A Story From: India
Read Time: ["20+mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
ONCE UPON A TIME there lived a Rajah (king) who was left with two little daughters when his wife died. Not very long after his first wife died, he married again. His second wife did not care for her step-children and was often unkind to them. The Rajah, their father, never troubled himself to look after them, but allowed his wife to treat them as she liked. This made the poor girls very miserable, and one day one of them said to the other, “Let’s not stay here any more. Come away into the jungle, for nobody here cares whether we go or stay.”
So they both walked off into the jungle and lived for many days on jungle fruits. After they had wandered on for a long while, they came to a fine palace which belonged to an Ogre, but both the Ogre and his wife were out when they got there.
One of the princesses said to the other, “This fine palace, in the middle of the jungle, can belong to no one but the horrible Ogre that has plagued our people for so long. But no one is at home now; let’s go in and see if we can find anything to eat. I am so tired of jungle fruit.”
So they went into the Ogres’ house and found some rice. One princess kept watch out the window while the other boiled their dinner. But hardly had they finished their meal and returned the dishes to the sink when the Ogre and his wife returned home. The two princesses were so frightened that they ran up to the top of the house and hid themselves on the flat roof, where they could look down on one side into the inner courtyard of the house, and from the other could see the open country. The rooftop was a favorite resort of the Ogre and his wife. Here they would sit on the hot summer evenings; here they winnowed the grain, and hung out the clothes to dry; and the two princesses found shelter behind some sheaves of corn that were waiting to be thrashed.
When the Ogre came into the house he looked around and said to his wife, “Somebody has been moving the furniture, everything looks different. Wife, did you do this?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t know who can have done all this.”
“Someone also has been cooking the rice,” continued the Ogre. “Wife, did you cook the rice?”
“No,” she answered. “I did not do it. I don’t know who did.”
Then the Ogre walked around and around several times with his nose up in the air, saying, “Someone is here now. I smell human flesh and blood! Where can they be?”
“Stuff and nonsense,” said the wife. “You smell flesh and blood, indeed! Why, with all the humans you killed only this morning, I should wonder if you didn’t still smell flesh and blood!”
They went on quarreling this way until the Ogre said, “Well, never mind, I don’t know how it is, but I’m very thirsty. Let’s go outside and drink some water.”
So both the Ogre and his wife went to a well close to the house, and begin letting down jars into it, and drawing up the water, and drinking it. And the princesses, who were on the top of the house, saw them. Now the younger of the two princesses was a very clever girl, and when she saw the Ogre and his wife by the well, she said to her sister, “I will do something now that will be good for us and good for everyone.” Running down quickly from the top of the house, she crept close behind the Ogre and his wife as they stood on top-toe more than half over the side of the well, and, catching hold of one of the Ogre’s heels with one hand with one of his wife’s with the other, gave each a mighty push, and down they both tumbled into the well and were drowned, the Ogre and the Ogre’s wife!
The princess then returned to her sister and said, “I killed the Ogres.”
“What, both of them?” cried her sister.
“Yes, both,” she said.
“Won’t they come back?” said her sister.
“Never,” answered she.
So the two princesses took possession of the house, and lived there very happily for a long time. In it they found heaps and heaps of rich clothes and jewels, gold and silver, which the Ogres had taken from people they had murdered, and all around the house were folds for the flocks and sheds for the herds of cattle which the Ogres owned. Every morning the youngest princess used to drive out the flocks and herds to pasture and return home with them every night, while the elder one stayed at home, cooked the dinner, and kept the house.
The younger princess, who was the wise one, would often say to her sister in the morning, “Take care that if you see any stranger (be it a man, woman, or child) come by the house, to hide, if possible, that nobody may know that we live here. If anyone should call out and ask for a drink of water, or any poor beggar ask for food, before you give it to them be sure you put on ragged clothes and cover your face with charcoal and make yourself as ugly-looking as possible. Otherwise, seeing how fair you are, they might steal you away and we would never meet again.”
