An opulent palace rose in Jayanta, a city in Kuru Pradesh. The Kauravas called it a palace of arts, one that catered and hosted visual arts, literary arts, and performance arts. Dhristarashtra, the blind king, invited monarchs and nobles, brahmins and gurus, and artists from all over the Bharata lands. The king designated his eldest son, Imperial Prince and Heir, Duryodhana, to represent him as the Host-in-Chief. Duryodhana and his brothers, totalling one hundred in strength, took great pleasure as tour guides.

They showed off the palace’s architecture, which was a fine example of visual artistic flair. The palace included several chambers dedicated to portraiture, landscape and natural history painting; pottery making; and sculpturing, which used the mediums of mud and metals, stone and wood, wax and glass. Modest-sized halls, built to project voice, hosted the literary arts where poets and scribes read their works to rapt audiences. The performance arts—music, song, dance and drama—took place in larger halls.

“It’s an impressive palace,” said Emperor Yudhishthira, who was the Guest-of-Honour.

“Duryodhana resorts to size and vulgar opulence, but he will never match the well-appointed and tasteful furnishings in our Maya Palace,” said Bheema.

“We’re here as honoured guests of our uncle, King Dhristarashtra,” said Sahadeva, the youngest of the Pandava brothers.

“Well said, Sahadeva, and it would do well to remember that, Bheem,” said Yudhishthira. Bheema leaned close to his youngest brother and whispered.

“Wait till we return home.” And the brothers chuckled.

“You missed the exhibits in one chamber,” said Sakuni. He stretched out his hand in invitation and led the way. “The emperor would be interested to inspect the visuals presented by our finest craftsmen.”

Yudhishthira and his brothers stepped into the chamber, followed by the Kaurava brothers. Several elegant board games rested on silk-draped plinths.

“You’re right, Uncle Sakuni. These boards are masterpieces,” said Yudhishthira. He peered at the gold and silver filigree embedded into the oil polished boards.

“Here is a masterpiece of workmanship crafted for the Emperor of Indraprastha,” said Sakuni. “The wood is from my beloved kingdom, Gandhara; and harvested from a tree a thousand years old. See the age-old rings and how well they blend with the gold and precious stones. The gold is of the highest purity and the jewels are flawless.”

“Yudhishthira, my beloved elder brother, allow me to present you this majestic masterpiece worthy of an emperor,” said Duryodhana. “This work of unapparelled art brings together the skills of our finest gemmologists, goldsmiths and woodcarvers.”

Attendants placed the board on a cushion, covered with cloth weaved from gold thread. Duryodhana took the gift and presented it to Yudhishthira. The latter, moved by the unexpected show of love, accepted the present and embraced the Kaurava prince.

“It is a tradition in Gandhara that when presented with a board game, the giver and recipient play one game, to inaugurate good luck,” said Sakuni. He produced his pair of dice.

Yudhishthira, entranced by the quality of the board as a drinker drawn to high-grade liquor, and moved by the Kauravas’ sweet words and cordiality, agreed. The Pandava took the pair of stick dice and liked the feel, and manipulated them. His eyes fell on Duryodhana.

“Oh no, I’m not a gambler, dear elder brother. Please forgive me. I concede defeat,” said Duryodhana.

“Well then, perhaps Uncle Sakuni might represent Hastinapura,” said Yudhishthira. The gambling fever took hold, and he sought relief.

“On no,” said Sakuni. “Though it’s a Gandhara custom, I’ve never rolled a die.”

“Cowards!” said Bheema with a cough. The royal hosts and their guests chose not to hear the big man’s drowned words.

“Well, if you insist,” said Sakuni. “One game.”

“I insist,” said Yudhishthira. “One game, dear uncle.”

Dushasana gave orders and attendants moved the exhibits and furniture to make space. Word spread and other guests appeared. Soon, people crammed into the tight exhibition hall. Everyone agreed they required a bigger hall.

The large body of hosts and guests made their way to the great sabha in the pleasure palace. As they moved along the corridors, Sakuni lingered at each portraiture hanging on the wall. He showed off his knowledge of Kuru history as he rattled off the great deeds of the old kings. All the time, more and more people joined the burgeoning group. It was almost an hour before hosts and guests entered the vast hall and settled into a noisy and expectant atmosphere. The Kuru elders, including Grandsire Bhishma, Minister Vidura, the preceptors, Dronacharya, Kripacharya, and King Dhristarashtra joined the gathering.

Confidence filled the Pandavas. Yudhishthira, who was a passionate gambler, was an acknowledged expert with the dice. Bheema whispered. “Make a fool out of Sakuni.”

For a moment, Yudhishthira thought of humiliating Sakuni; beating the older man on grounds unfamiliar to him.

“Perhaps you should not proceed,” said Sahadeva in a soft voice. Yudhishthira lent his ear to his youngest but wisest brother. “Elder brother, we inadvertently embarrassed Duryodhana when he last visited us in the Maya Palace. If the Kauravas lose this game, which they will, it will only make matters worse.”

“They brought this upon themselves,” said Bheema in undertones.

“Sahadeva is right,” said Arjuna.

Thoughts raced through Yudhishthira’s mind as he considered Arjuna’s words. Unlike Bheema, the third Pandava seldom spoke, but when he did, the eldest Pandava gave him special consideration. The emperor said,

“I’ll let them win.”

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