Savitri was the only daughter of King Ashvapati of Madra and his queen, Malavi. The king had prayed to goddess Savitri for this child. So when she was born, she was given the name Savitri.
Savitri grew up into a beautiful young woman. Those who looked at her were dazzled. Awed by the brilliance of her presence, young men felt diffident to even ask for her hand in marriage. This troubled Ashvapati.
“Savitri, go on a tour around various kingdoms and choose your own husband,” he advised her. So, a fine chariot was arranged, and Savitri started on the journey. She was escorted by an elderly man of wisdom. But Savitri could connect with no one whom she saw or met. The elder who was with her grew worried. Where would the princess find the man after her heart?
One day, they were riding on a forest road. The hermitages of the holy sages stood on either side. Savitri felt an emotion in these surroundings that she had not felt before. “Why do I feel drawn to these simple huts of the rishis?” she thought. She lingered in those regions, going from ashram to ashram, kneeling at the feet of the sages. “Whom am I searching for?” she wondered. And then, at one of the ashrams, she saw him…
Ashvapati was seated in his court, talking with the celestial sage, Narada. They heard the sounds of chariot wheels and horse-bells, and in a little while, Savitri and her elderly companion entered. “So you have returned, my child. Come, pay your respects to the sage.” Savitri bowed to Narada. “Do you bring good news?” “I do, Father,” Savitri replied. “Tell us the whole story,” Ashvapati said.
Savitri narrated her story. “At a forest ashram, there lives a king named Dyumatsena. He belongs to the Salwa clan. It so happened that he became blind. A neighbouring king, taking advantage of his misfortune, seized his kingdom. The king and his queen, Saivya, who had recently given birth, escaped with their infant son. They made their home in the forest and led an ascetic life there. That young child, though born to princely power and wealth, grew up in a hermitage. It is he whom I have chosen, Father. His name is Satyavan.”
The king turned to express his gladness to Narada, then paused. A shadow had crossed the sage’s face. “What is it, Holy One? You look grave. Do you not approve of my daughter’s choice?”
“She has chosen well. His father and mother are good and truthful people, and so is Satyavan, who, true to the meaning of his name, is devoted to truth. As a child, he was fond of horses. He would sculpt horse figurines with clay, and draw pictures of horses. He was therefore, also called Chitrashva — one fond of drawing horses — a name that is, interestingly, linked to yours, Ashvapati. But…”
“But…? Why do you say that? Is not Satyavan blessed with the qualities of intelligence, forgiveness and bravery?” Ashvapati asked. “He is the ideal human being, full of energy like the sun, and forgiving as the Earth herself. He is courageous, true to his friends, handsome and generous,” Narada replied.
“This is high praise, good Sage. Why, then, are you disturbed? Is there a defect in the boy?” “Only one, Ashvapati — one that is beyond our control. In a year from now, Satyavan is fated to die.”
“Oh, no,” Ashvapati said, in shock. “Savitri, you have heard the sage’s words. Do not think of marrying Satyavan now. Choose another.”
Savitri shook her head. “Just as death comes but once, just as a father hopes to give away his daughter in marriage only once, and just as a person gives a gift but once and would not ask it back, I have chosen my husband and it will be only once; whether his life span be long or short. My mind accepted him; my tongue spoke of it, and now, I stand by it. As a river flows downwards on a slope, my choice has to take its natural course.”
Narada was pleased with Savitri’s words. “O King, your daughter will not step away from the path of affection and virtue. So let the marriage take place. I give her and Satyavan my blessing.” “Your blessing can only be for the good of all, O Sage. May my child’s decision prove auspicious.”
Soon, Ashvapati, accompanied by his courtiers, Queen Malavi and Savitri, rode out to the forest. He respectfully approached the blind king Dyumatsena, and requested him to accept Savitri as his daughter-in-law. “Will a king’s daughter be able to bear the hardships of living in a forest hermitage?” Dyumatsena asked.
“She has willingly chosen Satyavan and cannot think of a life without him.”
