Bhima and the Runaway Forests

Bhima and his friend Mannathu Panikkar sat down to have lunch when the king’s messenger came in with an urgent message. (Read part one of the story here.)

“Please read out the king’s message,” said Bhima politely.

“But sir, you’re having lunch,” the messenger hesitated.

“That’s okay. You said it was urgent. So lunch can wait,” said Bhima.

“The neighbouring kingdom has sent a huge army to attack our land. Please help.” The messenger read out.  

The Poonjaar army was battle ready but they would be outnumbered easily. Panikkar and Bhima immediately rushed out. When they reached outside it occurred to them that they were going to help fight a battle but they did not have any weapons. So they uprooted a coconut tree each and ran with it to the battleground.

The enemy army was on the other side of the river. When they saw two men running towards them with uprooted coconut trees in their hands, the enemy soldiers panicked and scattered. The horses neighed and the elephants trumpeted and the soldiers forgot why they had come to the river bank in the first place. They turned and ran for their lives.

The soldiers of Poonjaar raised fierce battle cries and cheered their heroes on. Panikkar and Bhima entered the river which was flooded. The waters only reached up to Bhima’s waist. Panikkar had to wade in chest high waters. They crossed the river and chased the enemy soldiers. The enemy soldiers ran all the way back to their capital city, got inside the fort, and bolted the massive doors. Only then did they notice that the two extraordinary men had not followed them. Bhima and Panikkar went back home and finished their lunch.

After this incident, the king became good friends with Bhima. Often, he called Bhima to solve a problem that needed his strength and special skills. Once, a lone wild boar started causing trouble in the villages. It came down from the hilly forests and ate up the tapioca on the farms. The farmers could not kill it because it was an exceptionally large one; almost as large as an elephant. The king called Bhima to help out. He went into the forest bordering the villages where the boar was causing trouble and camped for the night. The beast understood that Bhima had come to tackle it. So it attacked Bhima. The two wrestled for some time. Finally the boar had to give up because Bhima held it by its tusks and rubbed its nose on the ground till all its front teeth fell out. The animal somehow freed itself from Bhima’s grasp and disappeared into the forest. It was never seen again and the villagers lived in peace.

Once, the King of Poonjaar asked Bhima to help out because a herd of wild elephants was causing trouble at an army camp. The herd came at night and raided the stores. The elephants merrily ate up the food and got drunk on the soma stored in large wooden barrels. This happened every other night. When they built a wall around the camp, the elephants easily smashed it; when the soldiers dug a moat, they waded across easily, pulling each other up the steep sides with their trunks. When the king told Bhima about the problem, the huge man smiled mysteriously.

“Leave it to me, Lord,” he told the king and disappeared into the forest.

He came back the next day and told the king he had persuaded the herd to migrate. No one knew how he solved the problem, but a rumour travelled through all the hills of the kingdom that Bhima knew how to speak to the elephants. He understood their language. The forest dwellers had seen him speak to them in a low, cajoling voice. When the king asked him about this Bhima remained silent and the king left it at that.

Now the king and Bhima were thick friends.

“Come hunting with me,” said the king one day to Bhima when they were resting together after a sumptuous meal.

“This time, let me invite you to a hunt,” said Bhima. “Just the two of us. No hunting dogs, no hunting drums, no retainers, no cooks, no soldiers; just the two of us.”

The king agreed immediately and the two slipped out of the palace before anyone could stop them. They wandered through the rich forests, hunting only for food, sleeping on trees or in clearings under the stars. They listened to the river babble and the crickets chirp and the birds sing. The king had never had such a restful time. Though the forest had wild animals, he was unafraid because Bhima was with him. He also noticed that Bhima, though a man of few words, was happiest in the forest. He looked as if he was at home. He sang softly to himself as he roasted meat over a fire, ate heartily and slept like a baby.

But then, the king had his kingly duties and so after a few days he went back to the palace.    

Years rolled by peacefully. Bhima continued to help the king and in return the king always enquired about Bhima’s welfare and sorted out small problems that troubled him. Once when Bhima was visiting, the king asked him the usual question.

“I hope you have been well. Is there anything I can do for you?”

Usually when the king asked this question Bhima would readily reply, “All is well, Your Highness. Fine, everything is fine.”

But today, he hesitated and said nothing. The king immediately sensed that there was a problem.

“Tell me what troubles you, dear friend,” he said.

“I am sometimes reminded of my childhood days, Your Highness …” began Bhima but his voice trailed into silence.

“Tell me what the problem is, and we shall solve it together,” the king said.

Bhima remained silent but the king waited patiently for him to continue. He knew that Bhima never spoke quickly because he always weighed his words carefully.

“The forests are running away,” said Bhima. “Every time I go out to hunt, I notice they have run a bit further.”

The king knew how much Bhima loved the forests. When the forests ran away, the rich men of Poonjaar used the land to sow rice. They had built large, sturdy boats to ferry the extra rice to faraway lands. And when the boats came back they were loaded with exotic ware from distant kingdoms. Some of the rich men had even lent the king money to build a larger army.

The king hesitated. Then he rose from his throne, went up to where Bhima was standing on the balcony, reached high and placed a hand on that rough shoulder.

“Let me see what I can do,” he said. But he did nothing.

After that Bhima never went back to visit the king. He grew rather lonely because his friend Panikkar had stopped hunting as the forests had run away. Panikkar now just sat at home and demanded that the villagers give him free food in return for a trouble free life. If the villagers refused to obey, he threatened to beat them up or destroy their lands. They feared his strength and sent him food in return for peace. Bhima didn’t want to be a part of any of this and so he stopped visiting Panikkar.

The forests ran further and further away from Bhima’s home. Soon it became impossible for Bhima to stay at home. So, he lived in the forests, roaming among the trees and animals, and finding enough to eat in what remained of them. His people at home soon forgot him. They were happy that they did not have to cook cartloads of rice for him. Sometimes, villagers who went into the forest to burn parts of it, came back and reported to the family that they had seen Bhima among the trees, that he had put out the blaze they had started, that he had become wild and violent, that he had threatened to kill them if they so much as kindled a flame to cook or keep warm.

Finally, there came a day when all the forests ran away from the kingdom of Poonjaar. They crossed the river and disappeared into the enemy kingdom. The people thought that they would find Bhima when the forests ran away, but they couldn’t. He must have died, some of them said. He was pretty old anyway, they said. He had no right to live so long. And it was all for good, they said, for it would have been difficult to feed him cartloads of rice in these difficult times.

Some said that he had crossed over to the enemy kingdom and was now living there running along with the forests, for there too, the forests were running away. Traitor, they said. Good riddance. And they forgot him. 

Not entirely. The storytellers who roamed the land told stories about his great strength, his brave deeds and his helpful ways and described the forests that he had roamed in. The children who gathered around them listened with fascination because they had never ever seen a forest or a man like Bhima.  

The folklore of Kerala is full of interesting tales about such unusual people. Another such person was Aryan Narayana Mooss, the famous Ayurvedic physician. Click the link to read about him.

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