Panchali and brother Dhristadyumna
Panchali was the wife of the five Pandavas. She was well known as the daughter of king Drupada, the king of Panchala. Panchali and her brother Dhristadyumna originally belonged to a fire-worshiping tribe allied to the Panchalas. It is not known if this tribe is related to the tribes of Agastya and his disciple Agnivesa (the fire-worshiper / manipulator) who were skilled in fire-arms (Agneya-Astras). Drona who formerly lived in northern Panchala is mentioned as learning fire arms from Agnivesa, which could mean that the tribe of Aginvesa was living in Panchala. Due to their origin in the fire-worshiping tribe, a myth originated that Panchali and Drhristadyumna were originated from fire. Dhristadyumna was a student of Drona in martial arts along with others like Arjuna, the Pandava and Sikhandi, the son of king Drupada. Drupada wanted his son to be a great warrior to avenge the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Drona his former friend, with whom he had a bitter friendship. Drupada's own son Sikhandi turned to be of neuter gender though skilled in warfare. Dhristadyumna on the other hand became highly skilled in warfare under the guidance of Drona. As a result, Drupada adopted Dhristadyumna as his own son. This happened after Arjuna's attack on Ahichatra, at the behest of Drona. This explains why Dhristadyumna was not there to resist Arjuna when Arjuna attacked Drupada and took him as a captive for Drona as his preceptor's fee. Drupada also adopted Dhristadyumna's beautiful sister as his own daughter. She thus became renowned as Panchali (the princess of Panchala) and as Draupadi (the daughter of Drupada). She was darkish in hue compared to other ladies and hence also named Krishna, the dark one. Drupada also had the name Yajnasena. Hence Draupadi was also known as Yajnaseni (the daughter of Yajnasena). Some consider Drupada and Yajnasena to be two different people, whom Mahabharata narrators fused into one. In this case Yajnasena could be Panchali's biological father and Drupada, her adopted father.
Dhrista-dyumna, means (Dhrista:- onlooker, look; dyumna:- glorious), the one with glorious looks. Thus Dhristadyumna was a handsome young man and his sister Panchali was a beautiful young woman. Dyumna was also an epithet of Kartikeya the commander-in-chief of the Deva-army. This etymology is found in Mahabharata as the explenation for the name of Dhristadyumna. But this could have been a later interpretation, after Dhirstadyumna became the commander-in-chief of the army of the Pandavas in Kurukshetra War.
Discrepancy in the birth-story
The narration describing the birth of Dhristadyumna and Panchali is mentioned at Mbh.1.169. There it is mentioned that they sprang from fire during the Yajna (sacrifice) performed by Yaja and Upayaja who was asked by Drupada to perform this Yajna for obtaining a son who can kill Drona. (Drona had caused Arjuna to attack Drupada at Ahichatra and to bring him as a prisoner of war). If this narration is true then Panchali would be only 3 or 4 years old when Arjuna came to win her at Kampilya, because the years passed between Arjuna's attack on Ahichatra commanded by Drona and the arrival of the Pandavas at Kampilya to attend the self-choice ceremony of Panchali was less than 5 years. One year after the attack on Ahichatra, the Pandavas were banished to Varanavata. They stayed there one year. One year they stayed in Rakshasa territories with Hidimba. One year they stayed at Ekachakra. On the fifth year they reached Kampilya to attend the self-choice ceremony of Panchali. Assuming, then that Drupada caused the Yajna of Yaja and Upayaja to obtain a heroic son, after one of two years since his defeat at the hands of Drona, Panchali and Dhristadyumna will be only 3 or 4 years old in the said time. If we consider that during this Yajna of Yaja and Upayaja what really happened was the adoption of Dhristadyumna and Panchali as son and daughter by Drupada, this confusion and discrepancy is eliminated. Dhristadyumna could be of the same age of Bhima, since they often formed a pair during Kurukshetra War, like Arjuna paired with (Vasudeva) Krishna. Panchali could be six years younger to Dhristadyumna, making her younger than all the five Pandavas. This would mean that they were born to somebody else other than Drupada and his wife, somebody in the fire-worshiping tribe allied to the Panchala tribe.
Panchali, the women of Intelligence
Panchali was an intelligent women who often played a role in the affairs of the state. King Yudhisthira often sought her advice in matters related to state and wealth. Draupadi and Bhima had a materialistic view on matters of life compared to Yudhisthira who had a philosophical view often close to asceticism. Arjuna on the other hand was ambivalent with views ranging from high philosophy to materialism and wealth creation. Nakula was skilled in matters related to mathematics and Sahadeva in astronomy and predictions. Due to difference in attitude and interests, these six had heated but healthy debate on matters of life and philosophy of life and conduct of men and women. Many chapters in Vana Parva of Mahabharata is dedicated to conversations between these six which gives tremendous insight into the lives of men and women with varying perspectives.
Panchali was not just a wife for the Pandavas but was like an intellectual partner in their discussions and a minister for king Yudhisthira. This could be the reason why only Panchali among all other wives of the Pandavas followed them in all their walks of life. She often offered healthy criticism for some of the actions of the king. Though the Pandavas held Panchali in high regard, she was often looked upon down by others like Karna and Duryodhana who had a very constricted view on women. They criticized Panchali for being the wife of five men and humiliated her in public at the assembly hall of Hastinapura. This was the major reason that arose the anger of the Pandavas against the Kauravas culminating in the Kurukshetra War. Panchali was also accused of being partial to Arjuna, though in Mahabharata we see her being close to Bhima and Yudhisthira as well.
Panchali, as one among the Pancha-Kanyas
Panchali had a friendly relationship with (Vasudeva) Krishna and his wives viz. Rukmini and Satyabhama. Conversation between Panchali and Satyabhama is a famous passage in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata that asserts the independence and free will of women. Both (Vasudeva) Krishna and the five Pandavas respected the independence and free will of women. This was however against the orthodox view, especially by those held by Duryodhana and Karna. After the epic age, during the period of the Puranas, Panchali was counted as one among the five great women (Pancha-Kanyas) of ancient India, that included Sita (the wife of Rama of Ramayana fame), Tara (the wife of Vanara king Vali), Mandodari (the wife of Ravana) and Savitri, (the wife of Satyavan). This also indicate that in the Puranic age also, like during the epic age, women were respected and their freedom and free-will acknowledged.