The Unique Twelve – Origin 2

In last week’s Folk Tale Fiesta, we saw how Vararuchi had answered King Vikramaditya’s question with the help of the forest goddesses, but was worried about their prediction that he would marry a poor, low born girl. This story tells us the evil plan he hatched to ensure that the prediction did not come true. But did he succeed? Read on to find out.

After he had been feted for answering the KingVikramaditya’s question, Vararuchi said that he wanted to tell the king something that was bothering him.

“Speak up, Vararuchi. What is it that is making you anxious?” asked the king.     

“I’m afraid for the welfare of the whole kingdom, Your Majesty,” said Vararuchi putting on a very worried expression.

“Welfare of the whole kingdom? Tell me what it is and we will spare no effort to ensure that the kingdom continues to prosper.”

“Your Majesty,” said Vararuchi, rejoicing in his heart that the plan was going the way he wanted it to, but still wearing a grim expression. “When I was wandering in the forest in search of the answer to your question, I overheard a group of tree goddesses make a prediction.” He stopped to watch what effect his words had had on the king.

“Yes, please continue, dear Vararuchi. What did you overhear?” The king was dying with curiosity and concern for the welfare of his subjects.

“O noble king,” continues Vararuchi, happy that he had the king’s full attention. “The tree goddesses said that a certain girl child born in a poor village deep inside the forest would bring destruction on the kingdom.”

The king was in a dilemma. “How can we destroy a small child, Vararuchi? It is against the shastras. And not just that, the child is a girl and it would be doubly sinful to endanger a girl baby. But yet the welfare and prosperity of my kingdom are also my duty as I am their king.”

The king asked Vararuchi for guidance. “You are a very learned person, Vararuchi, tell me what I should do?”

Vararuchi had been waiting for this. He had his reply ready. “Of course we cannot kill a helpless infant,” he said, suddenly businesslike, “and that too a girl child. But we can deport her. There is no harm in that. But the sastras prescribe a particular method of deportation…” He lapsed into silence.

“What is the method Vararuchi? Tell us and we shall see that it is followed without a moment’s delay.”

“Well, the stem of a full grown banana plant should be split lengthwise and tied together. The baby should be laid in this. Then a burning torch should be attached to the head of the infant and the whole apparatus should be set afloat down the river. In this way we will not be guilty of committing a sin.”   

The king called two of his most trusted guards and ordered them to do as Vararuchi had instructed. By that very evening the orders had been carried out. Vararuchi smiled secretly in glee that he had outwitted the tree goddesses and now their prediction would never come true because if the baby did not drown, then she would surely be burnt.

Years passed by and Vararuchi decided to go on a pilgrimage to a distant temple town. He reached the place as night fell and entered a Brahmin’s house intending to spend the night there. He decided to visit the temple next morning. The Brahmin was delighted to have such a distinguished guest. Though he did not know who Vararuchi was, he guessed that he was wealthy and influential from the expensive silk of his dhoti and the jewels on his person.

Vararuchi glanced round the house and at once knew that though high born like him, the Brahmin was poor.

“My humble home is honoured to have a guest like you, sir,” said the Brahmin. “Please have your bath. The river is close by. Then my daughter will serve supper.”

Vararuchi was suddenly seized by an impish desire to test the Brahmin’s knowledge. Looking very serious he said, “If I am to have my supper at your house, I have certain conditions that must be fulfilled. I don’t know whether you will be able to…” His voice trailed off expressing his doubt.

“May I know what those conditions are?” said the Brahmin humbly.

“Oh… just these,” said Vararuchi casually. “After my bath I have to have the finest silk dhoti to wear. I eat my meal only after serving food to a thousand people. I want a hundred different curries for my meal. Not just that after my meal I’m in the habit of eating three people and then four people will have to carry me. That’s all,” he finished laughing inwardly at the bewildered expression on the Brahmin’s face who maintained a stupefied silence. But a young woman’s voice could be heard from the inner rooms.

“Father, please ask the gentleman to proceed to the river for his bath. All the things he has demanded are available here,” she said sweetly.  

Vararuchi was immediately attracted to that melodious voice but as a well-mannered man he pretended not to have heard the lady. He remained silent. The Brahmin, though confused, repeated his daughter’s words. Vararuchi left to have his bath.

Immediately a beautiful young woman emerged from the inner rooms of the house and spoke soothingly to her father, the Brahmin. “Father, do not worry. I’ll explain. When he asked for the best silk to wear, he only meant that he needed piece of cloth to be worn as thong under his dhoti. Serving a thousand people before a meal means praying for the grace of the gods – it gives you the benefit equivalent to serving food to a thousand people. A hundred dishes means he wants to have ginger pickle. Ginger is supposed to have the same value as a hundred curries. By wanting to eat three people after the meal, he only meant that he wanted to chew betel leaves with areca nut and slaked lime. Asking for four people to carry him means that he wants to lie down on a cot after having supper. Doesn’t the cot have four legs and don’t they carry us while we are asleep, Father?”

When she finished explaining thus the Brahmin was delighted and praised her wisdom and learning and asked her to make the necessary arrangements before the guest arrived after his bath. Vararuchi arrived eager to know to whom the melodious voice belonged and also keen to find out whether his demands had been understood.

As soon as he stepped into the guest room he saw a clean piece of cloth laid on his travel bundle which he picked up and tied around his waist thong-like and then proceeded to wear his dhoti. He found water in a small vessel, flowers and sandalwood paste neatly arranged on a tray for his worship (serving a thousand people). On completing his worship he entered the hall where the Brahmin’s beautiful daughter served them a simple meal on banana leaves. Vararuchi noticed that ginger pickle was served.                

After the meal when he emerged on to the veranda his host, offered him betel leaves, areca nut and slaked lime arranged on a tray (three people to eat). After making light conversation with his host Vararuchi entered the guest room and found that a straw mat had been spread neatly on a cot. Realizing that it was the Brahmin’s daughter who had easily interpreted his outlandish demands correctly and knowing that the girl had to have deep learning and intelligence to be able to do so; Vararuchi decided to ask her hand in marriage.

After his visit to the temple the next day, Vararuchi asked the Brahmin for his daughter’s hand. The Brahmin agreed. At the next auspicious day they were married and Vararuchi left with his wife for the capital city. It had been some weeks now since he had left it.                    

Vararuchi was deeply in love with his brilliant wife and found that he wanted to spend most of the time at home and his attendance at the court became erratic. King Vikramaditya made no comment.

One lazy mid-morning, Vararuchi (he had skipped court that day) was combing out his wife’s beautiful hair. It was then that he noticed a large ugly scar on the top of her head. He had not noticed it till then because it was hidden by her thick, luxuriant, black hair.

“How did you get this scar?” asked Vararuchi.

“Oh, my mother told me that she found me when she was having her bath in the river. I was floating on a banana stem with a burning torch at my head. The hot handle of the torch had burned my scalp. That is how I got the scar.”

Vararuchi sat in stunned silence. This was the very girl whom he had sought to kill. The prediction of the forest goddesses had come true. Seeing her husband silent, the girl knew that there was something the matter but she held her peace.

After sometime Vararuchi broke his mournful silence and told his wife the entire story. He then said, “We shall spend the rest of our lives travelling in southern lands. No more for us the comforts of courtly life.” They set out that very moment. 

They travelled to Kerala, the land of coconut trees and in the course of their wanderings twelve children were born to them. These are known as the Unique Twelve. But why were they abandoned at birth? 

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