The Gandhara landscape was unmatched in beauty. The kingdom that stretched from Takshasila to Purushapura was a traveler’s delight, with its snow capped mountains, rivers and valleys, breathtaking fields of endless greenery.
The people were simple yet proud, humble yet valiant. Naturally protected to the north and west by mountains and having cultivated crucial alliances to the east, king Suvalu and his family were happy and content rulers of this vast mountain kingdom.
Their pride was his beautiful daughter – who they named Gandhari after the land. In addition to her physical beauty she made her name as a virtuous woman, abiding by the customs and rules set in her kingdom. She was the cynosure of all eyes – specially her brother Shakuni. He pampered and indulged her ceaselessly and showered boundless love on his little kid sister.
When she came of age, king Suvalu and his sons scoured the entire area for a suitor worthy of her beauty and honor. They spent limitless hours shortlisting the invitees for her Swayamvara. Shakuni – who was deemed highly astute – was tasked with digging the dirt on all the prospective contenders. Shakuni had a flair for assessing people. Within a short time he could read the other person’s mind, their strengths and more importantly, their frailties. Discovering their weaknesses early on gave him an advantage in any relationship. He used that prowess to his advantage and cultivated many friends and followers. Mindful of the destructive nature of such a gift, he vowed that his loyalty was to his father and his kingdom and that he would always put them first.
Late one afternoon a servant came in with news of a visitor just outside the southeastern city gates requesting presence with the king. The servant couldn’t answer where the visitor came from or what his purpose was. Shakuni asked him what flag his chariot bore. The servant answered didn’t have any. It seemed odd because without the flag of recognition it was hard to pass through the bandit-ridden valleys. The servant did say that the visitor was highly tanned, implying he may have come from a tropical clime. Shakuni decided to go meet this visitor himself on the morrow.
The visitor’s villa is a quarantined mansion just outside the city gates. Whenever unknown foreigners come along they are placed in the estate with strict instructions to observe them and their health. They are asked to perform their ablutions in specially commissioned chambers filled with medicinal aromas and waters so as to keep any foreign viruses and infections out.
The next morning when Shakuni headed to the visitor chambers he was told that the visitor refused to obey the quarantine requests. Additionally he had brought his own waters which he used to wash himself. He also brought his own food and refused to consume any local offerings. The non-compliance angered Shakuni. But he did not let it get to him. He brushed it off thinking they must have different rules in their culture. The visitor’s dietary habits may have forced him to ingest his own food, he thought.
But with some portent he announced himself and was asked to come in to the visitor’s chamber. As soon as he saw the man’s coat of arms he knew where he had come from. The insignia on his vest left no doubt. Two elephants with their forelegs raised, two swords intertwined in the center, the dharma chakra in the background and a diamond crown at the top. This man was from Hastinapura – the land of elephants.
Shakuni’s heart raced. His joy knew no bounds. He had only heard about this wondrous land and its noble kings. The Bharata race was the most celebrated royalty in the entire region. It had long been an ambition of his to embark on a pilgrimage to what he thought was the the land of dharma. He had heard about the mighty Bhishma and his vow. Shakuni wanted to meet the caretaker of the Hastinapura throne and seek his counsel. In his delight he advanced to embrace the visitor, to welcome him to this small mountainous land.
But the visitor’s first words stung him like scorpions on a hot dry desert night.