Approximately two thousand years ago, south-west India was ruled by a dynasty of Shunga kings. Agnimitra was the most illustrious among them. Vidisha was the capital of his kingdom. He had two queens, namely Dharani and Iravati. Dharani was the elder of the two and was known to be matured and broad-minded. Iravati was shrill and a rather irritated. Both however were equally committed to the king and he too, loved them greatly.
Dharini had a brother named Virasena. The king had ordained him a commander of one of the boundary citadels. Virasena, on one such occasion, encountered a pretty young girl, Malavika who had an artistic knack of the eye. He sent her as a present to his sister Dharini with the desire that after suitable grooming, Malavika would be groomed into an accomplished dancer. Dharini therefore posted her under the charge of an experienced and qualified teacher Ganadasa.
One day, Agnimitra visited Dharini and he came across a freshly painted picture which portrayed the queen surrounded by her attendants and maids, with Malavika sitting close to her. Smitten by her beauty, the king enquired her name from the queen. Dharini however dodged the question, but when the king persisted, the queen's younger sister, Vasulakshmi who was still a minor, blurted out that she was Malavika.
When Dharini discovered that her husband was taking abnormal interest in her beautiful protégé, she started taking extra pains to keep Malavika out of his sight. However, the king's curiosity to perceive Malavika in person grew with the queen's apprehension to keep her away from him.
Meanwhile, a messenger from the king of Vidarbha conveyed a letter from his master which hugely troubled king Agnimitra. The state of Vidarbha was situated in the neighbourhood of Vidisha. Its king, Yajnasena was envious of Agnimitra's growing power and popularity. His cousin, prince Madhavasena was, however, a friend to king Agnimitra. He wanted to marry his sister to the king. Yajnasena was opposed to the proposal. He thus imprisoned Madhavasena, his own cousin, when the latter accompanied by his sister, was proceeding to Vidisha, to offer her in marriage to Agnimitra. The young girl had however melted away in the confusion that succeeded the prince's imprisonment. After listening the news, Agnimitra had sent a communiqué to Yajnasena, to set Madhavasena free. The letter now brought by the messenger was in reply to that communication. The king of Vidarbha had stated that he would comply, if Agnimitra agreed to release his brother-in-law, Mayurasachiva, who had been imprisoned earlier by him.
This negotiating offer was not acceptable to king Agnimitra. Infuriated by the reply brought by the messenger, he issued orders to his commander Virasena, to move his army against Yajnasena, so he could be taught a lesson for his act of imprudence.
Agnimitra, in the meantime, was as keen as ever to have a glance of Malavika. He had taken the Vidushaka, his court-jester, into confidence regarding the matter. Actually the Vidushaka, not only entertained the king, but also acted as his adviser and assistant in his private affairs. The king had asked him to machinate a plan by which he could meet Malavika. When questioned by the king on the subject, Vidushaka informed him that in order to fulfil his desire; he had not only hit upon an idea, but had also taken introductory action to give it a convenient shape.
The task for teaching dance to Malavika was assigned by queen Dharini to Ganadasa, a preceptor well-versed in the art of dancing. There was another esteemed dance teacher, Haradatta, in the king's court. Vidushaka had instigated both the teachers against each other and consequently there was an exchange of raging words between the two - each claiming authority over the other in the domain of their art. Apparently, at the suggestion of the Vidushaka, both the preceptors portrayed themselves before the king with the appeal that he might assess their knowledge and skill in person and give his decision about their comparative worth. For this purpose, both the teachers were to showcase dance performances of their respective pupils. The king, however felt that it would not be prudent for him to act as the only judge. He was known to be favourably inclined towards Haradatta and could thus be suspected of partiality if the judgment went in his favour.
In the palace, there lived a female Buddhist ascetic, Kaushiki, who was thoroughly knowledgeable of various techniques of dancing and acting. The king suggested that she and the queen should also watch the competition and the matter be decided in their presence. Both the queen and Kaushiki were accordingly summoned and the issue was explained to them. Knowing the king's mind, queen Dharini conveyed her opposition to the idea of competition, as she was not favourably disposed of the display of Malavika's dance performance before her husband. Her protest, however, went unheeded as Ganadasa himself insisted on proving his dominance over his rival through presentation of his pupil Malavika on stage. The matter was finally settled when at the king's suggestion, Kaushiki agreed to judge the excellence of the competitors subject to the condition that the king would also be present there to help her in hitting an accurate decision. It was also decided that Ganadasa, being the elder of the two teachers, should be allowed to present her pupil first.
