He stared at the mirror. A beautiful woman looked back at him; her eyes filled with an unfulfilled desire.
Wear that beautifully embroidered saree.
Wear the bindi, the bangles, the anklets.
He followed her instructions. He knew how to drape a saree most gracefully. He smiled at the woman in the mirror. He was at peace.
Suddenly he heard a gasp. He turned around and saw his wife staring at him, her eyes filled with fear and worry.
“I wanted my firstborn to be a son!” King Drupadaa’s face contorted with dismay. The baby girl was gurgling innocently at her father, in blissful ignorance of the chaos her birth had unleashed on the kingdom of Panchala.
His anger dissipated almost immediately. The proud father couldn’t help but grin back happily at his gorgeous daughter. Shiva chuckled at the changing facial expression.
These humans are so crazy! They struggle to understand unconditional love, caught in the warp and weave of a confusing web of rules and regulations that they have set on themselves!
“Yes, she is a girl. But she is destined for greatness. She will turn into a man during her lifetime and play a pivotal role in the history of this land. Embrace her and raise her as a son. You will know her significance when the time is right.”
Drupadaa bowed humbly. “As you wish, my lord.”
King Drupadaa declared that a son was born into the royal family. The baby was named Shikandi. His siblings, Draupadi and Dhristadyumna, soon joined the household of the royal Panchalas. As he grew into a strong youth, Shikandi learned to be an excellent warrior. And yet, he always felt something was wrong.
Why do I feel so incomplete?
What is missing in my life?
Why am I attracted to my sister’s dolls as much as I am to my brother’s weapons?
Should I be ashamed of these confused feelings?
My brother and sister are clear about their likes and dislikes? But not me.
Often, he was the butt of sniggers and taunts. The boys wouldn’t include him in their games because he seemed so effeminate. The girls wouldn’t include him because there was unmistakable masculinity in him.
He felt lonely. His father comforted him often saying, “You are Lord Shiva’s boon to the Panchala household. When the time comes, people will know your worth.”
He felt comforted for a while until the taunts returned. His childhood was a difficult one.
When Shikandi was of marriageable age, Drupadaa approached King Hiranyavarna, the King of Dasharna for his daughter Mitra’s hand in marriage. The wedding was a grand celebration. Shikandi felt euphoric for the first time in his life.
He waited for his beautiful wife in the nuptials room. But things turned nasty when Mitra found that her husband had a woman’s body. Her shrill scream of rage-laced despair echoed throughout Panchala.
“You have cheated us,” King Hiranyavarna shouted at King Drupada. “Your son is a woman!”
King Drupada pleaded, “He was born a woman, yes. But it was promised to us that he would beget a man’s body soon. Pray, wait patiently for a few days, and all will be well.”
“Why didn’t you wait until he acquired a man’s body before you got him married,” King Hiranyavarna countered.
King Drupadaa was stumped. “I don’t have an answer for that. Maybe deep in my mind, I thought marriage would be the trigger for the transformation.”
Hiranyavarna was not convinced. The harsh exchange of words went on for a while. Shikhandi stayed in his bedroom, feeling utterly humiliated, shedding tears of shame, his euphoria turning to despair.
The King of Dasharna was in no mood to listen to any pleas. He waged war against Panchala.
Oh! What kind of cruel destiny is this? I feel so ashamed. I don’t deserve this life.
Unable to get over the guilt of causing war and the shame of his uncertain sexuality, Shikhandi ran away from home.
At least my death will ensure the war is averted and innocent people are not killed for my sake. May my breasts dash against the rocks and kill the femininity in me. May a sharp rock pierce my vagina and bleed out my uterus. What use are these to me when I have been given the heart and mind of a man?
He looked down at the deep ravine, fear and relief flooding his heart and mind in equal measure. He smiled ironically. Just as the man and woman in me are in equal measure!
He was about to take the leap to his death when a powerful pair of hands stopped him and pulled him back. He turned around to find a handsome yaksha looking at him angrily.
“What kind of a coward are you? Killing yourself will not solve problems. They’ll simply follow you into your next birth.”
The yaksha words seemed to stir up deep memories.
Previous births! That must be it. I must be carrying forward something powerful enough to affect my present state.
To the yaksha, Shikandi said, “You’re right, my dear friend. I’m not only a coward but also totally unaware of myself. I don’t know if I’m a man or woman.”
The yaksha took his hand and sat him down under the shade of a tree. “My name is Sthunakarna and I serve Lord Kubera, the god of wealth and prosperity. I know a bit of magic too. Tell me your story. I might be able to help.”
Shikandi narrated the story of life and the anguish of the shameful situation in which he found himself on his wedding night moved Sthunakarna. The yaksha wanted to help Shikhandi. He said, “I have an idea. I can transfer my body to you for a night. Prove to your newly wedded wife that you are a man. You can return tomorrow morning and we could exchange our bodies again.”
Shikandi was perplexed for a while.
What happens after tomorrow? How will I handle my wife after that? Well, I’ll cross that bridge when it comes. Right now, Sthunakarna’s help will at least put off the war.
