Most of us only have a nodding acquaintance that the Mahabharata is a tale of male narration. The only queen that holds prominence in the tale is Draupadi, gleaned from the stories told by our grandmothers and mothers. But the question remains- do the queens of Mahabharat hold any prominence at all?
It portrays the greyish human nature and the difficulty of making ethical distinctions. The adventure of reading the largest book in the world comes in with the claim that with fascinating arrays of characters, and situations that propel us to act against the greater good, but it also raises serious concern about the stories of those that readers fail to recognize. These are the stories of women that played a crucial role in the tale of Mahabharata, and it wasn’t Draupadi.
An inalienable part of the Indian psyche let’s recount the tale from the perspective of the Queens of Hastinapur.
During the exile of Pandavas, Yudhisthira, the eldest brother happens to meet Rishi Vrihadashwa in a forest to whom he narrates his miserable fate. To relieve Yudhishthira of his pain, the Rishi tells him the tale of Nala and Damayanti. Damayanti was the beautiful princess of Vidarbha who was married to the king of Nishadha, Nala. After 12 years of happy marriage, ill fate struck their life. Nala was invited by his cousin Pushkara for a game of dice in which Nala lost everything and was asked to leave with the only piece of cloth he was wearing. He asked Damayanti to leave him, but the queen was determined to follow her husband. However, on their journey in the forest, Nala leaves Damayanti hoping that she would return to her father’s place. However, Damayanti searched for him day and night but soon her father came to know about her situation and took Damayanti back to her kingdom.
Damayanti’s father ordered a priest to look for Nala but without any photograph, it was hard to identify the king. Damayanti then told the priest to sing a song knowing that her husband would definitely respond. When the priest reached Ayodhya, a short dark dwarf who worked as a royal chef responded to the song. Damayanti was thrilled to find her husband but was soon stunned to see his changed appearance. It turns out that in order to hide his identity Nala was wearing a magical cloak that has the ability to change his appearance. In the end, the couples were united but the story of Damayanti’s never-ending quest for her husband reached far wide corners making her one of the most prominent queens in the tale of Mahabharata.
Arjuna married a widow Ulupi during his 12 years of exile. Ulupi was a Naga Kanya, the daughter of Airavatha Kauravya, a Naga chief. Arjuna was cursed by Vasus and Gangamata after he landed Bhishma on the bed of arrows, the curse says that Arjuna would be killed by one of his own sons. Ulupi who knew about the curse and set out on a mission to save her husband from his ill fate. Most of his sons were lost in the battle of Kurukshetra including Abhimanyu, Iravan, and Srutakarma. The only one who was alive was Babhruvahan, son of Chitrangada, another wife of Arjuna. When Yudhishtir performed the Aswamedha, Arjuna went with the horse to win over the earth yet again. On the borders of Manipur, he met Babhruvahan who was thrilled to see his father; however, Arjuna was not impressed. He challenged Babhruvahan to a fight. Ulupi, who was hiding nearby let the fight happen and waited patiently for Babhruvahan to kill Arjuna, as that was supposed to happen.
When Arjuna got fatally wounded by the arrows of Babhruvahan, Ulupi came out and revived her husband using the ancestral jewel of the Nagas and therefore redeemed him from the curse of Vasus.
Shachi, also known as Indrayani, was the consort of God Indra. Once when Indra killed a demon Vritra through treachery, he was ashamed to return to the Devalok. He hid inside the stem of a lotus in a pond far away from the reach of Gods. In his unavailability, the Gods were left with no choice but to create his substitute and thus they created a mortal named Nahusha who replaced Indra. However, their decision backfired when Nahusha turned out to be an evil soul. He misused his powers and even forced Shachi to marry him. But Shachi being a clever woman asked sage Agasthya to curse Nahusha into becoming a serpent. She then went to Lord Indra and convinced him to come out of hiding.
According to the scriptures, in her search for Indra, she is described as having undertaken a long and arduous journey, navigating high mountains and deep seas through darkness and difficulties.
Gandhari, the wife of Dhritharastra was indeed the unsung heroine of Mahabharata. Gandhari was a remarkable woman who turned her entire life into a life-long penance. She was the mother of 100 Kauravas and without her, no Mahabharata would exist on this planet. Her lifelong penance turned into a boon which she gave to Duryodhana during the battle of Kurukshetra. As a devotee of lord Shiva, Gandhari’s boon was the result of her good deeds and staying by Dhritharastra’s side throughout her life. Not just this, she was powerful enough to send the Lord Krishna directly toward a painful death through her curse. It was in fact, Gandhari’s curse that decimated Krishna’s clan. She was indeed the most powerful Queen of Hastinapur.