The sky was overcast and there was no breeze. A procession of chariots moved forward slowly, almost sluggishly as if they were loath to reach their destination. These were not the war chariots built for utility nor the hunting chariots built for speed. These were the chariots that were used by the nobility of Aryavarta for travel in leisure. There were seven chariots in all. The chariot in the middle held the King and Queen of Hastinapura. The leading chariot held the Pradhanamantrin, Vidura. The last one held the Sthapathi, a corpulent man named Sravana and his assistants. The second chariot held the king’s personal attendants and the queen’s maids. The rest of the chariots contained the items that every royal household held to be indispensable for their comfort.
The chariots were accompanied by a contingent of soldiers. The ones who rode close to the Royal chariot were the King’s own guards. Though they rode close to the chariot, they still kept a discreet distance as though they wanted to give the newly wedded couple their privacy.
Kunti, the bride sat rigid in one corner, her eyes looking at the passing scenery without seeing anything. So many thoughts had been chasing across her mind that her brain had shut down for the moment. In the other corner sat Pandu, the monarch of Hastinapura, lost in thoughts of his own.
Neither noticed when the chariot lurched to a stop before a large square building surrounded by a low wall. Vidura dismounted from the chariot and moved towards the royal chariot.
“Maharaja, we are at a pathikavasa. If you and Maharani would like to refresh yourselves, and to partake of some food?”
The King came out of his abstraction. He looked at Vidura and gave a tight lipped smile.
“Of course,” he said. “Call us when everything is ready.”
Kunti’s eyes on him were slits of fury and he bowed to her before making his way to the last chariot. Sravana was already directing his assistants to various tasks. There was a flurry of activity with maids and attendants running hither and thither with various items of furniture and furnishings and bric-a-brac.
Sravana turned as Vidura reached him and executed a low bow
“What a nightmare,” muttered Sravana, mopping his face. He was already sweating profusely. “That place is a pigsty, not fit for our Rajan at all. But what to do. The rooms are all tiny. That entire building is smaller than the Royal Apartments at Hastinapura.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage to make the place habitable.”
“There were a few- ah- unwanted elements in there. We had to commandeer the place for the King and to pay them off to leave.” Sravana gave an anxious glance at the Royal Chariot. “Didn’t want to have a commotion with the king here.”
Vidura nodded. “You did well.”
One of the assistants came up and bowed. “Everything has been made ready, Sthapathi.”
“I better go and check. You’ll bring them?”
“Immediately,” replied Vidura and sauntered back to the Royal Chariot.
“Everything is ready, Maharaja,” he said respectfully.
The King gave a curt nod and Vidura withdrew.
“Devi,” Pandu proffered his hand to his wife, to help her alight.
Kunti looked blankly at him for a moment before smiling serenely and placing her hand in his.
They alighted to see maids and attendants lined up and a carpet spread on the floor strewn with flowers. The drab exterior of the building had been decorated with flower hangings. The inside of the pathikavasa was spotlessly clean and well lit. The shabby walls had been covered with rich tapestry and the rough stone floor was now covered in a soft plush carpet. The King’s own cushions and silks adorned the functional furniture of the place.
“The rooms are rather small, Maharaja,” said Sravana nervously.
Pandu looked around the room and nodded. “It’ll do,” said he. “It is not as if we are staying here for long.”
Vidura and Sravana exchanged a look. Then Vidura cleared his throat. “A storm is about to break, Maharaja. I would request that we stay here till it blows over.”
A roll of thunder rang out just then as if to emphasize Vidura’s words.
Pandu nodded curtly. “So be it.”
The attendants and maids surged forward to lead the Royal Couple to their rooms. The King’s bedroom was the largest room in the place and despite all the attempts of Sravana’s people to turn it as luxurious as the King’s own chambers in the palace, it was evident that the room was too small. But Pandu appeared not to notice, nodding absently and complimenting Sravana.
The maids led Kunti to her room, which was as large as the King’s. The room next to it had been converted into a bathhouse and once the queen and his maids had entered the rooms, the Royal guard was there, preventing anyone else from entering.
Kunti sat on the bed, oblivious to the maids removing her bridal finery and ornaments. Her hair was freed from the tight braids and coils into which it was wound and the maids led her, covered by blankets, into the room with the bath. She was bathed and her hair washed. Braziers from which perfumed smoke was spiralling upwards were used to dry her knee-long hair. Her hair was bound into a simple braid and she was dressed in an exquisite orange coloured silk which draped her form like a tongue of flame.
As the maids opened her ornament box, Kunti came out of her abstraction.
“That one,” she said pointing to a pair of small ear rings which were made of pure gold.
The maids stared at each other. It was not seeming in a Royal bride to adorn herself simply, but they dared not disobey her. A thin necklace and a pair of thin bangles and anklets completed her adornment.
With disapproving glances the maids kept the ornament box aside. But in spite of their disappointment they had to admit that their young queen looked lovely. To be sure, her high cheekbones could not be considered a desirable feature, but her eyes were wide and set under dark arched brows and her nose was straight. Her lips were finely moulded and she had a firm chin. Dimples peeped in at the corners of her mouth when she smiled.
“Maharani,” Vidura bowed low as he entered the room. “Maharaja begs your company for dinner.”
Her face lost her look of abstraction and fury and loathing flashed in her eyes as she looked at him.
Thunder rumbled overhead and the rain started to fall.