April 8, 2019 9:49 pm

Heemal Naigraay; The Crown of Kashmiri Folk Tales

The equivalent of Laila Majnoon, Heer Ranja, Sheereen Farhad, the Kashmiri folk tale, a love story, has fascinated me all my life. It is one of those stories that I would ask my mother to repeat every now and then when I was a child.

I vividly remember every word she narrated to me of it even if it has been decades that I have not heard it now. It has been a fairy tale to me all along that I always fell had at least some real background to it as and when I would travel from Srinagar to Shopian after seeing the spring dedicated to Heemal that falls on the right side immediately before one enters the town. People often tell me that nearby is still preserved the pestle and the mortar belonging to Heemal. It was first translated into English by Knowles Hinton J along with other Kashmiri folk tales and published in London in the last decade of the 19th Century. It repeats itself in another translation by S L Sadhu in 1962. The translations are almost identical but Sadhu’s appeared to me more close to what my mother used to narrate it to me.

Here is the story as translated by Sadhu:

LONG long ago there lived a poor Brahman in Kashmir named Sodha Ram. Fortune had yoked him to a wife who was ambitious and discontented. She always grumbled for lack of the many requirements of material prosperity and called her husband a foolish drone. She had a terrible tongue which was used to a devastating effect against her husband and became sharper and progressively vitriolic in that exercise. Sodha Ram was sick of her and would very much have liked to get rid of her but found no way out. One day when his wife asked him to go to a not distant place to receive alms from a king, he jumped at the proposal, as that would give him a welcome respite for a few days.

He left his home carrying a little food in a small wallet. Travelling some distance in the hot sun he felt tired. Luckily he came to a shady grove of trees near a spring. He put down his small bundle, took his rough meal and lay down for a little rest. Before Sodha Ram resumed his journey he saw a serpent come out of the spring and enter the little wallet he carried. An idea flashed across his mind he would carry the serpent home to sting his wife and thus get rid of her. With trembling hands he closed the mouth of the wallet with a string and returned home with a light heart.

“I have got a precious gift for you,” Sodha Ram shouted to his wife when he reached home. At first she would not believe it as her husband was the last man to do things that pleased her heart. However, having persuaded her that his bag held the gift, he gave it to her, stepped out of the room and closed the door from outside. When the Brahman lady opened the bag the serpent popped its head out. She shrieked and ran to the door. But it did not open and Sodha Ram said, “Let it sting you for aught I care!” The serpent apparently spared the woman and a miracle room and the serpent changed into a little male baby. Even Sodha Ram was wonderstruck against his better knowledge. It was a piece of good fortune beyond the wildest dreams of his wife.

In course of time the baby grew into a boy, the beloved of his foster parents to whom he brought great prosperity. He came to be known as Naegrai, the king of serpents. One day he asked his father to take him to a spring of pure water where he wanted to take a bath. His father told him that there was only one such spring but that belonged to the princess and was surrounded by lofty walls. It was so heavily guarded, he told him, that not even a bird was permitted to take flight over it. But Naegrai’s curiosity was fanned and he persuaded his father to take him to the outer wall. Reaching there the boy turned into a serpent, crept in through a crevice into the wall, satisfied his craving for a bath in the limpid spring and returned quietly unobserved.

The next day the illustrious Heemal, the daughter of the king, observed that some one had taken a bath in the spring as she had heard the splashing of water. But neither the maids nor the guards had seen any one. Naegrai repeated his visit the next day undetected; but on the day after, Heemal caught a glimpse of the intruder and was enthralled by his looks. She at once set a maid servant after him and came to know that he was the son of the Brahman Sodha Ram. She was delighted to know that the young man who had won her heart belonged to the same city as she herself and made up her mind to marry no one except the Brahman boy. Discarding her modesty and the traditional good manners she approached her father in trepidation and broached the subject to him. Her father did not mind her marrying the young man of her own choice but it was ridiculous and humiliating for him to have a poor Brahman for his son-in-law. “How can I show my face to the fellow princes of my caste, or to the courtiers and wazirs?” he reprimanded her. But she was dead set on it. She refused to touch her food or make her toilet till the king granted her her boon. In a few days, realizing the futility of his resistance her father sent for Sodha Ram. The latter was already appalled when he stepped into the palace but was utterly perplexed when the king mentioned the subject of the alliance. “I am a poor Brahman, Sire,” he said, “and how can I be worthy of such a peerless daughter-in-law.” But even he found himself helpless as Naegrai compelled him to give his consent to the alliance which he did reluctantly.

