Six Swans | Truth's Triumph (A Tale from Southern India)

The following is an annotated version of the fairy tale. I recommend reading the entire story before exploring the annotations, especially if you have not read the tale recently.

SEVERAL hundred years ago there was a certain Rajah who had twelve wives, but no children, and though he caused many prayers to be said, and presents made in temples far and near, never a son nor a daughter had he. Now this Rajah had a Wuzeer who was a very, very wise old man--and it came to pass that one day when he was travelling in a distant part of his kingdom, accompanied by this Wuzeer and the rest of his court, he came upon a large garden, and in walking round it he was particularly struck by a little tree which grew there. It was a bringal1 tree, not above two feet in height. It had no leaves, but on it grew a hundred and one bringals. The Rajah stopped to count them, and then turning to the Wuzeer in great astonishment said, 'It is to me a most unaccountable thing--that this little tree should have no leaves, but a hundred and one bringals growing on it. You are a wise man; can you guess what this means?' The Wuzeer replied, 'I can interpret this marvel to you, but if I do, you will most likely not believe me--promise therefore that if I tell you, you will not cause me to be killed for having told (as you imagine) a lie.' The Rajah promised, and the Wuzeer continued: 'The meaning of this little bringal tree, with the hundred and one bringals growing on it, is this: Whoever marries the daughter of the Malee in charge of this garden will have a hundred and one children--a hundred sons and one daughter.' The Rajah said, 'Where is the maiden to be seen?' The Wuzeer answered, 'When a number of great people like you and all your court come into a little village like this, the poor people, and especially the children, are frightened, and run away and hide themselves; therefore, as long as you stay here as Rajah you cannot hope to see her. Your only means will be to send away your suite, and cause it to be announced that you have left the place. Then, if you walk daily in this garden you may some morning meet the pretty Guzra Bai,2 of whom I speak.'

Upon this advice the Rajah acted; and one day, whilst walking in the garden, he saw the Malee's young daughter, a girl of twelve years old, busy gathering flowers. He went forward to accost her, but she, seeing that he was not one of the villagers, but a stranger, was shy, and ran home to her father's house.

The Rajah followed--for he was very much struck with her grace and beauty--in fact he fell in love with her as soon as he saw her, and thought he had never seen a king's daughter half so charming.

When he got to the Malee's house the door was shut; so he called out, 'Let me in, good Malee; I am the Rajah, and I wish to marry your daughter.' The Malee only laughed, and answered, 'A pretty tale to tell a simple man, indeed! You a Rajah! why, the Rajah is miles away. You had better go home, my good fellow, for there's no welcome for you here!' But the Rajah continued calling till the Malee opened the door--who then was indeed surprised, seeing it was truly no other than the Rajah--and he asked what he could do for him.

The Rajah said, 'I wish to marry your beautiful daughter Guzra Bai.' 'No, no,' said the Malee, 'this joke won't do. None of your Princes in disguise for me. You may think you are a great Rajah and I only a poor Malee, but I tell you that makes no difference at all. Though you were king of all the earth I would not permit you to come here and amuse yourself chattering to my girl, only to fill her head with nonsense, and to break her heart.'

'In truth, good man, you do me wrong,' answered the Rajah humbly; 'I mean what I say; I wish to marry your daughter.'

'Do not think,' retorted the Malee, 'that I'll make a fool of myself because I'm only a Malee, and believe what you've got to say because you're a great Rajah! Rajah or no Rajah is all one to me. If you mean what you say, if you care for my daughter and wish to be married to her, come and be married; but I'll have none of your new-fangled forms, and court ceremonies hard to be understood; let the girl be married here by her father's hearth, and under her father's roof, and let us invite to the wedding our old friends and acquaintance whom we 'ye known all our lives, and before we ever thought of you.'

The Rajah was not angry, but amused, and rather pleased than otherwise at the old man's frankness, and he consented to all that was desired.

The village beauty, Guzra Bai, was therefore married with as much pomp as they could muster, but in village fashion, to the great Rajah, who took her home with him, followed by the tears and blessings of her parents and playmates.

The twelve kings' daughters were by no means pleased at this addition to the number of the Ranees; and they agreed amongst themselves that it would be highly derogatory to their dignity to permit Guzra Bai to associate with them, and that the Rajah, their husband, had offered them an unpardonable insult in marrying a Malee's daughter, which was to be revenged upon her the very first opportunity.

Having made this league, they tormented poor Guzra Bai so much, that, to save her from their persecutions, the Rajah built her a little house of her own, where she lived very, very happily for a short time.

