We learn a wise sentiment from the prologue. The stage-manager, addressing the audience, says:--"All that is old is not, on that account, worthy of praise, nor is a novelty, by reason of its newness, to be censured. The wise do not decide what is good or bad till they have tested merit for themselves: a foolish man trusts to another's judgement."
Puspamitra was the founder of the Sunga dynasty of Magadha kings, having been the general of Vrihadratha, the last of the Maurya race, whom he deposed and put to death: he was succeeded by his son Agnimitra who reigned at Vidica (Bhilsa) in the second century B.C. King Agnimitra has two queens Dharini and Iravati. Malavika belongs to the train of his queen Dharini's attendants. The maid was sent as a present to the queen by her brother, Virsena, governor of the Antapala or barrier-fortress on the Nermada.
The queen jealously keeps her out of the king's sight on account of her great beauty. The king, however, accidentally sees the picture of Malavika, painted by order of the queen for her chitrasala, or picture-gallery. The sight of the picture inspires the king with an ardent desire to view the original, whom he has never yet beheld.
Hostilities are about to break out between Agnimitra and Yajnasena, king of Viderbha (Berar). The first, on one occasion, had detained captive the brother-in-law of the latter, and Yajnasena had retaliated by throwing into captivity Madhavasena, the personal friend of Agnimitra, when about to repair to Vidisa to visit that monarch. Yajnasena sends to propose an exchange of prisoners, but Agnimitra haughtily rejects the stipulation, and sends orders to his brother-in-law, Virasena, to lead an army immediately against the Raja of Viderbha. This affair being disposed of, he directs his attention to domestic interests, and employs his Vidushaka or confidant, Gotama, to procure him the sight of Malavika. To effect this, Gotama instigates a quarrel between the professors, Ganadas and Haradatta, regarding their respective pre-eminence.
They appeal to the Raja, who, in consideration of Ganadasa's being patronised by the queen, refers the dispute to her. She is induced to consent reluctantly to preside at a trial of skill between the parties, as shown in the respective proficiency of their select scholars. The queen is assisted by a protegé, a Parivrajaka, or female ascetic and woman of superior learning.
The party assembles in the chamber where the performance is to take place, fitted up with the Sangitarachana, or orchestral decorations. The king's object is attained, for Ganadasa brings forward Malavika as the pupil on whom he stakes his credit. Malavika sings an Upanga or prelude, and then executes an air of extraordinary difficulty. Malavika's performance is highly applauded, and, of course, captivates the king and destroys his peace of mind; the Vidushaka detains her until the queen, who has all along suspected the plot, commands her to retire. The warder cries the hour of noon, on which the party breaks up, and the queen, with more housewifery than majesty, hastens away to expedite her royal husband's dinner.
There stands an asoka tree in the garden. The Hindus believe that this tree, when barren, may be induced to put forth flowers by the contact of the foot of a handsome woman. The tree in question does not blossom, and being the favourite of Dharini, she has proposed to try the effect of her own foot. Unluckily however, the Vidhushaka, whilst setting her swing in motion, has tumbled her out of it and the fall has sprained her ankle, so that she cannot perform the ceremony herself: she therefore deputes Malavika to do it for her, who accordingly comes to the spot attired in royal habiliments, and accompanied by her friend Vakulavali. In the conversation that ensues, she acknowledges her passion for the king, who with his friend Gotama has been watching behind the tree, and overhears the declaration; he therefore makes his appearance and addresses a civil speech, to Malavika when he is interrupted by another pair of listeners, Iravati and her attendant. She commands Malavika's retreat, and leaves the king, in a violent rage, to inform Dharini of what is going forward. The King never behaves as a despot but always with much consideration for the feelings of his spouses.
The Vidushaka now informs the king that Malavika has been locked in the Sarabhandagriha or the store or treasure room by the queen. The room was no enviable place, as the Vidusaka compares it to Patala, the infernal regions. He undertakes, however, to effect her liberation; and whilst he prepares for his scheme, the Raja pays a visit to the queen.
