As the rainy season came and went, Dhaumya determined by astrological calculation that the thirteenth year of exile was about to commence. The brothers discussed their strategy. Encouraged by Dharma’s boon, they were hopeful. Although Duryodhana would undoubtedly send hundreds and thousands of spies all over the world to search for them, he would not find them. But they did not want to take any chances. Thus they considered how best to conceal themselves.
Yudhiṣṭhira spoke to Arjuna. “O ruler of men, what is your view? How shall we remain incognito?”
“By virtue of Dharma’s boon we shall be able to go about without being discovered. I have no doubt about that. But let us consider carefully the places where we could reside peacefully. I shall name them.”
Arjuna listed a number of countries where their allies lived and asked Yudhiṣṭhira which he felt was most suitable. Yudhiṣṭhira thanked his brother for his suggestions and replied, “Dear brother, what Dharma has said must come to pass. We shall reside in Matsya, the kingdom of Virata. That aged king is powerful, charitable, of a righteous disposition, and always favorably disposed toward us. Let us go there as his servants. Tell me, O sons of Kuntī, how we should each present ourselves to the king.”
Arjuna replied doubtfully, “O virtuous one, how will you become the servant of the king? You are like a god among men and have always been the lord of others. How will you submit yourself to a lesser man?”
Yudhiṣṭhira reassured Arjuna. “There will be no problem. I shall become the king’s dicing partner and friend. Presenting myself as Yudhiṣṭhira’s former personal servant and close friend Kaṅka, an expert at gaming, I will offer him and his ministers various kinds of pleasing service. Now, O Vṛkodara, tell me in what capacity you will enter Virata’s city?
Bhīma had already decided. “O Bharata, I will present myself as a cook named Vallabha. I will say that I formerly worked in Yudhiṣṭhira’s royal kitchens. I am an expert in the kitchen business and will prepare fine dishes for the king’s table. I will also please the king by feats of strength and by wrestling. I will overpower elephants and bulls, and throw down the best of Virata’s wrestlers without killing them. O King, do not fear for me. I will take care of myself.”
Yudhiṣṭhira nodded approvingly and turned to Arjuna, “What work will Dhanañjaya--who possesses invincible power, who is the joy of the Kurus, and before whom the god Agni appeared as a Brahmin begging a favor--accept? As the sun is the foremost of all planets, the Brahmin the best of all men, and the thunderbolt the best of all weapons, so Arjuna is the best of all archers. What humble office can he accept, having gone to heaven and obtained all celestial weapons after pleasing the god of gods, Maheśvara? I think Kṛṣṇa’s friend does not deserve to be reduced to such a plight.”
Arjuna then remembered Urvaśī’s curse and Indra’s subsequent instruction. “O ruler of the earth, I shall become a member of the third sex: a eunuch. In order to conceal the scars the bowstring has made on my arms, I will wear numerous bangles. With bright gold earrings and braided hair I will go before the king as Bṛhannala and offer to instruct his ladies in singing and dancing. I have acquired proficiency in these skills from the Gandharvas. Living in the king’s seraglio, I will act as a female and please the king and his women by my services and by reciting many stories. On being asked for my background, I will say that I was formerly a waiting maid in Yudhiṣṭhira’s palace. O King, hiding myself in this way, as fire is concealed by ashes, I will pass my days during this last year.”
Yudhiṣṭhira looked in wonder at Arjuna. A eunuch! How astonishing were the movements of destiny.
He turned to Nakula and asked him how he planned to appear before Virata. Nakula replied, “I shall be a keeper of horses known as Granthika. I am thoroughly acquainted with all aspects of horsemanship and enjoy that work. O King, horses are as dear to me as you are. I will tell Virata that I was previously in charge of Yudhiṣṭhira’s horses.”
Yudhiṣṭhira finally asked Sahadeva what disguise he would assume. The youngest Pāṇḍava replied that he would become a cowherd. “This work pleases me, O King. I possess the skills of taming, milking and breeding cattle. I can recognize all the signs and characteristics of different kinds of cows and bulls. Known as Tantripala, I shall thus render service to Virata, telling him that I used to work in that capacity for Yudhiṣṭhira.”
