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Soma The Washerwoman

from Deccan Nursery Tales





Once upon a time there was a town called Atpat. In it there lived a
poor Brahman who had seven sons and seven daughters-in-law. He had also
one daughter called Gunvanti and a wife called Dhanvanti. Whenever
a mendicant Brahman came to this house, it was the custom of all
the ladies to give him alms and then prostrate themselves in front
of him. One day a Brahman came, tall as a tree and shining like the
sun. The seven daughters-in-law ran out as usual and gave him alms
and then threw themselves at full length at his feet. The Brahman
blessed them and said, "Increase of children be yours; increase of
wealth be yours; may your husbands cherish you all your lives." But
the Brahman's daughter Gunvanti was a lazy little girl, and when the
mendicant came she was still in bed. Her mother, Dhanvanti, rushed
into her room and cried, "Daughter, daughter, get up and give the
Brahman alms," The little girl jumped up in a fright and ran out and
put alms before him and prostrated herself at his feet. The mendicant
blessed her and said, "Observe the precepts of religion."

The little girl ran back to her mother. "Mother, Mother," she cried,
"Bhatji [13] did not give me the same blessing as he gave to my
sisters-in-law," Her mother said, "Go back again and give him some
more alms and see what he does," The little girl ran back, put
some more alms before the mendicant, and again prostrating herself
asked for his blessing. Once more he said, "Observe the precepts
of religion," Then Dhanvanti asked him why he gave her daughter
such a strange blessing. The mendicant replied, "Because widowhood
will come upon her immediately after her marriage," Dhanvanti threw
herself before the Brahman and grasped his feet and cried, weeping,
"Tell me how I may escape this evil; what shall I do to save my one
little girl from becoming a widow?" The Brahman pitied her and said,
"Lady, lady, do not weep; I shall give you a remedy by which to cure
this evil. Across the seven seas there is an island. In it there lives
a washerwoman called Soma. If you can fetch her to your daughter's
wedding, she will escape the evil that threatens her. When the wedding
is over, you must send Soma back with all honour to her house." With
these words the mendicant took up his wallet and went to collect alms
elsewhere. When her husband returned home Dhanvanti told him what had
happened. "Some one," she added, "must go across the seven seas, to
fetch Soma, the washerwoman." The father and mother called up their
sons and said, "Those of you who honour your parents will take your
sister and cross the seven seas to bring Soma here." But all the
sons turned to their mother and said, "All you care about is your
daughter. You do not love us the least little bit. So we shall not
cross the seven seas and bring Soma here just on her account." The
mother began to cry, and the father got very cross. He turned to his
wife and said, "From henceforth you have no sons. To me our seven sons
are as if they had never been born. But do not get frightened about
our little girl I myself shall cross the seven seas and fetch Soma, the
washerwoman." Then the youngest of the seven sons said to his father,
"Daddy, Daddy, you must not say that you have no sons when here we are,
all seven of us. I shall take my sister Gunvanti with me, and we shall
go and fetch Soma, the washerwoman." A few days later the two children
prostrated themselves before their parents and began their voyage.

In course of time they came to the seashore. But the wind was
blowing, the waves were rolling in, and the foam was splashing over
the rocks. The brother and sister could not imagine how they were to
continue their journey. There was no one near to give them food, there
was no one near to give them drink, and they could think of nothing
better than to lie down and die. But they first resolved to pray to
the god Shiva, "Please, please, God Shiva," prayed the two children,
"get us out of this terrible trouble." After praying they went and
sat under a banian tree, and all day long they had nothing to eat or
drink. Now on the very top of the banian tree was an eagle's nest,
and in it there were several little eagles. When evening came, father
eagle and mother eagle came home and began to feed their young. But
the little eagles would not eat anything at all. Mother eagle said,
"Children, children, what is the matter?" "O Mummy, Mummy," cried
the little eagles, "two strangers have come to our house, and they
are sitting under our tree, and they have had nothing to eat all
day!" Father eagle and mother eagle flew to the ground and began to
ask the boy what his trouble was. "Do not be frightened," said father
eagle; "whatever your business, I'll help you to get it done. Do not
go to bed without supper. I'll bring you some fruit. Eat some of it
yourself and give the rest to your little sister."