At last one day he had occasion to go and visit a distant part of his dominions, but fearing his high-born wives might ill.use Guzra Bai in his absence, at parting he gave her a little golden bell,' saying, 'If while I am away you are in any trouble, or any one should be unkind to you, ring this little bell, and wherever I am I shall instantly hear it, and will return to your aid.'

No sooner had the Rajah gone, than Guzra Bai thought she would try the power of the bell. So she rang it. The Rajah instantly appeared. 'What do you want?' he said. 'Oh, nothing,' she replied. 'I was foolish. I hardly believed what you told me could be true, and thought I would try.' 'Now you will believe, I hope,' he said, and went away. A second time she rang the bell. Again the Rajah returned. 'Oh, pardon me, husband,' she said; 'it was wrong of me not to trust you, but I scarcely thought you could return again from so far.' 'Never mind,' he said, 'only do not try the experiment again.' And again he went away. A third time she rang the golden bell. 'Why do you ring again, Guzra Bai?' asked the Rajah sternly,! It must have been a kind of telegraph, to go so quick,' my narrator said. as for a third time he returned. 'I don't know, indeed; indeed I beg your pardon,' she said; 'but I know not why, I felt so frightened.' 'Have any of the Ranees been unkind to you?' he asked. 'No. none,' she answered; 'in fact, I have seen none of them.' 'You are a silly child,' said he, stroking her hair. 'Affairs of the state call me away. You must try and keep a good heart till my return.' And for the fourth time he disappeared.

A little while after, Guzra Bai had a hundred and one children! a hundred boys and one girl. When the twelve Ranees heard this, they said to each other, 'Guzra Bai, the Malee's daughter, will rank higher than us; she will have great power and influence as mother to the heir to the Raj; let us kill these children, and tell our husband that she is a sorceress; then will he love her no longer, and his old affection for us will return.' So the twelve Ranees all went over to Guzra Bai's house. When Guzra Bai saw them coming, she feared they meant to do her some harm, so she seized her little golden bell, and rang, and rang, and rang--but no Rajah came. She had called him back so often, that he did not believe she really needed his help. And thus the poor woman was left at the mercy of her implacable enemies.

Now the nurse who had charge of the hundred and one babies was an old servant of the twelve Ranees, and moreover a very wicked woman, able and willing to do whatever her twelve wicked old mistresses ordered. So when they said to her, 'Can you kill these children?' she answered, 'Nothing is easier; I will throw them out upon the dust-heap behind the palace, where the rats and hawks and vultures will have left none of them remaining by tomorrow morning.' 'So be it,' said the Ranees. Then the nurse took the hundred and one little innocent children--the hundred little boys and the one little girl--and threw them behind the palace on the dust-heap, close to some large rat-holes; and after that, she and the twelve Ranees placed a very large stone in each of the babies' cradles, and said to Guzra Bai, 'Oh, you evil witch in disguise, do not hope any longer to impose by your arts on the Rajah's credulity. See, your children have all turned into stones. See these, your pretty babies! '--and with that they tumbled the hundred and one stones down in a great heap on the floor. Then Guzra Bai began to cry, for she knew it was not true; but what could one poor woman do against thirteen? At the Rajah's return the twelve Ranees accused Guzra Bai of being a witch, and the nurse testified that the hundred and one children she had charge of had turned into stones, and the RaJah believed them rather than Guzra Bai, and he ordered her to be imprisoned for life.

Meanwhile a Bandicote3 had heard the pitiful cries of the children, and taking pity on them, dragged them all one by one into her hole, out of the way of kites and vultures. She next assembled all the Bandicotes from far and near, and told them what she had done, begging them to assist in finding food for the children. Then every day a hundred and one Bandicotes would come, each bringing a little bit of food in his mouth, and give it to one of the children; and so day by day they grew stronger and stronger, until they were able to run about, and then they used to play of a morning at the mouth of the Bandicote's hole, running in there to sleep every night. But one fine day, who should come by but the wicked old nurse! Fortunately, all the boys were in the hole, and the little girl, who was playing outside, on seeing her, ran in there too, but not before the nurse had seen her. She immediately went to the twelve Ranees and related this, saying, 'I cannot help thinking some of the children may still be living in those rat-holes. You had better send and have them dug out and killed.' 'We dare not do that,' answered they, 'for fear of causing suspicion; but we will order some labourers to dig up that ground and make it into a field, and that will effectually smother any of the children who may still be alive.' This plan was approved, and forthwith carried into execution; but the good Bandicote, who happened that day to be out on a foraging expedition in the palace, heard all about it there, and immediately running home, took all the children from her hole to a large well some distance off, where she hid them in the hollows behind the steps leading down to the water, laying one child under each step.

