Sagas from the Far East; or, Kalmouk and Mongolian Traditionary Tales | Annotated Tale

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How Shanggasba Buried His Father


                When therefore the Well-and-wise-walking Khan saw that the Siddhî-kür had again made good his escape, he set out and came to the cool grove, and took him captive and brought him, bound in his bag. And by the way the Siddhî-kür told this tale, saying,--


LONG ages ago, there lived in a city of Northern India a father and son. Both bore the same name, and a strangely inappropriate name it was. Though they were the poorest of men without any thing in the world to call their own, and without even possessing the knowledge of any trade or handicraft whereby to make a livelihood to support them at ease, they were yet called by the name of Shanggasba, that is "Renowned possessor of treasure (1)."

               As I have already said, they knew no trade or handicraft; but to earn a scanty means of subsistence to keep body and soul together, they used to lead a wandering sort of life, gathering and hawking wood.

               One day as they were coming down the steep side of a mountain forest, worn and footsore, bending under the heavy burden of wood on their backs, Shanggasba, the father, suddenly hastened his tired, tottering steps, and, leading the way through the thickly-meeting branches to a little clear space of level ground, where the grass grew green and bright, called to his son to come after him with more of animation in his voice than he had shown for many a weary day.

               Shanggasba, the son, curious enough to know what stirred his father's mind, and glad indeed at the least indication of any glimpse of a new interest in life, increased his pace too, and soon both were sitting on the green grass with their bundles of wood laid beside them.

               "Listen, my son!" said Shanggasba, the father, "to what I have here to impart to thee, and forget not my instructions."

               "Just as this spot of sward, on which we are now seated, is bared of the rich growth of trees covering the thicket all around it, so are my fortunes now barren compared with the opulence and power our ancestor Shanggasba, 'Renowned possessor of treasure,' enjoyed. Know, moreover, that it was just on this very spot that he lived in the midst of his power and glory. Therefore now that our wanderings have brought us hither, I lay this charge upon thee that when I die thou bring hither my bones, and lay them under the ground in this place. And so doing, thou too shalt enjoy fulness of might and magnificence like to the portion of a king's son. For it was because my father's bones were laid to rest in a poor, mean, and shameful place, that I have been brought to this state of destitution in which we now exist. But thou, if thou keep this my word, doubt not but that thou also shalt become a renowned possessor of treasure."

               Thus spoke Shanggasba, the father; and then, lifting their faggots on to their shoulder, they journeyed on again as before.

               Not long after the day that they had held this discourse, Shanggasba, the father, was taken grievously ill, so that the son had to go out alone to gather wood, and it so befell that when he returned home again the father was already dead. So remembering his father's admonition, he laded his bones upon his back, and carried them out to burial in the cleared spot in the forest, as his father had said.

               But when he looked that the great wealth and honour of which his father had spoken should have fallen to his lot, he was disappointed to find that he remained as poor as before. Then, because he was weary of the life of a woodman, he went into the city, and bought a hand-loom and yarn, and set himself to weave linen cloths which he hawked about from place to place.

               Now, one day, as he was journeying back from a town where he had been selling his cloths, his way brought him through the forest where his father lay buried. So he tarried a while at the place and sat down to his weaving, and as he sat a lark came and perched on the loom. With his weaving-stick he gave the lark a blow and killed it, and then roasted and ate it.

               But as he ate it he mused, "Of a certainty the words of my father have failed, which he spoke, saying, 'If thou bury my bones in this place thou shalt enjoy fulness of might and magnificence.' And because this weaving brings me a more miserable profit even than hawking wood, I will arise now and go and sue for the hand of the daughter of the King of India, and become his son-in-law."

               Having taken this resolution, he burnt his hand-loom, and set out on his journey.

               Now it so happened that just at this time the Princess, daughter of the King of India, having been absent for a long time from the capital, great festivities of thanksgiving were being celebrated in gratitude for her return in safety, as Shanggasba arrived there; and notably, on a high hill, before the image of a Garuda-bird (2), the king of birds, Vishnu's bearer, all decked with choice silk rich in colour.

               Shanggasba arrived, fainting from hunger, for the journey had been long, and he had nothing to eat by the way, having no money to buy food, but now he saw things were beginning to go well with him, for when he saw the festival he knew there would be an offering of baling cakes of rice-flour before the garuda-bird, and he already saw them in imagination surrounded with the yellow flames of the sacrifice.

               As soon as he approached the place therefore he climbed up the high hill, and satisfied his hunger with the baling; and then, as a provision for the future, he took down the costly silk stuffs with which the garuda-bird was adorned and hid them in his boots.

