ONCE there was a Brahmin youth in Banaras, Kuchu-mara by name. He was a great scholar, a master of all the sixty-four sciences, those days when King Bhoja of Dhara patronised poets and pandits and gave them fabulous gifts. Thinking of obtaining favours from the great King, Kuchu-mara started for the city of Dhara.
On his way, he stopped at a Brahman village. One of the householders of the town gave him hospitality. When they sat for their meal, the host politely asked his guest. “Sir, may I know where you hail from, whither you are bound, and on what errand?”
“Banaras is my native place,” Kuchu-mara replied. “I am on my way to Dhara, seeking the patronage of King Bhoja.” “If you are a scholar,” the host said, “you need not go all the way to Dhara. Our King has a daughter named Saraswati. She insists on marrying a man of learning equal to her own. The man who can meet her tests will not only marry her, but he will also become the future King of our country.”
Kuchu-mara said he was ready to meet the tests devised by Princess Saraswati. Purandar, the country’s capital, was far from the village. The host sent his son Shambara as Kuchu- mara’s guide.
Kuchu-mara went to the court of the King and announced himself as having come to submit himself to the test of the Princess. The officials allotted quarters for him and passed on the details concerning him to the Princess.
On receiving information concerning Kuchu-mara, the Princess wrote him the following letter:
“Sir, I do not like to see you defeated since you are a Brahman. But you need not go away disappointed. I am sending you some gifts, which I want you to accept and give me your blessings.”
The servant who took this letter to Kuchu-mara brought the gifts from the Princess, too. Kuchu-mara declined the gifts and asked Shambara to draft the following reply to the Princess:
“Madam, if you had any objections to marrying me, you could have said so frankly. But it was very unfair of you to try to send me off like this. The gifts are uncalled for since I would depart without them once you had defeated me.”
The Princess read this reply and felt irritated. She sent some flowers to Kuchu-mara through her servants. Kuchu-mara understood that his knowledge of making garlands was being tested, So he arranged the flowers in a very clever design, which his name also figured.
Next, the Princess sent him a heap of natural and fake precious stones. Kuchu-mara was requested to estimate the value of the entire lot. He separated the real gems from the fakes, estimated the value of the real gems, powdered the fakes, made the powder into a packet and sent it back to the Princess along with the real gems and his estimation of their value.
Then some maids of the Princess brought a parrot which could not speak and said to Kuchu-mara, “The Princess requests you to teach the parrot to speak.”
Making the parrots speak was one of the sciences, and Kuchu- mara knew it. He taught the parrot speech within twenty-four hours and sent it back to the Princess.
Up till now, the Princess had not seen Kuchu-mara. But now she desired to know how he looked. So she asked the parrot to describe the person who taught him speech. To her surprise, the parrot told her that Kuchu-mara was young and handsome.
Soon it was known all over the royal precincts that the Princess was going to marry one Kuchu-mara, who had stood her tests. But Shambara, Kuchu- mara’s guide, guessed it when the parrot brought a diamond necklace as a gift from the Princess for Kuchu-mara.
Now Shambara was seized with a wicked idea. No one knew precisely who Kuchu-mara was. The Princess had never set eyes on him. Shambara wrote the only letter she had from Kuchu-mara. There was no likelihood of the Princess putting Kuchu-mara to further tests. What could prevent Shambara from announcing himself to be Kuchu-mara, marrying the Princess and getting the throne? So, that night, Shambara took a large stone and bashed Kuchumara’s head while he was asleep, tied the same stone around his neck and dropped him into the moat outside the fort walls.
But, early next morning, trouble came to him in the shape of the parrot, which brought a message from the Princess to Kuchu-mara. The parrot flew all over the lodge. Not finding him, it approached Shambara and asked him, “Where is Kuchumara?”
“I am Kuchu-mara,” he replied. “What do you want?”
“Don’t be funny,” said the parrot. “Tell me where he is. I bring a message to him from the Princess.”
“Come near, and I’ll tell you where Kuchu-mara is,” Shambara said, and when the parrot approached him trustingly, he caught it by the throat and threatened it, saying, “I shall kill you if you don’t deliver to me the message of the Princess.” The parrot refused to speak, and Shambara strangled it to death. Saraswati became uneasy that her parrot did not return. She was also anxious for Kuchu- mara’s reply. Finally, she sent her maids to find out what had happened. They came and told Shambara that they wanted to speak to Kuchu-mara.
