Dhruv stood up, her face flaming, hardly able to believe what her ears had heard. She looked at Ramagupta who was frowning at the Amatya, standing ashamed, with his head hanging, eyes on the floor.
“Hmm… and what is the Senapati doing?”
“Maharaj, this valley is such that we are surrounded by the Shaka army and cannot escape; we are a sitting target for him, resistance will be suicidal. But…”
The room slowly fell silent as the full extent of the predicament sunk in.
Ramagupta was the only one who looked unconcerned, gesturing for more wine.
“Well, then, you said it yourself. If there is nothing else to do, draw up the treaty, I will sign it.”
“But Maharaj,” faltered the old man, “The Mahadevi…”
“She must play her part in saving the life of her husband, it will be her fortune,” said Ramagupta, quite coolly.
There was a collective gasp in the room and all eyes turned to Dhruv, standing; a statue of outrage and humiliation.
“Maharaj, you cannot do this!” Dhruv struggled with hurt, indignity and shock; stupefaction would be more like it. Even her dissipated husband could not stoop so low. “You promised with agni as a witness to take care of me and protect me all my life!”
“My dear, it is your fortune to be of use to your patiparmeshwar.”
The room had emptied, now, of all but Shikharswamin,
“Ramagupta!” Dhruv’s voice rang out, “You are my pati, you cannot do this; send me to your enemies as a prisoner, as a plaything. Did the vivaah mean nothing to you?”
He looked petulant, “Why don’t you understand? There is no other way.”
“Yes, there is.” And she wrested the sword from his waist.
Ramagupta screamed, putting up his arms to shield himself, “Help, help, she is trying to kill me!”
Dhruv gave a bitter laugh, “Not you, you coward,” and took the sword in both hands to plunge it into her own stomach.
Firm hands clasped hers and the sword was suspended in mid air as she turned tear-filled eyes to find Chandragupta at her side.
“No, Mahadevi,” said Chandragupta, gently. He stood there, holding her hands, as the two of them looked at each other.
“Look, Amba,” said Ramagupta shrilly to his mother who had entered behind his brother. “Have I not told you that the Mahadevi and Chandragupta are lovers? They meet in secret and are plotting to kill me. Here is the proof!”
“Cease your lamentations brother,’ said Chandragupta coldly, releasing Dhruv’s hands. “This is not the time. What did the messenger say?”
“Tell him, Maharajadhiraj, tell him that your enemy wants your queen as a kreetdasi and you are sending her to him.”
Chandragupta’s voice made his brother quake, “Is this true, Maharaj?”
Shikharswamin’s face gave him the answer and he turned savagely to his brother, “Your patni, sahdharmini, the honour of the imperial Guptas sent to Rudrasimha like an animal. I will not allow you…”
“Careful, Chandragupta.” This was his mother, standing beside her snivelling elder son. “Do not forget that you have sworn fealty to your brother.”
“I cannot help it. He wants the queen and the court officials’ wives, otherwise he will kill us all! What can I do, Amba?” Ramagupta appealed to his mother.
Chandragupta had come to a lightning-fast decision, “I will go in her place dressed as a woman. Once I enter the fort it is between me and Shakraj.”
“It will be certain death, Kumar.” This was Shikharswamin.
‘Better certain death than ignominy,” was the terse reply.
“Mahadevi will go with you, I cannot risk Shakraj’s anger,” said Ramagupta stubbornly.
Chandragupta drew in an angry breath and was about to remonstrate with his brother when Dhruv interrupted.
“I will go with you, better death than life as the patni of such a man!” The contempt in her voice made the mother son duo flush.
And so it was that sometime later Devi Chandragupta looked at Dhruvswamini and the two of them got into covered palkis to cover the distance to Shakraj’s secure hill fortress. The other palkis carried army captains disguised as women with weapons concealed under their uttariyas.
Dhruv had sent a message that she wanted to meet Shakraj alone and the wish had been eagerly granted. Their palkis passed into the inner apartments of Shakraj and were put down, the carriers dismissed.
Dhruv stepped down delicately, “My greetings, Shakraj!”
Before he could respond to the vision of loveliness in front of him, another stepped down and folded ‘her’ hands in a pranaam with her head gracefully bent.
“What is this Manda! Trying to pass yourself off as me, the Mahadevi? You vixen!”