“I had once thought of coming to you and asking for Savitri’s hand for Satyavan. But with no kingdom or wealth to my name, I gave up the idea. Today, you have come yourself, O welcome guest, and I accept the alliance with pride and joy.”
The marriage of Savitri and Satyavan took place. Ashvapati and his queen, showering Savitri with every comfort, returned to Madra.
When they had left, Savitri removed all her jewels and rich clothes, and changed into the garments of bark that Satyavan and his parents wore. “Must you do this, Savitri? Though I must admit that you, standing alone, are the finest jewel and need no other,” Satyavan teased her. “But I cannot pass even a day without the jewel who is standing in front of me,” Savitri shot back.
“From the moment your eyes met mine that day, I knew that Destiny would bring us together,” Satyavan said. “I knew it too. I could not keep you out of my mind, and have waited in eagerness for today.”
Savitri, living in simplicity, and in deep devotion to Satyavan, took care of his aged parents, cared for all their friends and neighbours, and became everybody’s favourite. But the seed of sorrow in her heart grew with every passing hour. She counted each day; cherished each moment, of the single, short year that remained of her life with Satyavan.
Time flew by. The last four days of the year came round. She decided to take the Triratra vow. She would not eat for three nights and three days. Dyumatsena became worried as he saw her growing wilted and pale. “Do not perform this difficult fast, my child,” he told her. “I am determined to do it, Father,” Savitri replied. “Anything done with perseverance leads to success. So you should not worry about it.”
Dawn broke on the fourth day. “It will happen today,” Savitri thought, her heart weighed down with misery. She went through her morning activities in a daze. As she did every day, she prayed before the community fire. The priests uttered their usual blessing: Sumangali bhava — “May your husband live long.” “Please may it be so,” Savitri said to herself.
She returned home. “Savitri, I am going to the forest to bring fruits and wood,” Satyavan said, picking up a bag and placing his axe on his shoulder. “Don’t go alone today. Let me go with you,” Savitri said. Satyavan smiled. “You have never before wanted to come to the forest with me. Why today, and after observing such a difficult fast? The forest paths are not easy to walk on.” “Today, I cannot bear to be parted from you… Don’t stop me, please,” she told her parents-in-law. “I have not been outside our home since I came. I… am keen to be among the trees and wild flowers.”
“You have never before made a request to us; never asked for anything. How can we refuse you today? Go, Savitri. But take care, both of you.”
The young couple went into the forest. Happiness shone on Satyavan’s face, from being in Savitri’s company. “Don’t look now, my love,” he said, covering her eyes with his hand. He guided her towards a clearing and removed his hand. Before them was a group of peacocks dancing, feathers shining in the sun. “They dance because you have come,” Satyavan laughed. “Don’t they make a perfect picture?” “Yes, they are beautiful,” Savitri said, softly. He took her to the riverside: “See how white the currents flow”. He showed her the groves where the trees had just bloomed and were fully covered in blossoms: “See how they look like bejewelled queens of the forest.” “I see them, I see them,” Savitri responded. But she was not looking at them. She was looking at him — memorising each movement of his lips, each crinkle of his eyes, each curve of his cheeks. “It will happen any time now,” was all she could think, “and these precious moments will all be gone.”
They looked for and plucked the ripest fruits and filled them in the bag. Then Satyavan began to chop some dead branches for firewood. He began to perspire. “Savitri, all that chopping has somehow tired me. My head aches. Why do my limbs and chest hurt? I don’t feel well… I think I’ll lie down…” Savitri ran up to him and led him towards a banyan tree. She made him lie down in its shade, and took his head on her lap. “Is this how life ends?” she thought, a sob catching in her throat.
The next moment, a figure, dressed in red, a crown on his head, appeared before her. His dark body gave off light like the sun. There was a noose in his hand. Her heart trembling in dread, Savitri laid Satyavan’s head gently on the grass and rose to her feet. Taking a hold on herself, she looked straight into the being’s red fearsome eyes.