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

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Story of the Poisoned Food


WHEN Manuniti had concluded his story of the wonderful mango-fruit, king Alakesa ordered his four ministers to approach the throne, and then, with an angry countenance he thus addressed Bodhaditya:--

               "What excuse have you for entering my bedchamber without permission, thus violating the rules of the harem?"

               Bodhaditya humbly begged leave to relate to his majesty a story of how a Brâhman fed a hungry traveller and had afterwards to endure the infamy of having caused that traveller's death, and on king Alakesa signifying his consent, he thus began:--


THERE was a city called Vijayanagara, to the north of which flowed a small river with mango topes [1] on both banks. One day a young Brâhmin pilgrim came and sat down to rest by the side of the stream, and, finding the place very cool and shady, he resolved to bathe, perform his religious ablutions, and make his dinner off the rice which he carried tied up in a bundle.

               Three days before there had come to the same spot an old Brâhmin whose years numbered more than three score and ten; he had quarrelled with his family, and had fled from his house to die. Since he had reached that place he had tasted no food, and the young pilgrim found him lying in a pitiable state, and placed near him a portion of his rice. The old man arose, and proceeded to the rivulet in order to wash his feet and hands, and pronounce a holy incantation or two before tasting the food.

               While thus engaged a kite, carrying in its beak a huge serpent, alighted upon the tree at the foot of which was the rice given by the pilgrim to the old man, and while the bird was feasting on the serpent some of its poison dropped on the rice, and the old Brâhmin, in his hunger, did not observe it on his return; he greedily devoured some of the rice, and instantly fell down dead.

               The young pilgrim, seeing him prostrate on the ground, ran to help him, but found that life was gone; and concluding that the old man's hasty eating after his three days' fast must have caused his death, and being unwilling to leave his corpse to be devoured by kites and jackals, he determined to cremate it before resuming his journey. With this object he ran to the neighbouring village, and, reporting to the people what had occurred on the tope, requested their assistance in cremating the old man's body.

               The villagers, however, suspected that the young pilgrim had killed and robbed the old Brâhmin; so they laid hold of him, and, after giving him a severe flogging, imprisoned him in the village temple of Kâlî. Alas! what a reward was this for his kind hospitality! and how was he repaid for his beneficence!

               The unhappy pilgrim gave vent to his sorrows in the form of verses in praise of the goddess in whose temple he was a prisoner; for he was a great Pandit, versed in the four Vêdas, and the six Sâstras, and the sixty-four varieties of knowledge. On hearing the pilgrim's verses, the rage of the goddess descended upon the villagers, who had so rashly accused and punished him for a crime of which he was innocent. Suddenly the whole village was destroyed by fire, and the people lost all their property, and were houseless. In their extremity they went to the temple of Kâlî, and humbly requested the goddess to inform them of the cause of the calamity which had thus unexpectedly come upon them. The goddess infused herself into the person of one of the villagers, and thus responded:--

               "Know ye, unkind villagers, that ye have most unjustly scourged and imprisoned in our presence an innocent, charitable, and pious Brâhmin. The old man died from the effects of the poison, which dropped from a serpent's mouth on some rice at the foot of a tree when it was being devoured by a kite. Ye did not know of this; nevertheless ye have maltreated a good man without first making due inquiry as to his guilt or innocence. For this reason we visited your village with this calamity. Beware, and henceforward avoid such sins."

               So saying, Kâlî departed from the person through whom she had manifested herself. [2] Then the villagers perceived the grievous error into which they had fallen. They released the good pilgrim and implored his forgiveness, which he readily granted. And thus was an innocent man charged with murder in return for his benevolent actions.

               "Even so," continued Bodhaditya, "my most noble sovereign, I have this day had to endure the infamy of having violated the harem for saving your valuable life."

               He then sent for a thief who was undergoing imprisonment, and gave him the handful of rice which he had the preceding day snatched from the king at dinner, and the thief having eaten it, instantly died. He next caused a servant to go to the royal bed-chamber, and fetch from the canopy of the couch the pieces of the serpent and his little finger-tip, which he laid before the wonder-struck king and the counsellors, and then addressed his majesty as follows:--

               "My most noble king, and ye wise counsellors, it is known to you all that we four ministers keep watch over the town during the four quarters of the night, and mine is the first watch. Well, while I was on duty the day before yesterday, I heard a weeping voice in the direction of the temple. I proceeded to the spot, and discovered the goddess sobbing bitterly. She related to me how three calamities awaited the king on the morrow. The first of them was the arrows despatched by the king of Vijayanagara as sweetmeats to our Sovereign; the second was the poisoned rice, and the third the serpent. In trying to avert these calamities, I have committed the offence of entering the harem."

               And he thereupon explained the whole affair from first to last.

