Soma The Washerwoman

: 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
aughters-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.