When Malavika appeared on stage, she was dressed to the bare minimum, to ensure that movement of all her limbs during the dance was gracefully displayed. She appeared to be a flawless beauty. When Agnimitra had first seen her in picture, he had felt that no person could have as perfect a figure as painted by the artist. He was completely dumbfounded. The grace of movements of Malavika's limbs and the registration of fast changing emotions on her face, made Malavika's presentation exceedingly fascinating.
When the performance ended, Malavika was ready to leave. Ganadasa, however, asked her to stay a little longer to know if her display was without any flaw. At this, the court-jester said that he had noted an omission, but he would express it only after the lady Kaushiki had expressed her opinion. Kaushiki replied that the presentation was perfect. The king was also all praise for it. Ganadasa now turned to Vidushaka to find out the omission that he had observed. The court-jester, a Brahmin and a known glutton, pointed out that the inaugural display of skill by Malavika should have been introduced by offer of feast to a Brahmin and that he had been disregarded in this case. Ganadasa, however, explained that Malavika's performance was not her inaugural display of skill in dancing and that nothing was due to the Brahmin on the occasion.
Now it was Haradatta's turn to present display of his pupil's proficiency in the art. However, by this time, breakfast for the king was declared. The performance was, therefore, deferred to the next day. The king, having achieved his intention, had lost interest in a presentation to be presented by a person other than Malavika. The exhibition of art by Hardatta's pupil on the next day was also praiseworthy, but the grace of Malavika's movements, settled the case in favour of her preceptor, Ganadasa.
Agnimitra was now passionately in love with Malavika. He incessantly thought of her and was seeking an opportunity to meet her. The Vidushaka, through his skill, had enabled the king to watch her from close quarters and that too under the best of conditions. He, therefore, again sought Vidushaka's good advice to convey his intensity of feelings and maybe arrange a rendezvous between the two. Vidushaka chose Bakulavalika, a close friend to Malavika, for the purpose and instructed her of the king's message to be delivered to the young lady.
Meanwhile, Iravati, the younger queen, had conveyed to the king, through one of her maids, her ardent desire to share a ride with him in the swing in the pleasure garden. Agnimitra, languishing for Malavika's company was in no mood to submit to the request, but, Vidushaka advised him not to say 'no' to Iravati. The king, therefore, accompanied by the Vidushaka proceeded to the pleasure garden. While waiting for Iravati there, they saw Malavika standing at a short distance. The king's heart palpitated with anticipation. He, however did not want to reveal himself at once. The king and the Vidushaka, therefore, concealed themselves in a bower from where they could watch the dealings, without being noticed. Malavika appeared to be lost in deep thought. It seemed that she too had lost her heart to someone; and the king's wishful thinking led him to conclude that he himself perhaps was the privileged person in this case. He, however, did not want to make the next move till he was sure of her feelings towards him.]
Soon Bakulavalika alighted on the scene. From the conversation that ensued between her and Malavika, it emerged that the Ashoka tree in the garden had not flowered regardless of the advent of the spring season and according to traditional belief it had to be struck ceremoniously by a gorgeous woman with her foot embellished with jingling anklets, to make it to bloom. Queen Dharini was expected to do the required work, but since she had injured her foot in a fall from the swing, she had conferred this privilege on her favoured protégé, Malavika. Accordingly, Malavika had come to the pleasure garden and Bakulavalika had followed her with lac for dyeing her feet and putting on anklets.
While embellishing Malavika's feet, Bakulavalika discreetly conveyed the king's message to her. At first she could not believe her ears, but when the fact that the king had fallen in love with her at first sight, was elucidated to her in clearer terms, her joy seemed unbounded.