“Very well,” her older sister would answer, “I will do as you advise.”
But a long time passed, and no one ever came by that way. At last one day, after the younger princess had gone out, an old Ranee (queen), the wife of a neighboring Rajah, who had been traveling for many days with her attendants, came near the place when searching for water (for she and her people had been seeking all through the jungle for a stream, but could find none). When the Ranee saw the fine palace, standing all by itself in the middle of the jungle, she was very much astonished and said, “It is a strange thing that anyone should have built such a house as this in the depths of the forest. Let us go in; the owners will doubtless give us a drink of water.”
“No, no, do not go,” cried her attendants. “This is most assuredly the house of an Ogre.”
“I should scarcely think anything very terrible lives here for there is not a sound stirring, nor a living creature to be seen.”
So she began tapping at the door, which was bolted, and called, “Will whoever owns this house give me and my people some water to drink?”
But nobody answered, for the princess, who heard her coming, was busy up in her room, blacking her face with charcoal and covering her rich dress with rags. Then the Ranee got impatient and shook the door, saying angrily, “Let me in, whoever you are! If you don’t, I’ll force the door open!”
At this the poor little princess got dreadfully frightened, and having blacked her face and made herself look as ugly as possible, she ran downstairs with a pitcher of water. Unbolting the door, she gave the Ranee the pitcher to drink from, but the maiden did not speak, for she was afraid. Now the Ranee was a very clever woman, and as she raised the pitcher to her mouth to drink the water, she thought to herself, “This is a very strange-looking creature who has brought me this jug of water. She would be pretty, but that her face seems to need washing, and her dress also is very untidy. What can that black stuff be on her face and hands? It looks very unnatural.” And so instead of drinking the water, she threw it in the princess’ face! The princess started back with a little cry while the water, trickling down her face, washed off the charcoal and showed her delicate features and beautiful complexion. The Ranee caught hold of her hand and said, “Now tell me true, who are you? Where do you come from? Who are your father and mother? And why are you here alone by yourself in the jungle? Answer me, or I’ll have your head cut off!” And she summoned one of her guards, who drew his sword. The princess was so terrified she could hardly speak, but as best she could, she told how she was the daughter of a king, and had run away into the jungle because of her cruel stepmother, and finding the house had lived there ever since, and, having finished her story, she began to cry.
Then the Ranee said to her, “Pretty child, forgive me for my roughness; do not fear; I will take you home with me. As the daughter of a Rajah you shall be a proper wife for my son.” But the more she spoke to the princess the more frightened the princess became, and could do nothing but cry.
Now the girl had said nothing to the queen about her sister, nor even told her that she had one, for she thought, “This Ranee says she will kill me; if she hears that I have a sister, they may kill her too.”
At last the Ranee said to one of her servants, “Place this young lady in one of the palanquins and we will set off for home.” And so they did.
When the princess found herself shut up in the palanquin and being carried she knew not where, she thought how terrible if would be for her sister to return home and find her gone, and determined, if possible, to leave some sign to show her which way she had been taken.
Round her neck were many strings of pearls. She untied them, and tearing her sari (robe) into little bits, tied one pearl in each piece of the sari, that it might be heavy enough to fall straight to the ground. And so she went on, dropping one pearl and then another and another, all the way she went along, until they reached the palace where the queen lived. She threw the last remaining pearl down just as they reached the palace gate.
The Ranee commanded her son to appear. When he did, she said, “My son, you have tarried long enough in choosing a bride. I told you that if you did not choose one for yourself I would find one for you and so I have. Here she is.” And she thrust the girl forward. She was still weeping and the prince could tell that she was hardly a willing bride. When they were alone, he whispered, “Fear not, maiden. I will postpone the wedding for as long as I can. And if the wedding must take place, you will not be forced to say or do anything you do not want to do.” But she barely heard him, thinking only of her sister, and too distraught and fearful to say or do anything else.
