“Bajai,” as we called grandmother, was the best storyteller in the whole world, says Madhu Gurung. She lived in the foothills of Mussoorie in a tiny village called Johri Gaun. And she always started her stories with a saying, “To the listener a garland of gold, to the storyteller a garland of all forest flowers and this tale that I tell you today will be heard in heaven.” Here Madhu Gurung presents one of the many stories that she heard from Bajai in her childhood.
Once upon a time, in the mountain kingdom of Gandrung, close to the foothills of Machapuchare (the fish-tail mountain in Pokhra, Nepal) there lived a King and Queen.
They had no children and all their prayers for a child were in vain. Often the King would worry about who would rule the kingdom after him.
Seeing him worried and unhappy, the Queen started a rumour.
She spread the word that she was going to have a baby.
The whole kingdom rejoiced.
The Queen also said that she did not want the King to see her in a pregnant state. The King readily agreed, overjoyed at the thought of becoming a father soon.
He built her a fine palace where the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting lived. The palace was built on the top of a hill, surrounded by flaming red rhododendron trees. Every morning, the Queen could be spotted taking a walk on the palace roof top seeing the sunrise paint the fish-tail mountain with gold, orange and bright fuchsia pink.
Exactly nine months later, the Queen announced that she had given birth to a healthy son whom she named Bir Bahadur.
The King rushed to see his son but the Queen stopped him, saying that it would bring the prince bad luck if he saw the child. So, the King returned to his own palace with a heavy heart and sent hordes of gifts for his son.
From time to time, the King would hear of how well his son was growing and how intelligent and handsome he was.
When the prince was five years old, the Queen asked for a tutor to teach him horse riding and archery. So a Guru was sent to the Queen.
The King constantly tried to see the young prince but the Queen always denied him access. She kept informing him from time to time how well the prince was growing up.
When the prince was 21 years old, the Queen sent word to the king saying that it was time he looked for a match for the prince. The King was very happy.
The neighbouring king had a beautiful daughter, whose name was Mohini.
The marriage between Prince Bir and Princess Mohini was fixed and there was great joy and celebration all around.
The Queen insisted that the prince be taken in a closed palanquin carried by four muscled men. The King agreed and the marriage procession started with great fanfare.
The Queen put a sword inside the palanquin. She had decided that once her secret was discovered she would kill herself…
With the prince’s palanquin she sent her trusted aide, who knew about her secret.
The procession travelled through a huge forest and camped by a river at night.
On that night, the snake prince Nag and his wife Nagin slithered by the bushes near the river, looking at the marriage procession with interest.
“Do you know whose barat it is?” asked Nag.
Nagin smiled in the darkness and said, “Yes I know, it is the marriage procession of the handsome prince Bir Bahadur.”
The snake laughed and his tongue licked the air.
“There is no one inside the palanquin,” said Nag. “The prince is a figment of the Queen’s imagination. Once her secret is out she will kill herself.”
Nagin felt very unhappy when she heard about how the Queen had kept the secret for so many years, just to keep the King happy. The thought that the Queen had no alternative but to kill herself saddened Nagin.
Now, Nag had magical powers. He could take any form he wanted. So Nagin persuaded Nag to take on the form of the prince and help the old Queen.
Nag agreed after a great deal of persuasion. “Come back to me after a week,” said Nagin as Nag took the form of a handsome prince. He nodded, making his way silently to the Prince’s tent. “Don’t forget me dear Nag,” Nagin whispered in the dark. Nag raised his hand in farewell.
The next day, the barat reached Princess Mohini’s palace.
There was a great deal of festivity in the air. Everyone gasped aloud as the prince stepped out of the palanquin. He was tall, well built and very handsome.
The king was the happiest of them all. He was seeing his son after 21 years. He hugged his son with tears in his eyes and joy in his heart.
The marriage took place with a lot of merry making.
The next day, the barat returned to Gandrung and camped at the same river side. Nagin looked for Nag but he was always surrounded by people. He looked at home with all the people. By his side sat the beautiful Princess Mohini and often Nagin saw he was unable to look away from his new wife. She was very beautiful indeed.
Nagin could not get to speak to him at all.
On the barat’s return the prince was welcomed by the old Queen who thought that God had answered her prayers by sending the handsome prince to her.
She watched with immense happiness as the young prince and the princess settled down to married bliss.
The prince fell deeply in love with his beautiful bride and was totally enamoured by her. They were inseparable.
The prince had forgotten his snake wife, Nagin. He was too much in love with his new wife.
He built a new palace with very smooth walls which even an ant could not climb. In his own way, he was leaving his old life behind.
The Nagin waited for the prince by the river side and as days became weeks and weeks turned into months, she pined for him and hoped he would return.
But he did not.
At last, Nagin decided to visit the kingdom of Gandrung. There, she saw the palace the prince had built. She tried to climb the walls of the palace but fell down, hurting herself. She cried and settled down by the bushes. At dusk, she saw the handsome prince strolling with Princess Mohini. Seeing him, she climbed the wall again.
She tried numerous times and with great difficulty climbed the smooth slippery walls of the palace. Slowly and stealthily she made her way to the chamber of the prince and saw him sleeping with the princess.
He looked so handsome and contented and so much at peace. For a long while, she sat there and her tears fell unchecked. The princess’ long black hair fell like thick thunder clouds around her lovely face. Nagin slithered slowly into the princess’s hair and in her grief she twirled round and round and killed herself by suffocation.
The sleeping princess woke up suddenly with a start. She felt something entangled in her hair, jerked her head and the dead Nagin fell on the floor. The prince woke up and heard the princess cry out in fright.
When he saw his dead Nagin on the floor, he was flooded with a deep sense of loss and remorse. He knew at once that his broken promise was what had led her to kill herself.
Silently, he picked up her broken body, wrapped her around his neck and left the room without a backward glance.