Yudhiṣṭhira looked across at Draupadī, who sat near the brothers. “Here is our beloved wife. She is dearer to us than life. Like a mother she is to be cherished and like an elder sister respected. How will she appear before Virata? She is not accustomed to the position of servant and has been accustomed from birth to royal opulence.”
Draupadī replied, “O Bharata, there is a class of maid known as Sairindhrī who serves others. It is understood that no respectable lady would accept such service, so I will conceal myself in that guise. Saying that I was formerly Draupadī’s waiting maid, I will serve Sudeṣṇa, the king’s esteemed wife. By my expert service of dressing hair and ornamenting the queen, I will please her. Do not be anxious for me, O King.”
Yudhiṣṭhira looked at his devoted wife. She was prepared to undergo any austerity to serve her husbands. Although she was energetic and accomplished, it would not be easy for her to accept the position of menial servant to someone inferior, and her stay in Virata would be fraught with danger from lusty men who thought she had no protector. “You have spoken well,” Yudhiṣṭhira said. “Devoted as you are to piety and chastity, O Queen, you are a stranger to sin. You should behave yourself in Virata in such a way that no wicked man might become attracted to you.”
The Pāṇḍavas had discussed their plans for the final year in a secluded place. They did not want to risk disclosing their whereabouts even to their friends and servants. When they had decided upon their disguises, they went back to the hermitage. Yudhiṣṭhira then said to Dhaumya, “O learned Brahmin, if it is agreeable to you, please go to Drupada’s city. There you may live in peace and preserve our Agnihotra fires.”
Yudhiṣṭhira ordered his servants, headed by Indrasena, to go to Dwārakā and live with the Yādavas. “Upon arriving there you should tell everyone that you were left alone by the Pāṇḍavas at Dwaitavana. You have no idea of their whereabouts or intentions.”
Dhaumya made all arrangements for the Pāṇḍavas’ journey. He lit the sacred fire and offered oblations on their behalf, invoking auspiciousness upon them and blessing them that they would achieve victory. The brothers and Draupadī then walked around the sacred fire and, after bowing before the Brahmins, left the hermitage.
Lean and bearded after their long stay in the forest, the five brothers, clad in deerskins and carrying their weapons, seemed like five powerful ṛṣis as they made their way on foot toward the river Kālindī. As they passed through various countries, staying sometimes in the wild and at other times in inhabited regions, they presented themselves as hunters.
Bhīma carried Draupadī and they moved quickly toward their destination. After many days of travel they finally arrived in the Matsya’s expansive country. They saw the well-laid roads and paths that led from the forest into the capital.
When the Pāṇḍavas reached the outskirts of the city, Yudhiṣṭhira sat them all down in a grassy clearing and said, “O best of men, although you are all acquainted with the science of diplomacy and policy, it still behooves me to advise you. We should conduct ourselves carefully in Virata’s presence. Kings are always to be feared as one fears a deadly snake. The protectors and cherishers of all beings, they are deities in human form and are like great fires equipped with all weapons. One should always act with the utmost caution when in a king’s presence. He who acts falsely with a king is killed by him--of this there is no doubt.”
Yudhiṣṭhira spoke for some time, giving detailed instructions about all aspects of behavior with kings. He did not want his brothers to make any mistakes now that they were so close to completing their vow. Just one more year and they would be able to reclaim their kingdom.
After finishing his instructions, Yudhiṣṭhira led them toward the city. As they walked on he said to Arjuna, “If we enter Virata with our weapons, we will frighten the citizens and be quite conspicuous. Indeed, your Gāṇḍīva is famous throughout the world. If we are discovered by anyone, then we will have to live a further thirteen years in exile.”
Yudhiṣṭhira had faith in Dharma’s boon, but he did not want to take unnecessary chances. The Pāṇḍavas decided to conceal their weapons near the city. After looking around they came upon a huge sami tree near a cremation ground. The area was dismal and deserted, far from the road and close to the forest. Arjuna suggested they wrap their weapons into a cloth bundle and place them high in the tree. Anyone seeing that bundle by the crematorium would assume it to be a corpse and leave it alone. Agreeing to the suggestion, the brothers unstrung their bows and placed them upon Bhīma’s large deerskin garment. They wrapped and tied the bows, swords, quivers and arrows. Nakula ascended the tree with the bundle and secured it to a high branch, which he felt offered sufficient shelter from the rain.
