Tales of the Sun; or, Folklore of Southern India | Annotated Tale

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Lost Camel, The


THERE was a city called Alakapuri, famous for all the riches that sea and land can yield, and inhabited by people speaking different languages. In that city reigned a king named Alakesa, who was a storehouse of all excellent qualities. He was so just a king that during his reign the cow and the tiger amicably quenched their thirst side by side in the same pond, the cats and the rats sported in one and the same spot, and the kite and the parrot laid their eggs in the same nest, as though they were "birds of a feather." [1] The women never deviated from the path of virtue, and regarded their husbands as gods. Timely rain refreshed the soil, and all Alakesa's subjects lived in plenty and happiness. In short, Alakesa was the body, and his subjects the soul of that body, for he was upright in all things.

               Now there was in Alakapuri a rich merchant who lost a camel one day. He searched for it without success in all directions, and at last reached a road which he was informed led to another city, called Mathurapuri, the king of which was named Mathuresa. He had under him four excellent ministers, whose names were Bodhaditya, Bodhachandra, Bodhavyapaka, and Bodhavibhishana. These four ministers, being, for some reason, displeased with the king, quitted his dominions, and set out for another country. As they journeyed along they observed the track of a camel, and each made a remark on the peculiar condition of the animal, judging from the footsteps and other indications on the road. [2]

               Presently they met the merchant who was searching for his camel, and, entering into conversation with him, one of the travellers inquired if the animal was not lame in one of its legs; another asked if it was not blind of the right eye; the third asked if its tail was not unusually short; and the fourth inquired if it was not suffering from colic. They were all answered in the affirmative by the merchant, who was convinced that they must have seen the animal, and eagerly demanded where they had seen it. They replied that they had seen traces of the camel, but not the camel itself, which being inconsistent with the minute description they had given of it, the merchant accused them of having stolen the beast, and immediately applied to king Alakesa for redress.

               On hearing the merchant's story, the king was equally impressed with the belief that the travellers must know what had become of the camel, and sending for them threatened them with his displeasure if they did not confess the truth. How could they know, he demanded, that the camel was lame or blind, or whether the tail was long or short, or that it was suffering from any malady, unless they had it in their possession? In reply, they each explained the reasons which had induced them to express their belief in these particulars. The first traveller said:--

               "I noticed in the footmarks of the animal that one was deficient, and I concluded accordingly that it was lame of one of its legs."

               The second said:--"I noticed that the leaves of the trees on the left side of the road had been snapped or torn off, whilst those on the right side were untouched, whence I concluded that the animal was blind of his right eye."

               The third said:--"I saw some drops of blood on the road, which I conjectured had flowed from the bites of gnats or flies, and I thence concluded that the camel's tail was shorter than usual, in consequence of which he could not brush the insects away."

               The fourth said:--"I observed that while the forefeet of the animal were planted firmly on the ground the hind ones appeared to have scarcely touched it, whence I guessed that they were contracted by pain in the belly of the animal."

               When the king heard their explanation he was much struck by the sagacity of the travellers, and giving 500 pagodas to the merchant who had lost the camel; he made the four young men his principal ministers, and bestowed on each of them several villages as free gifts.


Few stories are more familiar and widely spread than that of the Lost Camel, which occurs in the opening of the romance. It was formerly, and perhaps is still, reproduced in English school reading-books. Voltaire, in chapter iii. of his “Zadig; ou, La Destinée” (the materials of which he is said to have derived from Geuelette’s “Soirées Bretonnes,”) has a version in which a lost palfrey and a she dog are described by the “sage” from the traces they had left on the path over which they passed. The great Arabian historian and traveller Mas’udi, in his “Meadows of Gold, and Mines of Gems,” written A.D. 943, gives the story of the Lost Camel, and from Mas’udi it was probably taken into the MS. text of the “Thousand and One Nights,” procured in the East (?Constantinople) by Wortley Montague, and now preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. [3] In that MS. it forms an incident in the story of the Sultan of Yeman and his Three Sons: the princes, after their father’s death, quarrel over the succession to the throne, and at length agree to lay their respective claims before one of the tributary princes. On the road one of them remarks, “A camel has lately passed this way loaded with grain on one side, and with sweetmeats on the other.” The second observes, “and the camel is blind of one eye.” The third adds, “and it has lost its tail.” The owner comes up, and on hearing their description of his beast, forces them to go before the king of the country, to whom they explain how they discovered the defects of the camel and its lading. In a Persian work, entitled “Nigaristan,” three brothers rightly conjecture in like manner that a camel which had passed, and which they had not seen, was blind of an eye, wanted a tooth, was lame, and laden with oil on the one side, and honey on the other. The story is also found in the Hebrew Talmud. Two slaves are overheard by their master conversing about a camel that had gone before them along the road. It was blind of an eye, and laden with two skin bottles, one of which contained wine, the other oil. In a Siberian version (Radloff), three youths are met by a man who asks them if they had seen his camel, to which they reply by describing the colour and defects of the animal so exactly that he accuses them to the Prince of having stolen it. “I have lost a camel, my lord,” said he, “and when I met these three young men we saluted, and I told them that I had lost my camel. Quoth one of these youths, ‘Was thy camel of a light colour?’ The second asked, ‘was thy camel lame?’ And the third, ‘Was it not blind of an eye?’ I answered Yes to their questions. Now decide, my lord. It is evident these young men have stolen my camel.” Then the Prince asked the eldest, “How did you know that the camel was of a light colour?” He replied, “By some hairs which has fallen on the ground when it had rubbed itself against trees.” The two others gave answers similar to those in our version. Then said the Prince to the man, “Thy camel is lost; go and look for it.” So the stranger mounted his horse and departed.


[1]: This kind of statement often occurs in stories in proof of the just reign of a monarch. The Hindu idea is that so long as justice and equity characterise a king’s rule, even beasts naturally inimical are disposed to live in friendship. When timely rain fails or famine stalks through the land, turning his eyes from the natural causes, the orthodox Hindu will say that such a king is now reigning over them unjustly, and hence the calamity.—Translator.

[2]: “Distinguishing the peculiarities of an animal by its footsteps, &c., is often met with in Indian stories. Precisely the reverse of this is the tale of the four blind men who disputed about the form of an elephant. One of them had felt only the elephant’s ears, and said it was like a winnow; another examined the breast and a foreleg, and said it was like a thick stump of wood; the third felt the trunk, and said it was like a heavy crook; while the fourth, having touched only the tail, declared it was like a sweeping rake.”—W. A. Clouston.

[3}: It is not generally known that the “Birnam Wood” incident in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” occurs in the same Arabian historical work.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Lost Camel, The
Tale Author/Editor: Kingscote, Georgiana
Book Title: Tales of the Sun; or, Folklore of Southern India
Book Author/Editor: Kingscote, Georgiana & Sastri, Pandit Natesa
Publisher: W. H. Allen & Co.
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1890
Country of Origin: India
Classification: unclassified

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