Many years must have passed since her death.’
‘And yet you love her to this day.’
Vishnu looked at Ganga and smiled. ‘All that we have today, my lady, is her blessing. During those few moons, I am certain she loved me too.’
‘Perhaps it is just as well you did not meet her before her death.’
‘Yes.’ He looked up with his grey eyes at the statue. ‘I like her like this, as she was when she left us.’
The sun had just cleared the horizon. It now appeared as a solid saffron ball in the distance, cradled by the slopes of two adjoining snow-clad mountains. The first rays of sunlight touched Ganga’s arms warmly and threw a long shadow of Mohini in their direction. The wind from the east stilled somewhat, but the smell of full-bloom roses remained in the air.
She shrugged her cloak into position and stood up straight. ‘You said you wanted to speak about something important.’
‘My lady, yes. I did not seek your audience to speak just of Mohini. Lord knows that everyone on the mountain has heard enough of her.’
‘If the matter is important enough to drag you out of the woods, Vishnu, it must concern Earth.’ And Hastinapur, she wanted to say, but held herself.
‘It is true what they say,’ said Vishnu. ‘You see all.’
Ganga could feel herself grow uneasy, as she did whenever someone on Meru came to her wishing to speak of Earth. Almost always it concerned Devavrata, and almost always she needed to do something to thwart her son. Her first loyalty was to the mountain, yes, and to the Goddess who looked after them. But the mere thought of fighting Devavrata turned her heart to lead.
‘Speak!’ she said, bristling.
‘Our worries concern the Middle Kingdoms, my lady,’ said Vishnu. ‘Now that we have acquired the black stones of Mathura for ourselves, we have left the city too weak to defend itself, and King Jarasandha of Magadha is sharpening his spears as we speak.’
‘King Jarasandha rules wisely, I am told.’
‘He does, Lady Ganga. But he also wishes to expand his rule across the breadth of North Country, and Mathura is the first kingdom in his path.’
‘What if it is? Let them fight, and may the better king win.’
Vishnu’s face grew grim, even as the shadow of Mohini shortened with the rising sun. ‘Between Magadha and Mathura, my lady, there can only be one winner. Without the black stones, Mathura’s naval fleet is but a shade of its former self. Their ships lumber across the Yamuna now, where once they shot through like arrows from a well-strung bow.’
‘Let me understand this,’ said Ganga. ‘You do not wish for Jarasandha to become more powerful than he is.’
‘No, my lady, we do not.’
‘Who is this “we”, Vishnu?’
‘The three Wise Ones and Indra.’
‘I see.’
‘If King Jarasandha gains a hold on the Middle Kingdoms, Lady Ganga, he shall soon challenge the power of Hastinapur, and even the prowess of Devavrata might not be enough to quell him.’
‘That may not be a bad thing. A powerful kingdom breathing down his neck will keep Devavrata honest, and he shall not think of attacking Meru.’
‘That is true,’ replied Vishnu. ‘But what if they battle each other, and one of them becomes the supreme emperor? Then they will train their sights northwards, and my lady, we do not have the army to win a war.’
Ganga held out her arm to the fountain and rubbed a handful of cold water on her arms to soothe her skin against the sun. Then she entwined her fingers together. The polishers had finished and were walking around the statue, giving it their final appraisal.
Vishnu was correct in what he had said at the end. The army that Meru maintained in Indra’s archery ranges and stables could fight battles, win some skirmishes perhaps, but was not fit for outright war. Meru had long moved away from courting open violence to employing all its inhabitants to plough the Mysteries. Knowledge was Meru’s weapon, and it did not fight well when faced with a lance.
She sighed. ‘I am wary of meddling in Earth’s affairs, Vishnu,’ she said. ‘We should allow matters to take their own course. We must all be akin to the Goddess, and merely sit by and watch.’
‘The Goddess would have wanted us to act, my lady. High Sage Vasishtha said so.’
‘It has been no more than two moons since we left North Country, and you want us to return?’
‘Circumstances are such, Lady Ganga.’
Ganga got to her feet and shook her head once. She kept her voice low. ‘We blame circumstances more than we ought to, Vishnu. If you have come to me for advice, I shall give you some. No amount of meddling on our part shall stop what is to come. I know not what it is. I do not see the future. But to believe that we shape it by our actions is folly.’
‘My lady—’
‘I know what you will say. I have heard it all before. But I have seen more of Earth than you have, Vishnu. I have lived as an Earthwoman. I have loved an Earthman. Let me assure you that Meru would do best to look after its own affairs.’
