The Origin of Sabai Grass (Ischaemum Angustifolium)

A Santhal Pargana Tale

translated by Cecil Henry Bompas

Once upon a time there were six brothers who lived with their sister. The brothers used to spend their days in the jungle hunting while the sister minded the house and cooked the dinner against their return.

One day while the brothers were hunting the girl went to cut herbs to cook with the dinner: as she was doing so she chanced to cut her finger and some drops of blood fell on the herbs, which were put in the pot. When the brothers came home to dinner they noticed how very sweet the food was and asked the reason. The girl said that she was afraid that it must be because some drops of her blood had fallen on it. Then the brothers took counsel together and agreed that if a few drops of her blood were so sweet, she must be very nice to eat. So they agreed to murder her and eat her. But the youngest brother named Lita, though he did not dare to oppose his elders, was sorry for the decision. The next day when the brothers came from the jungle they brought with them a beautiful flower of seven colours and gave it to their sister. She was delighted with it: she had never seen so beautiful a flower before and wanted to know where it grew and whether were others like it. They said that if she liked to come with them they would take her to the tree on which the flowers grew and she could pick as many as she liked. So the next morning she gladly went with them and they took her to the tree with the seven-coloured flowers. She climbed the tree to pick the flowers and when she was up in the tree they shot arrows at her to kill her; but though they shot many arrows they could not kill her. Then they compelled Lita to shoot and he with his first arrow killed his sister.

Then they cut up the body of the girl ready for cooking and sent Lita to a well to fetch water in which to cook the flesh. Lita went to the well and overcome with sorrow sat down and wept. As he wept a large frog came to the surface of the water and asked him what was the matter; he said that he had been made to kill his sister and that now they were going to cook her flesh. The frog told him to be comforted and gave him a large rohu fish. Lita took this back and when his brothers told him to cook the food, he hid the pieces of his sister’s body and cooked the rohu fish. The brothers ate this thinking that it was their sister. Then they went on into the jungle hunting. After going a short way Lita said that he had forgotten to recover his arrow and that he must go back and fetch it. He went back to the place, and taking his sister’s body buried it and building a hut near, spent the days in weeping over the grave. After he had spent some time thus the girl appeared alive out of the ground. Lita was overjoyed and he and his sister remained happily in the jungle.

One day a Rājā hunting in the jungle passed that way and seeing the girl at once fell in love with her and took her away and married her. Lita he also took with him and made him ruler of half the kingdom.

In honour of his marriage the Rājā resolved to construct an enormous tank: and people came from far and near to work at it. Among others came Lita’s five elder brothers, who had fallen into great poverty, owing to their wickedness. When their sister saw them she forgave them and sending for them bestowed on them food and clothing. But they were so ashamed and repentant that they could only kneel on the ground and beat the earth with their hands. As they continued to do so the earth opened and swallowed them up: only their hair stuck out of the ground and that became sabai grass, and this was the origin of all the sabai grass which exists.