               King Alakesa and the whole assembly were highly delighted at the fidelity and devotion of Bodhaditya; for it was now very evident that he had done nothing amiss, but had saved the life of the king on three occasions, and indeed also the life of the queen by wiping off the serpent's poison which had fallen on her bosom. Then Alakesa related the following story in explanation of the proverb:--

["Eating Up the Protector."]


The Poisoned Food.--This is a third instance of food or fruit being poisoned by serpents, and it occurs very frequently in Eastern stories. The oldest form of this tale is found in a Sanskrit collection entitled "Twenty-five Tales of a Vampyre" (Vetalapanchavimsati), which is probably of Buddhist extraction, and which also exists in many of the vernacular languages of India. The wife of a man named Harisvamin having been stolen from him one night by a Vidyadhara Prince, he gave away all his wealth to the Brahmans, and resolved to visit the sacred waters to wash away his sins, after which he hoped to recover his beloved wife; and the story thus proceeds:--Then he left the country, with his Brahman birth as his only fortune, and began to go round to all the sacred bathing-places in order to recover his beloved. And as he was roaming about there came upon him the terrible lion of the hot season, with the blazing sun for mouth and with a mane composed of his fiery rays. And the winds blew with excessive heat, as if warmed by the breath of sighs furnaced forth by travellers grieved at being separated from their wives. And the tanks, with their supply of water diminished by the heat and their drying white mud, appeared to be showing their broken hearts. And the trees by the roadside seemed to lament on account of the departure of the glory of spring, making their wailing heard in the shrill moaning of their bark, with leaves, as it were, lips, parched with heat.


               At that season Harisvamin, wearied out with the heat of the sun, with bereavement, hunger and thirst, and continual travelling, emaciated and dirty, and pining for food, reached in the course of his wanderings a certain village, and found in it the house of a Brahman named Padmanabha, who was engaged in a sacrifice. And, seeing that many Brahmans were eating in his house, he stood leaning against the door-post, silent and motionless. And the good wife of that Brahman named Padmanabha, seeing him in this position, felt pity for him, and reflected:--

               "Alas! mighty is hunger! Whom will it not bring down? For here stands a man at the door, who appears to be a householder, desiring food, with downcast countenance; evidently come from a long journey, and with all his faculties impaired by hunger. So is not he a man to whom food ought to be given?" Having gone through these reflections, that kind woman took up in her hand a vessel full of rice boiled in milk, with ghî and sugar, and brought it, and courteously presented it to him, and said:--

               "Go and eat this somewhere on the bank of the lake, for this place is unfit to eat in, as it is filled with feasting Brahmans." He said "I will do so," and took the vessel of rice and placed it at no great distance under a banyan-tree on the edge of the lake; and he washed his hands and feet in the lake, and rinsed his mouth, and then came back in high spirits to eat the rice. But while he was thus engaged a kite, holding a black cobra with its beak and claws, came and sat on that tree. And it so happened that poisonous saliva issued from the mouth of that dead snake, which the bird had captured and was carrying along. The saliva fell into the dish of rice which was placed under the tree, and Harisvamin, without observing it, came and ate up that rice. As soon as in his hunger he had devoured all that food, he began to suffer terrible agonies, caused by the poison. He exclaimed:--

               "When fate has turned against a man, everything in this world turns also; accordingly this rice has become poison to me." Thus speaking, Harisvamin, tortured with the poison, tottered to the house of that Brahman who was engaged in a sacrifice, and said to his wife:--

               "The rice which you gave me has poisoned me; so fetch me quickly a charmer who can counteract the operation of poison; otherwise you will be guilty of the death of a Brahman." When Harisvamin had said this to the good woman, who was beside herself to think what it could all mean, his eyes closed and he died.

               Then the Brahman who was engaged in a sacrifice drove his wife out of the house, though she was innocent and hospitable, being enraged with her for the supposed murder of her guest. The good woman, for her part, having incurred groundless blame from her charitable deed, and so become burdened with infamy, went to a holy bathing-place, to perform penance. Then there was a discussion before the superintendent of religion as to which of the four parties, the kite, the snake, and the couple who gave rice, was guilty of the murder of a Brahman; but the question was not decided.

               It will be seen that our story differs very considerably from the foregoing, which we must regard as the original. The same story occurs in all the Eastern versions of the Book of Sindibad, but in most of these it is not a traveller who is thus poisoned, but a wealthy man and his guests; having sent a domestic to the market to buy sour curds, which she carried back in an open vessel, poison from a serpent in a stork's mouth dropped into the curds, of which the master of the house and his guests partook and died. The story is probably more than 2,000 years old.


[1]: An Indian word meaning clumps of trees.

[2]: It is a very common practice to dupe the ordinary people in this manner in Hindu temples. Some impostor will proclaim to the crowd that the spirit of a god, or goddess, is upon him, and utters whatever comes uppermost in his mind. He occasionally contrives to accomplish his private ends by such “revelations.” The ignorant are greatly misled by these impostors, and learned Hindus condemn the practice as gross superstition.—T.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Story of the Poisoned Food
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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