“I am Kuchu-mara,’ Shambara said to them boldly.
“What happened to the parrot our Princess sent to you?” they asked.
“It was miserable,” Shambara replied, “that a big, bad cat caught the poor bird!”
The shrewd maids returned to the Princess and said to her, “Madam, we saw a crude fellow in the lodge who said he was Kuchu-mara. He also said that a cat accidentally killed your parrot.”
Since the Princess had heard from her parrot that Kuchu-mara was handsome, she, too, became suspicious. She wrote a verse in a rare script, gave it to her maids and asked them to bring back a reply from the one who was calling himself Kuchu-mara.
Shambara could not read the verse and get very angry. “I won’t reply to this,” he shouted at the maids. “It is not fair that your mistress should trouble me eternally with her tests.”
“There is no question of a test,” the maids replied. “Our mistress does not want others to know what she wrote to you. You can use a rare script for your reply if you desire.”
“I will not!” Shambara said. “I know it is a test. If your mistress suspects I am not Kuchu-mara but someone else, here is the necklace she sent me.”
This proved to the maids conclusively that the fellow was an impostor since nobody had accused him of not being Kuchu-mara. The maids returned to the Princess and reported.
The Princess agreed with her maids, but she devised yet another test. She gave her maids another wild parrot and sent it to Shambara. The maids said to him, “You refuse to reply to messages written in a secret script. Will you kindly teach this parrot how to speak so that it will serve as a messenger between you?”
“Do you think I have nothing to do but teach dumb parrots?” Shambara fumed. “, Your mistress has no intention of marrying me, and that is why she is trying to engage me in such tasks.” This reply of Shambara confirmed the worst suspicions of Princess Saraswati.
In the meantime, a strange thing happened. Very near the capital, there was a fishermen’s village. The fishermen of this village had made a new net and asked their purohit to fix an auspicious time for using it. “Throw the net exactly at midnight tonight. It is the best time,” the purohit had said.
The river was too far away. So the fishermen chose the moat. Also, the fishermen had heard that fresh water had been let into the canal recently. So, the channel came to the fishermen precisely at midnight and threw the new net. It was cumbersome when they pulled it out. They were sure of a huge haul. But to their disappointment, a human body was hauled up in the net.
The man was not dead. The body was still warm, and the heart was still beating.
In short it was Kuchu-mara. The fishermen had come to the moat only a few minutes after the wily Shambara had thrown him into it, and Kuchu-mara was thus saved from death.
Kuchu-mara was hastily conveyed to the village where his head was dressed. His entire body was massaged and made warm. In a couple of days, Kuchu-mara was fit enough to move about. But he was ashamed to tell his rescuers who he was. He remained with the fishermen, followed them to the river daily and helped them by plying the ferry across the river.
In the capital, Shambara persisted in calling himself Kuchu-mara. He went to the extent of pressing the King to perform his marriage with the Princess. The Princess agreed to the wedding but told the King that he should see that great pandits from various countries were invited to the wedding. She hoped that Kuchu-mara would not fail to follow if he came to know of her marriage, wherever he might be. She also hoped the visiting pandits would un-mask the impostor.
Kuchu-mara was not aware of all these developments. One morning he was plying the ferry when he saw a group of pandits arrive at the other bank. From their talk, he learned that Princess Saraswati was to be married that very day, and the bridegroom was himself! He was at first surprised at the news. Then he was tickled to see how the Princess would marry him in his absence. So, tying up the ferry, he followed the pandits to the capital.
Many a great king, poet and pandit came to attend Princess Saraswati’s wedding. Shambara was dressed like a bridegroom and seated among the guests. Some guests, who had known Kuchu-mara at Banaras, detected the fraud. They surrounded Shambara and began to test his scholarship. Shambara had not foreseen that there would be so much trouble in impersonating Kuchu-mara. Presently the scam is exposed. The King rushed to Shambara and demanded, “Who are you, fellow? What is your real name?” Shaking with terror, Shambara confessed all.
The King was very dissatisfied. “Take this fellow and behead him!” he shouted to his men.
All the time, Kuchu-mara was enjoying the fun seated in a corner. Now he came forward and pleaded with the King to spare Shambara. “O King,” he said, “don’t punish this fool. I know his parents, they are nice people. I am the real Kuch-mara. Since I excuse him, there is no reason why you should punish him.”
Shambara was let off. Saraswati became Kuchu-mara’s wife that very day amidst great pomp and splendour.