A swayamvara is the process of choosing a bridegroom by a bride. This event had been the most important event in the life of a girl and there are some great stories in Indian mythology on this. Have a look.
Perhaps the most famous is Sita’s Swayamvara, where Lord Rama won the hand of Sita. The condition was set by King Janaka, father of Sita. Janaka laid out the terms of the challenge. “Here in this great courtyard, on the six-wheeled chariot before you rests the bow of Siva, crafted by none other than the celestial architect Viswakarma . This bow was presented to me by Siva’s pupil, the great warrior-seer Parasuraama. The bow is my most treasured gift. It is a blessing bestowed upon my land and my people. Let us pay our homage to it.”, said he and everyone present stood up in reverence and bowed their heads in acknowledgement of the might of the Destroyer. Then Janaka continued, “Mighty lords, in order to take my daughter Sita’s hand in marriage, you must overcome the task of stringing this great bow. He who first succeeds in this task shall be her groom. May the contest begin!”
Then one by one came the suitors, some with humility and some with pomp. None succeeded. They could not even lift the bow, leave alone string it. Try as they might, they just could not move the heavy weapon. They heaved and tugged at it but it lay there unmoved. Many a ferocious lion were tamed out of shame.
Ravana also came and accepted the challenge. He had ten heads and on each there sat a crown of dazzling gold. Of the same dazzling gold were the rest of his ornaments too. This was an extremely wealthybeing. His face, the same across all his heads, bore a learned expression, like that of a scholar, which further added to the contrast he presented. He had smeared, uniformly across his foreheads three white lines, marking him as a devotee of Shiva. Everyone thought that he would win the hand of Sita, but he failed as well.
Rama took the permission of his guru and attempted to lift the bow. He rose, walked towards the chariot calmly and, like Ravana , walked around it in circumambulation. He then folded his hands and paid respect to the mighty bow. Then, effortlessly, he lifted it.
Everyone watched in awe as the young prince from Ayodhya placed the bow vertically on the ground, bending it from the top in order to string it, as required. The silence was broken. With what sounded like a clap of thunder, the bow of Lord Shiva, the mighty weapon He had used to raze the city of Tripura to the ground, the heirloom of Mithila, broke under Raama’s strength, ironically announcing him the winner.
The next day, King Dasharatha’s delegation traveled to Mithila to carry out the wedding ceremony. Upon reaching there, he received proposals for marriage of his other three sons. Lakshmana was betrothed to Urmila, another daughter of Janaka. Vishwamitra proposed the marriages of Bharata and Shatrughna with the two daughters of Kushadhvaja, the younger brother of Janaka. Thus Bharata was married to Maandavi and Shatrughna to Shrutakeerti.
The backdrop of this condition was based on an incident when Sita playfully lifted the table, on which the bow was placed.
This is another famous swayamvar which has caught the imagination of everyone. For couple of reasons, She was the most beautiful maiden in the region and second, the condition set was equally impossible to achieve. This event was controversial as well, as Draupadi did not allow Karna to participate.
Arjuna participated as in the guise of a Brahmin as they somehow ran away from the fire which broke at Lakshagriha. Though Arjuna won her hand, but she was married to all five pandavas later. The whole story of her swayamvara is available here.
Another noted Swayamvara is Damyanti’s. In this story, Nala has managed to win her heart through a swan even before Damyanti had seen Nala. The swayamvara could have been a mere formality, but gods (Indra) were interested in winning her hand.
After falling in love with Nala, the next step was to have a swayamvara. Getting a swayamvara arranged was not as easy as Damayanti thought. It would be highly improper of her to approach her parents directly. She began to drop hints by eating less and losing weight, by pretending to forget things, by looking lost and gloomy and other such things. At last her mother noticed that Damayanti was not her former self and told the king about it. The king immediately ordered the royal physicians to find out what sickness was troubling her daughter. It was only after the physicians drew a blank that the king realised that his daughter was now a grown-up maiden and it was time for her to get married.
The swayamvara was announced. Nala left immediately. Since he was an excellent equestrian he made good progress. The news of the swayamvara had reached the heavens as well. Four of the demi-Gods, Indra, Agni, Varun, and Yama, had also descended to the earth for the swayamvara. They accosted Nala as he was nearing Vidarbh. Indra told Nala that he would have to do them a favour. Nala protested that he needed to know what was being asked of him before he could commit. Indra got angry. “Humans consider it an honour when we ask them to do something. But you are creating a fuss. Don’t you know our power? We can make you disappear and not reach the swayamvara at all,” he thundered. Nala meekly acquiesced. Indra then told him to approach Damayanti and plead with her to choose from the four demi-Gods. Nala was aghast. “How can I act against my own interest,” he pleaded. The threat of dire consequences was repeated. Nala tried a different route. “We are allowed in the palace only on the day of the swayamvara and that too only where the swayamvara is to be held,” he said, “How will I access Damayanti?” Indra reminded Nala that he was the king of the demi-Gods and would arrange the meeting.
