Moolchand stared ahead as he escorted the young prince on his horse ride into the country. Yuvraj Dhruvasen seldom spoke during this daily exercise. It was Moolchand who would draw his attention to the surroundings, as the young prince refused to look any further beyond his beloved mare.
Today however, Moolchand was preoccupied.
“Shall we visit the beautiful Saptavatika woods today, Yuvraj*?”
The prince gave his usual awkward nod and Moolchand directed the mare on the trail that led into the groves.
Once they were alone inside the deep woods, Moolchand in complete nonchalance, pulled out a sprig of dhoolakampatra* from his pocket and held it to the nose of the mare.
The drug took a few minutes to manifest its effects and the mare swerved dangerously, frothing at its mouth, its nostrils flaring. The prince tried to hold on but lost his seating at one particularly violent heave. Moolchand stepped backward, beholding the scene in terror, as the crazed mare towered over the prince rising on its two hind legs. The fallen prince struggled to get up, but his stiff thigh muscles failed him, as always. He lay balled up, whimpering, waiting for the strike.
The horse did its damage and scampered deeper into the woods. Moolchand rushed ahead to check on the bleeding prince. A familiar twitch appeared on Yuvraj’s cheek. Moolchand lifted a rock, that seemed to be lying there just for his assigned purpose, pausing for a moment to gather courage.
In that split second, an arrow pierced his neck and he fell backwards.
The prince lay sprawled and moaned, shielding his sensitive eyes from the sunlight, as a shadow loomed over him. He had one glimpse of the demonic figure, before he finally passed out.
Ten years ago-
“Is it time?”
Samrat* Dharmasen inquired, his eyes fixed on the bright North star.
The screams from the queen’s chamber reverberated through the fort but all ears strained for another voice. Minutes passed by without respite.
“It is time,” the royal priest declared at last, looking up from his almanac. Within moments the cry they had all longed for was heard.
The monitrice walked in with a bundled newborn and placed him on the priest’s lap.
The priest contemplated the child’s slumbering face, undid its swaddle, and began counting its dainty digits, studying the lines on those pink palms and the whorls made by downy fur on its head. Finally, he opened the baby’s mouth to check the tongue and exulted in surprise.
“Samrat, your son is sprouting a tooth already! This is a Raajanya Guna*, portent of a truly noble ruler. Doubtlessly, he will be a worthy successor to rule these seven lands and expand your magnificent Dharmaraj tenfold.”
Samrat Dharmasen beamed as he held his firstborn. “Like the unwavering North star, may you guide this kingdom on the path of virtue. Live long, my Dhruvasen.”
The precious moment was interrupted by wails from the queen’s chamber. The King rushed out, followed by the priest. However, there was nothing this ruler of seven lands, or his counsellor with the wisdom of the three worlds, could do to revive the soul, that had moments ago birthed the future of the entire kingdom.
Prince Dhruvasen grew up under heavy scrutiny and protection that was complete in every respect barring warmth. If the priest’s predictions were indeed true, Dhruvasen exhibited no signs that seemed to concur with them. If the King loved his son, he struggled to show it.
At the age of five, Dhruvasen laboured to speak, was built too slightly for a future king, and showed no acumen in learning. He had trouble running in bright sunlight. The Rajgurus struggled to get through his shell of defiant shyness as the child refused to make any eye contact.
To make matters worse, he was soon joined by his stepbrother, Shoorsen, who in most matters displayed an ideal growth and mastered many activities that Dhruvasen still struggled with. The contrast between the two brothers was too stark to be ignored by the members of the court. Maharani* Mandira, in particular, did not hesitate from emphasizing this disparity aloud.
One evening, as the sun had begun to mellow, a fiery striped steed gambolled about boisterously, in the royal gardens. It viciously kicked aside the stable aide who fell to the ground, bleeding from his ears. The other two aides ran away in fear.
“Yuvraj, nooo…!” The aides cried in fear, as the ten-year-old prince approached the horse with a juicy chunk of watermelon. Dhruvasen, who obstinately resisted eye contact with humans looked at the haughty steed straight in the eye.
