This happened a long long time ago. In a small village in southern Orissa, there lived an old woodcutter.
One day, when he was going to the forest to cut wood, he met the tiger. The woodcutter stopped in his tracks on seeing the king of the jungle. But, strangely enough, the tiger did not roar on seeing the woodcutter. He remained silent. The woodcutter was baffled. How was he to know that the tiger was blind?
The tiger had become old and was suffering from long sight. No doctor in jungledom had been able to cure him. Since he had lived in the jungle all his life, he knew all the roads by heart. Like any other blind person, he used his olfactory sense or the sense of smell, to find his way.
The tiger initially missed the woodcutter. But he soon smelt a human presence in the air around him.
“Who’s that,” he growled. “Just because I’ve grown old, you think you can come here as and when you please. I’m still capable of gouging your liver out,” he threatened.
By now the woodcutter was shivering with fear. He spoke in a humble tone: “No, Sir, you are the undisputed king of the ungle. There was no wood at home to cook food, so I came to the jungle. If you’ll permit me…”
His tone won the tiger’s heart. “You sound like a good man. You can take as much wood as you want. But, after you are done, come over to my house. I want to talk to you.” The woodcutter promised he would.
While cutting wood, the woodcutter wondered what the tiger wanted to talk to him about. Or, was it a trap? Since he had promised, he decided to go.
But when he reached the tiger’s lair, he realised his fears were baseless. The tiger actually wanted to talk.
He complained about his old age and his eyesight. He said he could not go hunting anymore. “Look at me, I’ve become a bag of bones without food,” he cried. The woodcutter asked if he could help him get some food.
“If you could find some way to cure my eyes, that will be of great help,” replied the tiger.
“And don’t think that I’ll forget this favour. We animals are more particular about returning favours than humans can ever be.”
The woodcutter agreed to help him. Like most old men in the Kondh tribe, he knew a lot about plants and their medicinal properties. He asked the tiger to accompany him to the stream, where the medicinal plant grew.
The tiger held on to the woodcutter’s clothes as he was led to the stream. The woodcutter found the medicinal plant on the bank of the stream, crushed its root with a stone and squeezed the juice into the tiger’s eyes.
And, after about an hour, the tiger was able to see. He was thrilled. He hugged the woodcutter and even licked his feet.
From that day, the woodcutter and the tiger became great friends. So much so that they started living in the same place.
Life was good. The tiger spotted prey with his renewed eyesight, and brought back deer, rabbits and what not. He always cut out a share for the woodcutter and had the leftovers himself. There was no reason for the woodcutter to work any more.
He would sleep all day and wait for the tiger to come back in the evening. And, everyday he would make a meat soup for dinner. The good food began to show on him. He put on weight and began looking like a young man.
One day, the two friends were chatting after dinner. The tiger noticed that the woodcutter did not look old anymore. “Who could say that you looked so old a few months ago?”
“This is nothing. Soon I’ll become strong enough to beat you in a wrestling match,” the woodcutter boasted.
“When you become like me, I won’t go hunting anymore. I’ll feed on you for some days. And, by the look of it, I can feast for quite a long time,” the tiger said in jest.
The woodcutter turned pale.
“Good God, I’m mad to have trusted this animal. After all, a creature with nails and horns is not to be trusted,” he thought. He decided to get rid of the tiger.
One day, he came upon what he thought was a great idea. He dug a deep hole on the path the tiger took everyday and covered it with grass.
The poor tiger had not foreseen this change of heart in the woodcutter. That day, when he returned home, he fell right into the ditch. And try as he might, he could not get out.
He realised that it was his friend’s doing. “I was just joking. How could you think that I would eat you,” he said.
“We animals are not vindictive by nature. If I have to die, I’ll die. But, you can benefit even from my death. After I’m dead, cut my body into parts and bury them separately. I’ll prove useful to you even after I’m gone.”
The woodcutter heard his friend’s words. But, he kept silent. And the tiger slowly starved to death.
But, after the tiger’s death, the woodcutter was repentant. He had killed someone who had been a true friend to him. Then he remembered the tiger’s last words and did as instructed. He cut the animal’s body into parts and buried them in different places. After a few days, he went and dug up those places. He was shocked by what he saw.
The tiger’s head had turned into a huge pot, his torso into a brass container, his legs had turned into silver rods and his tail had turned into gold.
The woodcutter sold all the stuff and became rich. He helped everyone who was poor in the village. Soon, he forgot that he was once a poor woodcutter. But he could never forget one person: his old friend, the tiger.
And whenever he remembered him, his eyes would shine with unshed tears.