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|MYTHS OF INDIA
By M. Frere
ONCE upon a time there were a Rajah and Ranee who had no children. Long had they wished and prayed that the gods would send them a son, but it was all in vain — their prayers were not granted. One day a number of fish were brought into the royal kitchen to be cooked for the Rajah's dinner, and amongst them was one little fish that was not dead, but all the rest were dead. One of the palace maid-servants, seeing this, took the little fish and put him in a basin of water. Shortly afterward the Ranee saw him, and thinking him very pretty, kept him as a pet; and because she had no children she lavished all her affection on the fish and loved him as a son; and the people called him Muchie Rajah (the Fish Prince).
In a little while Muchie Rajah had grown too long to live in the small basin, so they put him into a larger one, and then (when he grew too long for that) into a big tub. In time, however, Muchie Rajah became too large for even the big tub to hold him; so the Ranee had a tank made for him, in which he lived very happily, and twice a day she fed him with boiled rice. Now, though the people fancied Muchie Rajah was only a fish, this was not the case. He was, in truth, a young Rajah who had angered the gods, and been by them turned into a fish and thrown into the river as a punishment.
One morning, when the Ranee brought him his daily meal of boiled rice, Muchie Rajah called out to her and said, "Queen Mother, Queen Mother, I am so lonely here all by myself! Cannot you get me a wife?" The Ranee promised to try, and sent messengers to all the people she knew, to ask if they would allow one of their children to marry her son, the Fish Prince. But they all answered, "We cannot give one of our dear little daughters to be devoured by a great fish, even though he is the Muchie Rajah and so high in your Majesty's favor."
At news of this the Ranee did not know what to do. She was so foolishly fond of Muchie Rajah, however, that she resolved to get him a wife at any cost. Again she sent out messengers, but this time she gave them a great bag containing a lac of gold mohurs, and said to them, "Go into every land until you find a wife for my Muchie Rajah, and to whoever will give you a child to be the Muchie Ranee you shall give this bag of gold mohurs." The messengers started on their search, but for some time they were unsuccessful; not even the beggars were to be tempted to sell their children, fearing the great fish would devour them. At last one day the messengers came to a village where there lived a Fakeer, who had lost his first wife and married again. His first wife had had one little daughter, and his second wife also had a daughter. As it happened, the Fakeer's second wife hated her little stepdaughter, always gave her the hardest work to do and the least food to eat, and tried by every means in her power to get her out of the way, in order that the child might not rival her own daughter. When she heard of the errand on which the messengers had come, she sent for them when the Fakeer was out, and said to them, "Give me the bag of gold mohurs, and you shall take my little daughter to marry the Muchie Rajah." ("For," she thought to herself, "the great fish will certainly eat the girl, and she will thus trouble us no more.") Then, turning to her stepdaughter, she said, "Go down to the river and wash your saree, that you may be fit to go with these people, who will take you to the Ranee's court." At these words the poor girl went down to the river very sorrowful, for she saw no hope of escape, as her father was from home. As she knelt by the river-side, washing her saree and crying bitterly, some of her tears fell into the hole of an old Seven-headed Cobra, who lived on the river-bank. This Cobra was a very wise animal, and seeing the maiden, he put his head out of his hole, and said to her, "Little girl, why do you cry?" "Oh, sir," she answered, "I am very unhappy; for my father is from home, and my stepmother has sold me to the Ranee's people to be the wife of the Muchie Rajah, that great fish, and I know he will eat me up." "Do not be afraid, my daughter," said the Cobra; "but take with you these three stones and tie them up in the corner of your saree;" and so saying, he gave her three little round pebbles. "The Muchie Rajah, whose wife you are to be, is not really a fish, but a Rajah who has been enchanted. Your home will be a little room which the Ranee has had built in the tank wall. When you are taken there, wait and be sure you don't go to sleep, or the Muchie Rajah will certainly come and eat you up. But as you hear him coming rushing through the water, be prepared, and as soon as you see him, throw this first stone at him; he will then sink to the bottom of the tank. The second time he comes, throw the second stone, when the same thing will happen. The third time he comes, throw this third stone, and he will immediately resume his human shape." So saying, the old Cobra dived down again into his hole. The Fakeer's daughter took the stones and determined to do as the Cobra had told her, though she hardly believed it would have the desired effect.