The Pāṇḍavas then made their way toward the city. They passed some cowherd men and told them that they had just placed their mother’s body on the tree. “This is our ancient custom,” Yudhiṣṭhira said. “We have placed our old mother’s body high in the tree. May she attain to the blessed heavenly regions.”
As they reached the city gate Yudhiṣṭhira prayed to Goddess Durgā. Seeing her as Kṛṣṇa’s divine energy whose service it was to conceal the Lord’s identity from the atheists, he asked for her protection. Pleased by his prayer the goddess appeared before the Pāṇḍavas. “O heroes, you will soon attain victory in battle. After slaying your enemies you will again enjoy the earth. Through my grace, neither the Kurus nor the inhabitants of Virata will recognize you until the final year has expired.”
The goddess disappeared and the Pāṇḍavas entered the capital, Virata. Yudhiṣṭhira went first, but before parting from his brothers he gave each of them a secret name by which they could call each other if the need arose. He was called Jaya, and the others were Jayanta, Vijaya, Jayatsena and Jayatbala. Yudhiṣṭhira then strode into the city like a mighty lion. He went directly to the king’s court. The king saw him enter like the moon emerging from clouds. Turning to his counselors he asked, “Who is this man who walks into my court as if he were a king? He cannot be a Brahmin. I think he is a lord of the earth, although he has neither a slave nor any other attendants with him. He shines like Indra and approaches me as fearlessly as an elephant might approach a lotus.”
Yudhiṣṭhira came up to Virata and said, “O sinless one, know me to be a Brahmin who has lost everything and now seeks your service. I wish to live with you and accept you as my master.” Joyful at having acquired such an obviously qualified man, Virata replied, “O worshipful one, I bow down to you. You are most welcome. I will give you the post you desire. Which country are you from and what is your name? Do you possess any particular skills?”
“I was formerly a friend of Yudhiṣṭhira and my name is Kaṅka. I am expert in casting dice and can entertain and please you in that way.”
The king smiled without thinking for a moment that the so-called Brahmin before him might actually be Yudhiṣṭhira himself. Although he felt the newcomer to be extraordinary, he accepted his explanation. He felt an immediate affinity for Kaṅka, whose expressions and bodily movements were gentle and pleasing. If he was Yudhiṣṭhira’s friend, then he was surely of the highest character and worthy of his respect.
“Live with me in peace,” Virata said cheerfully. “This kingdom is as much yours as it is mine. I am always pleased by expert dicers.”
Yudhiṣṭhira asked that he not be called to play with low-class people or involved in disputes or fights over the game. The king replied, “I will kill anyone who does you any wrong. If the wrongdoer is a Brahmin, I will banish him from the kingdom. Let all my subjects hear my proclamation: this Kaṅka is as much the lord of this dominion as myself.”
Turning to Yudhiṣṭhira the king continued, “You shall be my friend. You will ride on my chariot, wear the best clothes, and enjoy the finest dishes. My door will always be open to you, and you will become my closest advisor and counselor.”
Yudhiṣṭhira was then shown to his quarters in the king’s palace and he began to live there happily and undetected by anyone.
The following day Bhīma entered the city. He went down the main road toward the king’s palace, appearing like a powerful lord of elephants. In his hands he held a ladle and a cooking spoon, as well as a shining, unblemished sword, azure in color. Dressed as a cook he went before the king, illuminating the royal court with his bodily effulgence. Virata looked at him in amazement and asked his counselors, “Who is this young man, exceedingly handsome and with the shoulders of a lion? Although he is new here, I feel as if I have always known him. I cannot place him, but he surely must either be Purandara himself or perhaps the powerful Gandharva king. Whatever he wants, let him have it immediately.”
One of Virata’s counselors went to Bhīma and asked him what he desired. The Pāṇḍava looked up at the king and said, “O King, I am a cook named Vallabha. Pray appoint me to your kitchen, for I am expert in the culinary arts.”
