Dhruvswamini looked at Dhruvswamini.
The eyes were rock steady, determined and alert. The long lehenga style antariya, the elaborate pratidhi, the profusion of jewellery and the encompassing uttariya hid the virile and puissant body of Chandragupta. He was the invincible warrior beneath whose tread the earth shook. The second son and designated successor of Chakravarti Maharaj Samudragupta, who had ruled in the heart of Jambudweep, but, alas, was not the Maharajadhiraj on the throne of Pataliputra.
He stood in front of Mahadevi Dhruvswamini, the love of his life and the wife of his brother, Maharajadhiraj Ramagupta.
So, how had it come to pass that Yuvraj Chandragupta had to become Devi Chandragupta, a duplicate of Mahadevi Dhruvswamini?
Dhruvswamini’s father, a subordinate king of Samudragupta, had petitioned for his help against the Shakas of the west who were causing trouble on the border. That had been six months ago, just after the sabha parishad of ministers had endorsed Samudragupta’ s choice of his second son as his successor.
Chandragupta had proudly accepted the responsibility. He was very much like his father, a ferocious warrior, and not only a just and able administrator but also a compassionate man, a poet and a musician, a king in the mold of Udayan of Kaushambi. The royal house and its supporters rejoiced.
Not so, obviously, Ramagupta, the slighted elder son. Weak in a family of warriors, he had cultivated many means of getting his own way. He exploited the mixture of pity, sorrow and protectiveness with which he inspired his brother to manipulate him, never letting the extent of the hatred show. He had kept silent, for the moment.
Chandragupta had marched west from Pataliputra to the aid of Dhruvswamini’s father. Mercurial, warm and impulsive, a much feted tripura sundari, Dhruv had tumbled headlong into love at the first sight of the Yuvraj and left him in no doubt of this fact.
Dhruv had fought with her mother and secreted herself into the army contingent that had joined the Gupta forces to fight with the Shaka ruler, Rudrasimha. She had been at her father’s side in the thick of the fighting and had basked in the silent admiration of the Yuvraj.
The battle had been short and sharp. Rudrasimha was only testing the waters. The Shakas were repulsed and withdrew into their stronghold of Bhimnagar in the hills. It was not yet the final reckoning.
Emissaries had then been sent to the Yuvraj from Dhruv’s parents and it was not long before the Gupta army was marching back with Princess Dhruvswamini, the betrothed of Chandragupta.
Halfway to Pataliputra, near Hastinapur, their idyll was interrupted by two men exhausted by days of furious travel. They were Chandragupta’s spies and they brought bad news. The old king was gravely ill, on his death-bed. Chandragupta would have to hurry to reach his side in time.
“I have to go, Dhruv,” said Chandragupta, holding her hands tightly and smiling reassuringly, “I do not like to leave you alone, but my father is very ill and may not survive for long. I am leaving Kacha behind for your protection.” Kacha was Kachagupta, the cousin and closest confidante of Chandragupta.
Dhruv had continued the journey alone, a little lost, but confident of being reunited soon with Chandragupta.
After some time, had come the news that Maharajadhiraj Samudragupta had ascended to swarg to be with his forefathers. Then, silence! No further news.
Dhruv could see Kacha looking grim and anxious as they neared Pataliputra.
A group of soldiers appeared at their encampment and Kacha disappeared with them while a division accompanied Dhruv’s party to Pataliputra.
Shikharswamin, the prime minister, came to receive Dhruvswamini and take her into the city to Maharani Dattadevi, the widow of Samudragupta.
She reached the grand audience chamber in the palace at Pataliputra. The old queen was standing in the centre flanked by her two sons, royal women waiting nearby with the welcoming aartis.
Dattadevi raised her up when she bent to touch her feet and said in a firm voice, “Saubhagyavati bhava, putri! I welcome you, the future Mahadevi of the Guptas, to Pataliputra and to my family. May you carry the glorious tradition of the Guptas forward.”
Dattadevi continued, “The vivaah between you and Ramagupta will be celebrated forthwith.”
