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The Dawn of a New Epoch

 

“Hail to the king… Congratulations to my lord… Queen Sugandha has given birth to a  little prince.” Eunuch Suparnika announced the good news and a wave of pleasure  whirled around the palace. Her eyes were twinkling with joy and tears. Despite being deprived and rejected by society, Eunuchs always shared other’s joy and  gave their blessings wholeheartedly and so did Suparnika. King Jaidev expressed his  delight and gratitude by giving a handful of gems and gold coins to her after hearing  the good news. 

4-year-old Princess Gargi held her father’s finger as they entered the Queen's room.  Jaidev holds the baby. Their faces were blooming with happiness. The prince was  named Uday. The Navgarh kingdom was beaming and people were thanking God to  send their future emperor. 

King Jaidev was a very proficient, brave, and an unbiased ruler. He and queen  Sugandha both were very dear and respectful to the whole kingdom because of their  justness and tender nature. 

Years passed and now the time has come to start prince’s education and training. By  this time, princess Gargi was already learning different art forms and subjects. She  was an avid learner. As part of his training, Prince has to learn the military arts and  archery. Guru Kaushal, who was a master of advanced military arts, skilled strategist  and political expert, was assigned as the royal preceptor. Jaidev wanted his son to  acquire all these skills and became a great warrior who would take care of the  kingdom and its people after him.  

Guru Kaushal started the prince’s training. Gargi used to watch the training sessions  very keenly and Sugandha noticed this interest of hers. A thought clicked in her  mind and she decided to talk to the King about it. 

“When will you come back?” Sugandha asked Jaidev to put a peacock’s feather in  his turban. 

“Maybe a month or two. This is a special meet organized by the king of Vijaynagar  where all the emperors of different states are invited. We have to discuss the  strategy of dealing with a foreign enemy. Prime Minister Abhaysingh will be here  but I want you to keep an eye on everything.” Jaidev always discussed things related  to the kingdom with Sugandha. He believed that sometimes a woman can give  simple solutions to complicated problems and Sugandha always proved him right  with her sincere thought process and a profound perspective. 

“I will.” She smiled and gave him the sword.

“Can I ask you something?” She said after thinking for a while. 

“Tell me, dear… what’s the matter?” Jaidev looked in her eyes. 

“I want Gargi to get all the training that Uday is receiving from Guru Kaushal. I think  she is keen on learning those skills and would be a great disciple.” Sugandha said  with little hesitation. 

“Hmm…” King paused a little bit. He continued, “I think this is a great idea. If she is  interested, she should definitely learn. But only a Guru can decide whether a student  is worthy or not and I would leave this to Guru Kaushal. Talk to him tomorrow.”  

It was quite uncommon for a girl to get professionally skilled in archery and military  arts in those days. Queen Sugandha was pleasantly surprised by King’s unexpected  response. 

“I will talk to Guru Kaushal tomorrow morning.” The Queen was elated. 

“Focus on the target. Close one eye and shoot the arrow.” Kaushal instructed prince  Uday. 

Uday pulled the arrow and released but he missed the target.  

“No prince… try to focus. Let’s try once again. I will show you one more time.” Guru  Kaushal held the bow and took the position. Arrow just hit on the spot. 

“Bravo… You never miss a target.” Queen Sugandha entered the arena.  

Kaushal kept the bow on the table and greeted the queen folding his hands. The Queen  greeted him back. 

“So how is the training going on?” She asked. 

“It is going fine but prince Uday needs to focus and engross more. You are aware  that to learn any skill one has to be totally immersed and engaged. I am trying  different ways to spark his interest.” Guru Kaushal was pretty straightforward. 

“Very true. I am sure under your guidance, he will learn everything. Actually, I would  like to introduce you to someone who is quite interested in learning these skills.”  The Queen said. 

“Who?” Guru asked.

“Princess Gargi. Please enlighten her with your knowledge and certainly, she would  prove to be a sincere and dedicated student.” Gargi came in front handling a bow  and arrow. 

“Princess?? Why would she need to learn these skills? These competencies are  meant for males as they would need it in the future to rule the empire.” Guru  Kaushal was not expecting his new student to be a girl certainly. 

“It is not about need or requirement but it is about her desire to learn. I don’t think  we can gender-bias any art or competency. It depends on a person and his or her  inclination to acquire it.” The Queen said firmly. 

“I am sorry to disagree, respected Queen, but I don’t think a girl will be able to learn  these complex skills. There are many art forms that the princess could learn and she  should concentrate on those.” Guru countered her. 

“Without letting her learn, how could you conclude that she will not be able to?”  The Queen reasoned. 

“But…”  

Just then an arrow hit right on the spot of the target. Guru Kaushal saw and proudly  turned to praise the Prince but he saw Princess Gargi was standing there with her  bow. He was speechless. 