They were moving closer to the chuckling Shakraj’s seat as Dhruv expostulated with her ‘rival’. He was enjoying the sight of two women fighting over him.
“You impostor! I will take care of you!” Dhruv pulled out a dagger.
Before Rudrasimha’s bemused eyes she whipped off her ‘rival’s’ uttariya, cut off his decorated kayabandha and antariya, slashed away his pattika and ripped off his jewels to reveal a dhoti-clad Chandragupta.
“Dhruv, get the others and open the eastern door of the fort, Kacha is waiting outside. I will take care of Rudrasimha!” commanded Chandragupta, picking up his sword which he had kept hidden in the palki.
After his initial shock, Shakraj, no coward, was ready with his sword,too, to fight his worst enemy.
It was all over in a few muhurtas. Chandragupta had killed Shakraj, and Kacha and his men had taken the soldiers inside the fort by surprise. They had then ridden down in a dawn raid and attacked the squad holding the Gupta encampment at sword point.
The famed Bhimnagar fort had fallen.
There was not a trace of regret or shame on Ramagupta’s face as he entered the sabhagriha in the fort. Ignoring Chandragupta and Dhruv he moved towards the throne only to find his way barred by a grim faced Kacha.
Taken aback, he gave a sickly smile and turned to see all the mantris and samants filing in for a sabha parishad meeting.
Ramagupta looked around and started to speak, “Today is a great day…”
“Silence!” Chandragupta’s overwhelming voice filled up the room. “You do not have my permission to speak.” His glance impaled Ramagupta who blanched in fear; this was the brother he was terrified of and had thought was dead, how had he reappeared again? He looked around for his mother and saw her standing, petrified, with her hand on her mouth.
His voice quavered, but he said, “I am the Maharajadhiraj…”
“No longer.” The voice was inexorable and determined.
Chandragupta met Dhruv’s blazing eyes and then said, “By the authority of Maharajadhiraj Samudragupta’s last wish I am now the Maharajadhiraj.” He unsheathed his sword and stood there, Rudra incarnate. Kacha and his group of soldiers did the same and came up to surround him.
“Let any one who objects come up and defeat me!”
No one dared; no one even wanted to. Ramagupta had proved his complete inability to be the Maharajadhiraj; he was a liability not a leader.
Shikharswamin, stepped forward and said in a defeated voice, “It is true. Maharaj Samudragupta had anointed Yuvraj Chandragupta as his successor. It was my folly which led to the terrible events we have had to go through.”
He folded his hands in a pranaam, bent his head and said, “Maharajadhiraj Chandragupta ki jai!”
The room echoed with jaijaikars and the raj-purohit anointed the still standing Chandragupta with a tilak, performed a gangajal abhishek and showered him with flowers and akshat. It was an impromptu rajyabhishek with what had been the preparations for Ramagupta’s victory celebrations.
Ramagupta and his mother could only watch from a corner.
“The sabha-parishad is dismissed, it will be re-convened in a day to discuss future arrangements.”
Only Dhruv could have dared to interrupt the new Maharajadhiraj, but she did. “Wait!’ As the entire assembly turned to stare at her she said, “Pataliputra has thrown off the yoke of a feeble and incompetent protector. What of me, dharmapatni of that sniveling coward in the corner there? I demand an immediate dharma parishad in the presence of the raj-purohit, I demand moksha from Ramagupta!”
The assembly was stunned, Ramagupta tried to stand up but fell back into his chair.
Queen Dattadevi came to his rescue, “What are you saying you shameless woman? A dharma vivaha can never be sundered, amokshohidharmavivaham. The dharma-shastras do not allow it, it cannot be done!”
Dhruv looked at her with contempt and turned back to Chandragupta and the raj-purohit again, “I demand a dharma-parishad. Who can speak better for the shastras than the raj-purohit; I will speak for myself.The imperial Guptas stripped me of everything starting with my stridhan and ending with my dignity. I still have the priceless dhan of learning from my parents, however.”
Chandragupta responded to the challenge in her tone and said in a grave voice, “I hereby convene a dharma parishad to be presided over by the raj-purohit. It will decide on Devi Dhruvswamini’s petition.”
The assembly members sat down in various stages of shock.
The raj-purohit said, “Devi, we must start from the premise that a dharma vivaha cannot be sundered. What are your arguments for moksha from your pati?”