Here they would have been quite safe, had not the Dhobee happened to go down to the well that day to wash some clothes, taking with him his little girl While her father was drawing up water, the child amused herself running up and down the steps of the well. Now each time her weight pressed down a step it gave the child hidden underneath a little squeeze. All the hundred boys bore this without uttering a sound; but when the Dhobee's child trod on the step under which the little girl was hidden, she cried out, 'How can you be so cruel to me, trampling on me in this way? Have pity on me, for I am a little girl as well as you.'

When the child heard these words proceeding from the stone, she ran in great alarm to her father, saying, 'Father, I don't know what's the matter, but something alive is certainly under those stones. I heard it speak; but whether it is a Rakshas or an angel, or a human being, I cannot tell. Then the Dhobee went to the twelve Ranees to tell them the wonderful news about the voice in the well; and they said to each other, 'May be it's some of Guzra Bai's children; let us send and have this inquired into.' So they sent some people to pull down the well, and see if some evil spirit were not there.

Then labourers went to pull down the well. Now close to the well was a little temple dedicated to Gunputti, containing a small shrine, and a little clay image of the god. When the children felt the well being pulled down they called out for help and protection to Gunputti, who took pity on them and changed them into trees growing by his temple--a hundred little mango trees all round in a circle (which were the hundred little boys), and a little rose-bush in the middle, covered with red and white roses, which was the little girl.

The labourers pulled down the well, but they found nothing there but a poor old Bandicote, which they killed. Then, by order of the twelve wicked Ranees, they sacrilegiously destroyed the little temple. But they found no children there either. However, the Dhobee's mischievous little daughter had gone with her father to witness the work of destruction, and as they were looking on, she said, 'Father, do look at all those funny little trees; I never remember noticing them here before.' And being very inquisitive, she started off to have a nearer look at them. There in a circle grew the hundred little mango trees, and in the centre of all the little rose-bush, bearing the red and white roses.

The girl brushed by the mango trees, who uttered no words, and running up to the rose-bush began gathering some of the flowers. At this the rose-bush trembled very much, and sighed and said, 'I am a little girl as well as you; how can you be so cruel? You are breaking all my ribs.' Then the child ran back to her father and said, 'Come and listen to what the rose-bush says.' And the father repeated the news to the twelve Ranees, who ordered that a great fire should be made, and the hundred and one little trees burnt in it root and branch, till not a stick remained.

The fire was made, and the hundred and one little trees were dug up, and just going to be thrown into it, when Gunputti, taking pity on them, caused a tremendous storm to come on, which put out the fire, and flooded the country and swept the hundred and one trees into the river, where they were carried down a long, long way by the torrent, until at last the children were landed, restored to their own shapes, on the river-bank, in the midst of a wild jungle, very far from any human habitation.

Here these children lived for ten years, happy in their mutual love and affection. Generally every day fifty of the boys would go out to collect roots and berries for their food, leaving fifty at home to take care of their little sister: but sometimes they put her in some safe place, and all would go out together for the day; nor were they ever molested in their excursions by bear, panther, snake, scorpion, or other noxious creature. One day all the brothers put their little sister safely up in a fine shady tree, and went out together to hunt. After rambling on for some time, they came to the hut of a savage Rakshas, who in the disguise of an old woman had lived for many years in the jungle. The Rakshas, angry at this invasion of her domain, no sooner saw them than she changed them all into crows. Night came on, and their little sister was anxiously awaiting her brothers' return, when on a sudden she heard a loud whirring sound in the air, and round the tree flocked a hundred black crows, cawing and offering her berries, and roots which they had dug up with their sharp bills. Then the little sister guessed too truly what must have happened,--that some malignant spirit had metamorphosed her brothers into this hideous shape; and at the sad sight she began to cry.

Time wore on; every morning the crows flew away to collect food for her and for themselves, and every evening they returned to roost in the branches of the high tree where she sat the live-long day, crying as if her heart would break.

At last so many bitter tears had she shed, that they made a little stream which flowed from the foot of the tree right down through the jungle.

