Kings of ancient India belonged to either the Surya Vamsa (Sun dynasty) or the Chandra Vamsa (Moon dynasty). The Kauravas belonged to the Chandra Vamsa.
Manu, a grandson of Daksha who was created from Brahma’s toe in the beginning, was the progenitor of human beings. To his daughter, Ila, was born the valiant and learned Pururavas. In the line of Pururavas was born King Yayati.
Yayati had two wives. The first, Deveyani, was the beautiful daughter of Sukra, the brahmin seer of the Danavas who were asuras or demons. Being very learned, Sukra was a great asset to the asuras. In the continuing battle between the asuras and the devas (gods), Sukra’s knowledge of reviving the dead to life was a matter of great concern to the devas who did not possess this skill. Day by day the asuras were increasing in numbers whereas the population of devas started dwindling. In desperation, the gods devised a scheme whereby a spy, Kacha, was planted among the asuras to steal the secret of resuscitation. Kacha was able to gain Sukra’s confidence. Soon he secured the secret, much to the relief of the gods.
To Yayati and Sukra’s daughter, Deveyani, were born two sons, Yadu and Turvasu. Yayati’s life became complicated when he fell in love with Sharmishta, Deveyani’s maid. Sharmishta, was a princess, being the daughter of the asura King Vishaparva. She and Deveyani were friends from childhood. By winning a wager, Deveyani had made Sharmishta her maid.
Yayati married Sharmishta secretly. They had three sons in succession, Drahyu, Anu and Puru.
Truth would be out, as they say. Deveyani one day discovered that her husband and her maid had married secretly. She became furious. Deveyani rushed to her father, Sukra, and told him how her husband had betrayed her. This in turn made Sukra furious. He cornered Yayati and released on him a curse. He said, “You proud monarch, you were unfaithful to my daughter. It is because of your youth that you betrayed her. May you lose that youth and become old and decrepit.”
When Yayati sought Sukra’s forgiveness, the sage relented. He told Yayati, “I can, out of compassion, modify the curse. If you are keen to remain young and vigorous, you may exchange your old age with any one of your sons for a period of time. The son who agrees to your proposal would, one day, become a great monarch.”
Yayati called his sons and told them about Sukra’s curse and the way he could be redeemed from it. The first four sons valued their youth too much to agree to switch it for their father’s old age. It was the last son, Puru, who readily stepped forward and offered to help his father.
The exchange of old age with youth between the father and son lasted a thousand years. At the end of that period the process was reversed. Puru became young again and Yayati relapsed to old age. Yayati handed over his kingdom to his faithful son and retired to the forest to meditate upon the Lord.
The young Puru ruled as a wise king. This was the beginning of the Puru dynasty. From Yadu rose the Yadavas, among whom were born Krishna and Balarama. The tribes of Yavanas, Bhojas and Mleechas sprang from the other sons, Turvasu, Drahyu and Anu respectively. All these tribes had their roles to play in the Kurukshetra War.
A distinguished king of the Chandra Vamsa was Dushyanta. He married Sakuntala, daughter of the sage Viswamitra and the apsara (nymph), Menaka. A saga was enacted in their life when they had to separate. But their son, Bharata, achieved great fame. Bharata had three wives who together gave him nine sons. These nine sons did not possess the character to please the king. Hence the wives killed them all.
In order to obtain a successor the king performed a sacrifice. The sacrificial fire yielded a son, Bhumanyu, who fulfilled his father’s expectation in all ways.
A few generations later there appeared in this line a great king, Kuru by name. It was he who established the holy site of Kurukshetra at a place called Kurujangala, all named after him. Kurukshetra became a holy site in which great sacrifices were performed and great battles were fought.