Virata gazed at Bhīma’s massive arms and broad chest. “I cannot believe that you are a cook. You shine like the thousand-eyed deity, and from your grace, beauty and prowess you appear to be the best of men.”
“O King, I am your servant. Allow me to work in the royal kitchens.” As he addressed the king, Bhīma’s voice resounded in the royal court like a great drum. “In days gone by, my cooking was tasted by Yudhiṣṭhira, but I possess other abilities as well. I am a peerless wrestler and can entertain you by fighting lions and elephants.”
As with Kaṅka, the king felt an immediate affection for this unusual arrival. “You shall become the head of my kitchens. But I do not think this office worthy of you, who should rather be the ruler of the earth.”
Bhīma began to work in the kitchens, becoming a great favorite of the king and recognized by no one.
Draupadī was next to enter the city. With her glossy black hair twisted into one long braid thrown on her right hand side and dressed in a single, soiled cloth, she walked through the city streets as if in distress. Many people gathered around her and asked her who she was and what she wanted. “I am a Sairindhrī,” Draupadī replied. “I seek someone who will employ and maintain me.”
Hearing her sweet voice and observing her incomparable beauty, the people found it hard to believe that she could be a maidservant. They directed her to the royal palace, and as she was walking, Sudeṣṇa, Virata’s wife, saw her. The queen asked, “O gentle one, why do you wander about in this way?” Draupadī repeated her story and Sudeṣṇa replied, “This surely cannot be true. O most beautiful one, it seems to me that you yourself could appoint numerous servants. By your bodily appearance I take you to be of the highest and most noble lineage. Your countenance shines like the full moon, your body is shapely, your eyes are like lotus petals framed by curling lashes, your lips are red like the bimba fruit, and your skin is as smooth as silk. In beauty you resemble a goddess and must surely have descended from the heavens. Pray tell me who you are, for you cannot possibly be a maidservant.”
Draupadī straightened her disheveled cloth and turned her dark eyes toward the queen. “I am neither a goddess nor a celestial. I am a maid of the Sairindhrī class. I am skilled in dressing hair and preparing unguents. I can make variegated and beautiful garlands of jasmines, lotuses, and lilies. Previously I have served Satyabhāmā, Kṛṣṇa’s beloved queen, and Draupadī, the Pāṇḍavas’ wife. My name is Mālinī. Now I have no engagement. Please allow me to serve in your palace, O Queen.”
Sudeṣṇa gazed at Draupadī’s unparallelled beauty and obvious nobility. How could she be a serving maid? Still, she would make a valuable addition to the palace. But what effect would she have on the king and, indeed, any other man who saw her? The queen smiled at Draupadī, but spoke doubtfully. “I can place you on my head, never mind as my servant. I do not doubt it. Yet I fear that your beauty will captivate the king’s heart. Seeing how even the women here are staring at you, I feel there is no man alive who could resist your charms. It seems that even the trees are bending low to pay you homage. Surely upon seeing you the king will lose his heart and forsake me. O lady of sweet smiles, the person upon whom you cast a glance will certainly fall victim to the god of love. By engaging you I will bring upon myself my own destruction. Although I should love to have your company, this is my fear.”
Covering her long hair with her upper cloth, Draupadī reassured the queen. “Neither Virata nor any other man can win me, fair lady, for I have five Gandharva husbands. Those invincible heroes always protect me and I will not cast a single glance on another man. However, they stipulate certain conditions for those who would engage me. My husbands desire that I not eat any food which has already been taken by another and that I not be asked to wash another’s feet. Guarding me secretly, my husbands bring about the immediate destruction of any man who desires me. No one is able to sway me from the path of righteousness, O Queen. Indeed, I ask that you always keep me safe from other men. Therefore, allay your fears!”
Sudeṣṇa decided to employ Draupadī. She promised that her food would always be fresh and untouched by another and that she would not be called upon to wash anyone’s feet. Draupadī thanked her and was led by the queen into the inner chambers of the palace, where she began her life as a maidservant.
