During the time the Pandavas were serving their 12-year exile, there was a need for a new adirathi—general—in the Vrishni army. Aided by his younger brother, Krishna, the Vrishni heir to the throne, Balarama, tested several of their foremost commanders on strategy, tactics and battle formations; attack, recovery and rear-guard actions; and supply logistics, evacuation and communications.

After several rounds of eliminations, the royals narrowed their search to two officers: Satyaki and Kritavarma. The former was a student and admirer of Arjuna; the latter owed absolute loyalty to Krishna. Unlike the norms of the day, where kings promoted family members to high posts, the Vrishnis recruited people based on merit, people from all the Yadu clans. Satyaki was from the Andhaka clan; Kritavarma from the Bhoja clan.

“You are the finest field commanders of the Yadu nation. Whoever prevails in this, the final field exercise, remember you are both champions,” said Balarama, foremost mace fighter of Bharata. He stood with Krishna and their officers on a high, stepped timber platform. The contenders, Satyaki and Kritavarma, stood to the left and right of the royal brothers. They surveyed the two army divisions assembled in the clearing before them. Jungles and forest-covered hills surrounded the expectant soldiers arrayed for action.

Each division comprised fully armoured infantry, mounted cavalry and four-horse chariots complete with flags and signal pennants. There was also a brigade of liveried elephants with howdahs strapped on their bony backs, and battalions of long-horned oxen shackled to supply wagons. It was an impressive army, complete with legions of servants, craftsmen and water-carriers.

A thick mountainous jungle loomed a league behind the royal platform. A path cut through the foliage, which looked like a well-groomed head of hair with a centre parting. The head marshal stepped forward and addressed the two armies.

“Warriors of the Satyaki and Kritavarma divisions. This is the day you have been toiling to reach. You enter that jungle path behind us. It will lead you to the plains beyond, where you will form into battle formations. Once satisfied, the marshals will give the signal. You will then move forward and invest the fortress that stands in the middle of the plains. You will encounter obstacles; crocodile filled moats; fields strewn with pikes; trenches which will burst into flames. But you must press forward. All the while, marshals will rain down arrows and javelins. You must protect yourselves and prevail. The division that reaches the fortress and captures the victory-flag will win this exercise. Men of the winning division will each receive thrice your annual wages.”

The men roared and cheered; beat their shields and stamped their feet. A burst of flapping wings erupted, and thousands of birds flew out of the jungle. The head marshal raised his hands, and the noise subsided. He said,

“As for your division commanders, the redoubtable Rathi Satyaki of the Andhakas and the fearless Rathi Kritavarma of the Bhojas, the winner will attain the rank of adirathi. The generalship will confer upon the winner the heavy responsibility of leading a full army.”

Satyaki and Kritavarma punched the air with their fists. Another round of cheers and claps filled the air. Horse neighed and elephants trumpeted. As the raucous clamour dissipated, tension filled the air. All eyes were on the head marshal; he held up the signal flag.

There was only one jungle path for the two divisions. Whoever gained first access will enjoy a definite advantage. Instead of a toss of a coin, a chariot race would determine who entered the jungle first. Each division offered their best charioteer, the slickest chariot and fastest team of horses.

The drivers strained on their reins; braced and held back their eager horses. The animals blubbered and whinnied. In its excitement, one horse urinated. It was no laughing matter. Battle-ready men wet their clothes, too. The head marshal snapped his hand down.

“Go!”

With a start, the chariots took off. “Hyah! Hyah! Hyah!” shouted the charioteers. The armies cheered. Thunderous noise erupted. Drums, trumpets and conches burst into life.

The horses flew with breath-taking speed. Both chariots jolted over the rutted ground. Their drivers stood on bended knees, balanced and bounced with the wagons as they went around the massed soldiers. The assembled warriors turned to watch and cheer their champions.

“Their wheels will shatter before they complete the circuit, my lords,” said the head marshal. “Here comes the first bend.”

The opposing horses, neck to neck, plunged into the turn. The inner wheels of the chariots lifted off the hard ground. Balarama and Krishna watched; emotionless. But the head marshal tensed; curled his fingers into his palm; balled a tight fist.

The chariots came around; and the clatter of hooves grew pronounced. The racers ploughed past the high timber platform and did another circuit. Thunderous noise from the assembled warriors rose several notches.

“The soldiers are disciplined. They don’t break ranks,” said Balarama.

“Our rathis are task masters,” said Krishna. “I did not expect any less.” Satyaki and Kritavarma bowed and expressed their gratitude. Their attention went back to the racers.

As the contest progressed, the Kritavarma driver edged forward. His horses’ tongues hung out; their eyes were wide open, as if trapped in fear.

“Your horses swoop like a hunting kite,” said Satyaki. Kritavarma did not reply; remained with eyes narrowed on his chariot.

The riders charged past the divisions. Throaty shouts rose. Bedlam and non-stop clamour filled the air. The finish line loomed. Whips curled; cracked; lashed. Strings of blood flew off the horses’ backs. The frenzied animals plunged; lunged forward to avoid the whip stings.

Kritavarma’s driver shot past the finish line. A roar erupted, and the Bhojas danced as one body; regimented, choreographed. They had come prepared to celebrate the victory.

The race over, the chariots circled and returned to the timber podium at a relaxed trot. But before they reached the royal stand, one of the Kritavarma horses buckled at its knees and collapsed. It dragged down the other three horses. All four animals blubbered and remained lying on the hard sandy ground.

*** Copyright @ 2021, Eric Alagan ***

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