Kathāmṛta - 38 - Madanamañcukā-lambaka - Kīrtisenā’s Story

This article is part 38 of 43 in the series Kathāmṛta

Kaliṅgasenā who was pleased looking at the dolls forgot her hunger. She refused to eat anything that was offered to her. Her worried mother thought that she must have developed some kind of disease in her body and took her to the doctor. Upon looking at her, he said – ‘She has become like this because of extreme joy. Look at her eyes! They have blossomed so well! Look at her face! She seems to be laughing!’ When the mother asked her the reason for her happiness, Kaliṅgasenā told her the story of her dear friend. She then ate whatever she could.

The next day, Somaprabhā visited her and said – ‘I have sought the permission of my husband to visit you every day. You too seek permission from your parents. That way, we can roam around with any anxiety.’ The two held each other’s hands and went to the king and the queen. The royal couple were happy to permit them.

Somaprabhā picked up a doll in the form of a yakṣa and commanded it to worship Buddha. It jumped to the skies, worshipped Buddha with pearls and other precious gems and returned.

All at home were amazed. The king asked, “How is all this possible with just a mechanical device?” Somaprabhā replied, “My father made many such devices for me. Just as this universe is made up of the pañca-bhūtas (five basic elements), so also these machines: the earth-device is capable of closing doors and windows; what it has closed cannot be opened by any means. The water-device looks as if it is alive. The fire-device spits flames. The wind-device can fly about. The sky-device can speak. I know all these machines. But the discus-device that is protecting amṛta is known only to my father!” The king then got ready for his lunch. Taking his permission, Somaprabhā took Kaliṅgasenā with her to her father’s house, which was situated in the Vindhyā mountains. There, they met her elder sister Svayaṃprabhā, who was a brahmacāriṇī. Kaliṅgasenā offered her salutations to Svayaṃprabhā, who welcomed her and gave her a fruit. Somaprabhā said, “My friend! If you eat this fruit, you will never grow old. That is the reason I brought you here!” When she ate the fruit, she felt like her entire body was soaked in amṛta. Following this, Somaprabhā took her around, showing her all the illusory and mystical creations of Maya – strange and singular varieties of golden birds, bejewelled pillars, open fields that appeared like a wall, walls that appeared like open fields, water that looked like land, land that looked like water, and so forth. “Our friendship will last only until you get married. Afterwards, you shall go in one direction and I, in another! A friend might be close to you but what about the friend’s husband – will he be close too? The mother-in-law will tear apart and eat up the daughter-in-law, just as a female wolf eats up a young sheep. To illustrate this, I will narrate Kīrtisenā’s story. Listen!” Saying so she recounted the tale – 

Kīrtisenā’s Story

In the city of Pāṭalīputra, there lived a merchant named Dhanapālita. He married off his daughter Kīrtisenā to Devasena, a rich merchant from Magadha. Devasena was a good-natured fellow. Looking at his deep-seated love for his wife, his mother was green with envy. But Kīrtisenā was unable to reveal all those nuances to her husband. It is indeed a sad state for daughters-in-law to live under the oppression of evil mothers-in-law! Once, Devasena had to travel to the town of Valabhī on business. She then told her husband, “How can I live all alone until you return? Your mother torments me even when you are around; what will be my fate if you're not on the scene? What indeed will she subject me to!” Not knowing what to do, he spoke to his mother in soft tones, overcome by fear; he said, “Mother! I am leaving Kīrtisenā under your care. She hails from a wealthy family. Don't be hateful towards her!” When he thus pleaded with his mother, she called for Kīrtisenā at once and gave her a sharp stare before telling her son, “Ask her what I have done! This wretch has poisoned your ears; she will tear apart the family! As for me, I don't discriminate between the two of you. Both of you are equal in my eyes!” Upon listening to these words, Devasena felt reassured about his wife's safety and set out on his voyage. After he left, his mother ensured that she sent away all the servants and attendants of her daughter-in-law. Then having planned with one of her personal servants, dragged her daughter-in-law by her hair and said, “Wicked woman! Pāpī! Are you trying to separate my son from me!” [With the help of her servant] she had Kīrtisenā bitten with teeth, scratched with nails, and finally hurled into a cellar. She fastened the latch on top. Every evening, she would open the door of the cellar and had her servant place a mud vessel half-filled with rice. Her idea was that when the girl’s husband was away in a far-off land, should she give up her life, then so be it! Kīrtisenā wept bitterly and lamented, “My husband is a wealthy man; I hail from a noble family; I too am a girl of good conduct. Even so, I am having to suffer owing to my mother-in-law’s torture. This is the reason why people don’t want a girl child!” As she was brooding thus, unexpectedly she came across a spade. Thinking that it was divine intervention, she picked up the spade and began digging a tunnel. By good fortune, the tunnel led to her room. She collected her clothes, packed them, and left the house before the crack of dawn.