Guru Kaushal still tried to procrastinate, “Even if I teach her, how would she practice those things where an opponent would be needed. There is no other girl who could practice with her.”  

“I will figure that out.” Sugandha assured him.  

Despite plenty of resistance, Kaushal finally agreed. 

Training started and Gargi absorbed every word of her Guru. She did a lot of  practice to master these skills. Kaushal noticed Gargi’s ardor and passion but never encouraged her and always gave his attention to Uday. But his attitude didn’t  discourage her; instead she strived for excellence more and more. 

“What happened Queen?” Suparnika asked. Suparnika was with her since the time  Sugandha came to this palace as a young bride. She was with her in every low and  high and understood her unspoken words as well. Sugandha too never ill-treated her or made her felt outcast. For her, Suparnika was a human being like others. She  couldn’t change society’s mindset but she always made sure to be impartial. 

“You know how difficult it was to convince Guru Kaushal to teach Gargi but now I  need someone who could make princess practice these tactics, who is strong and  capable. I couldn’t think of anyone.” Sugandha said looking down from the balcony  where Gargi was practicing alone with the sword. 

“Queen, if you don’t mind, I have a suggestion.” Suparnika said after holding back  her thoughts for a while. 

“Say it without hesitation.” Sugandha looked at her. 

“I know you would not believe but some of my community's people had trained themselves in these skills and could help if you think it appropriate. They could be  strong opponents and would help the princess to master the art.” Suparnika told. 

“Really… I hadn’t had any clue. How did they learn all this?” Eunuchs were mostly  considered to be ineffectual people and regarded as slaves and used to serve royal  women but hearing about their flair, Sugandha was amazed.  

“I know we are considered to be inefficient and incompetent but our loyalty is  indubitable. For our master’s safety, we learn these tactics.” Suparnika explained  how secretly they trained themselves for any unfortunate situation. Sugandha was  very impressed and instructed Suparnika to get those people and start Gargi’s  practice. 

Time passed and both the kids entered their youth. Gargi became well trained and  skilled in all kinds of military arts. She was a brave, fierce, and strong-minded girl.  Uday, on the other hand, was quiet, naive, and timid. He couldn’t master the war and  political competencies even after a lot of effort from Guru Kaushal. King and Queen  also tried to develop his interest in it without forcing him much. 

After a few months, based on discovery by the spy network, the prime minister  informed Jaidev about some foreign cantonment and their plans of attacking  Navgarh.  

“They have come all prepared with a huge army and thousands of weapons. Nearby  small states have already succumbed and surrendered to them.” Abhaysingh said  worriedly. 

“Hmm… in that case we should be prepared too. We have to leave as soon as  possible. Make sure that palace is fortified. Seal all the borders. They should not be  able to enter Navgarh. We would finish them on the battlefield itself. Ask the army  commander to get ready for the attack.” Jaidev ordered.

Abhaysingh left immediately and all the preparations started. Jaidev had decided to  perform an unexpected attack to catch opponents off-guard. 

Queen Sugandha did the rituals. Her heart was pounding fast. Queens knew that  they had to be ready for this day but when the time came to hand over the sword  to the kings, their hearts started sinking. Sugandha was feeling the same but she  couldn’t make Jaidev weak with her tears so wearing a smile on her face, she handed  the sword to him with conviction and wished him victory. 

“Take care of yourself.” Jaidev’s face was beaming with valor and courage. As always, he left with a smile on his face. 

Seven days have passed since the war started. The war was going neck to neck. Jaidev  was not ready to back off and give befitting replies to the enemy’s every attack.  Sugandha kept praying to God every day for his well-being and victory. She was  waiting for him to return as soon as possible. But Destiny had some other plans. 

Sugandha was engrossed in her prayers when Suparnika entered her palace. Her  face was pale and her eyes were wet. Sugandha sensed the sobbing and turned around. 

“What happened, Suparnika?” Her voice shivered as she intuited something bad.  “Our king… was martyred.” Suparnika broke down in tears. 

Sugandha was dumbfounded and in a state of deep shock. She couldn’t believe what  she heard. 

Suparnika continued sobbing, “Enemies played the foul trick when they saw that he was not ready to surrender. They trapped him from all sides but he fought till his  last breath. He didn’t give up and even his army is giving a tough fight to the  opponents. Abhaysingh has sent this message for you.” She handed a torn paper to  Sugandha. 

“Queen… I know I am not giving you time to grieve but we couldn’t let our brave  king’s sacrifice go in vain. We are and we will keep fighting till our last breath. I am  here with the army but they need someone to inspire, motivate, and lead them like  our King used to. A proficient leader is the need of the hour. I hope you will  understand the situation and act accordingly.” 

