Shan Folk Lore Stories from the Hill and Water Country | Annotated Tale

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Story of the Tortoise, The

THERE was once a man who had two wives. Now as everybody knows it is always the chief wife that the husband loves best, while the other instead of being Mae Long, is only Mae Noi, and this often causes jealousy and trouble in the family. It was so in this case, especially as the chief wife did not have a son to add to her dignity. They each had a daughter, the name of the chief wife's child was Nang Hsen Gaw, and that of the other Nang E.

               One day the husband of these women went to the lake to fish. He caught a large number of shell fish and put them on the shore for his wives to bring home. The younger took her share of the load, but, being very hungry, she ate them all. The mother of Nang Hsen Gaw, however, was not greedy like the other woman, and so she put all the fish that were left into her bag and began to trudge slowly toward the house.

               Now, the mother of Nang E was a witch, although no one, of course, knew it. Being wicked enough to be a witch, she did not hesitate at committing any other crime, even the most dreadful, and she therefore made up her mind that she would kill the mother of Nang Hsen Gaw so that she could be the chief wife. She got home much sooner than the other woman, as she had no load to carry, and when she saw her husband he naturally asked her where the fish were. "Now," she thought, "here's a good chance to get that woman out of the way," so she told her husband that his other wife was a pör, or witch, and she had taken all the fish away from her. Now, witches are of course very much dreaded, so when the poor woman came home with her heavy load of fish, the villagers killed her with their sticks, and she was changed into a tortoise in the lake.

               And now at last the mother of Nang E was chief wife, but do you think she was satisfied? Not a bit of it. She heard that her rival was now a tortoise in the lake, and she determined to kill her again.

               Some time after this, as Nang Hsen Gaw was in the jungle watching the cows that belonged to her father, she walked along the edge of the lake and was very much surprised to hear her own name called in familiar tones. She looked around, but could see no one, and she was getting very frightened, thinking that it was perhaps a hpea who wanted to entice her into the thick jungle so that he could devour her, but at last she looked on the ground at her feet and saw it was a tortoise that was speaking to her.

               "Nang Hsen Gaw," it called. "My daughter, oie! I am your mother who was killed through the wicked acts of my rival, the mother of Nang E. I have arrived at great trouble, and now, instead of being the chief wife of a rich man, I am nothing but a tortoise swimming in the lake. Take pity on me, my daughter, and out of compassion every day bring me cotton thread and raw cotton, so that I can weave and spin."

               Nang Hsen Gaw was a dutiful daughter, and every day when she went to the jungle she took cotton for her mother to spin, and thread for her to weave, and daily talked with her, telling her all the gossip of the village and anything else that she thought her mother would like to hear.

               But the mother of Nang E was on the watch, and thinking it strange that the girl should take cotton and thread to the jungle every day, and bring none back with her when she drove the cattle back at night, she followed her, heard her talking with her mother, and thus found out in what part of the lake her enemy was, and laid her plan accordingly.

               That evening, unknown to her family, while her husband was busy working in his garden, she went to the house where lived the doctor of the village, unfolded her plans to him and asked for his help. Being an unscrupulous man he agreed, took the silver the woman had pilfered from her husband, and promised to help her. The next day she was taken very sick and her husband called in the doctor, who told him that the woman must have a tortoise from the lake near-by. If she boiled and ate it according to his directions she would get well, if not, she would die. Having performed his part of the bargain he returned to his home at the other end of the village.

               Next morning the man went to the lake to get the tortoise. Nang Hsen Gaw was much distressed when she saw her father set out, and her distress became worse when she saw that the wicked stepmother had directed him to the little pond where her own mother was. The man took a large bucket made out of wicker work, and commenced baling out the water, but Nang Hsen Gaw was able to warn her mother just where her father was, so that when he was on one side of the pond her mother went to the other, but at last he sent the girl home, and in a few minutes secured the tortoise and was soon carrying it away for his wife to eat.

               When he got home he gave her the tortoise, little thinking who it was, and then went out, while the witch called Nang Hsen Gaw to watch the pot which had been put over the fire.

