This is the story of Tilottama, who was an Apsara or celestial maiden created by Lord Brahma for a special purpose. This story is told by Sage Narada in the Mahabharata to the Pandavas.
Long long ago in the Asura clan was an Asura by name Nikhumba. Nikhumba had two sons, Sundan and Upasundan. Both looked alike and were more like twins. They shared the same interests, were equally handsome, valiant and strong. They loved each other very much and jointly decided all their activities. The younger one looked upon his brother as God and listened to whatever he said and Sundan in turn took good care of his younger brother. Their strength was known in all the three worlds. Though they were very strong and did not have any enemies, they both had the wish to be immortal.
They had a discussion amongst themselves as to how to get this boon and from whom. After a long discussion, they decided that Lord Brahma was the easiest to please amongst the Gods and therefore, it would benefit if they did penance to attain his grace. The brothers were equally determined and strong minded and were ready to do penance for many years at a stretch. So giving the charge of the kingdom to one of the ministers, they both went to a deep jungle and started doing penance. For years they meditated without food or drink and with single minded concentration.
Seeing this, the King of Gods, Indra was jittery. He knew that his position would weaken if the brothers succeeded. So, he sent his courtesans to go and distract the brothers from succeeding. The brothers, though wary of this, did not get a wee bit distracted and continued their meditation.
Lord Brahma was pleased after a few hundred years and appeared before the brothers.
“I am pleased by your devotion” said he. “What boon do you seek?”
The brothers were equally pleased at the Lord appearing before them and said in one voice, “Lord! We wish to be immortal!”
“Immortality cannot be granted to anyone” said Brahma.” Seek something else.”
“Then, in that case” said Sundan, “please grant the boon that we should not be killed by any god or human. Death can come to us only at the hands of one another” Upasundan also nodded in agreement. Both of them were very sure that there could not be any instance where one of them would kill the other. They could not even imagine that such a thing could happen.
“Granted!” said Lord Brahma. “You will not be killed by anyone else excepting by one another”.
The asura brothers were very happy and went back with the satisfaction that they were indeed immortal! A fight amongst themselves was not even a remote possibility according to them. They went back to their kingdom and lived happily for some years. Then life was boring with no activity. They started harassing the neighbouring kingdoms and other countries. Of course, they won the wars, killed the other kings, amassed their wealth and carried away their women. After all, no one could kill them!
The harassment continued and became their favourite pastime. The next target was Indra who had tried to distract them from pursuing their penance. They were preparing for the mega battle, when the Devas got the news and rushed to Lord Brahma.
“Lord Brahma!” they cried, “Your boon has empowered the Asura brothers to create chaos in the world and now they are going to attack us and we will not be able to kill them even if we want, due to the boon. Please help, please….”
Lord Brahma thought for a while. Yes, he had also been hearing of the unprovoked attacks and unjustified killings going on for which Sundan and Upasundan were solely responsible. But they were protected by the boon given by him and he had to provide a solution.
“Please rest assured. I will see that something is done!” said Brahma.
The gods left.
Immediately, Lord Brahma created the most beautiful woman the worlds had ever seen. He had the most beautiful things from all the worlds collected by the divine architect Vishwakarma and he incorporated the beauty of everything in each cell of the woman created by him. He named her Tilottama. “Tila” in Sanskrit is sesame seed and “Uttama” in Sanskrit means the finest or of highest quality and therefore Tilottama meant each little part of the highest quality.
True to her name, Tilottama was enchanting and extremely beautiful. Brahma looked at his marvellous creation with pride and said, “Tilottama, I have created you for a special purpose. You are going to be the main reason for the destruction of Sundan and Upasundan”. He then went on to tell her the story of the boons and the arrogant behaviour of the brothers after the boons.
“Go to their kingdom” said he. “Go and do the job you have been created for. May you win!”
Tilottama bowed to Lord Brahma and descended in the kingdom of Sundan and Upasundan. The brothers were making merry in their beautiful garden throwing a party and there was lot of music and dancing going on.