So, Shikandi returned home with a man’s body. Everyone was happy, especially his wife and father-in-law. The war was averted.
King Drupada said gleefully, “Lord Shiva’s words cannot be false. He said this will happen.”
When Kubera learnt of Sthunakarna’s act, he was livid. “You are my servant, and you cannot do such things without my permission. Now that you have done it, you will retain the woman’s body until Shikandi’s death.”
Shikandi’s body problem was, therefore, solved. He lived happily with his wife. The couple had a son whom he named Kshatradeva.
Are my confusions clearing up?
Bhishma was overjoyed to hear that the Pandavas’ marriage was fixed with Draupadi, the Panchala princess. He joined the other Kuru elders including Kripachary and Dronacharya at the lavish ceremony. There, his eyes fell on Shikandi for the first time.
Who is he or is it she? Why am I so attracted to him?
Their eyes met and instantly there was a connection. They couldn’t take their eyes off each other. The old man gathered himself before the younger man and turned away, his heart thumping so loudly that he feared others would hear it. He realized he was looking at his nemesis, someone he knew deep in his heart would return, more empowered and stronger than before!
Oh! She was so beautiful it was so difficult to resist her. Many women tried to woo me before her. But my control was put to the highest test when I saw her dishevelled appearance, standing in front of me, strong and powerful, demanding justice from me.
“Where can I go?” She had demanded to know. “No one wants to give me refuge.”
“You are the reason for my desolate state. Why did you have to capture my sisters and me for your brother? Couldn’t you have asked our permission before that?
Even if, as a Kshatriya, it is your right to abduct women, then it is also your duty to protect them.”
“The man who I thought loved me seems to love his ego more. The King of Shalva refuses to marry me saying he has lost me to you and taking me back would be against his Kshatriya honour. And your own half-brother? Vichitravirya? Who didn’t have the guts or the temerity to find his wife for himself and sent you instead now says he cannot take me because I was promised to another!”
“So your act of kindness of letting me go back to Shalva after the abduction worsened my condition. My cause is lost in the selfish mire of Kshatriya honour! Why didn’t you think of all this before? How can such an impulsive person be the guardian of the mighty throne of Hastinapur?”
All valid questions! But I had no answers that could soothe her deeply wounded heart. The only thing that would’ve helped was to take her as my wife. But no matter how deep my feelings were for her, they withered into nothingness against my vow of celibacy. I had to send her away. I turned away from her, lest she sees my eyes filled with an ocean of unshed tears, and a heart dying to rip open and show my love for her.
“You will pay for this, Bhishma! You have wronged an innocent woman. I will come back and get my revenge.”
And she did. I was so happy that Sage Parashurama took her side and came to fight against me. I was praying with all my heart for him to win. I would’ve happily died for the beautiful Kashi princess at my revered guru’s hands. But I knew that my fate would never be so kind to me. We fought for days but we were equally matched.
We had to back off from our fight when the gods themselves came down from the heavens and stopped us. The powerful weapons we were hurling against each other would’ve annihilated Mother Earth. And so the poor lady faced frustration, again and I was the cause of it!
Many years later, I heard that she had immolated herself but not before she got a boon from Lord Shiva to be my nemesis in her next birth. I was told the mighty Lord of Kailash had given her a garland of flowers that would never wither. The person wearing this garland would be the cause of my end.
I have been waiting to see this garland since. It took two entire Kuru generations for that. I saw it at the gate of the Panchala palace.
I asked King Drupada about it. “Suddenly one morning, the garland was found hanging on the gate many, many years ago. After multiple failed attempts to remove it, the Panchala royals decided to keep it there. The flowers never withered, and the garland enhances the ornamentation of the gate. It seems like a magical garland.”
I merely nodded at King Drupada. It was a divine garland. And then I saw her. But why was she a man? I couldn’t stop staring at her as she moved from one marriage pandal to the next with her sister, Draupadi who was marrying all the five Pandava brothers.
Our eyes met and there seemed to be a flicker of recognition. She (to me she was a woman, a beautiful one at that) stared back at me, perplexed and shocked. But she turned away when someone called out her name. Shikandi! Yes, she was definitely Amba, the eldest Kashya Princess, reborn with Lord Shiva’s grace to be the cause of my destruction. My heart became peaceful, knowing the end of this difficult life was close by!
“Yes, Krishna. I have been drawn to that garland since my childhood. I don’t understand it. Sometimes I feel that if I can touch it, my soul would be soothed. But sometimes, I feel repulsed by the sight of it. It seems to hold something dark and ominous; something born of hatred.”
Krishna looked at Shikandi, his eyes filled with sadness for the perturbed man. “You’re right. It is a symbol of hate and anger. It is a symbol of vengeance. It is the symbol of your story.”
“I knew there was some connection. Can you help me understand it?”
“You can do it yourself. Go, get the garland, and wear it.”
“Me? But that is fused to the gate. If many before me have failed, how can I do it?”