The day after Draupadī’s entrance into Virata, Sahadeva made his way into the city dressed as a cowherd. He arrived at the cow pasture in the region of Virata’s palace. The king happened to be visiting his herd and was present when Sahadeva arrived. Virata sent for him and asked who he was and why he had come to the city. Sahadeva replied, “I am a vaiśyā named Tantripala. I used to work with the cows belonging to the Pāṇḍavas. I am expert in handling cattle and desire to render you that service.”
Virata observed Sahadeva’s broad shoulders and long arms. “You must surely be a Brahmin or a powerful kṣatriya,” he replied. “The office of a ruler would better suit you than that of a cowherd. Tell me, from where do you hail, O afflicter of enemies? What engagement do you desire and what payment?”
“I used to reside in Indraprastha and I took care of the innumerable cows there,” Sahadeva answered. “I know everything about caring for cows. O King, I desire only my residence and upkeep and will serve you to the best of my ability.”
The king accepted Sahadeva’s request. “I have one hundred thousand cows. These, along with their keepers, shall be placed under your care. Live here in peace and I shall ensure that you are provided with whatever you desire.”
The day after Sahadeva’s entry, another newcomer was seen making his way into the city. Of huge body and adorned with the clothes and ornaments of a woman, he went toward the king’s palace, shaking the earth with his steps even though he walked with the gait of a broad-hipped woman. He stood before the king with his body concealed by layers of colored silks. His arms were covered by numerous conch bracelets set with gold, and he seemed like a huge, gorgeously decorated elephant standing in the royal court.
Virata looked at him in surprise. He asked his courtiers, “Who is this person? I have never seen such a one.” When none of them could identify him, the king turned to Arjuna and said, “You appear endowed with the might of a celestial. Young and dark-complexioned, you look like a lord of elephants. Although you wear bracelets and fine gold earrings and have braided your hair, you still shine like a god decked with garlands and equipped with armor and weapons. Become like my son or even my self. I am old and worn out. Therefore, rule this kingdom in my place and let me retire. I cannot believe you are of the neuter sex.”
In a deep voice that echoed around the court, Arjuna replied, “I sing, dance and play musical instruments. I am skilled in all these arts. O god among men, assign me to your daughter Uttarā and I shall be her dancing master. Please do not ask me how I acquired this form, for that would only add to my pain. O King, know me to be Bṛhannala, a son or daughter without parents.”
Virata stared with astonishment at Bṛhannala. “After testing you I will happily place you as my daughter’s instructor. I feel, though, that you deserve to rule the earth rather than to accept such a humble office.”
The king had beautiful women examine Bṛhannala to ensure that he was free from lust. He also asked him to display his abilities of singing and dancing. The women reported that there was no problem; and the king, after seeing his celestial skills, happily appointed Bṛhannala as Princess Uttarā’s teacher.
In the guise of a eunuch Arjuna began living with the women in Virata’s palace, instructing them in singing and playing musical instruments as well as in the various modes of dancing he had learned from the Gandharvas. Due to Urvaśī’s curse, he felt no disturbance in the women’s presence and he soon became a great favorite in their chambers. No one suspected that he was in fact the world-renowned Pāṇḍava.
It only remained for Nakula to enter Virata. Then, on the day after Arjuna entered, he appeared in the city. The people saw him walking through the streets like the sun appearing from behind clouds. Going to the royal stables, he began to examine the horses. When the king saw him there, shining like a celestial, he had him summoned to the royal court. Nakula introduced himself. “O King, all victory to you. I am the keeper of horses known as Granthika. I was formerly employed by Yudhiṣṭhira and am versed in all the arts of horsemanship. I know the temper of horses and can break them completely. Under my care, hardly an animal falls ill and not even the mares are found to be wicked. Employ me as horse keeper, O King, and I shall serve you well.”
Virata looked at the tall, powerful person before him. He seemed to be born of aristocracy. There was no doubt that he had the abilities he claimed to have. The king agreed to employ him. “You shall take charge of my stables and all those who work in them, including my charioteers. You appear to me like a king yourself, and your sight is as pleasing to me as it must have been to Yudhiṣṭhira. I wonder how that faultless Pāṇḍava is faring in the deep forest without servants such as yourself.”
Having achieved the positions they desired, the five brothers and Draupadī began their final year in exile, unsuspected by anyone.