               His hunger thus appeased, he made his way to the King's palace, where he called out lustily to the porter in a tone of authority, "Open the gate for me!"

               But the porter, when he saw what manner of man it was summoned him, would pay no heed to his words, but rather chid him and bid him be silent.

               Then Shanggasba, when he found the porter would pay no heed to his words, but rather bid him be silent, blew a note on the great princely trumpet, which was only sounded for promulgating the King's decrees.

               This the King heard, who immediately sent for the porter, and inquired of him who had dared to sound the great princely trumpet. To whom the porter made answer,--

               "Behold now, O King, there stands without at the gate a vagabond calling on me to admit him because he has a communication to make to the King."

               "The fellow is bold; let him be brought in," replied the King. So they brought Shanggasba before the King's majesty.

               "What seekest thou of me?" inquired the King. And Shanggasba, nothing abashed, answered plainly--

               "To sue for the hand of the Princess am I come, and to be the King's son-in-law."

               The ministers of state, who stood round about the King, when they heard these words, were filled with indignation, and counselled the King that he should put him to death. But the King, tickled in his fancy with the man's daring, answered,--

               "Nay, let us not put him to death. He can do us no harm. A beggar may sue for a king's daughter, and a king may choose a beggar's daughter, out of that no harm can come," and he ordered that he should be taken care of in the palace, and not let to go forth.

               Now all this was told to the Queen, who took a very different view of the thing from the King's. And coming to him in fury and indignation, she cried out,--

               "It is not good for such a man to live. He must be already deprived of his senses; let him die the death!"

               But the King gave for all answer, "The thing is not of that import that he should die for it."

               The Princess also heard of it; and she too came to complain to the King that he should cause such a man to be kept in the palace; but before she could open her complaint, the King, joking, said to her,--

               "Such and such a man is come to sue for thy hand; and I am about to give thee to him."

               But she answered, "This shall never be; surely the King hath spoken this thing in jest. Shall a princess now marry a beggar?"

               "If thou wilt not have him, what manner of man wouldst thou marry?" asked the King.

               "A man who has gold and precious things enough that he should carry silk stuff (3) in his boots, such a one would I marry, and not a wayfarer and a beggar," answered the Princess.

               When the people heard that, they went and pulled off Shanggasba's boots, and when they found in them the pieces of silk he had taken from the image of the garuda-bird, they all marvelled, and said never a word more.

               But the King thought thereupon, and said, "This one is not after the manner of common men." And he gave orders that he should be lodged in the palace.

               The Queen, however, was more and more dismayed when she saw the token, and thus she reasoned, "If the man is here entertained after this manner, and if he has means thus to gain over to him the mind of the King, who shall say but that he may yet contrive to carry his point, and to marry my daughter?" And as she found she prevailed nothing with the King by argument, she said, "I must devise some means of subtlety to be rid of him." Then she had the man called into her, and inquired of him thus,--

               "Upon what terms comest thou hither to sue for the hand of my daughter? Tell me, now, hast thou great treasures to endow her with as thy name would import, or wilt thou win thy right to pay court to her by thy valour and bravery?" And this she said, for she thought within herself, of a surety now the man is so poor he can offer no dowry, and so he needs must elect to win her by the might of his bravery, which if he do I shall know how to over-match his strength, and show he is but a mean-spirited wretch.

               But Shanggasba made answer, "Of a truth, though I be called 'Renowned possessor of treasure,' no treasure have I to endow her with; but let some task be appointed me by the King and Queen, and I will win her hand by my valour."

               The Queen was glad when she heard this answer, for she said, "Now I have in my hands the means to be rid of him." At this time, while they were yet speaking, it happened that a Prince of the Unbelievers advanced to the borders of the kingdom to make war upon the King. Therefore the Queen said to Shanggasba,--

               "Behold thine affair! Go out now against the enemy, and if thou canst drive back his hordes thou shalt marry our daughter, and become the King's son-in-law.

               "Even so let it be!" answered Shanggasba. "Only let there be given to me a good horse and armour, and a bow and arrows."

               All this the Queen gave him, and good wine to boot, and appointed an army in brave array to serve under him. With these he rode out to encounter the enemy.

               They had hardly got out of sight of the city, however, when the captain of the army rode up to him and said, "We are not soldiers to fight under command of a beggar: ride thou forth alone."

