Kathāmṛta - 96 - Śaśāṅkavatī-lambaka - The Story of the Three Sensitive Men

This article is part 96 of 133 in the series Kathāmṛta

Story 7

King Trivikramasena, for the seventh time, heaved the corpse onto his shoulder and set out. The vetāla started narrating another tale:

On the shores of the Eastern ocean lies a town named Tāmralipti. Long back, it was ruled by a king called Caṇḍasena. Once, a prince by name Sattvaśīla, who hailed from the south, came to his kingdom seeking asylum as he had been overcome by poverty. He became a dependent and served in the palace. But even after a long time, he was never seen by the king. He lamented, "Alas! Although I was born in a royal family, why am I tormented by this poverty? Although I am poor, why has the Almighty given me such great ambition? Although I am suffering here, bereft of food and clothing, why has the king not yet laid his kindly eyes on me?" While such thoughts were crossing his mind, one day the king set off on a hunt. The dependent prince went in front of the contingent holding a wooden staff. Even as the king went chasing after a wild boar in the forest, the rest of the contingent were left behind and lost him. The dependent alone, paying no heed to hunger and thirst, faithfully ran along with the king. The wild boar disappeared in the thickets and the exhausted king stood still in the middle of the forest not knowing where he was. When he saw the dependent prince in front of him, he asked, "Sir! Do you know the way?" In response, he said with folded hands to the king, "I know the way, Mahārāja! But the hour is sunny and the heat is unbearable; please rest awhile!" The king said, "If that's the case, see if you can find water somewhere nearby." Sattvaśīla climbed a tall tree and looked around. He spotted a river and then led the king to it. The king bathed, drank water, and was refreshed. Sattvaśīla brought a handful of fine gooseberries and offered that to the king. When the king enquired as to what they were, Sattvaśīla said, "Mahārāja! I have been serving you in this manner for the past ten years." The king was at once overcome with compassion and shame. "Fie upon the king who pays no heed to the misfortunes and troubles of his dependents! And fie upon his courtiers who do not bring such things to his notice!" Thinking thus, he ate a couple of gooseberries, drank some water, and rested for a while. Following this, he returned to his town. He told Sattvaśīla to sit behind him on the horse and show the way but he refused and went on foot. He ran along with the horse all the way to the town. On the way, the king was reunited with his retinue. King Caṇḍasena told everyone about Sattvaśīla's courage and the help he had rendered.

From that day on Sattvaśīla was no longer a dependent. He assumed a place of respect in the king’s service.

One fine day, as decreed by the king, Sattvaśīla set sail to the island of Siṃhala to seek the hand of its ruler’s daughter. As they were traversing the ocean, they saw a tall flagpole from their vessel. Suddenly, powerful gusts of wind blew and caused the ship to yaw and eventually tangle with the flagpole. As the ship began to sink, the brave Sattvaśīla drew his sword and dived into the water. As he swam in, he came upon a divine city. He found a palace whose pillars were incrusted with jewels. By its side was a pond of a thousand steps which led to calm waters. Next to it was a temple dedicated to goddess Kātyāyinī. Sattvaśīla entered the temple and prayed to the goddess. Just as he stood there, a door nearby opened and a divine maiden walked in. She too offered prayers to the goddess and went back through the same door. Sattvaśīla followed her. To his amazement, he found another city there. As he went in, the maiden’s attendants approached him and said: “Sir, you are a guest of our mistress. Please rise, take a bath and then honour us by partaking of food at her abode!”. Then they led him through the garden to a pond. When Sattvaśīla entered the pond, took a dip and rose up, he found himself back in the pond of Tāmralipti’s garden. He was astonished and wondered aloud: “Where is that divine city? This was surely not a dream! The maidens of the netherworld have truly cheated me”. He started going in circles in the garden like a madman. The keeper of the garden grew alarmed and rushed to notify King Caṇḍasena. The king came running and soon learned all that happened. Thinking that he now had an opportunity to return the favour for the help received earlier, the king calmed Sattvaśīla down by saying: “Dear friend, do not worry; I will get her for you!”.

Caṇḍasena soon handed over the reins of the kingdom to his minister and set sail with Sattvaśīla. They soon saw the same old flagpole jutting up from the ocean. They waited until the ship came close to it. Then Sattvaśīla, with the king right behind him, jumped in. They duo entered the city underneath and prayed to the goddess Gowri and stood in wait. Soon enough, the divine maiden came in with her friends. She saw the king and became attracted to him. She then sent word through her attendants to the king, inviting him to be her guest. The king replied “We came here through the waters next to the flagpole to offer our prayers to goddess Gaurī. We have done that. What more hospitality is necessary?”. The maiden insisted: “Then, please come with us to see another city - ours”. Caṇḍasena said: “My friend has already told me the story of the magical pond!”. She replied: “Please do not think I am trying to waylay you; I hold you in high esteem!”. Assuring him thus, she led them through the door she had entered to her palace. There she offered Caṇḍasena the bejeweled throne and treated him to fine hospitality. She then said “O king, I am the daughter of the rākṣasa king, Kālanemi, who was slain by lord Viṣṇu. These two cities were built for my father by Viśvakarma. Here, all our wishes come true; there’s neither old age nor death here. Now that you have come here like my father; I submit them all to you!”. King Caṇḍasena said “If you truly see your father in me, then I wish you would marry Sattvaśīla. He is valorous and my bosom friend!”.