               Soon the poor girl heard her mother call out. She said that the hot water had reached her knees, and begged her to put out the fire. She commenced to rake out the hot embers from under the pot, when her stepmother saw what she was doing, and taking up a heavy bamboo beat her unmercifully and made her put more sticks on the fire. Soon her mother complained again that the heat had reached her shoulders, and again Nang E's mother beat her, and made her put more sticks on the fire. Soon she heard her mother say: "My daughter, oie! The hot water has reached my neck and I shall soon be dead. When it is all over, do not let that wicked woman destroy me altogether, but bury me in the jungle," and in a few minutes she was dead.

               Nang Hsen Gaw tried her best to get the dead body of her mother, but her stepmother watched her carefully, and all she could not eat herself she gave to the dogs, to prevent her daughter from getting any, but one dog ran off with his portion into the jungle. Nang Hsen Gaw followed in time to rescue the webbing between the fingers. [1] This was all that was left, but she buried that carefully in the jungle far from the house where her stepmother lived.

               The next day as she was walking through the jungle feeding her cows, she heard sweet music. It sounded like twelve organs all playing at the same time, and yet in harmony, each organ blending with the others. In great surprise she hunted around till she came to the spot where she had buried the part of her mother's hand, and saw that during the night this had changed into a beautiful mai nyung kham tree. [2] And so this good and dutiful daughter went every day to listen to the tree as she had gone daily to the lake when her mother had been a tortoise, and the tree sang sweeter when she was near than at any other time.

               But such a wonderful thing as this could not be kept a secret. Others heard of it and people came from far and near to hear the sweet music come from the tree. One of the amats of the great king who "ate" [3] the country, heard that a miracle was to be seen in this jungle, and accordingly reported it to his lord, who sent men to cut the tree down and bring it to his palace. All day long the men worked at the tree, from the time the country became light till the moon rose at night, but although they had the sharpest of axes and were the most skillful workmen in all the country, yet with all their labor they could only cut through the bark, and during the night the tree grew so quickly that when the morning dawned, it was twice as large as it was the night before, and the marks made by the axes on the bark were covered with new bark harder than ever.

               The king was very angry when he heard of the ill success of his woodmen, had them all executed, and sent others, but they had no better success than the first. But this only made the king more stubborn and determined to get the tree at any cost, and he therefore sent the heralds all through the country and made a proclamation that any man who could bring the tree to his palace should be made his Kem Möng, that is, heir apparent; should it be a woman, she should become Nang Me Prah, or chief queen. Many men therefore came with sharp pahs and axes but all were equally unsuccessful, and the king despaired of ever getting the tree, when Nang Hsen Gaw heard of the reward offered by the king, and told the heralds she could bring the tree to his palace. The king was full of joy when he heard this, and made great preparations for her. On her part she simply went to the jungle and, taking off her turban, fastened it around the tree and carried it bodily into the palace where it sang as sweetly every day as when it was in the jungle.

               When the mother of Nang E heard of the good fortune that had befallen Nang Hsen Gaw she was very angry, and calling her own daughter to follow her, she set off for the capital. When she had arrived there she disguised herself and became a servant to the queen, and pondered how she could kill the Nang Me Prah and put her own daughter Nang E in her place.

               One day this wicked woman told the queen that she had found some fine soap beans and bark, that she was very skillful in shampooing, and as the next day was to be a great feast when the queen would follow the king on her royal elephant, the soap beans would make her black hair blacker, and the gloss glossier than ever, and asked her to allow her to wash the queen's head at a well that was just outside the gate of the palace, near the royal gardens, where the water was very sweet. The queen consented and called her attendants to follow, but the stepmother was much too cunning to allow that, so she told the queen that her method of washing was better than any other woman's but it was a secret, and she would reserve it for her majesty's own private use, but she did not want any of the attendants to see how it was done. If they did, she added, the next day at the feast every lady in the court would have hair as glossy as the queen's, but if they went alone, her hair would be as much more beautiful than any other woman's as the sun is more beautiful than the bamboo torch that lights the way through the jungle at night, when there is no moon. The young queen was not proof against this flattery, and so the two women went alone out of the palace, the very guards who watched at the gates not knowing whither they were going.

               They soon arrived at the well, and as the queen was bending over, her long hair covering her face so that she could see nothing, her wicked stepmother suddenly drew a knife and stabbed her to the heart, then, calling her daughter to help, she buried the poor young queen under the road leading to the well. She took the royal robes and put them on her own daughter, Nang E, who returned to the royal palace and entered the royal apartments, all the attendants thinking it was the real queen returned from a bath in the river.