As the wedding day approached Sodha Ram was enveloped in gloom. “What a sorry figure shall we cut,” he told everyone “when we lead the wedding party into the palace!” But Naegrai told him not to have any anxiety on this score. On the wedding day he gave him a piece of birchbark inscribed with a message and asked him to drop it in a spring. When Sodha Ram returned home he felt dazed as he saw a gorgeous palace where he expected his poor hut. He felt convinced that he had lost his way. He also heard the beating of drums and the skirting of pipes inside, and saw caparisoned horses and elephants, guards with glittering uniforms and retainers. From inside came Naegrai befittingly dressed as a princely bridegroom and assured him that all was ready. The whole city was agog with music, feasting and revelry in honour of the wedding of Heemal and Naegrai. A new palace was built for them on the river bank where they lived happily.

They were, however, not destined to enjoy their happiness for long. The serpent wives of Naegrai felt forlorn in his absence in the nether world and made efforts to trace him out. One of them assumed the human form and made inquiries after her husband and learnt of his marriage with Heemal. To remind him of his attachment to his serpent-wives she had carried with her a few rare golden vessels of his. Approaching the mansion of Heemal she began to hawk her wares. Heemal was attracted by her curios and purchased them at a throw-away price. When Naegrai returned she displayed to him the curios. He at once understood the mischief of his serpent-wives, broke the vessels to splinters and warned Heemal not to succumb to the tempting talk of such women again. She was puzzled but kept quiet.

Another serpent wife tried a different trick when the first failed. Disguising herself as a cobbler-woman she approached Heemal and asked her if she knew of her husband Naegrai the cobbler. “Naegrai is my husband,” replied Heemal, “but he is a Brahman, son of Sodha Ram.” “I don’t know about that,” said the other, “what I know is that Naegrai is my husband and is a cobbler by caste.” She saw from Heemal’s face that her words were beginning to have effect. She added, “You may ask him his caste. But to make sure you may set him the trial. Ask him to plunge into a spring of milk. His body will sink if he be a Brahman. A cobbler’s body will float on the surface.”

When Naegrai came home Heemal asked him to state his caste. He understood that she had been befouled by the serpent-wives and told her so but she insisted that he should undergo the trial to convince her of his caste. All his arguments failed to convince her that it was a trap laid down by her enemies. Ultimately he was induced to face the trial to allay her misgivings. He dipped his feet in a spring full of milk and was pulled down by his serpent-wives. He resisted their pull in the hope that Heemal might be satisfied but to no avail. When his knees were immersed he said, “Heemal, are you satisfied?” She was not. When his thighs were also immersed he repeated the question but she said nothing. He appealed to Heemal again and again when the surface of milk reached his navel, his chest and his chin but her misgivings about his caste were not cleared yet. She realized the gravity of the situation when he was immersed to his forehead. She sprang and tried to pull him out by the tuft of hair on his head. But it was too late. Naegrai disappeared under the milk and Heemal was left only with a tuft of hair in her hand.

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Heemal was left forlorn. Her grief was beyond words and nothing could console her. She was in dismay and sorrow. The worst of it was that her own folly led to her undoing. To expiate her stupidity she decided to give all her wealth in charity. Everyday she relieved the distress of scores of men and women and gave away everything she had in silver, gold and jewels till only a golden mortar and pestle was left with her. Once an old man and his daughter came to her for alms. She served them food and he narrated to her a tale that filled her with excitement. He told her that one night he and his daughter lay under a tree near a spring. At midnight they heard a great noise as of an army on the march. Then came a number of servants out of the spring who cleaned the area and cooked a large feast which was served to many guests including a prince. They all disappeared within the spring except their chief. He left a little food under the tree saying “This is in the name of unlucky Heemal” and disappeared within the spring.