Dhruv laughed humourlessly, “Pati? Is he worth being called that?”
She walked over, and standing before him, said, “Ask him what he said when I asked, no, begged, him to protect me from Shakraj. With agni as a witness he had promised to protect and take care of me, but did he? Did he fulfill the first promise of a vivah?”
There was no word from the frozen Ramagupta but she turned around and said, “The answer, as all of you know, is a resounding no.”
She went on, citing the dharma shastras of Narada, Parashara and Chanakya to set down the conditions under which moksha was possible for a woman. There was by no means a blanket refusal to allow moksha in the dharma shatras and the raj- purohit nodded his head at her citations.
“I submit therefore, that this man here has broken his vivaah promises, is a danger to my life and, last but not the least, impotent. All of which, as set down by Acharya Chanakya, are good reasons to grant me moksha,” she concluded with a disdainful look at her ‘pati’ who had gone white at the mention of his impotence.
“Yes, he is a kleev, unable to be a husband to any woman, not just me.” Dhruv’s clear and strong voice left no room for any ambiguity and Datta Devi flushed with mortification.
“Stop this immediately, my son is not, not a ...kleev”.
“Look at your son’s face and ask him this question, ‘Amba’!” Dhruv was dismissive and scornful.
“I told her not to tell anyone, Amba; I do not know why she does not obey me. You said she would.” Ramagupta was at the end of his resources and his voice was small and thin.
There was silence in the sabha and Dhruv said again, “I demand justice from this dharma parishad.”
The raj-purohit stood up, “I have heard carefully all of Devi Dhruvswamini’s arguments and am in agreement with her. It is possible to grant her moksha from Ramagupta.”
He looked at Chandragupta who gave his assent.
“Devi Dhruvswamini is granted moksha from Ramagupta.” The sombre voice reverberated around the parishad and Dhruv sat down suddenly feeling empty.
The hitherto silent Ramgupta was suddenly galvanised into action.
“You cannot do that, you cannot take away my kingdom and my wife; I will kill you…”
He rushed at Chandragupta with a dagger, Kacha jumped to the defence and one slash later, Ramagupta’s ignominious life was at an end.
Dattadevi’s sobs were the only sound in the room.
The Gupta court that returned to Pataliputra was a very different one from the one that had left a few months ago.
Dhruvswamini had returned with the Gupta court not sure of what to do with herself. Why did she not want to go back to her parents? She did not know.
She could not even enter Pataliputra, the trauma of memories past was too much.
She had refused to talk to or even meet Chandragupta after the fateful day at the sabha parishad and had gratefully accepted an invitation from Manda to stay at one of Shikharswamin’s estates in Rajgriha.
“Manda, how is Dhruv? She still refuses to come back to the palace here and I have received no answer to any of my messages.”
‘What do you expect Chandragupta? Why would she come back to the scene of her nightmares? You also know very well that messages are not enough, you must go to her; she will not come to you.
“Can you believe that the fearless Chandragupta is afraid of facing her?”
Manda gave him a direct look, “I am not surprised. You failed and betrayed her. There may still be a chance for you to redeem yourself but do not wait until too late.”
He rode to Rajgriha, alone, and found her in the garden, sitting under a bower of flowers with her friends. They disappeared when they saw him.
“How are you Dhruv?
“As you see.”
He took her hands in his and said, “Dhruv, can you forgive me? Can we go back to the day I said farewell to you at Hastinapur and forget all that has happened in between?”
“I don’t want your pity,” she said, breaking away.
“My pity? Far from it! The day I let you go was the day all my misfortunes began andthey ended the day I met you again. You are my fortune, my rajlaxmi, my shree.”
“Can I be so, a broken battered woman?” said Dhruv bitterly.
“The past is gone, dead, like my brother, your tormentor. You are a strong woman and my future.”
He framed her face in his hands and said, “You will be the Mahadevi of the Guptas and we will rule the kingdom together as we were meant to. Our son will take forward the future of Jambudweepa!”
And so it came to pass. Chandragupta Vikramaditya and Mahadevi Dhruvswamini steered the fate of Jambudweepa for many years to come, as did their son, Kumaragupta, the next Maharajadhiraj of the imperial Guptas, and went down in the pages of history, never to be forgotten.
After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.
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