               So they went their way, and he rode on alone. He had no sooner come to the borders of the forest, however, where the ground was rough and uneven, than he found he could in no wise govern his charger, and after pulling at the reins for a long time in vain, the beast dashed with him furiously into the thicket. "What can I do now?" mourned Shanggasba to himself as, encumbered by the unwonted weight of his armour, he made fruitless efforts to extricate himself from the interlacing branches; "surely death hath overtaken me!" And even as he spoke the enemy's army appeared riding down towards him. Nevertheless, catching hold of the overhanging bows of a tree, by which to save himself from the plungings of the horse, and as the soil was loose and the movement of the steed impetuous, as he clung to the tree the roots were set free by his struggles, and rebounding in the face of the advancing enemy, laid many of his riders low in the dust.

               The prince who commanded them when he saw this, exclaimed, "This one cannot be after the manner of common men. Is he not rather one of the heroes making trial of his prowess who has assumed this outward form?"

               And a great panic seized them all, so that they turned and fled from before him, riding each other down in the confusion, and casting away their weapons and their armour.

               As soon as they were well out of sight, and only the clouds of dust whirling round behind them, Shanggasba rose from the ground where he had fallen in his fear, and catching by the bridle one of the horses whose rider had been thrown, laded on to him all that he could carry of the spoil with which the way was strewn, and brought it up to the King as the proof and trophy of his victory.

               The King was well pleased to have so valiant a son-in-law, and commended him and promised him the hand of the Princess in marriage. But the Queen, though her first scheme for delivering her daughter had failed, was not slow to devise another, and she said, "It is not enough that he should be valiant in the field, but a mighty hunter must he also be." And thus she said to Shanggasba, "Wilt thou also give proof of thy might in hunting?"

               And Shanggasba made answer, "Wherein shall I show my might in hunting?"

               And the Queen said, "Behold now, there is in our mountains a great fox, nine spans in length, the fur of whose back is striped with stripes; him shalt thou kill and bring his skin hither to me, if thou wouldst have the hand of the Princess and become the King's son-in-law."

               "Even so let it be," replied Shanggasba; "only let there be given me a bow and arrow, and provisions for many days."

               All this the Queen commanded should be given to him; and he went out to seek for the great fox measuring nine spans in length, and the fur of his back striped with stripes.

               Many days he wandered over the mountains till his provisions were all used and his clothes torn, and, what was a worse evil, he had lost his bow by the way.

               "Without a bow I can do nothing," reasoned Shanggasba to himself, "even though I fall in with the fox. It is of no use that I wait for death here. I had better return to the palace and see what fortune does for me."

               But as he had wandered about up and down without knowing his way, it so happened that as he now directed his steps back to the road, he came upon the spot where he had laid down to sleep the night before, and there it was he had left the bow lying. But in the meantime the great fox nine spans long, with the fur of his back striped with stripes, had come by that way, and finding the bow lying had striven to gnaw it through. In so doing he had passed his neck through the string, and the string had strangled him. So in this way Shanggasba obtained possession of his skin, which he forthwith carried in triumph to the King and Queen. The King when he saw it exclaimed, "Of a truth now is Shanggasba a mighty hunter, for he has killed the great fox nine spans long, and with the fur of his back striped with stripes. Therefore shall the hand of the Princess be given to him in marriage."

               But the Queen would not yet give up the cause of her daughter, and she said, "Not only in fighting and hunting must he give proof of might, but also over the spirits he must show his power." Then Shanggasba made answer, "Wherein shall I show my power over the spirits?"

               And the Queen said, "In the regions of the North, among the Mongols, are seven dæmons who ride on horses: these shalt thou slay and bring hither, if thou wouldst ask for the hand of the Princess and become the King's son-in-law."

               "Even so let it be," replied Shanggasba; "only point me out the way, and give me provisions for the journey."

               So the Queen commanded that the way should be shown him, and appointed him provisions for the journey, which she prepared with her own hand, namely, seven pieces of black rye-bread that he was to eat on his way out, and seven pieces of white wheaten-bread that he was to eat on his way home. Thus provided, he went forth towards the region of the North, among the Mongols, to seek for the seven dæmons who rode on horses.

               Before night he reached the land of the Mongols, and finding a hillock, he halted and sat down on it, and took out his provisions: and it well-nigh befell that he had eaten the white wheaten-bread first; but he said, "Nay, I had best get through the black bread first." So he left the white wheaten-bread lying beside him, and began to eat a piece of the black rye-bread. But as he was hungry and ate fast, the hiccups took him; and then, before he had time to put the bread up again into his wallet, suddenly the seven dæmons of the country of the Mongols came upon him, riding on their horses. So he rose and ran away in great fear, leaving the bread upon the ground. But they, after they had chased him a good space, stopped and took counsel of each other what they should do with him, and though for a while they could not agree, finally they all exclaimed together, "Let us be satisfied with taking away his victuals." So they turned back and took his victuals; and the black rye-bread they threw away, but the white wheaten-bread they ate, every one of them a piece.