Heemal persuaded the old man to take her to the spring and rewarded him with the remnants of her wealth, the golden mortar and pestle. At night with her own eyes she saw the series of events narrated by the old man. Her nerves were tense and her heart was racing. When Naegrai came out of the spring she prostrated herself at his feet. Naegrai was overcome with emotion but he was afraid that his serpent wives would kill Heemal if he took her to his abode. He consoled her and advised her to wait for a month or so till he could make some arrangement for her stay. Heemal would brook no further separation from him and coiled herself round his legs. Naegrai was in a pretty fix now. At last he turned her into a pebble, hid her in his turban and went back to his home in the serpent world. His wives began to look askance upon him and accused him of the smell of human flesh in his company. He could conceal the secret no longer and reconverted her into the human form after they had solemnly promised that they would not molest her. They were highly impressed with her beauty and tenderness and could not help being jealous. As they had solemnly promised Naegrai not to do her any harm they had their revenge by imposing all the culinary drudgery upon her. This princess brought up in a palace with maids and servants to carry out her every whim gladly undertook to look after the kitchen of the serpents. But she had no experience of these affairs and revealed herself to be a clumsy and uncouth cook. One day, while pouring boiled milk into basins to cool it for the serpent children, her ladle accidentally struck one of the vessels. The serpent children mistook it for the usual breakfast gong. They rushed to the kitchen and gulped the hot milk. As a result they died of burns. The serpent wives were overcome with grief. They stung Heemal and she died immediately.

Naegrai was overwhelmed with grief but he was helpless. He washed the body of Heemal and under presence of cremating it carried it through the spring. He was so moved by his affection for Heemal that he could not stand the idea of consigning it to the flames. Instead, he embalmed it and stretched it on a bed which he placed in a tree nearby. Now and then he would come out of the spring and remorsefully look on the beauty of the dead form Not long after, a holy man happened to come to the spring and saw the dead body. He was so impressed by the beauty of Heemal and the devotion of Naegrai that he gave the body the gift of life. He then carried Heemal to his home where the holy man’s son was fascinated with her beauty and not knowing her story set his heart on marrying her.

A couple of days later Naegrai came once again out of the spring to draw consolation from a sight of Heemal’s body. He was grieved to find the body missing and sought to solve the mystery before retiring. He traced her ultimately to the holy man’s hut where she was lying asleep and was delighted to find her living once again. He did not want to disturb her while asleep and, therefore, coiled himself near the bed of Heemal till she would wake up. In the meantime, the holy man’s son entered the cottage and was alarmed to see the snake. He at once killed the snake. Heemal woke up in this commotion, realized the significance of the snake and bewailed its unnatural death. “Once again has he suffered for my sake” she mourned. She had the dead snake cremated and ascending the funeral pyre committed herself to the flames as sati. Everyone was moved by their devotion and the sacrifice they made for each other. The holy man was especially remorseful because it was in his hut where Naegrai out of love for Heemal had lost his life and this had led to the self-immolation of Heemal also. He felt deeply concerned. One day, while he was brooding over this question he heard two birds talking about the love, devotion and sacrifice of Heemal and Naegrai. The female bird said to her consort, “Can they ever regain their human form?” “Verily so” replied the latter, “if their ashes are thrown into the spring.” The holy man realized that the two birds were none else than Shiva and Parvati. He at once threw the ashes into the spring. Heemal and Naegrai came to life in their human form once again and lived without further mishap ever after.

Post Script: As we know folk tales do have their own value reflecting the sociocultural landscape of the locale and sometimes are of tremendous historical value even when they don’t denote the actual historical facts. In case of Kashmir where we entirely have to revolve around Rajtarangni of Kalhana for our ancient history, Kalhana has relied on a whole lot of local folk tale as a source of his work. Heemal Naigraay reflects the social structure of our society based on caste as Naigraay has to clear the test of not being a chamar/ of “low caste”. It also tells us that at least some Brahmins were not economically well off as depicted in the character of Sodha Ram. Probably it also tells us the conflict and sometimes cooperation between the Naegas and the Aryans living side by side for a while if there is some truth to the story that Naegas  inhabited the Valey before the arrival of the Aryans. The tale reflects upon the yearning for love and to some degree freedom of courtship between couples and acceptance by the society of marriages by choice. And existence of polygamy as a natural and acceptable social norm. And it tells us about the mortality of small babies caused due to human error in addition to the frictions of married life caused by poverty.

Dedicated to my Mother Raja. It is like I am listening the tale once again from her with my head resting in her lap.

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Ali Malik

Author is an astute Kashmir observer with an interest in and stamina to correct the wrongs of the history.