Serpents, Sceptres and Unlikely Sisters: Ulupi and Chitrangada from the Mahabharata

The waves gently rumpled Ulupi’s hair as she sat surrounded by water serpents dancing to glory in the shimmering blue-green illumination that irradiated the Naga king’s palace.  She sighed, her mind lost in the days of yore. The past was like a goldfish – lively and glistening with charm and excitement. The present felt more like seaweed, carelessly fluttering in the direction of the river. She knew that there was one big moment left to occur in her life – her swan song, of sorts, but that was still far, far away.

She snapped out of her reverie. Something had changed. The water had stilled, and the serpents elevated mid-water, frozen in place. And then she heard it – a shriek of despair, that hit even harder as it echoed through the water. She hadn’t felt such moroseness since Iravan, her lovely child had been snatched away. He had ignored her pleas to stay at their tranquil underwater abode, choosing instead to fight alongside his father in the Kurukshetra war. When they needed a warrior with 32 sacred marks to sacrifice to the Goddess Kali, Iravan had volunteered himself. He had inherited those marks from his father, Arjuna. Apparently, Arjuna and Krishna, who had also borne the marks, had been indispensable. No one had ever considered that her child had been indispensable to Ulupi. This was not, however, a moment to dwell on the past. There was work to be done.

Ulupi rushed to the secret chamber that only the Naga royalty knew of. She paused to gaze at the Nagamani jewel, resplendent in its sheen, which changed from burgundy to teal to lavender each time the current changed. Then, snapping it up in her palms, she made her way upwards.

Meanwhile, queen mother Chitrangada stood numb, staring at the corpse of Arjuna, her husband, peppered with arrows on the battleground. Her eyes welled up. This was not how she had imagined their reunion to be.

“Mother!  Why do you look so horrified?”, her surprised son, Babruvahana exclaimed. “Are you not proud of my first victory?”

“My child,” she gasped. “You have killed your father!”

Chitrangada’s mind raced. She recalled the first time she had seen Arjun. She’d thought her unconventional persona would repel him like it had repelled most others. In order to take on conventionally male responsibilities, she’d had to look the part too. Jewellery was quite impractical for fencing, and she had taken on the armour and helmet as her ornaments. She was not poised with grace but filled with valour. 

Since childhood, her father Chitravahana had trained her to be a warrior, but she knew he’d wanted a son who could inherit the throne, as was the norm. There were times when she felt like an outcast from all sides. She often looked at her rough palms with dejection; too rugged for a princess, too small to encircle the King’s spectre. Nevertheless, her father had trained her well,  and she was proud to be a woman who challenged social constructs.

Arjuna had been unfazed by skin-deep beauty or her lack thereof and had fallen in love with the person she was. When they married, however, Arjuna had to give his word to the King that Chitrangada and her son would stay behind – Babruvahana would be Chitravahana’s heir, not Arjuna’s.  He had soon left to rejoin his ‘true’ family in Hastinapur. A single parent, she was a ‘father’ by day, teaching Babruvahana the ways of the kingdom, and a mother by the night, singing him soft lullabies. She had found an unlikely friend in fellow single mother Ulupi, and Babruvahana had grown to be a fine young man raised by two stalwart and indomitable women.

She had hoped that he would get to meet his father someday, and now he had, in the worst way possible. She felt sick. A stunned Babruvahana stood staring at his handiwork in disbelief. 

As Ulupi made her way towards the wailing gathering, her heart seemed to grow steadily heavier. She first saw Babruvahana, a king now, but ever so young. As she saw Arjuna lifeless on the ground, she felt an uncharacteristic rage. When Iravan had lain on the ground like that, Arjuna had let him fall without a second thought. The father-son bond had been one-sided, just as her own love for Arjuna had been. And yet, when she saw Chitrangada sobbing her heart away, she could not help but commiserate. She had to save him.

Babruvahana looked up at the newcomer for comfort, his face distraught.

