Once upon a time, in a world very similar to our own, there was an ancient land called Bharat. Within Bharat was a small kingdom called Videha. This is where our story begins.
The ruler of Videha was King Janaka. Under his long reign, Videha was prosperous. The people were happy, and life was peaceful. There was just one problem. King Janaka was aging and he didn’t have an heir. For many years, Janaka and his beautiful queen, Sunayana, prayed to the gods for a child. But the gods remained silent. No child was born.
One day, a senior advisor in Janaka’s court, named Vyasa, approached the king in the throne room. “Sire,” Vyasa beseeched him. “You have heard me talk of the Seers for years. The time has finally come. You need their help.”
Janaka’s brow furrowed. Everyone in Bharat had heard of the Seers. They were a group of golden-eyed mystics who lived in the kingdom of Mahishūru. They followed the teachings of an Asura called Mahishasura. “Demons,” Janaka sputtered at the thought of an Asura setting foot in his kingdom. “You want me to ask those demon Asuras for help?”
“Janaka, I am your friend,” Vyasa looked him in the eye. Few others would dare do the same thing. “We have known each other since childhood. I will not just sit beside you and feed you idle words in this time of need.”
“I still have time,” Janaka protested, flushing angrily. He was older, but still one of the most powerful kings in Bharat.
Vyasa raised an eyebrow. He was accustomed to Janaka’s ego, but the time for soothing injured pride had ended. “Sire, please allow me to speak honestly,” When Janaka nodded, Vyasa continued. “Your enemies are mobilizing against you. They are waiting for the first sign of weakness to pounce on Videha. You must have an heir and time to train him. Without one, Videha is in danger.”
“But to ask an Asura for help is outrageous,” Janaka scowled. His distaste for Asuras was deep-rooted. Devas and Asuras had been fighting each other for centuries. It was only in the last two decades that a tentative peace agreement had been forged between the two groups. But the distrust still lingered. “There must be another way.”
“My brother, there is no other way,” Vyasa said softly. It pained him to admit it. He didn’t want to approach the Asuras for help either. “I’ve seen it. This is the only path to an heir.”
“So, who do you propose we call?” When Vyasa raised an eyebrow, Janaka shook his head. “He won’t come,” Janaka crossed his arms. “Even if I ask him to. There is too much bad blood between our kingdoms.”
“Yes, he will.” Vyasa smiled. When his visions were clear, they were never wrong. “Ask him and he will come.”
One week later, Vyasa’s statement was proven correct. He rushed into the throne room and found King Janaka conducting his daily meeting with his ministers. Conversation halted as Vyasa approached the king.
“Sire, he’s here,” Vyasa whispered into the Janaka’s ear.
The king waved his hands, dismissing the ministers. Once they scurried out of the room, Janaka nodded to two of his guardsmen.
The heavy doors at the opposite end of the room swung open. An Asura named Mahishasura entered. He surveyed the room with one sweeping glance as he strode across the marble floor. Despite his towering height, Mahishasura looked up at the throne from the bottom of the steps. “Janaka.”
“So, we finally meet,” King Janaka nodded back, and remained seated. He pointedly lowered his head to look down at the Asura. It was customary for two royals of equal status to greet each other on level ground. “I’m told that you are the legendary Mahishasura.”
Mahishasura’s golden eyes eyes narrowed. He recognized the insult. “I am.”
“You look more human than I expected,” Janaka remarked casually. He scanned the Asura from head to toe. “I’ve heard that you are part water buffalo. If the stories are true, where are your horns?”
Mahishasura smiled, baring even white teeth. “Stories don’t always contain truth.”
Vyasa fluttered around Janaka nervously. He said softly, “Sire, I must remind you that we invited him here. We need his help.”
“Yes, yes,” Janaka lifted one hand and waved Vyasa away. The internal struggle was apparent on his face. After a few moments of silence, he stood up and walked down the steps. “My advisor has reminded me that you have done us a great favor by appearing in our court.” He extended his hand. “Please forgive me. You have shown us a great honor with your visit.”
Mahishasura raised an eyebrow. After pausing, he took Janaka’s hand and clasped it in greeting. “You are forgiven. Now, what is the purpose of my visit?”
“I have been told that your people have special,” Janaka hesitated. He searched for the word. “Abilities.” When Mahishasura remained silent, Janaka continued. “I have need of such abilities.”
