Govinda, son of Nanda-one of the many cowherds in the verdant kingdom of Surasena, in Aryavarta-was content with his tough but wonderful life. That was until the king’s men came looking for him and his brother, Balabadra, spewing death and destruction in their wake.
Forced to leave behind those they love in order to save them, the brothers are now on the run-all the while being hunted by the tyrant king, Kans, and his bloodthirsty adviser, Chanuran, who will stop at nothing to kill them.
Even as their journey reveals Govinda’s true identity as a prince and the rightful heir to the Surasena crown, it pulls them deeper into the murky secrets surrounding the throne-and its bloody legacy.
Scroll down for a glimpse into Govinda’s journey:
The stallion, Govinda and Balabadra realized, was but a colt, though he looked larger now that they were in the courtyard with him. His eyes blazed with a hidden fire and his silver-white coat rippled with his every move. ‘Get the ropes. We trip him gently so that he has to lie on his side. He’ll calm down then,’ Balabadra said. ‘Right! I’ll take the back.’
What Balabadra had in mind was to weave the ropes in and out around the horse’s legs, making the animal feel unsteady without letting him topple over. It was, they knew, a delicate task—if the horse fell over completely, he could very well break his own legs or even his neck. Worse still, he could fall right on top of one of them. For man and beast both, few things were more painful than dying of a broken spine. The task proved to be tougher than they had expected. The stallion would not let them anywhere near him. Instead, he danced around in circles, snorting and stamping violently, making it impossible for them to grab at the ropes.
‘Stand still, you stupid cow!’ Balabadra shouted out of habit, provoking a guffaw from the watching Yuyudhana. Akruran and many others, however, looked on with a mix of admiration and concern. And then, it happened. Caught between Balabadra in front and the iron-studded castle gate on its right flank, the horse had his back completely to Govinda. It was exactly the opportunity Govinda needed. He dived between his front and rear legs, right under the animal’s belly. Rolling over he picked up the dangling rope and came out on the other side. He scrambled to his feet, rope in hand, and moved across the space, pulling the horse’s rear legs together. The stallion spun around, sending the rope flying through the air with Govinda at the other end of it. He crashed against the iron gates with a sickening thud and fell to the ground barely a few feet away from the animal. Akruran cried out in dismay, and Dhaumya, Devala and Daruka ran to where Balabadra was trying to goad and coax the horse to turn towards him. Undeterred by the commotion, the stallion took a step back in preparation to rear up on his hind legs. Govinda looked up at the animal towering over him. No one, he knew, could survive being stamped on by an animal of such strength and size. Painful as it would be to have his chest crushed in, he could not help but marvel at the sheer power of his would-be destroyer.
Akruran shouted out, ‘Yuyudhana! Shoot that damn beast down!’ Only then did Govinda realize that Yuyudhana was holding a bow and had drawn it. ‘No!’ Govinda shouted out. ‘Yuyudhana, no!’ The stallion raised his strong forelegs high, completely oblivious to the arrow trained on him. Think fast, you foolish gwala!
Govinda tried to get to his feet. His hands closed around the iron rod used to bar the castle gate, giving him an idea. He jumped and, using his shoulders and back, jerked the iron bar up out of its locking ring. The bar rose and fell, threatening to crush him under its lesser but still considerable weight. He heard the twang of a bowstring and in the same instant, the horse brought his mighty hooves down against the wood and iron panelling of the gate. With no rod to hold it shut, the gate swept open, flinging Govinda against the stone wall. Everything went black.
Govinda felt a cool, wet cloth on his face, except it did not exactly feel like a cloth either. The wetness then tickled his ear. He opened his eyes and looked into the large, dark ones that stared down at him. ‘You’re feisty one, my friend,’ he told the stallion as the animal bent to lick his face again. He took in the situation, particularly the arrow embedded in a crevice in the stone floor, then said to the horse, ‘That was a close call, you know!’ The stallion harrumphed softly.
‘I know, it wasn’t your fault,’ Govinda said, receiving yet another gentle lathering in return. Gradually, he became aware of the bustle of human activity around him. Balabadra and Daruka were at his side, helping him up, while Akruran was berating him for his actions, and the horse-trader was shouting and cursing in some unknown tongue. The others crowded around Govinda and the stallion, alternately showing concern and anger. The horse shied away, unlike his earlier self, as the merchant’s men advanced on him. ‘Don’t hurt him!’ Govinda called out.
‘It’s not the horse but the trader that I plan to hurt,’ Akruran said, ordering his men to take the foreigners into custody. It took much questioning and warning before he let the merchant and his men go. Govinda took a determined step forward as the departing merchant looked at his horse. ‘I don’t think he’ll go near him, Govinda,’ Balabadra reassured him. ‘I don’t think they’d dare go near him.’ Relieved, Govinda began to hobble back towards the building, wincing as he did so. The stallion followed. Govinda reached out to caress his strong snout, looking deep into the animal’s eyes. He gasped, taken aback by what, to him, was a gleam of utter trust. He had seen this in the calves and cows of the vraja, the impossible mix of playfulness and serenity that few humans could fathom, but the horse’s eyes also held something more, something that he had no name for. It left a lump in Govinda’s throat. Dismissing the animal with a pat, he began climbing up the wide stairs.Again, the stallion followed, this time edging closer to Govinda, gently pushing at his arm. Govinda stopped mid-step; his heart racing, he turned to the horse and met his gaze again. This time, he understood. He shut his eyes and rested his forehead against the horse’s strong brow, willing the intelligent animal to sense the words he felt but did not speak. Then he drew back and opened his eyes.
Balabadra laughed at the scene. ‘Fine way to choose a horse, Govinda,’ he said. Govinda replied, solemn, ‘I don’t think I chose him, Balabadra. Rather, he seems to have chosen me.’ He turned to the animal, ‘Come along then.’ To everyone’s astonishment, this time, the horse refused to move. ‘I said, come along.’ Daruka shook his head. ‘He’s too smart for that. You need to name him, Govinda. One way or another, you’ve tamed him. You need to name him, make yourself his as much as he is yours.’
Govinda thought of the powerful forelegs that had almost been his death. ‘Balahak,’ he said. ‘Strong-legged. That’s his name. Balahak.’ ‘An apt name for a royal steed,’ Akruran said, adding, ‘I do wonder what else might entice you to take up your royal role, Govinda?’ ‘A tiny fortune perhaps?’ Govinda jested in turn. He added, ‘No, seriously. I need to know how I can earn some money. I’ll need to pay the horse-trader for Balahak.’ ‘I’ll take care of that. Consider it a loan, till you come into your . . . emm, inheritance.’ Uddhav added, ‘Is there anything else you’d like, Govinda?’ Govinda avoided looking at Balabadra. ‘Yes. Where can I get a sword?’