“His death is not your fault,” she said gently. The prince’s face filled with anguish.

Ulupi continued, “Your father was indeed the victor of Kurukshetra, but it came at the cost of familicide. He had to end the life of his granduncle Bhishma. Bhishma’s grieving mother, the goddess Ganga cursed Arjuna for his sin – he would be killed by his own son. You have brought the curse to fruition, absolving your father of his sins.”

Babruvahana fumbled for words, nonplussed by the revelations unfolding in front of him.

“The curse of a mother in pain never goes in vain. You cannot alter what is destined to happen,” Ulupi said with an unusual calmness.

“Why did you not try to stop it if you already knew, Ulupi?” Chitrangada sobbed. “How could you allow him to commit patricide?”

Chitrangada was seething. She couldn’t fathom why Ulupi had let this happen. Chitrangada had rushed to the battlefield as soon as she received the news that the horse from Ashvamedha Yagna conducted by the Pandavas had entered her territory. This meant either they had to submit to the Pandavas, ally with them or defeat them to protect their empire. However, before she could reach the site, Babruvahana had challenged Arjun to a fight. On any other occasion, she would have been proud of the valiant archer her son had become, but this was an unprecedented mishap.

Ulupi stood stoic despite Chitrangada’s outburst. She unclenched her fist, revealing the fluorite stone that, outside its residence, was plain deep green, but still beautiful. “What is destined cannot be altered, Chitrangada,” Ulupi almost whispered, holding the gem carefully in both her palms. “But the Nagamani never fails to bring back what is lost.”

Ulupi knelt beside him, just as she had when they’d first met. Carefully, she placed the gemstone on the wound in his chest. They all watched, their hearts pounding, as his own organ slowly resumed its steady thud. Arjuna opened his eyes, and they found Ulupi. “Who are you?” he croaked. 

Ulupi watched from a distance as Arjuna embraced his wife and son. He hadn’t known her then, he had forgotten her now. He had only been with her because it would’ve been disrespectful to refuse her proposal, and he had never held any paternal feeling towards Iravan. She couldn’t help but envy them.

As Arjuna’s entourage slowly departed, Ulupi spotted two figures waving in the distance. Chitrangada and Babruvahana were beckoning her.

“We are not that different, you know,” Chitrangada gently spoke. “He may have loved me for a while, and acknowledged my son unlike yours, but he was never there, in the end.”

Babruvahana chimed in, “Arjuna’s legacy did not make me who I am. It was you and my mother. I am built with her courage and trained with your arrows. If my brother Iravan was here today, I am certain he would have said the same.”

Ulupi couldn’t bring herself to speak. The sting of jealousy in her heart was fading. Iravan’s only discomfort had been that he would die unmarried, as that would’ve meant he would be barred from entering Swargaloka. Krishna had taken care of that, in his female form of Mohini, and  Iravan had died valiant, with a stairway to heaven waiting for him. She had thus forgiven Krishna. As for Arjuna, well, whatever his faults, he had been the love of her life albeit unrequited, and she had brought him back from the dead– his failure to acknowledge her was all on him.

“What will you do now?” asked Chitrangada.

Ulupi cleared her throat. “Arjuna was the rock that tried to direct a river by settling in its path, and yes, for a while, his actions steered our lives. But in the end, a river runs its own course. I am sure the two of you, with your wise heads, will erode through every calamity you spot. My serpent river flows tranquil resplendent on its way to the sea. I think I shall spend the rest of my days with its droplets over my head.”

Chitrangada smiled as Ulupi walked away. It pained her a little when she realised she would have to bid adieu to Arjuna again. But she could make peace with that. Just as Ulupi had noted, she had her own stories to write, without him. She would go on, content with the fact that their tales had intersected, however briefly – the fables of Arjuna, Ulupi and Chitrangada.

~ Written by Ankita Ghosh and Ankitha Giridhar for MTTN

~ Edited by Radhika Taneja for MTTN

~ Featured image by Swagat Sarkar for MTTN

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