The boy told father eagle what had happened, and how it was that they
had to cross the seven seas. Father eagle said, "I shall carry you
both across directly you wake up to-morrow, and I shall put you down
at Soma the washerwoman's door." Then the two children felt very happy
and thanked the god Shiva. And after eating father eagle's fruit,
they lay down under the tree and fell fast asleep in no time. Next
morning father eagle and mother eagle came down the tree, and father
eagle took the boy on his back, and mother eagle took the girl on
her back, and off they flew across the seven seas. The wind blew,
and the waves rolled mountains high, and the foam splashed over the
rocks. But father eagle and mother eagle flew straight on until they
came to the door of Soma, the washerwoman. There they left the boy and
girl and went back to the tree where the little eagles were waiting
for them. The boy and girl were too frightened to walk into Soma's
house, so they hid all that day, and next morning they got up at dawn
and they swept the courtyard and neaped the floor with cow-dung. And
then, before any one could see them, they ran away and hid. And this
they did every day for a whole year.

At last Soma one day called all her children and all her little
daughters-in-law and said, "Who among you gets up so early? Who sweeps
my courtyard? Who clears my floor?" All the children and all the
little daughters-in-law said, "It is not I," "It is not I," "It is not
I." Then Soma became very curious to know who it was. So the following
night she did not go to bed. She sat up, but nothing happened until
just after dawn. Then she saw the little Brahman girl sweeping the
courtyard and her brother cleaning the floor. Soma got up and said,
"Children, who are you?" They replied, "We are Brahmans." "But I am
only a washerwoman," said Soma; "I am a low-caste woman, why do you
sweep my courtyard and neap my floor? It will be reckoned unto me
as a sin If I accept the service of Brahmans." The boy said, "This
is my sister, and a Brahman has told us that unless you come to her
wedding she will be widowed shortly after marriage. Our father and
mother told us to go and bring you back with us. So, in order to make
you pleased with us, we have been working as your servants." "Do not
work for me any more," said Soma, "I shall gladly go to your wedding,"
She then called to her daughters-in-law and said, "I am going to this
child's wedding. But if any one of our relations dies when I am away,
do not burn his body until I come back." She went with the two Brahman
children to the seashore. The wind was blowing, and the great waves
were rolling in, and the foam was splashing over the rocks. But Soma
took the boy under one arm and the girl under the other. She jumped
far up into the sky and right over the seven seas, and when she got
to the opposite shore she put the children down again. They led her to
their father's house. Their mother Dhanvanti welcomed the washerwoman
and fell at her feet to thank her for her coming. The youngest brother
then went to Ujjain, and after making inquiries brought back a boy of
suitable caste and age to be a husband for his sister. On an auspicious
day the wedding was celebrated. But as the bridegroom and bride were
throwing rice [14] over each other, the bridegroom fainted. He fell
on the ground and lay there motionless. The little bride did not know
what to do, she was so frightened. And all the grown-up people were
almost as frightened as she was. But Soma, the washerwoman, stepped
forward and said, "It is nothing, do not be afraid." She took some
water in her hand and sprinkled it over herself. Now the secret of
Soma's power was this:--

She had acquired great merit by observing every Monday the following
practices: She would get up early, bathe, dress in silence, make
various gifts to Brahmans, and then walk one hundred and eight times
round a peepul tree. But now by sprinkling water over herself she had
transferred the whole of her merit to Gunvanti. By this means the
little bride had been able to restore her husband to life, and the
wedding ceremony finished amidst the happiness of all. Soma then took
leave to go, and started on her homeward journey. When she reached the
seashore, the wind was blowing, and the great waves came rolling in,
and the spray was splashing over the rocks. But now that she had given
away all her merit to Gunvanti, she had none left by means of which she
could jump across the seven seas. She sat down forlorn by the bank of
a river. Then she got up, bathed in the water, and prayed to the god
Vishnu. Next she took one hundred and eight sand-grains in her hand,
and then walked one hundred and eight times round a peepul tree by
the river's edge. Instantly her powers returned to her, and going back
to the shore, she sprang into the heavens and over the seven seas and
alighted close to her own door. There all her little daughters-in-law
ran out to meet her and cried, "O Mother-in-law, Mother-in-law, we
have been watching for you. For while you were away your sons, your
husband, and all your sons-in-law died. But just as you told us to do,
we did not burn their corpses, but kept them in the house. And now
they have all suddenly come back to life." Soma questioned the little
daughters-in-law and learnt that her sons and husband and sons-in-law
had all died at the very moment when she gave her merit to Gunvanti,
and that they had come back to life precisely when she finished her
one-hundred-and-eighth turn round the peepul tree. And they were all so
glad to have Soma back with them again, and for ever such a long time
afterwards she and her family lived happily together. And the Brahman
in his joy at his son-in-law's recovery forgave his disobedient sons,
and they too all lived happily together ever afterwards.





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