Epics in India have many versions. Written and told by different people in different parts of the region, they acquire a life of their own and keep changing and adding and deleting portions as the years roll on. This story is found in a version popular in Kerala. It weaves in the act of Nilalkkuttu or shadow-piercing by abhicara or use of black magic which was and many believe, still is, quite common in that region. This episode is not mentioned by Vyasa, but in the Malayalam version by Villiputturar’s Bharatham.

According to this, Duryodhan continues to make efforts to eliminate the Pandavas, but he keeps failing. At the behest of Duryodhana, a sage by the name of Kaala MaMuni, an expert in rituals arrives at the court of Duryodhan. Here the Dushta Chathushtaya (Duryodhana, Duhshasana, Sakuni, Karna), the evil-foursome, urge the sage to perform the abhicara to rid Duryodhan of the Pandavs. (Abhicara is Kaala MaMuni is worried that he is being asked to do something that would rid him of all his good deeds accumulated over the last seven births. He tries to reason with the foursome, but they continue to praise him, till he gives in.

At the corner of his ashram, the sage sets out to perform the abhicara ritual. He dug a pit and made a small fire out of some special wood and by the incantation of the mantra’s created a fiery phantom like creature which was as large as the mountains. The sight was truly scary and it is said that one sight of it could even scare the gods for a moment.

All this was being observed by Yama and as the beholder of dharma, he decided to do something. Soon a Brahmin boy’s deer-skin was taken away by a deer. The boy urged the Pandavs to get it back from him and so the Pandavs set out chasing the deer. The deer chase was a never-ending one, and soon the Pandavs got tired and arrived near a pond, which however was poisoned. Yudhishtir asked Sahadev to go and fetch water for all. Sahadev died on the spot after drinking the water and soon Nakul, Arjun and Bhim were casualties too. However, Bhim managed to write on the ground that the water was poisoned. By then Yudhishtir was too tired and fainted for want of water.

In the meanwhile, the phantom that had emanated out of the ritual fire sought orders from the sage. The sage asked it to kill the Pandavs wherever they were. The phantom said that it would go out in search of the Pandavs and kill them, as it could not see them then, but just in case it did not find them for any reason, then it would return to kill the sage himself.

The phantom then set out in search of the Pandavs. It came across Yudhishtir who was lying unconscious and assumed that he was dead due to heat. He soon found the other four dead too. The phantom was now angry to have been asked to kill people who were already dead. It returned to where the sage was and shouted at the sage for not being able to see that his targets were already dead. It made fun of the sage’s knowledge and beheaded the sage and returned to the fire.

In the meanwhile, Yudhishtir, regained consciousness and went in search of his brothers. When he saw them dead near the pond and tried to drink the water, he was stopped by a voice, which told him to drink the water only after answering some questions. When Yudhishtir answered the questions, he was allowed to revive one of his dead brothers. When Yudhishtir asked for Sahadev and the voice learned about his reasoning, the voice was pleased and taught him a mantra to revive all his brothers. Later, the voice introduced itself as Yama, and also told him about the abhicara performed by Duryodhan.

While this episode seems to have been influenced from the popular episode of Yaksha-parva from the original, it sure has its own elements of abhicara, weaved in quite effectively.

Text – Villiputturar’s Bharatham, (a Malayalam version of Mahabharat), Aranya Parvam, Sarga Eight.