Iravati, by that time, had also reached the pleasure garden to share a joy ride with her husband in the swing. Looking for the king, accompanied by her maid Nipunika, she also arrived at the spot where Malavika was getting ready to kick the Ashoka tree. They however, stood unseen by a corner. Malavika's presence in the garden at the time when the king was also expected there, made Iravati anxious about her husband's intentions. Her fear was somewhat relieved when she learnt that Malavika had come there to obey queen Dharini's command. Iravati however, got infuriated when Bakulavalika communicated the king's love message to Malavika; and soon after Agnimitra suddenly rushed to her from his hiding place in the bower and took her by her hand to personally assure her of his determined devotion. The queen could control herself no longer. She had caught the king red-handed and was in no mood to ignore the serious slip on the part of her husband. Malavika and Bakulavalika were in a state of utter confusion and they left the place immediately. The king was also bewildered and looked towards the Vidushaka for a way out of his dilemma. Vidushaka suggested that running away from this place could alone save him from this uncomfortable situation. This was rather a humiliating course of action for the king to follow. He, thus, came up with an excuse that since the queen had delayed her arrival and he was feeling bored, he had made good use of this chance meeting with the attendants for his amusement. Iravati was, however, not to be appeased and Agnimitra, as a last resort, fell down to her feet. The queen left in a state of extreme annoyance.
Next day, Iravati called on the elder queen Dharini to enquire about the recovery of her bruised foot. It was then that she mentioned about the message that the king had sent to Malavika through Bakulavalika and the passionate overtures that he had made to her in the pleasure garden after she had performed ceremonial striking of the Ashoka tree. The imprudence on the part of Malavika and role played by Bakulavalika in the king's love affair were found inexcusable. Queen Dharini, particularly out of regard for her younger co-wife, imprisoned them in an underground cell in the palace. The queen posted one of the dedicated maids, Madhavika, on guard duty with clear instructions that the prisoners were not to be released, except on the production of her signet ring imprinted with the figure of a snake.
The king was most upset when he heard about the imprisonment of the young girls and again sought the assistance of his friend Vidushaka to find some way out for ensuring their release. He soon set out to channelise their freedom from the queen's custody. This time, he made another maid Jayasena, his confidant.
The king and the vidushaka readied to visit queen Dharini to enquire about her health. While Agnimitra rightaway proceeded to her apartments, vidushaka went to the garden to fetch a bouquet of flowers for presenting to the queen. It was only a few minutes after the king had reached Dharini's palace and was exchanging formal courtesies, when the vidushaka entered crying loudly that while picking flowers for presenting to the queen, he had been stung by a snake. One of his fingers also bore marks of a snakebite which he had made with the sharp point of a thorn. Everybody present was greatly alarmed. Dharini felt particularly upset, since it was for her sake that the poor Brahmin had gone to the garden to fetch flowers. The king immediately ordered the maid Jayasena to rush to the residence of the vaidya Dhruvasiddhi and bring him straightaway for the patient's treatment. Meanwhile, the vidushaka's howling continued. He soon pretended convulsions and begged to the king with folded hands that after his death, in view of the many services that he had rendered to the king, his wife and children should be provided for. He also begged of queen Dharini to forgive his untoward act, if any.
Jayasena returned from the vaidya Dhruvasiddhi's residence with his message that the patient be taken to him. The vaidya had also advised that something with the image of a snake should also be obtained and sent to him, since it has the power of counteracting poison. The only article with an image of a snake available pronto was the signet ring of queen Dharini. In her fretfulness to save the misfortunate Brahmin, the queen willingly parted with the ring. The king, of course, interfered to say that the signet ring should be returned to the queen at once after the deed was done.
Soon thereafter, the vidushaka was found outside the underground cell where Malavika and her friend were detained and not at the vaidya's residence. By producing queen Dharini's signet ring, he guaranteed the release of the two girl prisoners from Madhavika and took them to the lake summerhouse which was fixed as rendezvous for the two lovers. The king reached there soon after and went straight inside. Vidushaka stationed himself outside the summerhouse to guard against any illegal intrusion and Bakulavalika stood a little away from the house to caution him about the unexpected arrival of an undesirable person.