He lifted his head to speak, but Ganga pursed her lips and shook her head again. He fell silent.
‘It is time for my morning prayers. I need to go.’ She pulled her cloak about herself, covering her head. She took a few steps away from the Celestial. Then she said over her shoulder, ‘We have the whole mountain to ourselves, Vishnu. Let us live our lives and let the people of Earth live theirs.’
Vishnu did not answer. He just bowed.
While separating neem leaves from their stems that night, Ganga thought of what Vishnu had said. It had been an idea similar to this that had resulted in her leaving Meru for eight long years. Then it had been Vasishtha who had convinced her it was for the good of Meru. She had received a son in the bargain, and about that she had no regrets, but she had also had to foster enmity with Devavrata. In the name of loyalty to Meru, she and Devavrata had drifted apart, and after all these years they were still estranged.
One change gave rise to two. Two gave rise to four, four to eight and so on. It would not end until one of the two sides – either Meru or Earth – was ruined. How much better would it be to retreat and watch events unfold and set aside this manic desire to control them? How many lives could they save just by letting Earth chart its own destiny?
She gathered all the leaves into a straw bowl and carried them to the grinding stone in the corner. Sitting in front of it with her left leg splayed to one side and the right folded and raised, she rested her chin on her knee as she crushed them. Every few seconds she stopped to add a few drops of oil into the mix. After a few minutes of grinding, she first examined the colour, then bent forward to smell it.
A few cumin seeds and a pinch of turmeric, she thought.
The neigh and snort of a horse came in through the open window, accompanied by a man’s soft whispers. Her lips spread into a smile. Then the sound of the water trough being dragged over, a splash as the horse slobbered its mouth in it thirstily. She set aside the bowl and rubbed her fingers clean on the corner of her robe.
The doorway filled with a man’s shadow.
‘Nishanta,’ said Ganga, ‘how happy I am to see you.’
Even in the dim, flickering light of the lamp, Nishanta’s eyes wore a bloodshot look. His bronze frame was coated in a layer of dusty sweat. His sword dangled in the scabbard tied to his side. His lower garment looked yellow, but it could have been white when he had started his journey. Its true colour would only emerge after a wash or two. For a man who spent much of his life on horseback, he carried a generous layer of belly fat, although his arms looked as though they had been sculpted by a fine chisel.
He got down on one knee and bowed. ‘I bring news of Hastinapur, my lady.’
‘Indeed you do,’ said Ganga, beaming. ‘How does Devavrata?’
‘The Kuru house is the happiest it has been in a long while, my lady Ganga. The people in the street do not sing and dance, but they do not live in worry either.’
‘The wedding ceremonies were grand, were they not? We have heard tales of them here on the mountain as well.’
‘Indeed they were. Dhritarashtra’s was grander than Pandu’s, but that is not surprising.’
‘No,’ said Ganga, ‘it is not. When are they making him king?’
A hesitant pause, then: ‘There appears to be some … confusion about the matter, my lady. Some of the people I know who work in the palace tell me that Bhishma does not think Dhritarashtra worthy of being king.’
Ganga feigned curiosity, although she had hoped this would happen. A blind king on the throne of Hastinapur would just not do. It did not matter in any real way, of course; kings rarely ventured out into the battlefield, and the true measure of a king (or a man) did not rest on whether or not he could see with his eyes. But a blind king would attract from friends and foes alike a good deal of attention, none of it desirable.
It was just not the sensible thing to do. And Devavrata, for all his faults, could never be faulted for not being sensible.
‘So they wish for the second-born to become king, do they?’
‘It appears that way, my lady. The third half-brother has trained himself in the scriptures and polity. He appears set to become a minister.’
‘His name is Vidur.’
‘That is so.’
‘And what of the princesses? Have there been any murmurs about how Gandhari and Pritha treat each other in the palace?’
‘Yes, Lady Ganga, and everything I have heard suggests they are happy in each other’s company.’
‘No jealousy on Gandhari’s part that Pritha will become queen before her?’
Again, another moment’s pause. ‘I have not heard anything of that nature, my lady.’
‘Then it must all be good,’ she said, even though in her heart she did not believe it. Gandhari had learned much, ruling Gandhar at a young age, and all the pain that Devavrata had heaped on her before her marriage to Dhritarashtra could not be forgotten in a matter of months. If she was being amicable to Pritha at present, she must have a larger plan in mind.
‘Enough of Hastinapur,’ she said. ‘What of Magadha and Mathura?’
‘What of them, my lady?’
‘I heard today that the High King of Magadha is readying some chariots to march against Mathura.’