“Is that so?” The expression on Mahishasura’s face was mild interest. “And why is that?”
Janaka grimaced, as if he spotted something distasteful. He squared his shoulders. “My advisors tell me that I will never have an heir without your help.”
“I see,” Mahishasura replied evenly. He didn’t appear surprised by the revelation. “And if this is true, why should I help you?”
The Asura was trying to bargain with him. Well, this was something that Janaka could understand. “What do you want from us in exchange for your help?” He extended his hand to point out the splendors of the room. “Gold? Jewels? I will pay your fee.”
Mahishasura snorted. “I am the rightful King of Mahishuru. It is one of the wealthiest kingdoms in Bharat. Do you think I could be bought so easily?”
“But you’re not,” Vyasa interjected. When Mahishasura turned his gaze to Vyasa, the old advisor stammered. “Your Highness, I mean no disrespect. But I have been told that you gave up your right to the throne to follow the teachings of the Seers.”
Mahishasura nodded. “You speak the truth. I am no longer the King of Mahishuru. But my people still follow my words as law.”
“Then why are you here?” King Janaka demanded. He didn’t have time to banter with an Asura. “If not for gold or wealth, why are you here?”
Mahishasura’s brow furrowed. Why indeed? “I will help you. But for a price.”
King Janaka threw up his hands in exasperation. “What price? I just offered you all of the gold you could ever want.”
“My price isn’t wealth,” Mahishsura replied. He glanced over his shoulder and nodded at someone waiting outside the throne room. “I need your protection. For him.”
A woman holding the hand of a boy walked up to the group. The boy was young and handsome. While the woman kept her eyes cast downward, the boy boldly met the penetrating gaze of Vyasa. He grinned, showing a flash of even white teeth, before turning his golden eyes to King Janaka.
“Who is this child?” King Janaka demanded. There was something about the boy that made him uneasy.
Mahishasura smiled. He rested his hand on the boy’s thick black hair. “He is the younger son of the Sage Vishrava. His name is Ravana.”
The two Devas stared at the boy in stunned silence. Janaka was the first to speak. “The son of Sage Vishrava?” He turned to Vyasa. “Why wasn’t I told that the King of Lanka has an heir?”
Vyasa shook his head helplessly. “Sire, I didn’t know. My sources never revealed that King Pulastya had a grandson.” He looked at the boy’s eyes again. There was no mistaking his eye color. “And certainly not an Asura grandson.”
“How would your sources know if we never told them?” Mahish chuckled. At Vyasa’s startled look, the Asura smiled. “We are aware of your sources. They only relay the information that we allow.” The boy stood silently, listening intently to the exchange. His sharp eyes absorbed the shock on the Devas’ faces.
“How did this happen?” Janaka could barely contain his horror. The kings of Lanka came from one of the most illustrious Deva bloodlines in Bharat. To see it contaminated by Asura blood was appalling.
Mahish replied, “Vishrava has taken a second wife.”
“But after the death of his first wife, Vishrava renounced his claim to the throne,” Vyasa exclaimed, shaking his head in protest. How had his sources missed this piece of critical information? “He even vowed to remain celibate.”
“Well, even the most celibate man can be swayed by extraordinary beauty.” Mahish laughed. It was amusing to watch the Devas squirm at Lanka’s potential change in allegiance. “Vishrava married the eldest daughter of King Sumali. They now have four children. Ravana is their eldest child.”
“Sumali’s daughter?” Vyasa repeated. The princesses of Daitya were renowned in Bharat for their beauty. Mere mortal men couldn’t resist their charms. But they were still the daughters of an Asura king who hungered for more power. This new alliance didn’t bode well for the kingdom of Videha. “And what of Prince Kubera?” The younger son of Pulstya was second in the line of succession to the throne of Lanka. Unless the birth of Ravana had changed that.
“The line of succession remains the same now that Vishrava has children.” As Mahish continued to speak, King Janaka looked at him in horror. “Ravana is the heir to the throne of Lanka. But if Pulstya passes before Ravana comes of age, Kubera will rule in Ravana’s name.” Mahish caught the look that was exchanged between King Janaka and Vyasa. “Yes. Therein lies the dilemma.”
“You fear harm will befall the boy before he comes of age?” Vyasa said softly. “And if it does, Kubera ascends the throne.”