The beautiful maiden assented. King Caṇḍasena turned over all the lordship of the cities to Sattvaśīla and said “Friend! I now consider myself relieved of the debt of one of the two gooseberries you gave me. I still remain in your debt for the other one!”. He then turned to the daughter of Kālanemi and said: “Lady, can you please show me the way home?”. The maiden first gifted him a sword called Aparājita and a fruit which makes one immune to old age and death. She then led him to the pond. Caṇḍasena dived into it, but when he emerged, he found himself back in a pond in Tāmralipti. Sattvaśīla lived happily with the daitya lady, reigning over the kingdom for many years.

Concluding the story, the vetāla asked Trivikrama-sena: “O king! Who is the better man among the two - Sattvaśīla or Caṇḍasena?”. Fearing the curse, the king replied “Sattvaśīla is of higher merit. Even without knowing what was really there, and without desiring anything he jumped into the ocean! The king, however, knew what to expect under the ocean, and had a goal in mind. Moreover, he knew that even if he wanted, the daitya maiden wouldn’t be his, and hence didn’t covet her!”.

Since Trivikrama-sena spoke, the vetāla vanished from his shoulder and flew back to its original place.

Story 8

15. Trivikrama-sena heaved the corpse onto his shoulder for the eighth time and began to walk. The vetāla began to narrate another story:-

In the kingdom of Aṅga, there is a large agrahāra (colony). A brahmana named Viṣṇusvāmī lived there. One day he commenced a yāga which required a turtle. He sent his three sons to obtain one. They went to the seashore and managed to catch a turtle. The eldest one turned to his brothers and said: “I want either of you to carry this. This turtle’s body is covered with moss and is very slippery. It may fall down anytime!”. His brothers retorted: “If it’s slippery for you, it’s slippery for us too!”. The eldest one snapped: “Don’t you know I am Bhojana-caṅga – very sensitive and fastidious about food? I don’t touch anything disgusting!”. The second brother replied: “Well, I am Nārī-caṅga - sensitive and fastidious about women; which makes me superior to you!” The youngest one said, “And I am Śayyā-caṅga – sensitive and fastidious about bed - and this makes me better than both of you!” Thus, they began to quarrel with one another. Soon, they dropped the turtle there and decided to take their dispute to Prasenajit, the king who ruled over that land - Viṭaṅkapura. The king listened to their story and said “You must stay here for a few days; I will test each one of you and then pronounce my judgement”, and made arrangements for their stay.

When it was time for lunch, king Prasenajit arranged for the most delicious spread of meal for them and invited them in. As soon as they sat down to eat, the eldest brother Bhojana-caṅga contorted his face and turned away. When the king asked what happened, he said “This rice reeks of smoke from burning corpses!”. When Prasenajit asked the other brothers if they too sensed any foul smell in the rice, they replied: “Why, no! In fact, the aroma is very pleasing!”. To dig more into this, the king appointed a few men. They investigated and reported back that the rice was harvested from the field adjacent to a cremation ground. The king was astonished. He exclaimed, “You truly are Bhojana-caṅga – very sensitive about food! We will offer you some other rice”.

After they finished their meal, the three brothers were shown to their quarters. Later, the king sent the best among his concubines, accompanied by a few attendants, to the second brother - Nārī-caṅga.

She was very beautiful. She had decked herself in lots of jewellery and wore attractive clothes. Thus, as soon as she entered, the house was lit us with her radiance. However, Nārī-caṅga felt as though he was about to faint, closed his nose with his left hand and said – “Go away from here, right now! I can smell goat. I will die if I have to inhale this smell for long!” The king got to know about this. ‘She had applied sandalwood paste, camphor, kastūri and other fragrances on her body. Her fragrance could be felt in all directions. How did he smell a goat in her?’, the king thought. He got an enquiring conducted. The lady told them that her mother and caretaker had passed away when she was an infant and she grew up drinking goatmilk. The king was astonished.

The king now wanted to examine the third person – he got a soft mattress arranged for him. He got seven mattresses piled upon each other and covered it with a white bedsheet. As the third man lay down for a split second on the bed, he jumped up with immense pain and massaged his back. As the servants rushed to the spot, worried, they saw that there was a red mark as though a strand of hair had pressed against his back. The king was told about this. Surprised, the king asked to check if there was anything below the mattresses. They removed the mattresses one after the other and examined them. Below the seventh mattress, there was a strand of hair stuck on the bed. The king was informed about this by his men. The king wondered all night – ‘How did this strand of hair, below seven layers of the bed cause so much of pain to the man?’

The next morning, he called the men and declared them to be the most sensitive he had ever seen. He gifted them each with one lakh gold coins. The men forgot about the tortoise and lived happily. However, as they had caused an impediment to their father’s yajña, they acquired pāpa.

After having thus narrated the story, the vetāla asked – “O king! Tell me, who is the most sensitive among these?” Vikramasena said – “I feel Śayyā-caṅga is the most sensitive – he has a mark of the hair on his back as a visible proof for his sensitivity. The others might have gotten to know about the particular person from someone else – there is no direct proof that they actually sensed something special”.

As the king spoke so, the vetāla flew away from his shoulders and went back to his original place.

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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