‘It is hard to say for certain which kingdom Jarasandha is after, my lady. But yes, weapons are being sharpened in that city. Iron miners have been working on the double, and foundries stay open through the night, every night.’
Ganga looked out of the open door, into the dark. It was a sticky, moonless evening.
‘Tell me, Nishanta,’ she said, ‘what kind of a man is Jarasandha?’
Ganga turned to look Nishanta in the eye.
‘Yes, my lady. He is a noble king, looks after his people well. He is quite adept with a sword, they say, and in his younger days he is rumoured to have been the best wrestler in the city. But that head he has on his shoulders – he has vanquished many an enemy without shedding a drop of blood.’
‘So if he is preparing to march into battle, he must think it worth winning.’
‘They say he would never fight a battle he does not think he could win, my lady.’
The more Ganga heard, the more troubled she grew. It seemed now that Vishnu had been correct. What were the words he had used? Circumstances were such. And she had scoffed at him.
‘Is Jarasandha strong enough to win a battle against Hastinapur, Nishanta?’
It was not Nishanta’s job to speculate about military strength. He had his ears well trained on the common people. He heard everything the palace maids and servants breathed to one another. He was a deft hand with a sword too. But of statecraft he knew next to nothing. Ganga felt she could use a word of reassurance, though, even if it had to come from him.
‘Not now, my lady,’ said Nishanta. ‘No. Hastinapur has Gandhar, Kunti and Shurasena as allies. Magadha stands alone.’
‘But if Magadha were to take Mathura—’
‘Even then it would not be strong enough to defeat Hastinapur, my lady.’ Nishanta considered her with his red eyes. ‘But if Magadha takes Mathura, it will gain control of its warships, and it will control a significant part of the Yamuna that separates Hastinapur from Shurasena and Kunti.’
‘So after he annexes Mathura, Jarasandha will move against Shurasena?’
‘That seems the right thing to do. Neither Shurasena nor Kunti is big or strong enough to stand against Magadha. If he launches a surprise attack, the battle will be finished before the cry for help reaches Hastinapur.’
Ganga let out a deep breath. ‘And will taking Kunti and Shurasena make Magadha strong enough to win against Hastinapur?’
Nishanta’s broad shoulders rose and fell. ‘They will be even in might then, I think. But as long as Bhishma fights under Hastinapur’s banner, my lady, no city in North Country will take it.’
The words gladdened her heart. She never tired of hearing praise of Devavrata. She lifted herself off the ground and picking up the bowl of crushed leaves doused in oil, went to the stove and started a fire. ‘I am putting some rice to boil, Nishanta,’ she said, between blowing through a black pipe at the live coals. ‘Would you like some? I am making a pickle with neem leaves, and I would like someone to taste it and tell me how it is.’
Nishanta bowed. ‘My lady.’
Ganga fanned the coals until they crackled. Nishanta never said no to food.
They ate quickly and in silence. Out on the porch, just as Nishanta was about to mount his horse, she asked him, ‘Did you happen to visit Panchala this time?’
‘I stayed at an inn there, my lady, but just for a night.’
‘Has the king of Panchala taken a wife?’
‘Not in the last year. But if the meaning behind your asking is whether he has an heir to the throne, the answer still appears to be no.’
‘That means Amba has not come there.’
‘Who, my lady?’
‘There is a priestess who lives in Parashurama’s hermitage in Naimisha. From now on, you shall do well to keep abreast of the goings-on in her life as well. Her name is Amba. She was once the princess of Kasi, and was betrothed to Vichitraveerya.’
Nishanta did not respond. He sat like a black idol on the saddle, set against the starlight, holding the reins.
‘We hope that she will have a large say in the future of North Country.’ Ganga felt a lump grow in her throat as she said those words. She did not know why. ‘She has a child, a girl called Shikhandini.’
‘I shall keep my eyes and ears open, my lady.’
She nodded up at him, and with a kick at the horse’s flanks, Nishanta broke first into a trot, then, as they caught the winding road up the mountain, into a full gallop. As the sound of his hooves disappeared into the distance and the silence of the night gathered around her, she wondered once again if she had been too hasty in dismissing Vishnu’s fears.
She laid out her mat in the doorway, half inside, half outside. As she lay with her arm folded up and pillowing her head, she crooned to herself some Sanskrit verses from memory. The swing-like rise and fall of her voice made her eyes heavy, and soon her lips stopped moving and her limbs relaxed.
She dreamed of her first night with Shantanu, and of the crescent moon with the star at its tip.
When she woke up the next morning, just before the break of dawn, Ganga found herself looking at the figures of Vishnu and Vasishtha standing in front of her hut.
