Once in Satya Yuga, the Vindhya mountain had become too arrogant and began blocking the path of the sun and the moon. It began to grow higher and higher. Then the sage Agastya came and told him, “I am going south, give me way.” Vindhya split itself and made a slender path for him, known as Agastya’s Gateway. Reaching the other side of the mountain, observing Vindhya from top to toe, Agastya said, “Vindhya my child, what is this? You are growing crookedly, the plumb line is not correct! Some day you will topple over. On my return, I will teach you how to grow straight. Till then, stop growing.” Vindhya said, “As you command.” After that, a long time passed, but Agastya did not return. Then Vindhya, in fury, cursed that those who enter this Agastya’s Gateway and meet face-to-face would lose their common sense. Hearing of the curse from a disciple, Agastya said, “Do not fear. After a while intelligence will return.”
I am narrating a story of times long after this Puranic tale. At that time, the surrounding areas of Vindhya Mountain were covered with thick forests and bereft of human habitation. No king ruled there. To the north of this huge No Man’s Land was the kingdom of Kalinjar. To the south of Kalinjar was a forest, thereafter the impassable Vindhya mountain, then again forests, and after this the kingdom of Vidarbha. Kalinjar’s King Kanakvarma and Vidarbha’s King Vishakhsen, both were spirited youths. Their queens were cousins.
Kalinjar’s ruler Kanakvarma used to visit the forest to the south of his kingdom for hunting occasionally. One day he wished to cross Vindhya Mountain, proceed even deeper southwards, and hunt Sambar deer. With his favourite companion Kahorbhatt, he set out in a chariot, followed by chariot-warriors, foot soldiers, elephant-riders, cavalry, etc.
By a quirk of fate at the same time, Vidarbha’s King Vishakhsen also desired to hunt tigers, bears, etc. in the forest to the north of Vindhya. With his dear companion Virangadev, he left in a chariot followed by a fourfold army.
Piercing through the Vindhya Range a path goes north to south. This path is quite broad, but midway lies the dangerous pass named Agastya’s Gateway, which is so narrow that two chariots cannot pass side by side.
Arriving at the northern extremity of Agastya’s Gateway the ruler of Kalinjar, Kanakvarma, saw that King Vishakhsen had reached with his followers at the southern end. When the two royal chariots neared each other Kanakvarma said, “Namaskar, friend Vishakhsen, welcome. I trust all is well everywhere in Vidarbha kingdom? The subjects of all four castes, cattle and other animals are they all prospering? The treasury and granary are full? Your queen, my sister-in-law Vimshatikala, is keeping well?”
Returning the namaskar Vishakhsen said, “Oh, how fortunate that on this difficult path I could meet my dear friend. Maharaj, under the influence of your good wishes all is well with my kingdom. Is all well in Kalinjar kingdom? Your queen, my sister-in-law Kambukankana is well? Friend, now kindly let me pass. Park your chariot a little to the north of this path. Let me pass with my soldiers, then you and your army can proceed to your destination.”
Kanakvarma shook his head and said, “That cannot be. I am older than you in age, my horses, chariots, elephants etc. are more numerous, therefore it is I who have the priority of passage. You move a little to the south and let me pass.”
Vishakhsen said, “You speak unjustly. You may be older in age slightly, you may have many horses and elephants, but my Vidarbha kingdom is exceptionally prosperous and large. It can accommodate four Kalinjars. Therefore, it is you who should let me pass.”
Such arguments went on for a long time. Then Kanakvarma said, “Hey you Vishakhsen, you are too presumptuous. Touching this bow I swear that by no means will I let you pass first, and I shall proceed south before you. When sweet words did not resolve the argument, then let us fight it out.” Saying this, he strung an arrow to his bow.
Vishakhsen said, “Hey you Kanakvarma, I too swear that by force of arms I’ll carve my way and shall journey northwards before you.” Saying this, he fixed an arrow to his borrow and drew the bowstring to his ear.
Then the two royal companions Kahorbhatt and Virangdev together raised their hands and shouted, “Ho, you royal duo, stop, stop! Don’t you recall last year on the day of the Makar Sankranti after bathing in the Narmada you had formalized your friendship with the fire as witness? Further, exchanging your turbans you had sworn that nothing would be allowed to harm your fellow-felling.”
