A long time ago lived two princesses -- Urvashi and Deepa. They were the daughters of Prashant Dev, the King of Devnagar. Urvashi, the elder one was very beautiful, intelligent and talented. Trained in classical music, she was easily the most gifted singer in the land. In the game of chess there was no one who could beat her; not even the King who was himself an accomplished player. In sword fighting too, her skill, agility and nimbleness made her the best.
However, there was one bad quality that overshadowed her talent, brilliance and beauty. This quality was her pride and it had made Urvashi arrogant, selfish and cruel.
Deepa on the other hand was quite the opposite of Urvashi. She was neither as beautiful nor as talented as Urvashi. But she was modest, kind and loving. The King was very fond of Urvashi but the people adored only Deepa. "She has such a royal presence. She looks and acts like an empress," the King would declare. "Princess Deepa has such a kind and merciful heart, she has the true qualities of a ruler," the people would tell each other.
One day the King called Urvashi to his chamber and told her, "Urvashi dear, you are now 19. You should think about getting married. I have already received a few proposals from the kings of the neighboring states."
"Father I have made up my mind how I am going to go about it. You will have to organize a 'swayamvar' and send invitations all over the country to various kings and princes. There will be a competition and the winner will win my hand in marriage."
"That's a wonderful idea. Let them compete with each other to decide the most eligible man."
"Compete with each other! No chance father. Each and everyone of them will have to compete with me."
"Compete with you, but why?"
"Come on father, if they compete with each other how will I know if the winner is suitable for me. I don't want merely the best man. I want the person who is better than the best - that is better than me."
"Waah Urvashi! What a brilliant idea! I am proud of you. But beti if you will have to compete with every Tomar, Dikshit and Hari will it not be very boring and tiring for you?"
"I have thought of that too. Before the competition father, you will have to make an announcement that the loser will have to become my slave for a year and spend this period in the royal prison. This will dissuade most of the suitors who are weak hearted. Only the men who have confidence in themselves will remain."
The preparations began in real earnest immediately. Messengers were rushed to all corners of the country with the invitation. Urvashi had chosen three events. The suitors had to compete with her in sword fighting, chess and music. The competitors were given six months to prepare themselves.
The competition was conducted in the royal stadium with more than half the kingdom turning out to watch the contest.
Some of the suitors managed to beat her in the game of chess while others in sword fighting. A few were better than her in singing. But there was not a single king or prince who could outshine her in all the three events. As a result within two weeks 44 kings and princes became Urvashi's slaves and were thrown into the royal dungeons. Their duty was to work in the fields like common laborers during the day and spend their nights in the dungeons.
Urvashi was delighted. "Father, I am the greatest. There is not a single man in Bharat who is better than your daughter."
"That is very nice Urvashi, but if this state of affairs continues don't you think you will have to die a spinster."
"Then what do you want me to do father. Marry some one who is inferior to me. I can't do that. The one who wins my hand should deserve me."
Six months went by. The number of suitors reduced to a trickle and then completely stopped.
The King started worrying more and more.
"Come on child, choose someone from the lot that is there in our palace dungeons. Some of them are quite brave and talented."
"So father you want a slave for a son in law?"
"No, child but..."
"No, buts father. I'll wait for the right person. I am sure sooner or later he will come along."
A few days later a young man presented himself before the King. He was tall and well built. There was a kind of glow on his face and he appeared extremely confident of himself.
"Who are you and what do you want?"
"I am Karan. I come from Krantipur. I want to compete with the princess."
"Are you the king of Krantipur or his son?" Urvashi asked. She had the feeling that here at last was a man who could compete with her on equal terms and possibly even defeat her.
"Neither. I am the son of a cobbler."
"How dare you come here, you mochi? How can you even imagine competing with me when even kings and princes of royal blood have tasted nothing but defeat."
"Princess, I thought the contest was about talent, skill and intelligence - not about caste and lineage. Are you scared of losing out to the son of a mochi?"
"No, of course not?" Urvashi spat out stung by the words of the insolent young man.
"Then why don't you give me a chance to vanquish you? You have fought kings and princes, now fight a commoner and see the difference," Karan taunted her.
"Hey you! Get out before I get your head chopped off," the King thundered.
"No, father. This fellow has dared to challenge me I'll teach him a lesson he and the rest of his clan will never forget," Urvashi said and turning towards Karan declared, "Now listen you mochi. I'll allow you to compete with me. And when you lose I'll get you thrown in a pit full of crocodiles. Do you agree or you want to chicken out?"
"Princess, please rephrase your words; it is not when I lose, but if I lose," Karan replied cheekily.
Urvashi's lovely faced darkened. "Okay mochi, I'll see whether you will still be able to smile when trying to escape the steely jaws of the crocodiles."
Soon the news of the contest spread far and wide. People came from different parts of the kingdom as well as the neighbouring kingdoms to watch the contest between the beautiful princess and the handsome commoner in the royal stadium.