“Tvám prashamah*” he said soothingly, holding firm the horse’s front leg. In an unbelievably co-ordinated move, he reached for the steed’s belly, pressed at a knot near its navel till there was a pop. The horse calmed down and nuzzled the prince’s hand, licking the piece of melon.
The king and the priest watched this spectacle from the distance. “I wish he showed such interest in academics and warfare.” the king’s tone was dejected.
The priest merely smiled. “The five digits of each hand are created different for a reason, Samrat.”
He resisted informing the king that the younger prince revelled in killing birds in the royal gardens. “Trust me. I would choose prince Dhruvasen over Shoorsen any given day.”
Maharani Mandira fumed silently as she heard this exchange and decided to intervene. “Dhruvsen’s only redemption is his uncanny friendship with the horses. They shall be his end.”
That evening Moolchand, the head of the royal stables, was about to retire for the night, when he heard a knock on his door. He opened it to a cloaked figure who walked in without hesitation. The figure dropped a bag that clinked as it hit the floor. Then it held out a sprig of greenish-purple leaves to a flummoxed Moolchand.
“You will take a detour tomorrow. When you reach seclusion, the mare shall inhale the scent of these crushed leaves. If the horse fails to do its job, you shall. Fail this and you shall not see the light of another day.”
Dhruvasen opened his eyes to find himself lying in a dim cabin with a thatched roof and mud walls. All the aches that he was oblivious to while he slept returned with a ferocity and he winced as he attempted to rise. He noticed, with a jolt, a demon mask hung on the wall beside him. A figure sat triturating herbs beside a tiny fire nestling a small crucible that gave out pungent fumes. A little further away, lay a body with an arrow sticking out of its neck.
Dhruvasen stared in horror at his lifeless servant. The image of the towering mare flashed before his eyes. He made a violent start towards the huddled figure, but the man simply looked up and raised his hand.
Dark as dusk, he seemed to blend into the black walls of his wretched hut, so that all the prince could see was a pair of blazing eyes fixed on him. Dhruvasen shrank back, rummaging the folds of his robes for the royal dagger he always carried. The man smiled as he held out the dagger and threw it at the prince’s feet. Baring his broken teeth, he spoke, “If you strike me now, it will be your second time claiming the life of a person who gifts you yours.”
“Wh- what d-do you mmmean?” Dhruvasen stuttered.
“Surely you know how you lost your mother?”
“She was. Until she died giving birth to you. Maharani Mandira, your stepmother, is the reason you are here today.”
“Wh- who are you?”
The man cackled, all his broken teeth flashing in the dark. “How many times must you have passed right by me in your gardens! I do believe no man would turn around to take a second look at me, least of all Your Highness. I am Rathanga. I tended to your royal gardens once.”
Dhruvasen watched this man, wearing nothing but a loincloth, pounding his pestle.
“You k- killed Mmmoolchand.”
“Yes. You wouldn’t be sitting here, otherwise.”
“The attempt on your life is her doing, and not for the first time, Yuvraj. She has been obsessed with eliminating you the day she bore Shoorsen. Don’t you remember that brat of a younger brother almost drowning you in the moat? I was sentenced for tackling that wretched boy, to save you.”
He walked over to the prince, who was shaking his head in disbelief, and slapped the still smoking ointment onto the prince’s raw wounds. Dhruvasen yelled and tried to push the man away, in vain. In one swift movement he pinned the prince onto the cot and thrust some of the liquid down the prince’s throat. Dhruvasen passed out once more.
Rathanga nursed the prince back to health. The prince had an aversion to any change in his routine, though he began to realise that nothing had really changed except that he was no longer in his own castle. Rathanga bathed him daily just like they did in the palace. He did not bother with small talk or demand eye contact. The simple fare that Rathanga cooked suited his stomach better than the royal meat-based cuisine.