Some months after this, one fine day a young Rajah from a neighbouring country happened to be hunting in this very jungle; but he had not been very successful. Towards the close of the day he found himself faint and weary, having missed his way and lost his comrades, without companions save his dogs, who, being thirsty, ran hurriedly hither and thither in search of water. After some time, they saw in the distance what looked like a clear stream; the dogs rushed there, and the tired Prince, following them, flung himself down on the grass by the water's brink, thinking to sleep there for the night; and with his hands under his head, stared up into the leafy branches of the tree above him. Great was his astonishment to see high up among the boughs an immense number of crows, and above them all a most lovely young girl, who was feeding them with berries and wild fruits. Quick as thought he climbed the tree, and bringing her carefully and gently down, seated her on the grass beside him, saying, 'Tell me, pretty lady, who you are, and how you come to be living in this dreary place.' In reply she told him all her adventures, except that she did not say the hundred crows were her hundred brothers. Then the Rajah said, 'Do not cry any more, fair Princess; you shall come home with me and be my Ranee, and my father and mother shall be yours.' At this she smiled and dried her eyes, but quickly added, 'You will let me take these crows with me, will you not? for I love them dearly, and I cannot go away unless they may come too.' 'To be sure,' he answered. 'You may bring all the animals in the jungle with you, if you like, so you will only come.'

So he took her home to his father's house, and the old Rajah and Ranee wondered much at this jungle Lady, when they saw her rare beauty, her modest gentle ways, and her queenly grace. Then the young Rajah told them how she was a persecuted Princess, and asked their leave to marry her; and because her loving goodness had won all hearts, they gave their consent as joyfully as if she had been daughter of the greatest of Rajahs, and brought with her a splendid dower; and they called her Draupadi Bai.4

Draupadi had some beautiful trees planted in front of her palace, in which the crows, her brothers, used to live, and she daily with her own hands boiled a quantity of rice, which she would scatter for them to eat as they flew down to her call Now some time after this, Draupadi Bai had a son, who was called Ramchundra. He was a very good boy, and his mother Draupadi Bai used to take him to school every morning, and go and fetch him home in the evening. But one day, when Ramchundra was about fourteen years old, it happened that Draupadi Bai did not go to fetch him home from school as she was wont; and on his return, he found her sitting under the trees in front of her palace, stroking the glossy black crows that flocked around her, and weeping.

Then Ramchundra threw down his bundle of books, and said to his mother, putting his elbows on her knees, and looking up in her face, 'Mammy, dear, tell me why you are now crying, and what it is that makes you so often sad.' 'Oh, nothing, nothing,' she answered. 'Yes, dear mother,' said he, 'do tell me. Can I help you? If I can, I will.' DraupadI Bai shook her head: 'Alas! no, my son,' she said, 'you are too young to help me; and as for my grief; I have never told it to any one. I cannot tell it to you now.' But Ramchundra continued begging and praying her to tell him, until at last she did; relating to him all her own and his uncles' sad history; and, lastly, how they had been changed by a Rakshas into the black crows he saw around him. Then the boy sprang up and said, 'Which way did your brothers take when they met the Rakshas?' 'How can I tell?' she asked. 'Why,' he answered, 'I thought, perhaps, you might remember on which side they returned that first night to you, after being bewitched?' 'Oh,' she said, 'they came towards the tree from that part of the jungle which lies in a straight line behind the palace.' 'Very well,' cried Ramchundra joyfully; 'I also will go there, and find out this wicked old Rakshas, and learn by what means they may be disenchanted.' 'No, no, my son,' she answered, 'I cannot let you go: see, I have lost father and mother, and these my hundred brothers; and now, if you fall into the Rakskas' clutches as well as they, and are lost to me, what will life have worth living for?' To this he replied, 'Do not fear for me, mother; I will be wary and discreet.' And, going to his father, he said, 'Father, it is time I should see something of the world. I beg you to permit me to travel and see other lands.' The Rajah answered, 'You shall go. Tell me what attendants you would like to accompany you.' 'Give me,' said Ramchundra, 'a horse to ride, and a groom to take care of it.' The Rajab consented, and Ramchundra set off riding towards the jungle; but as soon as he got there, he sent his horse back by the groom with a message to his parents, and proceeded alone, on foot.

After wandering about for some time, he came upon a small hut, in which lay an ugly old woman fast asleep. She had long claws instead of hands, and her hair hung down all around her in a thick black tangle. Ramchundra knew, by the whole appearance of the place, that he must have reached the Rakshas' abode of which he was in search, so, stealing softly in, he sat down, and began shampooing her head. At last the Rakshas woke up. 'You dear little boy,' she said, 'do not be afraid; I am only a poor old woman, and will not hurt you. Stay with me, and you shall be my servant.' This she said not from any feeling of kindness or pity for Ramchundra, but merely because she thought he might be helpful to her. So the young Rajab remained in her service, determining to stay there till he should have learnt from her all that he wished to know.