Suddenly, Sundan noticed this beautiful woman behind a tree. “Who is she?” he asked. Upasundan also asked “Who is she? I have not seen her also before!”
Tilottama came near them and said in a very sweet voice “I am Tilottama. I am on a tour to see the cities of the world and I was fascinated by the beauty of your kingdom”
“You are most welcome … “ said Sundan. “ Please stay with us and we shall give you all the comforts you need. What can I get for you? Jewels, silks, servants? Command and I shall get them for you!” he offered.
“ Wait, do not be in a hurry” said Tilottama. “Give me some time to think. I am touring the world and cannot stay in one place.”
“ Why should you tour the world when you can be my wife, O’ beautiful damsel?” said Sundan. “Marry me and I shall take you around, not only this world, but all the three worlds. Come on”
Immediately Upasundan piped in “Why do you propose brother?” he said sounding cross. “Let Tilottama decide whom to marry. Is it not Tilottama?” he asked her.
“I am hungry. Let us think of marriage later. Can I have something to eat?” Tilottama asked.
Immediately the choicest food was ordered by the brothers and Tilottama had a good meal. “I also want to dance and sing and make merry with the other ladies” she said and without waiting for their approval, she joined the other ladies who were dancing.
For the first time in his life Upasundan was annoyed at his brother. “Who is this fellow to offer to marry this beautiful woman? I am equally handsome and more than a perfect match to her beauty” thought he.
While the party was going on, both the brothers vied with each other to catch her attention. When Tilottama got an opportunity, she came to Sundan who immediately offered to marry her.
“I like you very much but your brother told me that he loves me better!” said Tilottama shyly.
“Is that so? “ asked a visibly angered Sundan. “He is blabbering nonsense. I am the elder one and I have the first right. Just a nod from you and I shall arrange for our wedding today itself”
“Well, give me some time to decide” said Tilottama with a confused look and thereafter went to meet Upasundan.
“Come Tilottama, I have been waiting for you. I want to make you my wife. When can we marry?”, he asked expectantly.
Tilottama continuing to feign a confused look said, “Well, I also like you, but… I do not know what to do. Your elder brother told me that loves me better. He also told me that he would eliminate any one who competes with him”
Upasundan was furious. How dare Sundan talk like that? “I shall talk to him Tilottama” he said. “He cannot talk in this manner.”
“Okay, we will see” said Tilottama and moved away from the scene.
After a while the party was over and they all walked back to the palace and as soon as they reached, Sundan declared to Upasundan, “Brother, I have decided to marry Tilottama as I am the elder one”
“Do not talk nonsense!” said Upasundan. “I have already asked her hand and she told me she loved me better and we are going to marry”
“What audacity!” thundered Sundan. “Have you become so great to disobey me ? Remember I am your elder brother and you have to obey me.”
“Not in this matter” shouted Upasundan. “She will be mine and mine alone. I will not let anyone come in between”. Saying so he went to take the hand of Tilottama, when Sundan sprang in between his brother and Tilottama and landed a blow on his brother’s shoulder.
“How dare you?” shouted Upasundan and raised his arm when Tilottama spoke.
“Please do not fight for my sake dear princes. If you both are going to fight, I shall go to Indra who is very fond of me. I cannot marry two of you. Please decide and tell me who is going to marry me.”
“Me” said both the brothers and in a split second were engaged in raining blows on each other. They fought savagely with all the weapons they could lay their hands on the onlookers in the palace were shocked as they had never seen the brothers even having a simple argument in all these years.
Soon they were rolling on the ground, punching each other and when they got up, they simultaneously pulled out their swords and exactly at the same moment cut off the other’s head.
Both the heads rolled down in two directions and the world was rid of Sundan and Upasundan.
Tilottama smiled to herself for her success and went back to Lord Brahma who congratulated her on her success and assigned her a place in the court of lord Indra.