The first event was the sword fight. If Urvashi was good, Karan was brilliant. Within seconds he unarmed Urvashi and the entire stadium burst into thunderous applause.
The second event was the game of chess. In 21 moves Karan checkmated Urvashi to the delight of the huge crowd.
The third and final competition was the next day evening, in the royal gardens.
That night Urvashi couldn't sleep. Some of the contestants had beaten her in the game of chess while a few others had got the better of her in the sword fight. But the contests had been tough and her opponents had to really struggle to get the better of her. However, with Karan the contest had been completely one sided. He had made it almost a farce - a contest between an adult and a child. She felt anger and yet strangely some kind of a grudging admiration for the handsome commoner.
'Was she growing fond of him? Of course not! The very thought was outrageous. How could she a princess develop a liking for a lowly mochi - however handsome, intelligent or talented he may be. Tomorrow she would beat him in the music contest and then watch the crocodiles eat him up.' With these thoughts she slipped into a sound, dreamless sleep.
The music contest began in the royal garden with Urvashi singing the Deepak raga. Such was the power of her music that one by one all the lamps lit up on their own.
Karan responded by singing the Megh Malhar. All of a sudden clouds appeared in the clear blue evening sky and it started raining.
Urvashi sang a lilting melody and beautiful peacocks came gambolling from the nearby forests. Karan sang an equally melodious raga and the peacocks started dancing. It was a beautiful sight - a dozen or more peacocks dancing in perfect rhythm to Karan's song.
The contest went on and on. For every melody sung by Urvashi, Karan had an answer. The more she heard his melodious voice and saw his handsome face the more Urvashi began to admire Karan. This commoner had turned out to be far more skilled and talented than all the kings and princes put together.
Finally Karan declared, "Princess, I think we have had enough fun. Now I would like to settle the issue. Please arrange for an animal that has died in the last twenty four hours.
A dead deer was brought to him. He placed the deer's head in his lap and started singing. He went on and on for almost an hour. Slowly the deer opened its eyes, stirred and raise its head. Karan who was by now sweating profusely raised the pitch of his song. His eyes were closed and his face a picture of concentration. The deer licked his face and getting up hobbled off into the jungle.
The onlookers went crazy. They had never seen this kind of a miracle. They got up and began applauding.
Karan took a bow and then looking at the princess said "Now princess, can you do this?"
Urvashi just watched mesmerised. She couldn't believe her eyes. Karan wasn't merely a singer he was a magician. Urvashi knew she was a great singer but she couldn't work miracles. She got up and declared, "My dear citizens of Devnagar. For the first time in my life I have to admit that there is someone who is better than me. I have no hesitation in acknowledging defeat. I am ready and willing to marry this handsome, intelligent and talented young man."
The applause was deafening. "But I am not," Karan's voice rang out loud and clear.
"What?" Urvashi asked quite sure she hadn't heard right.
"Princess, I am not interested in marrying you." There was a stunned silence as the audience watched open mouthed the exchange of words between the princess and the commoner.
"Not interested? Then why in heaven's name did you come to Devnagar and participate in the contest?"
"To teach you a lesson, to break your pride and to prove to you that you are not the greatest. Princess Urvashi you might now feel that I am more than suitable for you but I know that you are not good enough for me."
Urvashi stared at Karan too stunned to even react. Anger, frustration, shame, embarrassment - she didn't quite know what she was feeling.
"I think Princess I owe it to you and Maharaj to tell you the full story behind my coming here," Karan said. "Arjun Singh, the Prince of Krantipur is my best friend. We were taught by the same Guru. Even though he is a prince and I am a commoner he has always treated me like his own brother."
"How does Arjun Singh come into all this," asked the King.
"I am coming to that Maharaj. Arjun Singh set his eyes on the Princess at a fair, a couple of years ago and fell in love with her. When he came to know of the swayamvar he began practising hard. For more than six months, night and day he worked to reach perfection in sword fighting, chess as well as classical music. When he competed with the Princess he beat her in chess and was her equal in classical music. When it came to sword fighting he was having the upper hand till the last round. As the fight reached its climax he held back a little because he was scared of hurting her. His love for Urvashi was so great that he felt it was better he admit defeat rather than cause her even the slightest injury. As a result he lost the contest and was thrown in the dungeons. He couldn't bear the humiliation and the torture and was driven almost insane. An angel of mercy saw him in this state and took him under her care. She nursed him back to health and quietly sent him back to the dungeons because she didn't want to interfere with your judgment or the King's decision.
When I came to know of my friend's predicament I came here to see him. I met the angel of mercy and fell in love with her. I proposed to her and she accepted even though she is of royal lineage and I am a cobbler's son. I told her she would have to leave her palatial house and live with me in my humble abode. I teach sword fighting and music and earn a decent living but I would never be able to offer her the luxury she has been used to. She heard me patiently and then replied, "Your love is more important to me than all the comforts and riches of the world."