“You just said you always felt a connection to it. Maybe the garland will yield to your touch. The Pandavas need you to do it. Bhishma is getting increasingly strong, and the Kauravas will never be defeated if he remains on the battlefield. He and you have an old score to settle.”
Hearing Bhishma’s name, Shikhandi’s eyes filled with fresh tears. “So, there is a connection between us. I’ve felt as drawn to him as to this garland since the day I saw him for the first time at Draupadi’s wedding.”
“Yes! You and the garland together can change the trajectory of this war. Go! I’m right here to help you if needed.”
Shikhandi climbed up the gate. As Krishna said, his mere touch was enough for the garland to come unstuck. Holding it in his right hand, Shikandi climbed down and stood next to Krishna. The past life memories came surging forth and he realized the purpose of his present life in an instant.
He bowed to Krishna who blessed him. “Wear that garland and come to the battlefield tomorrow. The tenth day of the war will be the day when Bhishma falls, and the Pandavas will gain the upper hand.”
He turned around to see his wife’s look of surprise, and worry.
“Don’t be afraid, Mitra. This is me! A woman caught in the body of a man. The reason for this is rooted in my previous birth. In this birth, I am your husband, Shikandi, and I cannot thank you enough for showering me with love despite my confused sexuality.”
Mitra approached her husband, dressed in feminine finery, warily. She was older and wiser now and didn’t want to respond the way she did on their wedding night.
So, she sat on the bed beside him and heard the story of Shikandi and Amba.
“Oh, dear! You’ve been carrying so much pain inside you. And I don’t think I’ve been as good a wife as I should’ve been. I was so rude on that horrid night.”
“Can I ever forget that?”
Mitra broke into sobs.“I know! I created such a ruckus. I wish I had treated you gentler than that.”
“Don’t be, Mitra. It was your reaction that drove me to find the man’s body to hide Amba’s despair.” Shikandi was happy that he and his wife found peace with each other.
The next day dawned bright and clear. Shikandi dressed up as Amba would, a beautifully embroidered saree, sparkling jewellery, and all the cosmetic paraphernalia. She wore her armour and the evergreen garland. Shikandi was now completely transformed into Amba, the desire for revenge oozing from every pore of her body.
When she reached the battlefront Bhishma was shooting arrows relentlessly in the direction of the Pandava army, each one meeting its mark. A horde of Pandava soldiers fell to the ground. He was unbeatable!
Shikandi ordered the charioteer to take her to Bhishma. As she came closer, her past life memories seared her heart, filling it with all the hatred needed for the battle against the mighty warrior.
He saw her approaching chariot and his heart fluttered unsteadily. He was unsure if it happened because the old feelings for Amba erupted to the surface or because of the fear of seeing his end drawing near. The garland of death flayed in the wind!
“C’mon Bhishma, let us battle!” Cried Shikandi.
But Bhishma would never lift a weapon against a woman. For him, Shikandi was and would always be a woman, the woman he could’ve shared a fulfilling life with. But right now, her eyes shone not with love but with the dark, impenetrable light of hatred. Bhishma dropped his weapons.
Seizing the opportunity, Shikandi shot an arrow toward the Kuru elder. From behind her, Arjuna let out a slew of arrows. That was Krishna’s game plan. There was a collective gasp on the battlefield as Bhishma fell to the ground, defeated but not dead! He couldn’t die until he chose to, thanks to the boon bestowed on him by his father, Shantanu.
Again for the umpteenth time, I wonder if that is a boon or a bane! If I had been vulnerable to death, perhaps I would’ve been saved from a lot of suffering.
Shikandi came and stood over the fallen Bhishma. The fire was lost in the old man’s eyes. He was nothing more than a bag of skin and bones. He was breathing heavily, and his agony came in deep, painful wheezes. She had thought she would feel satisfaction at the sight of his horrible state.
He deserves this and more for all the pain he wreaked on me.
But she felt empty! And sad!
Wasn’t revenge supposed to be sweet? Why do I feel emptier than before?
“Thank you, my dear princess, for releasing me from this cursed birth!” The unshed ocean of tears was released finally!
Shikandi knelt down at the warrior’s fallen body, held his hands, and said, “I’m sorry. I have carried my hatred for a very long time. Say something that will release me from this storm in my heart.”
Bhishma smiled. “From the depths of chaos comes euphoric clarity. Your purpose was to be the cause of my end, and I am grateful for that. If there is another birth for both of us, I would pray that we are reborn to share a life of love and happiness together.”
Shikandi smiled back, “May Lord Shiva bless that desire.”
Author’s Note: I used the premise from the Mahabharata to create my own probable dialogues, conversations, situations, and thoughts.
According to the Puranic Encyclopaedia by Vettam Mani, Shikandi was variously referred to as Bhishmahanta, Shikandini, Draupadeya, Draupatmaja, Pancalya, etc. I stuck to Shikandi throughout my story.
Shikandi’s wife is referred to as the Dasharna Princess and the daughter of King Hiranyavarna. Her name is not mentioned anywhere. Mitra is my choice.
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