               That same afternoon, as the king walked through the palace, he was surprised to see that the wonderful singing tree was all withered and mute. In great distress he called for the queen and ordered her to make the tree sing as before, but although Nang E tried with all her might, she could make no sound. She tapped it softly as she had seen Nang Hsen Gaw do, but all in vain. It was silent.

               Now the king was in the habit of wearing Burmese clothing instead of Shan, and one day when he had gone to his room to put on his ptsoe, he found that a little sparrow had built, her nest in it. He was a very kind man, and so allowed the little bird to live there, and in gratitude to the king this sparrow was in the habit of telling him all she saw as she flew around the city from morn to night, and whenever the king wished to find out anything that puzzled him, he would often call the sparrow to tell him what to do.

               He therefore now called the little bird and asked it what ailed the tree, and the sparrow told him that the woman who was then in the royal apartments and wearing the clothes of the Nang Me Prah was not the real queen, but a woman named Nang E, and seeing her approach, the brave little bird began whistling, "This is not the Nang Me Prah, this is Nang E, Nang E. Oh! Nang E!"

               In a great rage the king commanded his servants to call the woman, and when she was come into the royal presence she dared not open her mouth to answer the king, for she was not so clever as her mother, who could disguise her voice as well as her face, and she knew that if she began to speak the king would see that she was not Nang Hsen Gaw, so she remained silent. But this did not save her, for the king looked at her and said:

               "You wear the robes and jewels of my queen, but you have not the same face, and you are afraid to speak to me," and he immediately called his chief executioner to take her away and cut off her head.

               But even this did not bring back the music to the tree, and the king was disconsolate.

               The next morning when the guard of the royal garden went to his post, he saw, near the well, a beautiful mawk moo flower, took it home with him and placed it in the chattie of water that every Shan keeps in his house as an offering to the hpeas. The old mother Nai, soon after took her basket and went to the bazaar to buy puc for her son's breakfast, but when she returned she was surprised to see that during her absence some one had swept the house, cooked the food, and that the "morning rice" was all ready to eat. The eating-tray was set out in the middle of the room. The rice and curry was arranged in order on it, and the drinking chattie was full of scented water. She called her son and all the neighbors to ask who had done this, but no one could tell her, and in great amazement they sat down to their meal. That evening the same thing happened again. While she was out, the house was again swept, the food was prepared, and the tray arranged as in the morning. For several days this happened, and then the old woman determined to hide and see who did these kind acts. She did so, and was amazed to see that as soon as she had left the house (she went under the floor and looked up through a hole between the bamboos), that a spirit came out of the mawk moo flower that her son had brought from the road leading to the well, and commenced to sweep the house. In the midst of it the old woman rushed up to the flower and destroyed it, so that the spirit could not go back to its refuge. At the same instant, it changed into the most beautiful woman ever seen.

               That afternoon, Nang Hsen Gaw, for the spirit was she, told old Nai how her stepmother had killed her at the well, and buried her, and how she had been changed into the spirit of the beautiful mawk moo flower the guard had brought to the house, and that she would soon go back to the king in the palace.

               They neither of them had seen the little sparrow sitting on the roof, but she had been there all the time, and now flew off to the king and told him all that she had heard. The king gave orders that the wicked mother of Nang E should be executed immediately, and that a band of soldiers should go to the guard's house to escort his bride back in state to the palace, where she reigned many, many years, till she saw her grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up. As soon as the queen entered the gate, the tree began to play; the withered leaves put on a bright hue, and beautiful flowers burst into bloom; and while Nang Hsen Gaw lived, the tree bloomed and played sweetest music every day.

               The lessons that this story teaches are: As surely as the wheels of the cart follow the oxen, so surely will wickedness be punished. If you sin you must suffer. The man who kills another will assuredly meet the same fate.



[1]: The Shans call the two front feet of a quadruped "hands." The digits are called "fingers" not "toes."

[2]: The sacred peepul tree.

[3]: The Shans do not usually say that a king "rules" over a country, but the expression generally used is that he "eats" it; a very suggestive and alas! too often only too true expression.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Story of the Tortoise, The
Tale Author/Editor: Griggs, William C.
Book Title: Shan Folk Lore Stories from the Hill and Water Country
Book Author/Editor: Griggs, William C.
Publication City:
Year of Publication: 1902
Country of Origin: Myanmar (Burma)
Classification: unclassified

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