She scrambled to her knees groggily, bowing to the sage and at the same time raising an arm to receive Vishnu’s obeisance.
Vasishtha was leaning on his stick, caressing his flowing grey beard. The pockmarks on his cheeks seemed to have opened up since Ganga had seen him last. She knew that the sage partook of the Crystal Water, but he was a human, who had spent much of his life on Earth. Soon there would be a younger Vasishtha on the mountain; she had heard from Kubera that the sage had taken a disciple from the court of Indra.
‘We beg your pardon for waking you up in so unseemly a fashion, Lady Ganga,’ he said in his stringy voice. ‘But Lord Vishnu here wished me to accompany him, so that we may be more successful in convincing you than he was by himself yesterday.’
She waved them to the ledge on the porch, and they both sat down, cross-legged, facing her. ‘I received tidings from Nishanta last night,’ she said. ‘He indicated to me that you were perhaps right, Vishnu.’ She omitted the ‘lord’ on purpose. No man on the mountain was ‘lord’ to the Lady of the River. ‘But I do not yet see how I can help in the matter. Even if it is decided that we must act in some way to thwart the rise of Magadha, what am I to do?’
Vishnu inclined his head. ‘You do yourself a great disservice, Lady Ganga. When Sage Vasishtha’s curse had to be carried out, it was you who spent eight years on Earth as queen to a human king. When Hastinapur had to be strengthened by marriage alliances to Gandhar and Kunti, it was you who planned it. It was you who advised us on how to proceed.’
‘And see where it has led us,’ said Ganga. ‘We find ourselves more and more involved in matters of Earth, where once we lived as two separate rivers, flowing on our own paths. Now we cannot function without daily messages from Hastinapur. We sit together on quiet summer mornings and speak of things such as war and weapons, where once we used to converse about the Mysteries.’ She looked at Vasishtha. ‘Do you not remember those days, High Sage?’
Vasishtha began to nod, but Vishnu said, ‘This will be the last of our changes, my lady. Hastinapur is now on the cusp of greatness, with both its princes married and their queens ready to bear children. The sons they have shall be heroic, and in a few years there will be no kingdom in North Country that will match Hastinapur in valour.’
‘Or so we think,’ she said.
Vishnu took no notice. ‘So we just need to keep Magadha from growing for a few years, and then all will be well. Hastinapur needs our support for just a few more years, and then we can sit back and watch it crumble under its own weight.’
‘I wonder if it is ever that simple.’
Vasishtha shook his head. ‘No. It never is.’
‘Regardless,’ said Ganga, ‘you have not told me what it is that I must do.’
‘The Wise Ones met in council yesterday,’ said Vishnu. ‘We think the best way is to send a maiden from Meru down to Earth, as you went to Shantanu’s court all those years back.’
Ganga smiled. ‘I am much too aged to repeat what I did when I was a girl of fourteen, Vishnu.’
‘We accept that. I was not suggesting you should be the one to go. We have chosen a maiden for this task.’
‘Then what is it that you want from me?’
‘We wish you to train her, so that she would know the ways of Earthmen. You know much that we do not, because you have lived among them for years, and you have a son who now calls Earth home.’
‘What my son chooses is none of my concern,’ said Ganga calmly. ‘About the maiden: I sense that she is being sent to Magadha.’
Vishnu shook his head. ‘No, my lady. We think it is better that she be sent to Mathura instead.’
‘Mathura? Whatever will she do in Mathura?’
‘We have gained much success in the past by aligning ourselves with the weak kingdoms and offering them help against the stronger ones. With Mathura, we shall do the same. We have no army to give them, but we can give them some of our Mysteries – the less secretive ones – and make them powerful enough to withstand the might of Magadha.’
Ganga said, puzzled, ‘But, Vishnu, Mathura is the kingdom from which we just stole the black stones. Do you plan to return them?’
‘No, my lady. The black stones will make Mathura stronger than we would like them to be. We want them to be just strong enough to withstand Magadha’s attacks. No more.’
Control, she thought. Life on Meru thrived on control. Control over the elements. Control over ageing. Control over self. Control over thoughts, actions, words. These people could not digest the fact that life on Earth was different, that the Goddess held sway in a different manner over there. Vishnu seemed to think that changing things on Earth was like chanting a Mystery up here on the mountain.
But arguing with him would be futile. The Wise Ones had already met. They had already made their decision. Even if she disagreed with them now, they would not debate with her. They would still go ahead with their strategy, and relationships between her and them would sour.
So she asked, ‘Who is the maiden?’

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