When she reached the palace the Ranee spoke kindly to her, and said to the messengers, "You have done your errand well; this is a dear little girl." Then she ordered that she should be let down the side of the tank in a basket to a little room which had been prepared for her. When the Fakeer's daughter got there, she thought she had never seen such a pretty place in her life (for the Ranee had caused the little room to be very nicely decorated for the wife of her favorite); and she would have felt very happy away from her cruel stepmother and all the hard work she had been made to do, had it not been for the dark water that lay black and unfathomable below the door, and the fear of the terrible Muchie Rajah.
After waiting some time she heard a rushing sound, and little waves came dashing against the threshold; faster they came and faster, and the noise got louder and louder, until she saw a great fish's head above the water — Muchie Rajah was coming toward her open-mouthed. The Fakeer's daughter seized one of the stones that the Cobra had given her and threw it at him, and down he sank to the bottom of the tank; a second time he rose and came toward her, and she threw the second stone at him, and he again sank down; a third time he came more fiercely than before, when, seizing a third stone, she threw it with all her force. No sooner did it touch him than the spell was broken, and there, instead of a fish, stood a handsome young prince. The poor little Fakeer's daughter was so startled that she began to cry. But the prince said to her, "Pretty maiden, do not be frightened. You have rescued me from a horrible thraldom, and I can never thank you enough; but if you will be the Muchie Ranee, we will be married tomorrow." Then he sat down on the doorstep, thinking over his strange fate and watching for the dawn.
Next morning early several inquisitive people came to see if the Muchie Rajah had eaten up his poor little wife, as they feared he would; what was their astonishment, on looking over the tank wall, to see, not the Muchie Rajah, but a magnificent prince! The news soon spread to the palace. Down came the Rajah, down came the Ranee, down came all their attendants, and dragged Muchie Rajah and the Fakeer's daughter up the side of the tank in a basket; and when they heard their story there were great and unparalleled rejoicings. The Ranee said, "So I have indeed found a son at last!" And the people were so delighted, so happy and so proud of the new prince and princess, that they covered all their path with damask from the tank to the palace, and cried to their fellows, "Come and see our new prince and princess! Were ever any so divinely beautiful? Come see a right royal couple, — a pair of mortals like the gods!" And when they reached the palace the prince was married to the Fakeer's daughter.
There they lived very happily for some time. The Muchie Ranee's stepmother, hearing what had happened, came often to see her stepdaughter, and pretended to be delighted at her good fortune; and the Ranee was so good that she quite forgave all her stepmother's former cruelty, and always received her very kindly. At last, one day, the Muchie Ranee said to her husband, "It is a weary while since I saw my father. If you will give me leave, I should much like to visit my native village and see him again." "Very well," he replied, "you may go. But do not stay away long; for there can be no happiness for me till you return." So she went, and her father was delighted to see her; but her stepmother, though she pretended to be very kind, was in reality only glad to think she had got the Ranee into her power, and determined, if possible, never to allow her to return to the palace again. One day, therefore, she said to her own daughter, "It is hard that your stepsister should have become Ranee of all the land instead of being eaten up by the great fish, while we gained no more than a lac of gold mohurs. Do now as I bid you, that you may become Ranee in her stead." She then went on to instruct her that she must invite the Ranee down to the river-bank, and there beg her to let her try on her jewels, and whilst putting them on give her a push and drown her in the river.
The girl consented, and standing by the river-bank, said to her stepsister, "Sister, may I try on your jewels? — how pretty they are!" "Yes," said the Ranee, "and we shall be able to see in the river how they look." So, undoing her necklaces, she clasped them round the other's neck. But whilst she was doing so her stepsister gave her a push, and she fell backward into the water. The girl watched to see that the body did not rise, and then, running back, said to her mother, "Mother, here are all the jewels, and she will trouble us no more." But it happened that just when her stepsister pushed the Ranee into the river her old friend the Seven-headed Cobra chanced to be swimming across it, and seeing the little Ranee like to be drowned, he car-cried her on his back until he reached his hole, into which he took her safely. Now this hole, in which the Cobra and his wife and all his little ones lived, had two entrances, — the one under the water and leading to the river, and the other above water, leading out into the open fields. To this upper end of his hole the Cobra took the Muchie Ranee, where he and his wife took care of her; and there she lived with them for some time. Meanwhile, the wicked Fakeer's wife, having dressed up her own daughter in all the Ranee's jewels, took her to the palace, and said to the Muchie Rajah, "See, I have brought your wife, my dear daughter, back safe and well." The Rajah looked at her, and thought, "This does not look like my wife." However, the room was dark and the girl was cleverly disguised, and he thought he might be mistaken. Next day he said again, "My wife must be sadly changed or this cannot be she, for she was always bright and cheerful. She had pretty loving ways and merry words, while this woman never opens her lips." Still, he did not like to seem to mistrust his wife, and comforted himself by saying, "Perhaps she is tired with the long journey." On the third day, however, he could bear the uncertainty no longer, and tearing off her jewels, saw, not the face of his own little wife, but another woman. Then he was very angry and turned her out of doors, saying, "Begone; since you are but the wretched tool of others, I spare your life." But of the Fakeer's wife he said to his guards, "Fetch that woman here instantly; for unless she can tell me where my wife is, I will have her hanged." It chanced, however, that the Fakeer's wife had heard of the Muchie Rajah having turned her daughter out of doors; so, fearing his anger, she hid herself, and was not to be found.
