71. The Turtle Prince
In a certain kingdom, the king had no children for many years. Neither did the minister. So they went to consult sages and holy men. They all said that couples will get children if they worship Siva. Accordingly, they both worshiped Siva with great devotion, and, sure enough, their wives became pregnant. Then the king and the minister said to each other: “If we both have boys, let them always be together as king and minister. If one of us has a boy and the other a girl, the girl should be given in marriage to the boy.” They agreed happily; each put his palm in the other's and exchanged promises.
Nine months later, the queen gave birth to a baby turtle. The minister's wife gave birth to a lovely girl. The king was at first disgusted. But then, as the saying goes, even if you beget a bandicoot you'll learn to love it. So the king and queen loved the turtle as if it were a son. The minister and his wife had no trouble doting on their lovely daughter.
As the turtle prince and the minister's daughter grew up, the king began to worry. He confided in the queen, reminded her of the exchange of promises between him and the minister. The queen said, “That is all very well. If our child had been a boy, a human being, your agreement would have worked fine. Now this one is a turtle. How can you go ask for a bride?”
But the turtle, who was listening to their conversation, lying in another bed, suddenly spoke up and said, “Why are you worried? Am I not your son? Father, go and ask. Let's see what the minister says.”
They were astonished to hear the turtle speak in a man's voice, for he had never spoken a word before that moment. They were also delighted that they had a language in common with their abnormal son. The king even thought that this turtle was no ordinary turtle but must really be some enchanted prince under a curse to wear a turtle's form. How else would he be able to speak now like a man? Thinking such thoughts, he went to the minister's house in a palanquin, and said, “Dear friend, we should arrange the wedding between your daughter and my son, just as we agreed years ago.”
While the minister was hesitating to reply, and looking for the right thing to say, his daughter spoke: “Father, why do you want to break your word for my sake? Whoever he is, prince or pauper, angel or animal, I'll marry anyone who'll bring me the celestial parijata flower.”
The king went home and reported to the turtle what the minister's daughter said. The turtle said, “Father, don't give it a second thought. Take me to the sea and leave me in the water. I'll take care of the rest.”
So they sat him in a palanquin and took him to the seashore.
The turtle swam happily in his element and went to the Udaya mountain. There he did penance and prayed to the Sun God. The Sun was pleased with his penances and appeared to him in all his dazzling splendor.
“My son, you were really a prince in your previous life. But you were arrogant and once threw a turtle on a sage out of sheer mischief. So he put a curse on you that you should be born as a turtle. Then you came to your senses. You humbly begged him to relent and take back his curse. He took pity on you and said, ‘When you go to the Udaya mountain and please the Sun God, you'll shed the turtle form and become a prince again. Be patient till then.’ Your moment has come,” said the Sun God, blessed him, and vanished.
The turtle disappeared, too, and in his place stood a glowing prince. He saluted the Sun gratefully and started his quest for the parijata flower.
On his way he met a sage who practiced penance for only one minute each day. The prince greeted him respectfully and asked, “Master, where will I find the celestial parijata? ”
“I don't know, my boy. Go on for a mile or so. My guru lives there. Ask him.”
He walked the distance of a mile, and met a sage who practiced penance for only two minutes each day. He greeted the two-minute sage and asked him, “Master, where can I find the celestial parijata flower?”
“I don't really know. If you walk another mile or so, you'll find my guru. Ask him.”
When, after walking a mile, he found a sage who practiced penance for three minutes each day, he asked the same question.
“Where, master, can I find the celestial flower, parijata? ”
The sage looked at him and thought, “If anybody can bring it, this young man can.” So he answered his question. “Look here, to the north of here, there's a temple of the elephant-faced god. Beyond it, there's a lake. Celestial women come to the lake every day to bathe in it. When they take off their saris and enter the water, you should go and steal a sari, any sari, and run away with it. Don't ever look back. If you do, you'll die like other princes before you. Run to the temple of the elephant-faced god and take refuge in it. You'll find the parijata flower.”
The prince went to the lake and waited for the celestial women. As soon as they came, they took off their saris and entered the water. He grabbed a sari, ran without looking back till he reached the temple, and locked himself in it. One of the women came after him. She stopped before the locked temple door, and pleaded, “Please, O prince, return my sari. I beg of you with folded hands.”
After she had assured him that he would come to no harm, he opened the door and gave the naked celestial her sari, which she quickly wrapped around herself. Then he came out and they met, and she liked the prince. When she heard what he was after, she promised to bring him the parijata flowers he wanted, and went back to her world, the world of the gods.
By midnight, she returned to the temple, gave him the celestial flowers and slept with him. Early next morning, before she left, she gave him a flute and told him she would appear whenever he played on it.
On his return journey, the three-minute sage asked him, “Prince, did you get what you wanted?”
“Yes, master, by your blessings.”
“Did you meet the celestial woman?”
“Certainly. I'll show you, if you wait a minute,” said the prince, and played on his flute. At once, she appeared. Even the sage gaped at her beauty.
The three-minute sage said, “Prince, listen. I've a yogic wand that will beat up anyone you want it to. All you have to say is, ‘Get so-and-so,’ and it will get him. You're of the warrior caste, you'll find it handy. Take it and give me the flute.”
The prince exchanged the flute for the wand, and, after walking a few steps, turned around and shouted orders to the wand, “Get that sage and bring back the flute!”