Hand on cheek, Kanakvarma said, “Hmm! Such a vow had indeed been taken.”
Vishakhsen said, “Hmm! I also recall some such thing. Now what is to be done? On the one hand the vow of safeguarding fellow-feeling; on the other the promise to be the first to pass. How can both be maintained? Maharaj Kanakvarma, send word to your chief minister to come here immediately. I am also summoning my prime minister. Let both ministers consult and come up with some solution whereby our vows and promises remain intact and reputation, too, is not harmed.”
Kanakvarma told one of his horsemen, “Khetaksingha, speed at once and bring my chief minister here. Vishakhsen, dispatch someone too.”
Kahorbhatt said, “There is absolutely no need for this. It will only lead to unnecessary delay. My intimate friend, the great pundit Virangdev is present here. My knowledge and intelligence are also quite famous. We are both royal companions. Even if we are not exactly ministers, we are surely deputy ministers. The wife’s place is in the inner apartments. She is to be abjured on journeys. It is the concubine who is the travelling companion. Similarly, the minister’s place is in the kingdom’s capital, but while gallivanting, wining, dining and womanising, it is the deputy minister who is the sole resort. It is up to us to consult and come up with what should be done.”
Both kings said, “A good proposal. Do so, but do not delay as the day is waning.”
Alighting from the chariots, Kahor and Virang embraced each other, then sitting on a rock they began discussing. After a long time Kahor said, “O brace of kings, kindly hear. Between us two friends we have decided upon an excellent solution to your dilemma whereby the oath of friendship and the promise to pass first as well as the reputation of both will all be preserved.”
Eagerly, both kings said, “What sort of solution?”
Kahor said, “Maharaj Kanakvarma, summon a band of expert sappers from the capital. Let them dig a tunnel underneath Agastya’s Gateway. Through that tunnel you will proceed south and by the overhead path Vidarbha’s king Vishakhsen will go north, both setting out simultaneously at the same moment.”
Vishakhsen said, “Not a bad logic. But digging a tunnel through the mountain will take at least a year. What will we do so long? I tell you, I shall not alight from the chariot on any account.”
Kahor said, “Why should you alight? Remain on the chariot and bearing a little discomfort spend a year there. Perform your ablutions, bathe, eat, drink, play dice and other games, sleep-all on the chariot. Summon dancing girls from the capital who will entertain you with song and dance.”
Kanakvarma said, “Tunnel-channel won’t do. Vishakhsen will pass overhead and I, like a mouse, will crawl beneath him, this is impossible.”
Virang said, “Maharaj Kanakvarma, there is another option. Worship Kuber so that pleased he may send you his Pushpak aircraft for a while. In that aircraft you can proceed aerially southwards while the Vidarbha king can take the mountain path northwards.”
Vishakhsen said, “He will fly over my head-this is not permissible by any means. Both of you are absolute idiots. Resolving this dilemma is not within your competence.”
Virang said, “Maharaj, be patient. We shall consult once more.”
Both royal companions again immersed themselves in consultations. Impatiently, both kings began tapping their bows on the chariot-floors. After some time Kahor said, “O royal duo, now we have discovered a very good, remarkable solution that will bring glory.” Kanakvarma said, “Spit it out.”
Kahor said, “First the horses of your chariots will be unyoked, then even on this narrow pass the chariots can easily be turned round. After that, the horses will be re-yoked and the chariots will be facing opposite directions.”
Angrily Vishakhsen said, “You want to say that both of us will turn our backs and return to our kingdoms?”
“No, no, Maharaj, why return? After turning round, both chariots will move back so that they touch each other. Then Maharaj Kanakvarma will step back into the Vidarbha king’s chariot and the Vidarbha king will step into the Kalinjar ruler’s chariot.”
Both kings simultaneously cried out, “And then, and then?” “After the change of chariots there is nothing to worry about any more. Both of you will proceed in opposite directions, that is you will move towards your desired destinations.”
Kanakvarma asked, “But what of our fourfold armies?”
“They will also be exchanged. The Vidarbha army will march before you, and the Kalinjar army in front of Maharaj Vishakhsen. They will just face about.”
Kanakvarma said, “Sakha, my friend, are you agreeable?”