Meantime, the Muchie Ranee, not knowing how to get home, continued to live in the great Seven-headed Cobra's hole, and he and his wife and all his family were very kind to her, and loved her as if she had been one of them; and there her little son was born, and she called him Muchie Lal, after the Muchie Rajah, his father. Muchie Lal was a lovely child, merry and brave, and his playmates all day long were the young Cobras. When he was about three years old a bangle-seller came by that way, and the Muchie Ranee bought some bangles from him and put them on her boy's wrists and ankles; but by next day, in playing, he had broken them all. Then, seeing the bangle-seller, the Ranee called him again and bought some more, and so on every day until the bangle-seller got quite rich from selling so many bangles for the Muchie Lal; for the Cobra's hole was full of treasure, and he gave the Muchie Ranee as much money to spend every day as she liked. There was nothing she wished for he did not give her, only he would not let her try to get home to her husband, which she wished more than all. When she asked him he would say, "No, I will not let you go. If your husband comes here and fetches you, it is well; but I will not allow you to wander in search of him through the land alone."
And so she was obliged to stay where she was.
All this time the poor Muchie Rajah was hunting in every part of the country for his wife, but he could learn no tidings of her. For grief and sorrow at losing her he had gone well-nigh distracted, and did nothing but wander from place to place, crying, "She is gone! she is gone!" Then, when he had long inquired without avail of all the people in her native village about her, he one day met a bangle-seller and said to him, "Whence do you come?" The bangle-seller answered, "I have just been selling bangles to some people who live in a Cobra's hole in the river-bank." "People! What people?" asked the Rajah. "Why," answered the bangle-seller, "a woman and a child; the child is the most beautiful I ever saw. He is about three years old, and of course, running about, is always breaking his bangles, and his mother buys him new ones every day." "Do you know what the child's name is?" said the Rajah. "Yes," answered the bangle-seller carelessly, "for the lady always calls him her Muchie Lal." "Ah," thought the Muchie Rajah, "this must be my wife." Then he said to him again, "Good bangle-seller, I would see these strange people of whom you speak; cannot you take me there?" "Not to-night," replied the bangle-seller; "daylight has gone, and we should only frighten them; but I shall be going there again to-morrow, and then you may come too. Meanwhile, come and rest at my house for the night, for you look faint and weary." The Rajah consented. Next morning, however, very early, he woke the bangle-seller, saying, "Pray let us go now and see the people you spoke about yesterday." "Stay," said the bangle-seller; "it is much too early. I never go till after breakfast." So the Rajah had to wait till the bangle-seller was ready to go. At last they started off, and when they reached the Cobra's hole the first thing the Rajah saw was a fine little boy playing with the young Cobras.
As the bangle-seller came along, jingling his bangles, a gentle voice from inside the hole called out, "Come here, my Muchie Lal, and try on your bangles." Then the Muchie Rajah, kneeling down at the mouth of the hole, said, "Oh, lady, show your beautiful face to me." At the sound of his voice the Ranee ran out, crying, "Husband, husband! have you found me again?" And she told him how her sister had tried to drown her, and how the good Cobra had saved her life and taken care of her and her child. Then he said, "And will you now come home with me?" And she told him how the Cobra would never let her go, and said, "I will first tell him of your coming; for he has been as a father to me." So she called out, "Father Cobra, father Cobra, my husband has come to fetch me; will you let me go?" "Yes," he said, "if your husband has come to fetch you, you may go." And his wife said, "Farewell, dear lady, we are loath to lose you, for we have loved you as a daughter." And all the little Cobras were very sorrowful to think that they must lose their playfellow, the young Prince. Then the Cobra gave the Muchie Rajah and the Muchie Ranee and Muchie Lal all the most costly gifts he could find in his treasure-house; and so they went home, where they lived very happy ever after.