Whilst the Raja is engaged in tranquil conversation with Dharini, and the parivrajaka, the vidushaka rushes in, exclaiming he has been beaten by a venomous snake, whilst gathering flowers to bring with him as a present on his visit to the queen, and he exhibits his thumb bound with his cord, and marked with the impressions made by the teeth of the reptile. The parivrajaka, with some humour as well as good surgery, recommends the actual cautery, or the amputation of the thumb; but the vidushaka pretending to be in convulsions and dying, the snake-doctor is sent for, who having had his clue refuses to come, and desires the patient may be sent to him: the vidushaka is accordingly sent. The queen is in great alarm, as being, however innocently, the cause of a Brahman's death. Presently the messenger returns, stating that the only hope is the application of the snake-stone to the bite, and requesting the Raja to order one to be procured: the queen has one in her finger-ring, which she instantly takes off and sends to the vidushaka. This is his object, for the female jailor of Malavika has, as he has ascertained, been instructed to liberate her prisoner only on being shown the seal ring or signet of the queen, and having got this in his possession, he immediately effects the damsel's release, after which the ring is returned to the queen, and the Vidushaka is perfectly recovered.
The king then being summoned away by a concerted pretext, hastens to the Samudra pavilion, where Malavika has been conveyed with her friend and companion, Vakulavali. This pavilion is decorated with portraits of the king and his queens, and Malavika is found by her lover engrossed with their contemplation. Vakulavali retires. The Vidushaka takes charge of the door, but he no sooner sits down on the threshold than he falls asleep. The Raja and Malavika, consequently, have scarcely time to exchange professions of regard, when they are again disturbed by the vigilant and jealous Iravati, who sends information of her discoveries to Dharini, and in the meantime remains sentinel over the culprits. The party, however, is disturbed by news, that Agnimitra's daughter has been almost frightened to death by a monkey, and Iravati and the Raja hasten to her assistance, leaving Malavika to the consolation derived from hearing that the Asoka tree is in blossom, an omen of the final success of her own desires.
The Raja, Dharini and the Parivrajaka, with Malavika and other attendants, gather about the Asoka tree, when some presents arrive from the now submissive monarch of Viderbha, against whom the troops of Virashena have been successful. Amongst the gifts are two female slaves, who immediately recognize in Malavika the sister of Madhavasena, the friend of Agnimitra, whom the armies of the latter have just extricated from the captivity to which the Viderbha sovereign had consigned him. It appears that when he was formerly seized by his kinsman, his minister, Sumati, contrived to effect his own escape, along with his sister and the young princess. That sister, Kausika, now reveals herself in the person of the Parivrajaka, and continues the story of their flight. Sumati joined a caravan bound to Vidisa On their way to the Vindhya mountains, they were attacked by the foresters, who were armed with bows and arrows, and decorated with peacock's plumes: in the affray Sumati was slain and Malavika was lost.
Kausika, left alone, committed her brother's body to the flames, and then resumed her route to Vidisa, where she assumed the character of a female ascetic The Raja observes she did wisely. Kausika soon found out Malavika, but forebore to discover herself, confiding in the prophecy of a sage, who had foretold that the princess, after passing through a period of servitude, would meet with a suitable match.
It thus finally turns out that Malavika is by birth a princess, who had only come to be an attendant at Agnimitra's court through having fallen into the hands of robbers.
The king issues his orders respecting the terms to be granted to Yajnasena, the king of Viderbha, the half of whose territory he assigns to Madhavasena, the brother of Malavika.
A letter arrives from the general Pushpamitra, giving an account of some transactions that have occurred upon the southern bank of the Indus.
On his own behalf, or that of his son, he had undertaken to celebrate an aswamedha, or horse-sacrifice, for which it was essential that the steed should have a free range for twelve months, being attended only by a guard to secure him. This guard had been placed by Pushpamitra under the command of Agnimitra's son, Vasumitra. Whilst following the victim along the Indus, a party of Yavana horse attempted to carry off the courser, but they were encountered by the young prince, and after a sharp conflict, defeated.
Pushpamitra concludes with inviting his son to come with his family to complete the sacrifice.
The queen, Dharini, overjoyed with the news of her son's success and safety, distributes rich presents to all her train and the females of Agnimitra's establishment, whilst to him she presents Malavika. Iravati communicates her concurrence in this arrangement, and the Raja obtains a bride, whom his queens accept as their sister. The difficulty of conciliating his queens is thus removed. The king now marries Malavika and all ends happily.