Two weeks later, Rathanga took the prince to a spring early in the morning. The waters smelled peculiar and bubbled at places. Without warning, Rathanga pushed the prince into the sulphurous waters. After the initial sting, the waters seemed to soothe his skin, which was prone to break into hives. An hour-long bath was surprisingly refreshing.
The solace, however, did not last long. Rathanga took Dhruvasen deep into the forest, tied him to an ancient banyan tree and left him there till the sun shone brightly through the foliage. The prince who was exceptionally sensitive to loud noises and bright light, thrashed about, as the birds chirped incessantly. The piercing light hurt his eyes till his head pounded and he threw up. At noon, Rathanga came to collect him and fed him cool water from the kalpavriksha*.
This routine took place every day till about two months later, prince Dhruvasen realised the sun and the noises did not bother him as much as they did before.
Rathanga then planned a series of brutal exercises to strengthen the prince’s muscles. On some days, the prince was asked to fetch 500 pitchers of water from the well. On other days, his priced royal ring was fed to a hen that was set free in a field. The prince thought he would pass out, running and twisting after the hen who it appeared, could outrun a fastest horse.
Rathanga studied the prince’s pulse and examined his bodily fluids. “Your mind and body are the product of what you eat. You clearly cannot digest the food of kings.” A diet of fruits, vegetables, and tubers it was for the prince. Sure enough, the prince responded well to the new diet. He was no longer bloated and had developed sinew.
The prince would stare at Rathanga’s bony fingers as they deftly mixed and manipulated herbs.
“I wanted to be a healer, but dharma* prohibits people from my tribe from becoming a vaidya*. Curse of destiny.”
“D-destiny… I w-was always re-mminded of mmine. B-but I cannot see it h-happen.”
“Well, it certainly won’t happen sitting idle, Yuvraj. Prophecies are mere signposts, to show you your path. Your karma* is to fulfil them or defy them. You owe it to your mother’s blood that was shed, to fulfil yours.”
Under Rathanga’s tutelage, Dhruvasen studied poisons and their antidotes. He learnt the yogic techniques that helped him focus. Often, the prince was suspended from the hanging branches of banyan trees with a nest of scorpions below. “Nothing strengthens the handgrip like fear for life,” Rathanga believed.
Nine years passed.
Rathanga looked at his protégé with pride and emotion. “This is the best I could do. Go home, Yuvraj. Your people await you.”
No one could have identified the young man who stood before Rathanga. Though the facial twitch returned in times of stress and the occasional noon sun would redden his eyes, Dhruvasen had turned robust and skilled in combat training, hunting and wildlife.
The prince looked up to meet Rathanga’s eyes one last time and set out to claim the lands that were his. He had no illusions about his safety in the palace, but at least he was better informed and better equipped.
Dhruvasen peeped through the bushes to look at the royal palanquin. The king, the queen and their men had camped at the edge of the woods while returning from a pilgrimage. The palace was about four hours away and it was forbidden for the kings to travel after sunset.
With bated breath, Dhruvasen unpacked a wooden crate. A nest of seven vipers slithered towards the palanquin, stinging the two guards watching over the entourage. “Snakes! Plenty of them!” Someone shouted and a pandemonium broke loose. The Maharani stood rooted in her spot, panic freezing her senses.
Seizing the right moment, Dhruvasen rushed to the spot and deftly cut the heads off two snakes who had raised their hood to strike the queen.
“Your ma-majesty is s-safe now.” The prince folded his hands trying not to flinch as he stood before his stepmother. When the grateful king presented him with diamonds, Dhruvasen stuttered, “Y-your majesty, would I be impudent to a-ask for a job a-at the palace? No diamond compares to the honour of s-serving you.” He stood before his patriarch, his beard and darkness concealing his features.
Dhruvasen walked through palace doors next day.
“Since three days he is unable to keep the food down,” Maharani said worried about her son, Shoorsen. The Rajvaidya* was pensive as he examined the insolent prince and checked his pulse. “The prince needs to control his madeira*, Maharani.” The queen stiffened at the censure in the Rajvaidya’s tone, who administered a kadha* and left.