Vishakhsen said, “My army will become yours and your army will become mine-there is nothing objectionable in this. But the day is almost gone, when shall we hunt?”
Kahor said, “Maharaj, why not do without hunting today? Today let your oaths and promises be safeguarded. You can hunt some other day.”
Vishakhsen, “But by the time we proceed today evening will have fallen. Where will our expedition end? When shall we return?”
Kahor: “Why return? Don’t worry at all. We have settled everything. Your kingdoms will also be exchanged. Maharaj Kanakvarma travelling with the Vidarbha army will be ensconced as ruler of Vidarbha and Maharaj Vishakhsen accompanied by the Kalinjar army will occupy the throne of Kalinjar.”
After a stunned silence Kanakvarma said, “An extremely complicated arrangement. That the kingdoms of our ancestors should be exchanged-this is an extremely unsavoury affair.”
Kahor said, “Maharaj, the chief duty of a Kshatriya king is to safeguard promise, oath and reputation. For that should it become necessary to sacrifice kingdom or life, even that is preferable. But by our arrangements you are losing neither life nor kingdom. Instead of one kingdom you are getting another.”
Kanakvarma said, “Now I have understood. Sakha, are you agreeable?”
Vishakhsen said, “I see no other way out. Well, let it be so.”
The chariot of those days was somewhat like today’s ekka. Only two wheels, a light construction occupying little space. The charioteer used to sit in front. The rider used to sit either beside or behind him. On the command of both kings the horses of both chariots were unharnessed. After that the chariots could easily be turned round in that narrow passage. Then the horses were re-harnessed. On moving them back slightly, the backs of both chariots touched each other. Then without alighting, both kings stepped from one chariot into the other. The two royal companions sat beside their respective lords.
Finally, looking back Kanakvarma said, “O soldiers of Kalinjar, right about turn! From now you are under the command of Maharaj Vishakhsen. Accompanied by you he will take over the kingdom of Kalinjar. I, too, accompanied by the Vidarbha army shall occupy the kingdom of Vidarbha.”
Vishakhsen made an identical announcement.
Soldiers are extremely obedient. In one voice they said, “The royal command is obeyed.” Thereafter, Kanakvarma and Vishakhsen simultaneously gave the order to march. The Vidarbha army marched towards Vidarbha; Kanakvarma’s chariot followed behind them. The Kalinjar army returned to Kalinjar with Vishakhsen’s chariot following.
On the way Kanakvarma said to his companion, “Was this well done? As a result of this exchange of kingdoms Vishakhsen will gain and I will lose. My wife is far lovelier than his.”
Kahor said, “Maharaj, you are speaking against established tradition. It is someone else’s wife that people consider more beautiful. In all matters it is you who will gain more. The Vidarbha queen has a son, but your queen is still childless. The treasury of Vidarbha kingdom is huge. As its ruler you will prosper in wealth and progeny.”
When Kanakvarma reached Vidarbha kingdom evening had fallen. At his command some horsemen had given in advance to the capital to inform that the king had changed and the new king was coming. Kanakvarma saw that no arrangements had been made for his reception. The roads were not lit up, no conchs were being blown, no ululation could be heard, and no one was sprinkling flowers. Displeased, he reached the royal palace and got down from the chariot. A few royal courtiers silently namaskar-ed him and escorted him to the court. Kahorbhatt accompanied him.
Vimshatikala, the Vidarbha queen was seated grimly on the throne. Greeting her Kanakvarma said, “Chief Queen, I trust you area well? Five years ago I had found you slim in your marriage ceremony. Now you have become rather plump because of which your beauty has waxed from sixteen to twenty portions. I believe you will have heard all the news. Now it is I who am the ruler of this Vidarbha kingdom. Arrangements for the coronation can be made tomorrow. I and this companion of mine Kahorbhatt are extremely tired and hungry. Pardon me today; tomorrow I shall engage in love-talk with you. Now kindly show us to our apartments and quickly arrange for food.”
Addressing an armed courtier Queen Vimshatikala said, “Hey Koshthapal, throw this rude, foolish king and his companion into the prison. For their bed provide some straw and for food give each of them a measure of maize-flour and a jar of water.”