Meanwhile the younger princess, who had been out with her flocks when the queen took her sister away, had returned home. When she came back she found the door wide open and no one standing there. She thought it very odd, for her sister always came every night to the door to meet her on her return. She went upstairs; her sister was not there; the whole house was empty and deserted. There she must stay all alone, for the evening had closed in and it was impossible to go outside and seek her with any hope of success. So all night long she waited, crying, “Someone has been here, and they have stolen her away; they have stolen my darling away. Oh, sister! My sister!”
Next morning, very early, going out to continue the search, she found one of the pearls belonging to her sister’s necklace tied up in a small piece of sari. A little further on lay another, and yet another, all along the road the Ranee had gone. Then the princess understood that her sister had left this clue to guide her on her way, and she at once set off to find her. Very, very far she went – a two month’s journey through the jungle – for she could not travel fast, the many days’ walking tired her so much, and sometimes it took her two or three days just to find the next piece of sari with the pearl. At last she came near a large town, to which it was evident her sister had been taken. Now this young princess was very beautiful indeed – as beautiful as she was wise – and when she got near the town she thought to herself, “If people see me they may steal me away as they did my sister, and then I shall never find her again. I will disguise myself.” As she was thus thinking, she noticed by the side of the road a skeleton and a shriveled, dry fur of an old tiger. The princess took the skin and washed it, and drew it on over her own lovely face and neck, as one draws a glove on one’s hand. The skin was so old nothing remained of the shape of the tiger, and only a yellowish hue, and it hung on her the way an old woman’s skin might hang. Then she took a long stick and began hobbling along, leaning on it, toward the town.
On she went, picking up the pearls – one here, one there – until she found the last pearl just in front of the palace gate. Then she felt certain her sister must be somewhere near, but where, she did not know. She longed to go into the palace and ask for her, but no guards would have let such a wretched looking old woman enter, and she did not dare offer them any of the pearls she had with her, lest they should think she was a thief. So she determined merely to remain as close to the palace as possible, and wait till fortune favored her with the means of learning something further about her sister. Just opposite the palace was a small house belonging to a farmer, and the princess went up to it and stood by the door.
The farmer’s wife saw her and said, “Poor old woman, who are you? Why are you here? Have you no one in the world?”
“Alas, no,” answered the princess. “I am a poor old woman and have neither father nor mother, son nor daughter, sister nor brother, to take care of me; all are gone and I can only beg my bread from door to door.”
“Do not grieve, good mother,” answered the farmer’s wife, kindly. “You may sleep in the shelter of our porch and I will give you food.”
So the princess stayed there for that night and for many more; and every day the good farmer’s wife gave her food. But all this time she could learn nothing of her sister.
Now there was a large tank near the palace on which grew some fine lotus plants covered with rich crimson lotuses – the royal flower – and of these the Ranee was very fond indeed, and prized them very much. To this tank (because it was the nearest to the farmer’s house) the princess would go every morning, very early, almost before it was light, at about three o’clock, and take off the old tiger’s skin that helped her to look like an old woman, and wash it, and hang it out to dry; and wash her face and hands and bathe her feet in the cool water, and comb her beautiful hair. Then she would gather a lotus-flower (such as she had been accustomed to wear in her hair as a child) and put it on, so as to feel for a few minutes like herself again. Thus she would amuse herself. Afterwards, as soon as the wind had dried the old skin, she put it on again, threw away the lotus-flower, and hobbled back to the farmer’s door, before the sun was up.
After a time the Ranee discovered that someone had plucked some of her favorite lotus flowers. People were set to watch, and all the wise men in the kingdom put their heads together to try and discover the thief, but to no avail. At last, the excitement about this matter being very great, the queen’s younger son, a brave and noble young prince, said, “I will certainly discover this thief.”