The yogic wand beat the sage till he was black and blue. He couldn't bear it anymore. So he returned the flute and sat down dejected like a monkey.
The prince walked a mile with the wand, the flute, and the parijata. The two-minute sage also fell for the beauty of the prince's celestial companion and offered to exchange a sack he had for the prince's flute. The sack was no ordinary sack; it could give the owner whatever he wished. The prince took the magic sack, pretended to walk away, and ordered his yogic wand to get the wily sage. The wand punished the sage and brought back the flute. The old man sat downcast, his body in pain and his mind filled with dismay.
The prince moved on with the flute, the sack, the wand, and the parijata flower. The one-minute sage was also infatuated with the celestial beauty when the prince showed her off, and offered him his sandals for his flute. Those sandals too were no ordinary sandals—they could carry you wherever you wished to go. The prince made the exchange, pretended to take a few steps, and gave orders to the yogic wand, which beat up the sage and recovered the flute. This sage too sat there, helpless and mad.
The prince reached the palace secretly that night with all his precious objects, and hid them away. Then he prayed to the Sun, became a turtle again, and took only the parijata flowers to his parents. He fell at their feet and said, “I've brought the flowers from heaven. You must arrange the marriage.”
The minister too heard about it. The turtle went to his house and gave his daughter the flowers. What could the minister do? Without another word, willy-nilly he had to arrange the wedding between the turtle and his daughter. As the minister had two younger daughters, he arranged their weddings as well, with two other princes. He housed all the sons-in-law in his own mansion. The minister's younger daughters went happily to bed with their husbands. But how could the minister's eldest daughter, betrothed before birth to a turtle, how could she do anything with a turtle? “This is my lot,” she said to herself, and slept quietly next to the turtle.
The sisters and their husbands laughed at the eldest sister and called her a turtle's darling! They wanted to mock her further and so the two men decided to go hunting. The turtle also wanted to go. His wife, the minister's daughter, pleaded with him not to go, but he was adamant. After an argument, she went to her father and said, “Father, your eldest son-in-law wants to go hunting. Give him a chariot too.”
Everyone in the household heard her and laughed aloud and clapped their hands. They found him a lame nag for a horse and a blunt sword for a weapon. She had to bear the insults silently. The turtle consoled his wife and went with the others on the hunt. The servants had to lift him and make him perch on the saddle. But, as soon as he was alone, he changed into a prince and went into the forest, galloping ahead of everyone.
The other two sons-in-law saw two huge tigers in the forest. Before they could hide, the tigers sighted them and roared, and the two princes ran for their lives. The soldiers were in one place, the chariots in another, and the young men in still another place. It was chaos.
“Who needs to hunt?” said one to the other. “Let's go back and tell them we didn't find any game today.”
The other said, “How can we do that? We made fun of that turtle. It would be better if we took something to show.”
Yet both of them were cowards. One more roar, and they both fled the forest. On their way home, they saw the turtle. They were astonished by what they saw. He had killed both tigers, spread the dead animals next to him, and was resting under a tree, chewing betel nut and betel leaves. They went up to him, and he offered them some betel leaves and nuts. They asked him to do them a favor.
“Give us these tigers. We'll give you whatever you ask.”
“Then give me the left half of your mustaches.”
They thought this was easy. What'd be lost if they gave a part of their mustaches? Handsome men will be handsome anyway, whether they grow a mustache or shave it off or keep only a half of one. If we take these tigers from the hunt, we'll get rewards, maybe even a part of the kingdom. Mustaches, like grass, will grow in no time. So they gave him half their mustaches.
The people of the capital welcomed them and took them with their dead tigers to the palace in a procession. The princes hastily made up stories about why they had half a mustache each. Whatever rich princes do is beautiful, isn't it?The turtle prince was there too, limping behind the procession with his lame horse. No one talked to him. Street urchins followed him all the way to the palace, taunting and teasing him.
That night, the minister's first daughter went to bed very sad that her life had become a laughingstock. Next to her was a sorry-looking turtle, fast asleep.
When she fell asleep, the turtle, who wasn't asleep at all, changed into a prince, undressed her, and caressed her all over. Then he changed back into the turtle. When she woke up in the morning, her clothes were disheveled. Who could have come into the bedroom? She looked at the turtle. It lay like a piece of stone. She decided to find out what had really happened that night, and said nothing to anyone. Then she went to bed early the next night and pretended to be fast asleep. The turtle waited for a while and changed into the prince and came towards her. She caught hold of his outstretched hand and sat up. She knew now that her husband was no turtle but a glowing prince. She fell at his feet and begged him, “My lord, you must give up this disguise at once.”
He said, “Wait till tomorrow. Ask everyone to come to court. We'll show them some fun.”
Next day, the court was full. Everyone was there—the three sons-in-law, the three daughters, the king, the minister, their wives. The two younger sons-in-law came to the court, strutting and showing off their tigers. Everyone applauded. Suddenly, the turtle interrupted them and asked in a commanding human voice what had happened to their mustaches. They babbled. At that moment, the turtle shed his shell and became a prince before everyone's eyes. A light glowed from his body. He took the mustaches of the sons-in-law from his pocket and told the assembly the true story. The sons-in-law slunk away in shame. The king made the turtle prince his heir, placed a crown on his head, and lived happily.
[Cf. AT 433B, King Lindorm; AT 465A, The Quest for the Unknown; and AT 569, The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn. For a study of this tale, see Blackburn 1995.]