With folded hands Kahorbhatt said, “What’s this Queen-mother! This supreme emperor of ours, Shri Shri Maharaj is not merely your sister’s husband but now as ruler of Vidarbha he has become your husband too. How can you feed him powdered grain? He is used to taking a wide variety of chewable, lickable, suckable and drinkable items of food and drink daily.”
Vimshatikala said, “So be it. Hey Koshthapal, give this royal fool two handfuls of chickpea, a bunch of tamarind, a little molasses and a jar of buttermilk. He will chew chickpea, suck tamarind, lick molasses and drink from the jar of buttermilk.”
Koshthapal said, “As you command, great goddess. Guards, take them to the prison.”
Stunned, Kanakvarma went to the prison silently and passed the night with an exhausted body and despondent mind. Next morning he said, “Hey you foolish pundit Kahor! This is my state only because of listening to your advice. How will I be rescued from this enemy stronghold?”
Kahor said, “Maharaj, do not worry. Thinking throughout the night I have determined a way out.”
Sighing, Kanakvarma said, “I can no longer depend on you. Who knows what state Vishakhsen is in. Perhaps he is reposing in great comfort in Kalinjar.”
Kahor said, “Don’t even imagine that. Our great goddess Kambukankana is not inferior in any way.”
At this time a guard came to the prison cell and said, “For your toilet and ablutions you can go to this walled garden.”
Kahor said, “Dear guard, let toilet etc. be for now. Arrange our meeting with the Queen mother. Maharaj will reward you.”
The guard said, “Come with me.”
Coming near Queen Vimshatikala, Kahor said with folded hands, “Mahadevi, we have suffered enough. Let us loose. The moment we return we shall send back the Vidarbha king Vishakhsen.”
The queen said, “First let him come, then we shall consider the matter of releasing you.”
“Then let me only go. I will go to Kalinjar and arrange for the exchange.”
“All right, I am releasing you and giving you a chariot for the journey too. But if you do not return in seven days, then your lord will be sentenced to impalement.”
Kahorbhatt left on a chariot. At that time Virangdev too was coming as Vishakhsen’s emissary to Vidarbha kingdom. The two friends met on the way. After enquiring after each other’s welfare they consulted at length and then returned to where they had come from.
Kahor said to Vimshatikala, queen of Vidarbha kingdom, “Mahadevi, having consulted my dear friend Virangdev I have made this arrangement that tomorrow morning Maharaj Vishakhsen will set out from Kalinjar for Vidarbha kingdom and from here Maharaj Kanakvarma will also journey to Kalinjar. As many soldiers as you wish will accompany us. Reaching the Agastya Pass if they see that Maharaj has not arrived, then they will bring us back.”
The queen said, “The moment you return I shall impale you both. All right, I agree to your proposal. Set out tomorrow morning.”
The next morning Kanakvarma and Kahorbhatt set out on a chariot accompanied with a troop of cavalry. Reaching the southern end of Agastya’s Gateway Kanakvarma saw Vishakhsen and Virangdev waiting at the northern end.
Delighted, Vishakhsen said, “Sakha Kanakvarma, you were comfortable in my Vidarbha kingdom I hope? Why are you looking so thin? There hasn’t been anything wanting in your care surely?”
Kanakvarma said, “Nothing wanting whatsoever. Your queen Vimshatikala is as fun-loving as full of good qualities. Oh! What care she took! But you too are looking like an ascetic living on air. Weren’t you properly greeted and looked after in my Kalinjar kingdom?”
Laughing loudly Vishakhsen said, “Sakha, be assured, there has been not the slightest flaw in looking after. Your queen Kambukankana is also no less fun-loving and full of qualities. She fed me on an amazing variety of things chewable, suckable, lickable and drinkable. She just wouldn’t let me go and only after consoling her in many ways have I been able to get away. Let that be. We are once again face to face at this Agastya’s Gateway. Who will pass first?”
Kahorbhatt and Virangdev said, “Please, Maharaj, do not argue any more! We will make the arrangements for your journeys. Hey you charioteers! Just like last time turn the chariots round…Is it done?…Maharaj Kanakvarma, now from this chariot step into that one. Maharaj Vishakhsen, you too move from that chariot to this one. By the grace of the great sage Agastya and the brains of Kahor-Virang you are freed from danger, your vows, promises and reputation, kingdom, life and queen-everything indeed has been saved. No further delay, let both chariots journey simultaneously in opposite directions.”