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An 18th century manuscript page of Panchatantra, a collection of Indian folktales
An 18th century manuscript page of Panchatantra, a collection of Indian folktales | © Philadelphia Museum of Arts / WikiCommons
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7 Fascinating Indian Folk Tales

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Updated: 27 March 2018
Whether it is to preserve history or provide moral lessons, ancient folk tales have served a much bigger purpose that just entertaining people. Here are some famous and fascinating stories that have enlightened generations of Indians.

Baital Pachisi

Baital Pachisi is believed to be one of the oldest vampire stories from India. King Vikram once promised a tantric sorcerer that he’d capture a baital (a spirit with vampire like qualities) and bring it to him. But every time Vikram caught the baital, the spirit would escape by posing a riddle. The deal between the two was that if at the end of every puzzle, Vikram was unable to answer the question correctly, the spirit would willingly be taken prisoner. If Vikram knew the answer but still stayed silent, his head would explode into a thousand pieces, and if the king answered correctly, the baital was free to get away.

This cycle continued 24 times as Vikram, being a wise man, could solve every riddle, which mostly concerned philosophical questions about life. Finally, Vikram was unable to answer the 25th question and the baital kept his promise of being taken captive.

On the way to the tantric’s, the spirit revealed that he was actually a prince. He also said that it was the sorcerer’s plan all along to sacrifice the baital’s soul so that he could attain immortality, and that Vikram too would be killed in the process. The spirit advised the king on how to outwit the tantric and save both their lives. After Vikram assassinated the evil sorcerer, the baital cleansed him of all his sins, and he also vowed to come to his aid whenever needed.

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Baital Pachisi is one of the oldest vampire stories from India | © Junior Diamond

The Wedding of the Mouse

Once a sage was bathing in a river when a hawk dropped a mouse it was holding in its claws right onto his hands. Afraid that the hawk would pounce on the mouse if he left it alone, the sage transformed the small animal into a beautiful baby girl and took her home to his wife. Since the couple did not have a child of their own, they adopted the baby, thinking her to be a blessing from god.

When the girl reached a marriageable age, the sage and his wife decided to find the best husband for their daughter. So the proud father took his daughter to the Sun God. However, the girl refused to marry him. Similarly, the sage met with the King of Cloud, the Lord of Winds and the Lord of Mountains. But the daughter dismissed all of them, despite their mighty powers. Finally the Lord of Mountains suggested that the King of Mice was far superior to him, since the latter could bore hills all over him. When the sage’s daughter met the King of Mice, she immediately agreed to the union. Then the father transformed his daughter back to a female mouse and the happy couple got married.

This story is from Panchatantra, collection of fables from ancient India written in Sanskrit. The moral of the story is that our innate nature can never change, despite external appearances.

Sulasa and Sattuka

The story of Sulasa and Sattuka is from the famous Jataka tales, a lengthy work of literature that talks about Gautama Buddha’s previous births.

Once there lived a beautiful prostitute named Sulasa. One day, she saw a group of soldiers dragging a man towards the place of execution, and instantly fell in love with him. That man was the feared robber Sattuka. Sulasa hurriedly sent a thousand gold pieces to the chief constable in exchange for Sattuka’s freedom. She then married him and promised to give up her old life. After a blissful few months of marriage, Sattuka realised that he wasn’t the type to be tied down to a single place or person. He decided to kill his wife, steal all her ornaments and flee town.

The next day he lied to Sulasa, saying that he had promised a deity on top of a mountain that he’d make offerings if he managed to escape execution. He then made Sulasa put on all her ornaments out of respect to the deity, and took her to the mountain top. When they reached the summit, he revealed his evil plan. Salusa was shocked but she was quick to think on her feet as well. She told Sattuka that she wanted to pay obeisance to her husband from all four sides for the very last time. She knelt in front of him, then on the left and right sides, but when she stepped behind him she took hold of Sattuka and threw him over a cliff. Seeing this, the deity who lived on the mountain said:

‘Wisdom at times is not confined to men / A woman can chew wisdom now and then. / Wisdom at times is not confined to men / Women are quick in counsel now and then.’

