Continued from here
“I will send a messenger for Ghatotkacha. The battle will start any moment now”, said a restless Drishtadyumna, altering his gaze between the fading light and the reformation of the battlefront by the enemy
“No!”, Krishna said emphatically even before his commander finished his sentence. “You cannot introduce Ghatotkacha in the dusky glow of a sunset; he comes only after you see the faintest of stars, when it is dark. Send a word to all torch bearers. In about one Muhurta, all torches are to be put out. It is to be pitch-black on our side. The element of surprise is essential. We have to catch the enemy off guard. We want Karna to be so well into his element that he will have to completely rethink his plans for the night. Our weapon tonight is disruption and turmoil. And what a spectacle it will be”
Drishtadyumna stood amazed at Krishna’s battle tactics. For someone who had always been ridiculed as a flute playing cowherd and a woman chasing rake, this man outthought and outmaneuvered every general on the battlefield, and every scholar off it. All, without ever holding a weapon in anger.
Krishna pulled Drishtadyumna aside and gave more instructions, while he rode off with Arjuna towards the forest. The commanders on both sides were busy reforming the frontlines. This was uncharted territory to everyone. Well, almost everyone. There were only two squads, one on either side, who knew how to fight in the night. The one on the Kaurava side, led by Karna, was trained in the art of night warfare. They knew the frailties of humans, of armed and regimented men. They knew how to exploit those faults and foibles. They knew how to dismantle organized armies under the stealth of darkness. They believed tonight was their night.
They were wrong.
On the other side, was a band of merry men to whom darkness was light. Led by a maverick, wizardry was child’s play to them, and illusion their skill. They could conjure up phantom elephants and phony horses, create illusion of monsters and apparitions of demons. They knew the smells of the night. They could touch the black of the night. They could feel the mystery of the night. They, were the night.
The battle began usually, with some hesitation from both sides, as the horses and the men adjusted to the gradually fading light of the red ball being swallowed up by the dark horizon in the distance. The verve was decidedly slow, as mahouts and charioteers ensured the safety of their animals and riders respectively.
As the brightest stars began to twinkle in the sky, conches blew on the Kaurava side. The frontline slowly receded, gradually replaced by a battalion of men riding strangely fitted chariots. Each chariot had two barrels of oil in the back of the cab. The barrels were protected by thick, reinforced metal and multiple wooden frames so even a fireball arrow would not penetrate them. Through each barrel ran a fortified metal conduit, snaking its way from the side of the chariot, along the columns that supported the canopy. The conduits went up towards the roof of the canopy where they formed a circle. From the circular pipe rose six torches, burning bright and lighting up everything around the chariot. To compensate for the extra weight of the barrels, the cab was built with reinforced black metal and heavy wood, painted black. The horses were doubled, to be able to pull the extra weight of the cab and the barrels full of oil. The horses were black. The archers themselves wore black outfits, and painted their faces with tar. Their arrows and quivers were all black. Black paint was used all over the chariot, making it almost invisible, except for the burning fire atop. On top of the black paint was applied black clay, so that the light from the fire won’t reflect on a neighboring chariot. From a distance, it looked as if circles of fire were floating spookily overhead, approaching at a menacing speed.
As the Pandava army watched with their mouths agape, arrows began to whir past, slicing through the throats of their compatriots. Nobody seemed to know where the darts were flying from. Horsemen began falling off their mounts inexplicably. Some horses bolted, frightened by the approaching fireballs, throwing their riders off and crushing them in the process. Soon, it was chaos among the Pandava battalions. Their leaders, bereft of ideas, began to panic. The Kaurava army began to kill by the hundreds. Their night army was well trained, and well prepared. They had done this several times, and their warriors, seasoned for night fight, scythed through the Pandava army. Karna was smiling. He knew he had the advantage, but didn’t expect a capitulation. He knew the big guns would be hiding tonight, on both sides.
Darkness was not a risk to be exposing one’s maharathis.
Exactly at the appointed time, conches began to blow on the Pandava side. The marauding Kaurava army slowed, unsure of what was happening. What they saw puzzled them. One by one, the torches began to go out on the other side. Before their eyes, all the torches were gone, completely put out. It was pitch black. The Pandava army then stopped moving, staying still where they were, including the horses and the elephants. Noise subsided, slowly and gradually. Within moments, a deathly silence befell the Pandava side. As it happens in battles, when one side falls quiet, the other side follows. The black chariots slowed and stopped. Their own army came to a halt. For a few tense moments, the entire Kurukshetra battlefield went dead. One could hear the wind whisper, the crickets chirp, and the faint moans of dying men in pain. Both sides were unsure what was going to happen next.
It was then that they began to hear. It seemed like distant thunder, but there was not a cloud in sight. It came from Pandava side, there was no doubt about it.
But why did it seem like it was coming from behind the Kauravas? What was it? It wasn’t drums. It wasn’t thunder. It wasn’t the growl of a wild angry beast. What was it? It was getting louder. It was getting nearer. It was jarring. It was unrelenting. It was constant. It was like metal screeching against metal. It was like the distant laugh of a devil; like the terrifying shriek of a witch. What was it?
Before the sound began to make any sense, there was light. A faint glow, almost as if the entire ground behind the Pandavas was lit up with candles. And in an instant, it was gone. Then it started again, this time with a blue hue, and brighter than before. The Kaurava side looked at it in mild amazement. But it went out again. Before they could adjust to the darkness, the sky lit up in an intense, blazing white light, blinding the Kauravas for an instant. They winced, turning their heads away and shielding their eyes. Under the dazzling skies, some of the Kauravas noticed that the entire Pandava army had their heads down, looking at their feet. Clearly they had special instructions for this hour. What the Kauravas did not notice was that their enemies also had their noses covered.
The bewildered Kauravas waited for the next assault on the senses, but nothing happened. Or at least they thought so. The outer extremities smelt it first; a pungent odor reminiscent of vomit, of rotten food and stagnant water. Some of the soldiers began to feel sick in the stomach. But before their bodies reacted, the smell changed to fragrance, of beautiful flowers and fresh gardens; of incense sticks and tasty food. Their stomachs churned, their minds wandered towards food. But once again, before their noses got comfortable, the smell changed again, this time of putrid waste, of burning flesh and dead animals, a sick, damp stench.
This bombardment of senses left the Kaurava soldiers disoriented and unstable. What kind of wizardry was this? Undoubtedly this was sorcery. The leader behind tonight’s assault remained calm. His night riders were unaccustomed to this. He knew this was not a natural phenomenon. One and only one question started to trouble Karna. Who was doing this? Who was behind this? He did not know the answer.
It was him!