Thus one day he said to her, 'Good mother, what is the use of all those little jars of water you have arranged round your house?' She answered, 'That water possesses certain magical attributes; if any of it is sprinkled on people enchanted by me, they instantly resume their former shape.' 'And what,' he continued, 'is the use of this wand?' 'That,' she replied, 'has many supernatural powers: for instance, by simply uttering your wish, and waving it in the air, you can conjure up a mountain, a river, or a forest, in a moment of time.'

Another day Ramchundra said to her, 'Your hair, good mother, is dreadfully tangled; pray let me comb it.' 'No,' she said, 'you must not touch my hair: it would be dangerous; for every hair has power to set the jungle on fire.' 'How is that?' he asked. She replied, 'The least fragment of my hair thrown in the direction of the jungle would instantly set it in a blaze.' Having learnt all this, one day when it was very hot, and the old Rakshas was drowsy, Ramchundra begged leave to shampoo her head, which speedily sent her to sleep: then, gently pulling out two or three of her hairs, he got up, and taking in one hand her wand, and in the other two jars of the magic water, he stealthily left the hut; but he had not gone far before she woke up, and, instantly divining what he had done, pursued him with great rapidity. Ramchundra looked back, and, perceiving that she was gaining upon him, waved the enchanted wand, and created a great river, which suddenly rolled its tumultuous waves between them; but, quick as thought, the Rakshas swam the river.

Then he turned, and waving the wand again, caused a high mountain to rise between them; but the Rakshas climbed the mountain. Nearer she came, and yet nearer; each time he turned to use the wand and put obstacles in her way, the delay gave her a few minutes' advantage, so that he lost almost as much as he gained. Then, as a last resource, he scattered the hairs he had stolen to the winds, and, immediately, the jungle on the hillside, through which the Rakshas was coming, was set in a blaze; the fire rose higher and higher, the wicked old Rakshas was consumed by the flames, and Ramchundra pursued his journey in safety until he reached his father's palace. DraupadI Bai was overjoyed to see her son again, and he led her out into the garden, and scattered the magic water on the hundred black crows, which instantly recovered their human forms, and stood up one hundred fine handsome young men.

Then were there rejoicings throughout the country, because the Ranee's brothers had been disenchanted; and the Rajah sent out into all neighbouring lands to invite their Rajahs and Ranees to a great feast in honour of his brothers-in-law.

Among others who came to the feast was the Rajah Draupadf Bai's father, and the twelve wicked Ranees his wives.

When they were all assembled, Draupadf arose, and said to him, 'Noble Sir, we had looked to see your wife Guzra Bai with you. Pray you tell us why she has not accompanied you?' The Rajah was much surprised to learn that Draupadi Bai knew anything about Guzra Bai, and he said, 'Do not speak of her, she is a wicked woman; it is fit that she should end her days in prison.' But Draupadi Bai and her husband, and her hundred brothers, rejoined, 'Send home instantly, O Rajah, and fetch hither that much injured lady, which, if you refuse to do, your wives shall be imprisoned, and you yourself ignominiously expelled this kingdom.'

The Rajah could not guess the meaning of this, and thought they merely wished to pick a quarrel with him; but not much caring whether Guzra Bai came or not, he sent for her as was desired. When she arrived, her daughter Draupadf Bai, and her hundred sons, with Draupadi Bai's husband and the young Ramchundra, went out to the gate to meet her, and conducted her into the palace with all honour. Then, standing around her, they turned to the Rajah her husband, and related to him the story of their lives; how that they were his children, and Guzra Bai their mother; how she had been cruelly calumniated by the twelve wicked Ranees, and they in constant peril of their lives; but having miraculously escaped many terrible dangers, still lived to pay him duteous service, and to cheer and support his old age.

At this news the whole company was very much astonished. The Rajah, overjoyed, embraced his wife Guzra Bai, and it was agreed that she and their hundred sons should return with him to his own land, which accordingly was done. Ramchundra lived very happily with his father and mother to the day of their death, when he ascended the throne, and became a very popular Rajah; and the twelve wicked old Ranees, who had conspired against Guzra Bai and her children, were, by order of the Rajah, burnt to death. Thus truth triumphed in the end; but so unequally is human justice meted out, that the old nurse, who worked their evil will, and was in fact the most guilty wretch of all, is said to have lived unpunished, to have died in the bosom of her family, and to have had as big a funeral pile as any virtuous Hindu.


1: Solanum Melongena; the egg-shaped fruit of which is a favourite vegetable all over India. 
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2: Flower Girl.
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3: A species of large rat.
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4: Doubtless after the beautiful Princess Draupadi, daughter of the Rajah of Panchála, and a famous character in the great Hindu Epic, the Mahá Bhárata.
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Frere, Mary. Old Deccan Days; or, Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in Southern India. London: J. Murray, 1868.




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