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A manuscript from Jataka tales which has many stories about Gautama Buddha’s previous births | © Hiart / WikiCommons

Between Two Wives

A middle-aged man had two wives, one about the same age as him and the other much younger. Since the wives quarreled a lot, the man built two houses for each of them in different parts of town. They came to a mutual agreement that the man would stay with each of them on alternate days. Whenever he stayed with the younger wife, she plucked out his grey hair, as she wanted her husband to look younger. When he stayed with his first wife, she plucked out all his dark hair, as she didn’t want him to look any younger than herself. As a result, the poor man ended up without a single hair on his head.

The Mongoose and the Farmer’s Wife

One day a farmer and his wife were blessed with a son. They decided to get a mongoose as a companion for him. A few months later, the couple had to go out, leaving their son at home. While the wife was worried about leaving the baby alone, the farmer assured her that the mongoose would look after him while they were away.

The farmer’s wife returned earlier than her husband and found that the mongoose’s mouth was stained with blood. She immediately accused the animal of killing her child, and in a fit of rage threw a heavy box at the mongoose. She then rushed in to check on her son, but what she found was a dead snake lying in the room while her baby was safe and sound. Seeing this, the farmer’s wife realised that the mongoose had actually saved her son’s life. Realising her mistake, she went out to see if the animal was all right, but it was too late and the mongoose had breathed its last. She was absolutely heartbroken and reproached herself for her actions.

This is another Panchatantra tale, and the story is often told to children to teach them how acting in haste can have dire consequences.

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Tales from Panchatantra carved on the walls of Nalanda Temple, Bihar | © G41rn8 / WikiCommons

Akbar and Birbal

Birbal was one of the navratnas (nine jewels) in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court. These gentlemen were considered to be extraordinary intellectuals and artists. Birbal was known for his wit, and in time, tales about his astuteness spread far and wide. Stories about Birbal getting the better of jealous rival courtiers and his repartee with Akbar are loved by one and all in India. Here’s one such tale about Birbal.

One day Akbar drew a line on the floor with his hand. He then commanded everyone present make the line shorter without erasing any part of it. One after another the courtiers tried to solve the puzzle, but no one could make sense of it. However, it was soon Birbal’s turn and he just drew another longer line next to the first one. Thus, he made the line drawn by Akbar shorter without ever having touched it. Akbar and his courtiers were once again forced to acknowledge Birbal’s unsurpassable wit.

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Birbal’s was the only courtier to get a special home near Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri | © Bahuln89 / WikiCommons

Tenali Rama’s Dream

Tenali Rama is another historic personality known for his wit and humour. He was a poet at the court of Krishnadevaraya, a 16th century monarch of the Vijayanagara Empire in South India. Like Birbal, folktales about Tenali Rama spread far and wide. Today, he’s considered one of the most beloved characters in Indian history.

One day the king decided to have some fun at Tenali Rama’s expense. In front of the entire court he announced that he had had a very strange dream the previous night. He said that during a walk, he and Tenali Rama came across two pits. One was filled with honey and the other was a cesspool. While the king plunged into the one filled with honey, Tenali Rama tumbled into the cesspool. The courtiers were delighted to hear this as they all envied Tenali Rama’s cleverness. They started laughing out loud and clapping at the king’s joke.

The next day, Tenali Rama arrived at court and revealed that he had had a very similar dream the previous night. He said that while the king managed to get out of the honey pit, he himself struggled a lot to get out of the cesspool. But finally he managed to escape and reach the ground. However, neither of them could go back home in that sorry state, so they came up with an idea. While the poet licked off the honey from the king’s body, the latter too cleaned off Tenali Rama in the same way. Everybody in the court, including the king, were stumped.

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Tenali Rama is one of the most beloved characters from Indian history | © Young Learner Publications