‘R..Ramagupta!’ stammered Dhruv, taking a step back and turning hastily to Chandragupta who had not said a word. She knocked down a deepmala in her confusion and her uttariya caught fire. The welcome ended in chaos but the vivaah took place the next day.
It was worse than she had thought, being the Mahadevi of Maharajadhiraj Ramagupta; he was a jealous, suspicious and vicious husband, humiliating her in myriad ways, setting spies on her and leaving her isolated and helpless.
He tried to force her to submit to him physically and had been put to shame as she had discovered his biggest secret; he was impotent.
She had stared at him with burning eyes, “Why did you want me anyway?”
As he looked back at her malevolently, sitting hunched up on her bed, she answered her own question, “It was just to take me away from Chandragupta wasn’t it?” The answer was written on his face.
“I forbid you, on pain of death, to say anything about me to another living soul.”
Dhruv gathered her clothes around her and got up from the bed, “Approach me again, Maharajadhiraj, and see how quickly I embrace death. Now leave me alone.”
He did not come back to her bedchamber but she had to endure him in public, while he spent his time drinking himself senseless in the company of his toadies and women. The kingdom was left in the hands of the prime minister and his son, a callow lad with no experience to his name, and who had been appointed the senapati.
Ramagupta may have had no interest in the nitty-gritty of administration but lost no opportunity to aggrandise himself. He issued proclamations of his accession and greatness, struck coins with his name and sent messengers far and wide with messages of glory. To little avail, for the people, who loved his brother, were not happy with his accession.
This culminated in the decision to go on a vijay yatra, a victory procession to proclaim his accession to the throne of Pataliputra. Starting with the northwest, the stronghold of the Shakas, no less. Shikharswamin tried to dissuade him but was brushed aside as was the sabha parishad. The senapati, Suryaswamin, was the only one all praises for the Maharajadhiraj’ s glorious idea. Ramagupta also took it into his head that the entire court, all the officials, samants and their families would travel with him so that the people could see his splendour in person.
Before the vijay yatra commenced Dhruv received a visitor. It was Mandakini, the daughter of Shikharswamin. The conversation was one sided till Manda got up and drew her to the window, away from the listening dasis.
“Chandragupta asks how you are, he has sent his regards.”
Her heart leapt and then subsided. “Take them back with you. They are of no use to me.” She replied quietly, with a twisted smile.
Turning away from the window she said, “And if you are the Maharajadhiraj ’s spy, you can tell him that attacking me constantly on this subject will not yield anything.”
Manda looked shocked. “I am not his spy, Mahadevi! I would never spy on you. I have grown up with both Rama and Chandra and know them very well. I tried hard to dissuade my father from supporting Rama’s claims but I failed.”
Turning to leave, she said, ‘You can trust me, Mahadevi, I am your friend. And so is Chandragupta. You can always rely on him, he asked me to tell you that.”
The vijay yatra began and the court moved up the Uttarapath. Chandragupta had also been included, and his brother could not resist showing him his subordinate place in front of the praja.
Only, it did not work out the way Ramagupta had wanted. Chandragupta was a popular prince and greeted by the people with enthusiasm, love and affection; very little of it being spared for his brother.
He was furious and complained to his mother who remonstrated with her younger son.
“But Amba, isn’t that what you wanted me to do? Take care of our people? After a lifetime of humiliation Ramagupta would be the Maharajadhiraj on the throne but I would be the real support of the kingdom?” he asked her, with a questioning look.
She did not meet his eyes, “Yes, but that does not mean that you overshadow him. He is the king now and you should remember that.”
“So what is my role in the kingdom now?”
“Whatever your brother chooses.”
“Whatever my brother chooses! The same brother, who no longer speaks to me, who has made sure that I am almost a prisoner?”
His mother was silent and he changed tack.
“What about the Mahadevi? You have stopped me from meeting her but I have heard reports that all is not well?”
‘Chandragupta, do not interfere in your brothers marital affairs. You have no right over Dhruvswamini now, remember that,” and she walked out leaving Chandragupta standing there frowning, with an unwilling understanding dawning on his face.