“Yes. That is why I am here,” Mahish replied. He turned to look at King Janaka. “And that is why I will help you. But I must have your word that you will protect Ravana with your lives.”
King Janaka could feel Ravana’s penetrating gaze. He tried not to squirm, as he raised his hand. “I have heard your plea for help. I must speak with my advisors before I make a decision.” He nodded to one of his guards, who left the throne room and returned with a young woman. “My staff will escort you to your quarters. Please rest and refresh yourselves while I sit in deliberation on the matters we have just discussed.”
Mahish nodded, somewhat disappointed. It had been foolish to hope for an immediate response. “As you wish. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Once Mahish and Ravana left the throne room, Vyasa turned to Janaka. “Sire, shall I call the others?”
“No,” Janaka said grimly. “I have no need of their counsel. But I would hear your thoughts.”
As King Janaka sat on the throne, his advisor, Vyasa, paced the floor. “This child changes everything,” Vyasa muttered.
“Well, this is a fine mess that your Asura Mahish has brought to my kingdom. Age has addled Pulstya’s mind if he allowed this union.” Janaka’s jaw tightened. It was inconceivable that Vishrava, the firstborn son of Pulstya, would have married an Asura. And not just any Asura. A daughter of Sumali, King of the Daityas.
“It’s an outrage,” Vyasa nodded in agreement. The entire situation was unsettling. Sumali was making a power play for Lanka. “I feel certain that this was Sumali’s doing.”
“Yes,” Janaka pounded his fist on the arm of the throne. “Sumali and one of his seductress daughters.” It made sense. Lanka was the wealthiest kingdom in Bharat.
“He hopes to acquire more weapons with Lanka’s wealth,” Vyasa continued to speculate out loud. His face was grim. Videha’s wealth, although plentiful, was no match for Lanka. And Sumali had always eyed Videha’s fertile land.
“And now Sumali has what he wants. The thrones of Lanka and Daitya will unite under that boy,” Janaka snarled. He was consumed by one thought. Eliminating the boy.
“Sire, we must proceed with caution,” Vyasa said. His mind was still whirling at the failure of his people. Were his sources compromised? How many years had his people been under the control of the Asuras? The boy, Ravana, was at least five years old. So, for five years, no one in the kingdom of Videha had known about his existence? This failure was beyond unacceptable. Janaka would view it as treason. Heads would roll.
“Of course we must proceed with caution,” Janaka snapped. He rubbed his temples, which were beginning to throb. Once the boy was gone, Lanka would remain under the control of the Devas. “Do you take me for a fool?”
“Forgive me, Sire,” Vyasa replied deferentially. Janaka’s thoughts were obvious. Vyasa knew that he had to tread lightly. “I speak to myself as well as to you.”
“Enough, enough,” Janaka waved his hand, dismissing the apology. Kubera must ascend Lanka’s throne after Pulstya.
“May I speak freely?” Vyasa asked. It was best to change the subject. Janaka nodded. “It is in our best interest to have Lanka remain under Deva rule.”
“Agreed. Kubera is a fool, but he’s a Deva. He will remain our ally after his father’s death.” Janaka leaned on the left arm of the throne, rested his chin on one hand. His dark brows knit together. “This is why we must return the Demon boy to him.”
“Ravana, sire,” Vyasa said. He stifled a sigh. Janaka was working himself up into one of his fits of rage. It would be difficult to lead him to the larger picture. “The boy’s name is Ravana.”
“What difference does his name make?” King Janaka’s loud voice thundered through the throne room. “He will never sit on the throne of Lanka.”
“Sire, Asura or not, Ravana is still the grandson of King Pulstya,” Vyasa said calmly. “If we were to harm the boy, Pulstya will have no choice but to attack Videha.”
“I have no intention of harming the boy,” Janaka huffed. He looked mildly offended. “But he shouldn’t be here. There is no need to antagonize Prince Kubera. Send the boy back to his people and let them sort it out.”
“And what of your quest? You will never have an heir without the help of Mahish.” Vyasa said. He watched Janaka digest the reminder. “And he will never help you unless you vow to protect Ravana.”
The two men were silent. After a few moments, King Janaka leaned forward and scowled at Vyasa. “Then find someone who isn’t a traitor and send a message to Pulstya. We must find out his stance on this grandson. Until then, the child will remain under my protection.” Janaka’s nostrils flared at Vyasa’s obvious sigh of relief. “But only until then.”