The personal maid of queen Iravati, Chandrika, had chanced to pass that way and she had seen the Vidushaka strolling about on the terrace of the house. She incidentally mentioned it to her mistress and the queen decided to visit Vidushaka to enquire about his well-being after his recuperation from the snake-bite. When she, accompanied by her maid Nipunika, reached the summerhouse, the Vidushaka having found a cool stone slab outside the main gate, had dozed off to sleep. When Nipunika came a little closer, she found him murmuring in his sleep "O Malavika, may you beat Iravati in your race for the king's love". This infuriated both Iravati and Nipunika. Thinking that the despicable Brahmin would be severely afraid of serpents after what he suffered, Nipunika thought of playing a practical joke on him. She took a snake-like crooked stick and flipped it on his belly. Waking up suddenly and misunderstanding the stick for a serpent, the Vidushaka cried out in great alarm, "A snake has fallen upon me."
When the king heard his friend's loud cry, he rushed out of the room. Malavika followed, warning the king to be careful because of the presence of a snake. Bakulavalika had also rushed to the spot. Vidushaka soon realised his mistake and felt reassured. All of them were, however, befuddled to notice the unanticipated presence of queen Iravati there. The king's position could not be more embarrassing. His lame explanation, did not in the least appease Iravati.
Agnimitra, however, was saved from further humiliation when queen Dharini's maid brought a message that the queen's younger sister, Vasulakshmi, had been scared out of her wits by a huge ape and that she was aching in deep shock. The king left in a hurry to soothe the child and help her in quick recuperation.
After a few days, Virasena, commander of the king's borderline post, sent a message to Agnimitra that his soldiers had succeeded in vanquishing Yajnasena, the king of Vidarbha and got Madhavasena released from his custody. In return for this act of benevolence, prince Madhavasena had sent cart loads of gems and a few attendants, including two accomplished maidens, as presents for him. The king was much pleased to learn about the gallantry displayed by Virasena. In his nobility he decided, in consultation with his council of ministers that the kingdom of Vidarbha be divided in two parts, to be ruled separately on his behalf by the two cousins - Yajnasena and Madhavasena.
Meanwhile, queen Dharini had informed the king that the Ashoka tree in the pleasure garden had displayed matchless beauty of blooms within four days of its ceremonial striking by Malavika and that she should like to see the tree in the company of her husband. The king gave his willing consent. The queen accompanied by Kaushiki and Malavika reached the pleasure garden. The king along with Vidushaka also arrived there. It was then decided that the two maidens sent by Madhavasena might also be introduced to the king in the presence of queen Dharini. When the queen learnt that both the accomplished girls had specialised in music, she asked Malavika to choose one of them to keep her company in singing. When the girls looked at Malavika, they cried in surprise, "Ah, the princess!" Everyone present was surprised and was eager to know the secret behind it.
The girls revealed then, "We were the personal attendants of the prince Madhavasena and Malavika is his younger sister. When the forest guards of Yajnasena captured the prince, the latter's noble minister Sumati, carried off princess Malavika. We were left behind. We do not know what happened thereafter."
The story was completed by Kaushiki. She informed the king, "I am the sister of minister Sumati. I was with him when he took away Malavika. We joined a caravan of merchants who were bound for your capital Vidisha. Sumati was keen to offer Malavika to you in marriage and thus fulfil the wishes of his master, Madhavasena. Unfortunately the caravan while passing through a forest was attacked by robbers and Sumati lost his life while trying to save the princess. While I managed to reach your country somehow, Malavika fell into the hands of foresters of Virasena, who subsequently sent her as present to her sister, queen Dharini."
The elder queen Dharini had promised to fulfil Malavika's wish in case the tree put forth its blossoms after it was struck by her. Accordingly, the queen had nearly decided to meet Malavika's heart's desire by consenting to her marriage with Agnimitra. The discovery that she was a royal princess and not a commoner further toughened her resolution. She sent a message to her co-wife Iravati that in view of her commitment to Malavika, who has since proved to be a princess and the receiving of happy news about the king's conquest over his rival, king of Vidarbha, the younger queen might agree to her proposal. Iravati, in esteem to the regard that she had for the elder queen and in the light of fresh developments, expressed her approval.
The king was duly married to Malavika and his kingdom saw a domination of peace and prosperity for a long time.