She held the paper tightly and closed her eyes. Tears rolled down from her eyes and  Jaidev’s smiling face came in front of her. She couldn’t let his smile fade away. She  couldn’t let go of Navgarh to foreign enemies. She wiped her tears. She had  two choices: both unattractive, out of which, she would have to take a decision. 

Suparnika understood that the queen was in a dilemma. She asked her, “What are  you thinking?” 

“I have to choose someone who could handle this situation with courage and  intelligence, someone who can lead and motivate our army, someone who can fight  and smartly handle the enemy’s attack. As per tradition, Uday should go to the  battlefield as people regard him as their future king and the army will work on his  instructions but as he is naïve, it will be very difficult for him to manage the army on  the battlefield. He doesn’t have that spark yet, which is required to burn the enemy’s  foul intentions. I can see that fire and rage, which can wipe off the enemies, in my  Gargi. She is the only one who can lead the army at this moment but people might  not consider her as their leader. They respect their princess but will not accept her  in place of the king. What if her presence on the battlefield irked them? I am  confused and I even don’t have time. I have to make this decision now.” Sugandha  was puzzled and saw both the kids standing at the door.  

They had already lost their father and the worst was yet to come. Uday hugged her  mother tightly and tears dropped from his eyes. Gargi was also dejected but she  somehow pulled herself and spoke, “Ma… I am ready to go. I know you are skeptical  about the army’s reaction and things might worsen but I would try my best not to  disappoint you or my soldiers or my people. Baba always used to say never ever  give up without trying. Give me one chance and I promise I will not let you down.”  

Sugandha looked at her and she could see the same valor and courage on Gargi’s  face as her father. She took the most difficult decision of her life. Her heart was  bleeding with pain. She already lost her husband and now her beloved daughter is  going into the same battlefield. She had faith in her but still, it’s going to be her first  war and must not be her last. 

Prime minister saw a troop coming towards the battlefield and he felt relieved that  Prince Uday has come to lead the army and now he will inculcate the zeal among the  soldiers. But as the troop came closer his face turned shocked to see the princess  and when he looked at the army she brought with her, he trembled with anger and  fury.  

“A bunch of eunuchs and the princess? Was this some sort of joke? Didn't the queen  understand the seriousness of the situation or she lost her senses due to shock?” He  murmured to himself. 

“Princess Gargi… What are you doing here? Where is prince Uday? The whole army  is waiting for him. Now, who will lead them?” He asked, controlling his anger. 

“I will.” She replied briefly.

“You? And why are these people here?” He looked at the eunuchs with resentment. 

“They will also be part of the army. Please call everyone.” Again her reply didn’t  satisfy Abhaysingh. 

He tried to argue but then he thought soldiers would themselves send her back and  would ask to send Prince instead. Everyone gathered and started mumbling. Their  dissatisfaction could be seen on their faces. 

“I am thankful for all of you to be tenacious and firm on the battleground even after  losing your king. Your love and respect for your motherland are priceless. I know  you would not let go of our kingdom in the enemy's hands at any cost and for that, you  are ready to dice with death. My army and I want to become a part of this expedition  with you all.” She paused for a while and looked around. All of them were looking at  each other questioning how could a woman fight on the ground, how could she  manage to confront a cruel enemy, how could she guide an army of male soldiers, and  how these eunuchs could be part of the army and fight? 

She could read their questioning faces but she had answers, “I know you all have  apprehensions about me and my army which is natural. After all, we don’t have any experience like you all but we have the same courage, love, and loyalty for our  motherland as you do. Just like your king, I would not back off in any situation. We  will fight and support you till our last breath. This is the time to show the enemies  our strength of unity and give them the taste of defeat. So are you all with me in this  battle?” There was a pin drop silence. 

“We are with you.” A voice came after a long pause and then it echoed all over the  ground. Gargi’s face brightened with joy and tears rolled down from her eyes. She  felt content and determined. She looked at Abhaysingh who nodded in agreement  too. She shared her strategy and plans with the team. With her wit and intelligent  war strategy, Abhaysingh’s experience, and the whole army’s audacity and fearlessness,  they once again attacked on the enemy with full confidence and this time enemies  couldn’t succeed in their evil tactics. 

After 5 days of continuous battle, Suparnika came to Sugandha’s room with glee and  excitement on her face, “Hail to the queen… Congratulations… We won the battle and  enemies have surrendered. Princess Gargi is heading back to the palace with her  army.” 

Sugandha’s face lit up with pride and honor. She looked at the King’s portrait and  said, “Your sacrifice did not go in vain. We won at last. This is not just a mere victory  of the battlefield but has set an unprecedented and indisputable example for the society that when given an opportunity, women can also lead the army to victory in  the battlefields and outcasts like eunuchs are loyal, capable and competent.”

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