The young prince spat on the floor with disgust and stumbled towards his hookah as the distraught queen grabbed his arm. “You have to curb your ways Rajkumar. These habits are unbecoming of a future king.”
Shoorsen ignored her. “I need more mudras* for a rematch with my friends,” he drawled.
The queen lost her temper. “Do you forget the price I paid to make you the sole heir to the throne. I tainted my hands with the blood of your stepbrother. Look at you!” The agitated queen snatched away her mudras.
The next moment, the queen fell on the ground, her cheek smarting with the resounding slap. In disbelief, she looked at her son, who looked furious enough to kill. “I am the future Samrat. Beware of crossing my path.” As the shocked queen looked on, he snatched back the pouch, and left.
The queen examined her bruised face in the mirror. She could not go to Rajvaidya, lest he ask questions. Her jaw still stung from the blow her own flesh had inflicted.
In another chamber, Samrat Dharmasen paced around his chambers after a conversation with the Rajvaidya. He received repeated grievances about Shoorsen. In the last few months, his unabashed brutalities, gambling, and addiction to nritikas* had become the palace gossip. The king missed his awkward firstborn.
Prince Shoorsen was riled. The king had summoned him and humiliated him before Rajvaidya. He was to receive no more mudras without the approval of Samrat. He already despised having to beg Maharani to fuel his fetishes. His parents seemed keen to deny him what was his birth right. The time had come to take matters into his own hands.
Later that night, mudras exchanged hands in the royal stables.
The next day, Samrat, Prince Shoorsen and the royal entourage set out for a hunting trip. As the retinue reached deep in the jungle, they stopped for respite.
“Your majesty, your horse needs to be watered,” the chief of royal stables spoke in hushed tones and took the horse aside. Samrat was too preoccupied to notice.
Nothing seemed amiss at first and the hunting trip continued. Suddenly, Samrat’s steed turned wild and neighed raucously. The group watched in terror as the royal horse frothed at its mouth and stood on its hind legs ready to unseat the Samrat. Another heave and Samrat was on the floor. The king struggled to get up, but the fall had broken his leg. He balled up on the ground waiting for the fatal strike.
“Tvám prashamah.” Dhruvasen appeared on a horse out of nowhere. He rode between the beast and the king and shoved a blue herb up its nose. The horse swayed dangerously trying to attack the boy, but the boy moved forward and caressed the stallion’s torso, gently pressing near the navel till there was a small pop. At once, the beast calmed down and nuzzled the prince’s hand.
An awe-soaked sense of déjà vu hung in the air. A familiar nervous tick had returned on Dhruvasen’s face as he faced the stunned entourage. He drew out his royal dagger and held it for all to see. His eyes watered and turned pink in the bright daylight. The next moment, the king let out a loud wail as he struggled to stand on his good leg to embrace his long-lost son.
Samrat Dhruvsen continued to stutter on occasions. When he addressed his court, the nervous tick returned, and he often struggled to maintain eye contact with people. He defied the idea of a brawny king by miles. But he promised a kingdom based on fairness and inclusivity.
As for Prince Shoorsen, the confession from the chief of the stables and the account of misplaced mudras from the royal treasury sufficed to incriminate him.
The royal priest’s prediction had come true. Prince Dhruvasen was indeed a Raajanya. Samrat Dharmasen was content with the gods. So were his people.
Raajanya guna: Royal trait
Dhoolakampatra: A poisonous herb
Rajgurus: Royal teachers
Tvám prashamah: Sanskrit; please calm down.
Rajvaidya: Royal healer
Kalpavriksha: Coconut tree
Karma: Act of the living mortals
Dharma: Religious and moral law
Madeira: Alcoholic drink
Kadha: Medicinal concoction
Team: The Mockingjays
Writers: Sai Surve-Rane and Pallavi Sawant Utekar
PC: Ganesh Krishnan R Unsplash.com