A day before the swayamvara Indra transported Nala to Damayanti’s chamber using his divine powers. The two recognised each other instantaneously. After a long embrace Nala stated the purpose of his visit. Damayanti told him not to worry. He had kept the promise made to the demi-Gods and nothing could dissuade Damayanti from garlanding Nala in the swayamvara ceremony. Nala faithfully repeated the conversation to Indra. “You have kept your word only in letter and not in spirit,” Indra stated, “Now I will do what has to be done.”
A galaxy of princes was gathered at the swayamvara. Nala sat in one corner so as to avoid the demi-Gods, but they sought him out and sat next to him. At the appointed time Damayanti entered the hall. To her amazement she saw five people exactly like Nala sitting in a corner. She realised that the demi-Gods were trying to trick her but was confident that her love would prevail. After watching the five for a few minutes she realised that four stared at her with unblinking eyes while the fifth was blinking regularly. She garlanded the fifth person. The four demi-Gods assumed their true form and blessed the bride and groom and went back to heaven.
The Swayamvara of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika
There is another famous swayamvara from the times of Mahabharata This swayamvara could be cited as the reason of downfall of Bhishma.
The King of Kashi had organized a ‘Swayamvara’ (event of selection of a husband of her choice by a princess in public) for his three daughters. Bhishma went to the Swayamvar for his brother Vichtravirya. He defeated the rest of the kings present at the Swayamvar and came with the three ladies and handed them over to Vichitravirya. Amba, the eldest daughter of Kashi King, told Bhishma that she had considered King Shalva as her husband, and that in fact, she was going to accept him.
She also told Bhishma that as he was a pious man, he should do whatever he feels is right. Bhishma let Amba go and got Ambika and Ambalika married to Vichitravirya. After sometime Dhritrashtra was born to Ambika and Pandu was born to Ambalika. The sons of Dhritrashtra and Pandu were known as Kauravas and Pandavas respectively.
Later on, she was rejected by Shalva and she vowed to take Bhishma’s life before killing herself. Amba was reborn as King Drupada’s daughter. When she grew up, she went to the forest and performed rigorous austerities and penances. As a result of these difficult practices, in time, she was transformed into a Man and became known as the warrior Shikandi.
Another great story is of Savitri. Here, not exactly a swayamvara was organised, but Savitri chose her husband herself. She was very beautiful and when none asked for her hand, her father told her to choose a husband for herself.
She went on a pilgrimage and selected Satyavan as her life partner. Upon asking Narada about the choice, she was told that though Satyavan has been perfect, but his life was short.
Infact, exactly after an year, Satyavan will die. Then there is the legendary story of Savitri saving her husband’s life.
Historical India – Prithviraj and Sanyogita
In the history of India, Prithviraj Chauhan, won rather forcefully took her bride away from the swayamvara.
The love between Prithviraj and Samyukta is one of India’s most popular medieval romances. At the peak of his reign, Prithviraj had annexed vast regions of India to his kingdom, and his fame had spread all across the subcontinent and to Afghanistan. Many lesser kings were envious and wary of his power, including Raja Jaichand of Kannauj. Jaichand’s daughter, Samyukta, was a headstrong girl who was known for her bewitching beauty.
Samyukta fell in love with Prithviraj as his reputation dazzled her. She desired nobody but him. For his part, Prithviraj had heard of Samyukta’s loveliness and fell in love with her as well.
However, Jaichand and Prithviraj belonged to rival Rajput clans.
On finding out about the affair, Raja Jaichand was outraged that a romance had been budding behind his back. Jaichand decided to insult Prithviraj and arranged a Swayamvara for his daughter. He invited royalty from far and wide to the ceremony, every eligible prince and king except Prithviraj. He then commissioned a clay statue of Prithviraj, which served as doorman (dwarpala) to Jaichand’s court.
Prithviraj, on hearing about the impending swayamvara, devised a plan to elope with the bride to be.
On the day of the ceremony, Samyukta walked through the court holding the ceremonial garland, ignoring the gazes of her ardent suitors. She passed through the door and put the garland around the neck of Prithviraj’s statue, declaring him her husband. Prithiviraj, who meanwhile was hiding behind the statue, caught Samyukta up in his arms, set her on his horse, and whisked her away to Delhi. Raja Jaichand was enraged.
This practice was not limited to India and there is a famous incident is captured by Firdausi in Shahnama. In pre-Islamic Iran, of one Kitayun, eldest daughter of the Emperor of Constantinople, selecting the Iranian Gushtasp. With a view to procure a husband for one of his daughters, the Emperor determines to hold a grand assembly of illustrious and wise men for her to see and select from. She does not find a suitable husband in the first assembly and a second one is held, where she places the crown on Gushtap’s head. Gushtasp, also known as Vishtaspa, returns to Iran with his bride and is crowned King.