They went up the Himalayas, stunningly beautiful terrain with sheer mountains, deep valleys full of flowers and quick rushing mountain rivers.
It was now close to the stronghold of Shakraj Rudrasimha.
One night, at the whim of Ramagupta, they camped in a valley ringed by mountains. There was only a narrow pass that connected it to the main Uttarapath. It was a spectacularly scenic and as spectacularly unsafe a situation.
There was unease in the royal camp at the vulnerability of their position. “Amatya Shikharswamin, you cannot let this continue, your son does not have the slightest idea of what he is doing!” Chandragupta was furious, “The entire court is under threat, my mother, my brother, his wife!”
He had swept in on a meeting between the prime minister and a pale, nervous senapati of the imperial Guptas.
“You, Suryaswamin, what do your spies and your advance scouting party say? What are the movements of Shakraj?” Chandragupta rapped out an angry question.
Suryaswamin looked away, flushed, and it was left to his father to reply, “He has not sent out any, Yuv...Kumar Chandragupta.”
Suryaswamin wilted in front of the angry gaze of Chandragupta.
“Are you aware that Shakraj’s stronghold of Bhimnagar fort is but a few hours ride from here? His men could surround us any time now. To, add to that, we are in a valley, easy targets from the mountains around.”
Suryaswamin was aghast; he had never travelled outside Magadha and had no idea of far flung enemy kingdoms.
Chandragupta gave him a disgusted, dismissive look and said, “We must send out an advance party immediately. Where is Kacha?”
He had assumed command so naturally that no one even noticed it.
“Kacha, in all probability, there will be some move tonight. We are too attractive a target. Take your band of trusted fighters and ride fast to the eastern flank of the fort. Take care not to be seen and wait for my message. I am of a mind to enter the fort and put an end to the menace of Rudrasimha once and for all.”
“Be careful, Chandragupta, we know the fort is well nigh unassailable. How will you get in?”
“I will think of something; do not delay, time is of the essence,” he cut short Kacha’s protestations and sent him off.
Before the first prahar of the day, the mountains were alight with flares, Rudrasimha’s men had them surrounded, at the point of their arrows and swords, sitting targets to be picked off at will.
The hapless Gupta soldiers stood, paralysed; any move would lead to a massacre.
When the Shakas were certain that they would face no resistance a messenger was sent to the Gupta encampment.
Shikharswamin received the messenger and what he heard made him blanch with anger and disgust.
He stood, white and angry, before the Maharajadhiraj, “I beg you to listen to me, Maharajadhiraj! The matter is critical, it cannot wait!”
“Take care of it, Shikharswamin; that is why I gave you the responsibility of the kingdom, do not trouble me,” Ramagupta’s voice was slurred and eyes heavy. “Maharaj, Rudrasimha has made an obscene and impossible demand, we cannot agree to it…”
“Then do not, but don’t bother me.”
“We are surrounded, Maharaj; there is no escape!”
“What do you want to say, out with it now; and then leave me in peace.”
Shikharswamin, in all his years of service to the Guptas had never been so distraught; he looked at Dhruv, sitting like a statue in the middle of this caricature of an Indra sabha. She nodded at him to continue.
“Rudrasimha says he has us all at the point of his sword. He will spare us if the Guptas renounce any claim to the territory of the Shakas in the northwest and…” he faltered.
“Go on…” Ramagupta was impatient and uninterested.
“And if you send Mahadevi Dhruvswamini to him, to join the ranivas as his concubine…” He could barely get the words out.
To be continued…
Author’s Note: This story is based on the lost Sanskrit play of Vishakhdatta, Devichandraguptam and inspired by Jaishankar Prasad’s version of this play, Dhruvswamini, in Hindi.
It has been reconstructed using references found in plays of later centuries. The plot centres around the accession of Chandragupta II of the Gupta dynasty to the throne after his brother Ramagupta, who also married his betrothed Devi Dhruvswamini, usurped it. After a degree of controversy, numismatic and epigraphic evidence attests to the existence of Dattadevi, Ramagupta and Mahadevi Dhruvaswamini who was also the mother of Kumaragupta I, Chandragupta II’s son and successor.
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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