In this situation, it would not be appropriate to go back to my parents’ place; what will I tell people who ask me the reason for my visit! And will people believe me even if I were to explain? Therefore, by some stratagem, I must reach the town when my husband has gone. After all, for a pativratā, her husband alone is the refuge both here and hereafter! Thinking thus, she donned the attire of a prince and accompanied by a merchant named Samudrasena, she set forth towards the town of Valabhī. When they were travelling in the forest, one night, a band of robbers began chasing them. She thought, If I were to be killed by these robbers, then my mother-in-law will conveniently tell my husband that I ran away with some other man. If I were to be captured by them and if they find out that I am a woman, then my honour is at stake. And so, I shall quit worrying about this merchant and do something to save my own life! She then hid herself in the hollow of a nearby tree and camouflaged herself with leaves and grass. The robbers killed Samudrasena and his retinue and looted all his wealth. She came out of the tree hollow the following morning. Indeed, the Divine comes to the rescue of a pativratā! And it is for the same reason that a lion which saw her went away without doing any harm. Further ahead, she chanced upon a hermit who offered her some water to drink from his kamaṇḍalu and also showed her the way. That night too, she hid herself in the hollow of a tree. A rākṣasī and her children came there and perched on top of the tree. The children pestered the mother with: “Mother! Give us some snacks to eat!” The rākṣasī replied, “Today, although I went to the great cemetery, I found nothing. I requested the ḍākinīs to give me something to eat but they too refused. Then I prayed to Bhairava. He said, ‘Go to the nearby town of Vasudattapura, which is ruled by King Vasudatta. When he had gone for a hunt and had lay down to get some rest, a centipede had entered his ear. In due course, it lay hundreds of eggs inside his head. As a result, his brain is becoming brittle. The doctors have no idea what this disease is. He will die in just a few days. Go and eat his flesh, it will last you for a good six months!’ Now, what shall I do, my children!” The children asked, “Mother, if the king learns about the nature of the disease, will he survive? How can the disease be cured?” She replied, “If the disease has to be cured, first his head must be vigorously rubbed with ghee and then he must be made to sit in the blazing afternoon sun. Unable to bear the heat of the scorching sun, the centipedes will move out of the head and come out through the ear into a long bamboo pipe and will fall into an earthen pot hoping to cool themselves. Then the disease will be cured.” Kīrtisenā heard all this and went to Vasudattapura the first thing in the morning. She took along with her a cowherd and had him tell the sentinels at the gate of the palace [what she intended to do].

The king said, “If you really cure my disease, I will give you half my kingdom. Strange though as it may seem, I had this dream last night, where a woman yanked a black blanket off my back. Seeing you here today, I do have the belief that you will cure my affliction!” To this, Kīrtisenā replied “It’s already late tonight; I will treat you tomorrow!”, and had cow ghee rubbed on his head. Just with this, the king was finally able to sleep and the pain was gone! Everyone praised her saying it was indeed God who came in her form.

Next day at noon, the ministers and people from the king’s inner chambers gathered to witness just how Kīrtisenā may cure their king. Just like the rākṣasī had said, Kīrtisenā extracted fifty centipedes from the king’s ear. Then she asked the king’s attendants to anoint him with milk and ghee and had him take a ritual bath. When king Vasudatta saw dozens and dozens of worms come out of his head, he felt as if he was reborn. Keeping his side of the bargain, the king offered Kīrtisenā half of his kingdom. However, she refused to accept such a heavy gift. Then the king instead gifted her with several elephants and horses, and also gave her a huge amount of gold, a number of apparels and other valuables and thus felicitated her. Kīrtisenā in turn, left them all in the king’s safe keeping saying she will be in vrata or penance for a few days.

A few days later she came to know that a guild of merchants from Valabhī had arrived. With hope in her heart, she went to the merchants’ encampment and gazed around with eager eyes. To her good fortune, she spotted her husband Devasena there. With tears in her eyes, she ran and bowed down to him. Devasena was stunned to see his wife thus. The onlooking merchants stood astonished. Eventually this reached the king’s ears and he too arrived there.

Kīrtisenā recounted what had transpired thus far. Devasena realized that his mother’s conduct had been disgraceful and what his wife had accomplished thereafter was nothing short of a miracle. He was at once overcome with anger, forgiveness, astonishment and happiness. At Kīrtisenā’s request, king Vasudatta handed over all the gifts of villages, elephants, horses and other things that he had given her, to her husband. Devasena, with this newly acquired bounty of fortune, in addition to the wealth he had earned in his business, forsook the vile woman that his mother was and stayed back in Vasudattapura happily with his wife.

Many women in this world undergo torture at the hands of their mother-in-law or sister-in-law. I pray that you may marry into a family devoid of such villainous women”. As the Sun started his descent in the west, Somaprabhā took leave of Kaliṅgasenā and returned home.


To be continued...

The current article is a translation of Prof. A R Krishnasastri’s Kannada classic Kathāmṛta along with additional segments added from the original Kathā-sarit-sāgara (of Soma-deva). Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī (of Kṣemendra) and Bṛhat-kathā-śloka-saṃgraha (of Budha-svāmin) have also been referred to. The translation has been rendered by Raghavendra GS, Arjun Bharadwaj, Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.

The original Kannada version of Kathāmṛta is available for free online reading. So are the other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.

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