               The Queen, however, had put poison in the white wheaten-bread, which was to serve Shanggasba on his homeward journey; and now that the seven dæmons ate thereof, they were all killed with the poison that was prepared for him, and they all laid them down on the hillock and died, while their horses grazed beside them (4).

               But in the morning, Shanggasba hearing nothing more of the trampling of the dæmons chasing him, left off running, and plucked up courage to turn round and look after them; and when he saw them not, he turned stealthily back, looking warily on this side and on that, lest they should be lying in wait for him. And when he had satisfied himself the way was clear of them, he bethought him to go back and look after his provisions. When he got back to the hillock, however, he found the seven dæmons lying dead, and their horses grazing beside them. The sight gave him great joy; and having packed each one on the back of his horse, he led them all up to the King and Queen.

               The King was so pleased that the seven dæmons were slain, that he would not let him be put on his trial any more. So he delivered the Princess to him, and he became the King's son-in-law. Moreover, he gave him a portion like to the portion of a King's son, and erected a throne for him as high as his own throne, and appointed to him half his kingdom, and made all his subjects pay him homage as to himself.

               "This man thought that his father's words had failed, and owned not that it was because he buried his bones in a prosperous place that good fortune happened unto him," exclaimed the Prince.

               And as he let these words escape him, the Siddhî-kür replied, "Forgetting his health, the Well-and-wise-walking Khan hath opened his lips." And with the cry, "To escape out of this world is good!" he sped him through the air, fleet out of sight.


(1) Shanggasba is possibly a Tibetian word, bsang, grags, pa = "of good fame," but more probably it is compounded from the Mongolian sSang, "treasure." (Jülg.)

(2) Garudâ: see note 2, Tale I. The allusion in this place is to an image of him over a shrine.

(3) Silk was cultivated in India at a very early date, probably much earlier than any records that remain to us can show; there are twelve indigenous species of silkworm. That of China was not introduced into India before the year 419 of our era (Ritter, vol. vi. pt. 1, 698). The indigenous silkworms fed upon other trees besides the mulberry and notably on the ficus religiosa. The Greeks would seem to have learnt the use of silk from the Indians, or at least from the Persians. Nearchos is the first Greek writer in whom mention of it is found; he describes it as like the finest weft of cotton-stuff, and says it was made from fibre scraped from the bark of a tree; an error in which he was followed by other writers; others again wrote that the fibres were combed off the leaf of a tree; yet Pausanias had mentioned the worm as the intermediary of its production (C. Müller, Pref. to his Edition of Strabo, and notes). The Romans also carried on a considerable trade in silk with India, and Pliny, vi. 20, 2, mentions one kind of Indian silk texture that was so fine and light, you could see through it, "ut in publico matrona transluceat." Horace also alludes to the same, Sat. i. 2, 101. Pliny also complains of the luxury whereby this costly stuff was used, not only for dresses, but for coverings of cushions. [1] Vopiscus, in his life of the Emperor Aurelian, tells us that at that time a pound weight of silk was worth a pound weight of gold. In India itself the luxurious use of silk has restrictions put upon it in the Manu. It was also prescribed that when men devoted themselves to the hermit life in the jungle, they should lay aside their silken clothing; and we find Râma (Râmajana, ii. 37, 14) putting on a penitential habit over his silken robe. The Mâha Bhârata (ii. cap. 50) contains a passage in which among the objects brought in tribute to Judhishthira is kîtaga, or the "insect-product," a word used to designate both silk and cochineal.

(4) A similar episode occurs in a tale collected in the neighbourhood of Schwaz in North Tirol which I have given under the name of "Prince Radpot" in "Household Stories from the Land of Hofer." The rest of the story recalls that called "The three Black Dogs" in the same collection, but there is much more grace and pathos about the Tirolean version.


[1] Virgil, Georg. ii. 121, "Velleraque ut foliis depectant tenuia Seres;" and Pliny, H. N. vi. 20, 2, "Seres, lanicio silvarum nobiles, perfusam aqua depectentes frondium canitiem." Also 24, 8; and xi. 26, 1.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: How Shanggasba Buried His Father
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Sagas from the Far East; or, Kalmouk and Mongolian Traditionary Tales
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Mongolia & Russia
Classification: unclassified

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