It chanced that several fine trees grew round the tank. Into one of these the young prince climbed one evening, and there he watched all the night through, but with no more success than his predecessors. The lotus plants lay still in the moonlight, without so much as a thieving wind coming by to break off one of the flowers. The prince began to get very sleepy and thought the thief, whoever he might be, could not intend to return when, in the very early morning, before it was light, who should come down to the tank but an old woman he had often seen near the palace gate.
“Ah, ha!” thought the prince, “this then is the thief; but what can this queer old woman want with lotus flowers?” Imagine his astonishment when the old woman sat down on the steps of the tank and began pulling the skin off her face and arms! And from underneath the shriveled yellow skin came the loveliest face he had ever beheld! So fair, so fresh, so young, so gloriously beautiful, that appearing thus suddenly it dazzled the prince’s eyes like a flash of lightning! “Ah,” thought he, “can this be a woman or a spirit? A devil or an angel in disguise?”
The princess twisted up her glossy black hair and, plucking a red lotus, placed it in it, and dabbled her feet in the water, and amused herself by putting round her neck a string of the pearls that had been her sister’s necklace. Then, as the sun was rising, she threw away the lotus and, covering her face and arms again with the withered skin, went hastily away.
When the prince got home the first thing he said to his mother was, “Mother, I should like to marry that old woman who stands all day at the farmer’s gate, just opposite.”
“What?” cried the Ranee. “You are mad! Marry that skinny old thing? You cannot – you are a prince. Are there not enough princesses in all the world that you should wish to marry a wretched old beggar woman?”
But he answered, “Above all things I should like to marry that old woman. You know that I have ever been a dutiful and obedient son. In this matter, I pray you, grant me my desire.”
Seeing he was really in earnest about the matter, and that nothing she could say would alter his mind, she agreed; not, however, without telling him in no uncertain terms what a terrible mistake he was making, and sent out the guards, who fetched the old woman (who was really the princess in disguise) to the palace. There she was married to the prince as privately, and with as little ceremony as possible, for the Ranee wanted no one to know of the matter.
As soon as the wedding was over, the prince said to his wife, “Gentle wife, tell me how much longer you intend to wear that old skin? You had better take it off; do be so kind.”
The princess wondered how he knew of her disguise, or whether it was only a guess. She thought, “He seems kind, but if I take off this ugly skin, my husband will think me pretty and perhaps he will shut me up in the palace and never let me go away, and then I shall never be able to find my sister. No, I had better not take it off.” So she answered, “I don’t know what you mean. Nobody can change their skin.” This she mumbled as if she were a very old woman indeed, and had lost all her teeth and could not speak plain. At this the prince laughed very much to himself and thought, “I’ll wait and see how long this lasts.”
But the princess continued to keep on the old skin; only every morning at about three o’clock, before it was light, she would get up and wash it and put it on again. Then some time afterwards the prince, having found this out, got up softly one morning early and followed her to the next room, where she had washed the skin and placed it on the floor to dry. Stealing it, he ran away with the skin and threw it on the fire. So the princess, having no old skin to put on, was obliged to appear in her own likeness. As she walked forth, very sad at missing her disguise, her husband ran to meet her, smiling and saying, “How do you do, my dear? Where is your skin now?”
Soon the whole palace had heard the joyful news of the beautiful young wife that the prince had won, and all the people when they saw her, cried, “Why, she is exactly like the beautiful princess our young prince married, the jungle lady.”
The younger prince took her to introduce his bride to his older brother’s wife. No sooner did the princess enter her sister-in-law’s room, than she saw that in her she had found her lost sister, and they ran into each other’s arms. Great then was the joy of all, but the happiest of all these happy people were the two princesses who were at last re-united, and they lived together in peace and joy their whole lives long.
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Retold by Elaine L. Lindy from the story "The Raksha's Palace" from Old Deccan Days by Mary Frere, published 1868, pp.215-227. Copyright ©2006. All rights reserved.