The Wonderful Cowherd

A Santhal Pargana Tale

translated by Cecil Henry Bompas

Once upon a time there was a Rājā who had seven daughters. The seven princesses used to bathe daily in a tank and when they bathed they used to put the scrapings from their bodies in a hole in the ground. From this hole there grew a tree, and the eldest princess announced that she would marry the man who could tell her what had caused the tree to grow; many suitors came and made guesses but none divined the truth; heir father was anxious that she should be married, and insisted on every one in the kingdom being questioned. At last a miserable, poverty stricken and sickly cowherd was asked; he had always grazed his cattle on the banks of the tank and had often seen the princesses bathing so he knew from what the tree had spring. The princess being bound by her oath had to marry the miserable cowherd and go and live with him in his hut.

All day long the cowherd used to be groaning in sickness and misery; but at night he used to come out of his skin and appear as a beautiful and shining man; in this form he used to go and play and dance in the moonlight in the court yard of the Rājā’s palace. One night the princess’s maid-servant saw her master return and creep into his ugly skin; she told her mistress who resolved to keep watch the next night; when she saw her husband assume his shining form and go out of the house leaving his ugly skin lying on the ground, she took the skin and burnt it in the fire. Immediately her husband came rushing back declaring that he was suffering the agonies of burning; but the skin was burnt and the former cowherd retained his glorious and shining appearance; and on the application of oil the pain of the burning ceased. The princess then began to live with pleasure in the company of so glorious a husband, who however only went out of the house at night as his body was too bright for ordinary eyes to look upon.

It began however to be whispered about among the neighbours that a shining being was to be seen at the princess’s house and the rumour eventually reached the ears of the Rājā. The Rājā sent a messenger to see who the being was, but when the messenger saw the shining man he was blinded and driven out of his senses and returned to the Rājā in a state of madness. Two or three other messengers successively met the same fate. At length the Rājā resolved to go himself; when he saw the shining form of his son-in-law he fell down in a faint; the princess’s husband ran and lifted up the Rājā in his arms and revived him. After this the former cowherd became only bearably bright, and being recognized as the heir to the kingdom went to live with his wife in the Rājā palace.