There once lived a goala, a cowherd who was known to be the kindest and gentlest young man in his tribe. He looked after his cattle well and every day, when the sun was too hot for them, he would herd them under a peepal tree for their midday rest. The tree had been watching him carefully and one day it decided to speak to the young man
‘If you can give me milk every day, pour it into my roots’, said the peepal to the cowherd, ‘I will grant you a boon.’
The young man, always obedient and always happy to receive a boon, did as the tree asked. At noon, each day, as he brought his cows to rest, he would give the tree its share of milk. One day, as he had finished his daily routine, he saw the ground under the tree cracking. At first he thought that the roots having grown bulky with all the milk being poured were bursting out into the open. But then he saw a huge snake buried inside which, due to its daily diet of cow’s milk, had grown too fat for its hole in the ground. He was a little afraid, truth be told, but that did not stop him from feeding the tree or, as it turned out, the snake.
One afternoon, as the cowherd stepped back having poured the milk into the ground, the snake uncoiled itself and rose like a giant from the ground. The young man shrank in fear as he was sure that the snake would make a meal out of him. Sensing the man’s terror, the snake decided to speak to him.
‘Do not be afraid’, said the snake to the cowherd. ‘You have helped me break free of years of bondage and for that I will grant you a boon.’
The poor frightened cowherd did not know what boon to ask for and so he asked that the snake to bestow upon him what he thought best. The snake called him near and blew a gust of warm air upon his head and no sooner had he done that, his hair which was thick and long, turned into gold.
‘The golden hair on your head will help you get a good wife’, said the snake to the cowherd. ‘And you will be very powerful, so powerful that whatever you say will happen.’
The cowherd was not sure what that meant so he asked: ‘What sort of things will happen?’
‘If you say a man shall die he will die and if you say he shall come to life, he will come to life’, answered the snake. ‘But you must not tell this to anyone; not even to your wife when you marry; if you do the power will vanish.’
The cowherd went about his life, not expecting much to come out of the boon and yet hoping that something would. One day as he bathed in the river, one strand of his long golden hair came loose. On a whim, he wrapped it in a leaf and set it afloat. The leaf carrying the hair tumbled downstream where a princess was bathing with her attendants. As the leaf drifted towards them, the attendants tried to pull it out of the water but it went straight to the princess. Intrigued, the princess opened the tiny bundle and found a shiny strand of hair.
The princess tied it up in a piece of cloth took it home with her. She measured it; it was 12 fathoms long. She knew instantly that she had to meet the owner of this unusually long golden hair and if it were a man, he would be her husband and if it were a woman, she would be her closest friend. And she locked herself up in her room and refused to step out or eat until the person was found.
The Raja and the Rani, her father and her mother, were troubled. But they assured their daughter that the person whose hair had floated down to her as she bathed in the river would be found. And true to their word, they sent an army of messengers to hunt for the person whose golden hair had captivated their daughter’s heart. The messengers went everywhere, knocked on every door and spoke to every tree and flowing stream but they could not find the cowherd. But the princess was adamant. Without her golden haired friend, she would not live. She would hang herself she declared. Hearing her speak thus, her pet crow and pet parrot who had been chained to the perch of her window, spoke to her.
‘The man with the golden hair lives deep inside the forest’, said the birds to the princess. ‘If he had lived in a village they would have found him. If he had lived by the river, they would have found him. If he had lived on a tree, they would have found him but they will never be able to go deep into the heart of the forest. We alone can fetch him. So unfasten our chains and we will go in search of him.’
The king immediately ordered their release and he gave them a good meal before they flew out on their mission because they could not carry any provisions with them. After all they were birds and not men.
The crow and parrot sped through the air. Free as they were meant to be, they soared high with the wind until they saw the cowherd resting under the peepal tree. They sat down on a branch and discussed how they could get the cowherd to their princess. The parrot had an idea. But he was afraid of the cattle standing below the tree and so he asked the crow for help.
‘Fly down’, the parrot said to the crow, ‘and take his flute and when he chases you, fly further.’
The crow agreed readily. He swooped down, onto the back of a cow and then hopped from one cow to another until the flute lay on the ground right under his beak. In one swift movement, the crow picked it up and flew high and far, as fast as its wings could flap. The cowherd yelled and shouted but the crow flew higher and higher. The cowherd chased the crow who, lured him further and further away, by flitting from one tree to another. When the crow was tired, the parrot took over and between the two birds, they drew him far from his home in the forest, into the palace and into the princess’s room.
Their work done, the birds handed the flute over to the princess who was overjoyed to see a golden haired boy standing in front of her.
‘Give me my flute’ said the cowherd to the princess.
‘Only if you marry me’, said the princess to the cowherd.
But how could that be asked the cowherd when they had never been betrothed. The princess gently reminded him about the day that his hair had come floating down the river, wrapped in a leaf. The leaf had sought her out and the hair was the go-between that had arranged this marriage, she said.
It all came back in a flash to the cowherd and he then recalled how the snake had told him that his hair would find him a good wife. He asked to see the floating strand and when he saw that it was his, he said, ‘We belong to each other’.
The princess opened the doors to her room and announced the wedding to her waiting parents. Also, she warned, if they did not let them marry, they would elope and never come back. So a day was set and a wedding was arranged. Everything went to plan and soon the princess was happily married to the cowherd.
Soon the cowherd fell so deeply in love with his wife that he forgot everything else, even his herd of cattle. But a few days or, maybe months later, when he thought about them waiting in the forest with no one to look after them he felt terrible. ‘I must go back to my cows’, he said to his wife. His wife said that she would go with him and they went to the king to let him of know of their decision. The king arranged for a grand farewell feast for the couple and gave the cowherd half his kingdom and a son’s share of elephants and cattle. And the kind king said: ‘Go to your home in the forest if you want. Or if you want you stay here. I shall never turn you out of my kingdom.’
The cowherd thought about the king’s offer and said that he would stay back in his kingdom but that he would have to go see his cattle first. They must be pining for him. So the next day the couple set out for the forest where to their dismay they found the entire herd of cattle dead. The cowherd began to weep but then he remembered the boon that the snake had given him and he had an idea. He told his wife that he would use some jungle roots to bring his cows back to life and so he went in search of some leaves and herbs and held it to the noses of the dead animals, whispering to them, ‘Come back to life.’ At once the cows rose and the cowherd was overjoyed.
The cowherd was loud and exuberant in his gratitude to the snake. For without him and the peepal tree, he would have had no life at all. He filled a large vessel with milk and poured it at the foot of the tree. The snake heard his prayers and came out of the hole and blessed the couple. He also breathed upon the head of the princess and her hair too turned bright as gold. The couple then collected their cattle and made their way back to the palace where they lived in peace.
All went well for a few years. But the cowherd had a thought that troubled him deeply. The snake was like his father and mother but he had come away in such a hurry after their last meeting. He owed the snake a lot more he thought and so he went back to the forest to make amends. But the snake was gone and when he asked the peepal tree about its whereabouts, there was no answer. The poor golden haired cowherd returned home to his golden haired wife, disappointed.
TEXT SOURCE: Folklore of the Santal Parganas by Cecil Henry Bompas
Cecil Henry Bompas published Folklore of the Santal Parganas. London: D. Nutt, 1909, compiled from stories collected by P. O. Bodding
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