"Who are you talking about?" Urvashi said her voice barely a whisper.
"I am sure a person of your intelligence would have surely guessed by now who I am talking about. Yes, it's Deepa your younger sister. I love her and want to marry her."
"I don't believe it. She is no match for me. No sane man can prefer her over me. You are doing it only to take spite on me."
"Princess Urvashi, it is this arrogance which is your greatest shortcoming. You are beautiful, talented, intelligent but you lack qualities which endear one human being to the other."
"A kind, loving and merciful heart. A soul which cares for the feelings of others and a mind that is not absorbed completely in itself."
Urvashi did not utter a word; she simply got up and walked out of the royal garden.
Karan looked at the King. "Maharaj, will you give me your daughter Princess Deepa's hand in marriage."
"I have no objection if Deepa is willing."
Deepa had just entered the royal garden. The King asked her and bowing her head she nodded shyly.
"But Karan you don't have to go anywhere. You know I don't have any sons. Whatever I have belongs to Urvashi and Deepa. Once you marry Deepa you automatically inherit half my kingdom."
"Sorry Maharaj my self respect will never allow that."
The King got up and embraced Karan. "I am proud of you my boy," he said and taking Deepa's hand placed it in Karan's.
The audience in the garden was thrilled. Cries of 'Long live Karan, long live Princess Deepa and Long live King Prashant Dev rent the air.
Later Karan told the King. "Maharaj, I want to take my friend Arjun with me."
"Okay son. But please wait for a day or two. Urvashi is as it is very upset. Give her a couple of days to settle down. I myself will release all the prisoners. I talked to the panditjee he has fixed next Friday as the day of the wedding. I would like to send an invitation to your parents and the other family members. Please give me your address and other details?"
"Maharaj, I am an orphan. My only family is Arjun and he is here."
"Okay son, I'll release him shortly so that he can participate in the wedding."
Two nights later Arjun was sleeping in one of the dungeons when he heard someone whispering. He opened his eyes and looked around. Huddled in one corner, a few of the slaves were discussing.
"Everything is ready. I have bribed one of the guards. Exactly at the stroke of midnight he will open the gate of the dungeon and show us the passage that will directly lead to Princess Urvashi's chamber. It is guarded by six armed guards."
"But we are unarmed."
"You don't have to worry about that. On the walls lining the staircase ornamental swords are hanging. We have to just pick them up and charge. Don't forget we are twenty in number."
"Good. For six months I have been waiting for this day. I want to chop the beautiful princess' pretty head off," snarled one of the slaves. Arjun recognized him. He was Gajendra the prince of Gajrajnagar who had lost to the Princess in all the three rounds.
"We all want to extract our revenge Gajendra," chorused the others.
As he heard their plan Arjun's heart turned icy cold. Even though Urvashi had caused him so much misery and torture he still loved her with all his heart. How could he watch her being butchered?
Arjun slipped out along with the others at twelve. He knew the way to Urvashi's palace. It was right next to Deepa's where he had spent two weeks recovering from his illness. He raced ahead and entered Urvashi's chamber.
"Quick, the slaves have escaped. They are coming here to slaughter the Princess," he whispered. He grabbed the sword handing on the wall and turned around to face the attackers. He didn't have to wait for long. A few seconds later the prisoners pounced on Arjun and the guards like enraged
beasts. Within a few minutes all the guards and a few of the prisoners were killed and it was left to Arjun to face fourteen armed and enraged prisoners. He was an expert in sword fighting and kept the marauders at bay. In the meantime Urvashi was woken up. She cam out sword in hand and the two of them beat back the attackers. Soon the King's guards arrived and the prisoners were taken into custody. Urvashi turned around to thank Arjun and found him lying in a heap, bleeding profusely. Arjun was taken to the Princess' chamber and the doctor was summoned.
"The Prince has been very seriously injured and has suffered severe blood loss. He needs complete rest and care," the doctor said.
Urvashi looked at the handsome Prince lying with his eyes closed and his body swathed completely in bandages. The person she had publicly humiliated, treated with utter contempt and thrown into the dungeons had ultimately risked his life to save hers.
For the next three days and three nights Urvashi spent every moment taking care of the Prince. Bit by bit the Prince recovered. Two days before the royal wedding Arjun and Urvashi were sitting in the royal garden.
"Princess I don't know how to thank you for your care and concern," Arjun said.
"Please Arjun, don't embarrass me further. What I did was my duty. But what you did was your magnanimity, your greatness. Even though I treated you so shabbily you risked you life to save mine. I don't know how I'll ever be able to repay you."
"I wouldn't use the word repayment Urvashi, but there is one way you can make me the happiest man in the whole wide world."
"By consenting to marry me," Arjun said taking Urvashi's hand in his.
"I do," she replied.