Dr. Madan Meena is a visual artist and researcher. His doctoral dissertation from the University of Rajasthan was on the subject ‘Art of the Meena Tribe’. He works and lives in Kota-Rajasthan.
Like any folktale which starts with the singing of praises upon gods and goddesses (mostly Ganesha), the tale of Raja Bharthari too begins by praising the goddess Durga. These tales are present both in prose and poetic form, and are sung by the lead singer known as Media. He is invited by the patrons, mostly from the surrounding villages. They are provided with the travelling expenses, a certain amount is also allotted for the performance.
Bharthari-ki-Katha expresses the values of love, sacrifice, advocacy, spirituality and dutifulness in a person. In the ballad, the king marries off his daughter to the foal that belonged to the potter because of his promise. Later King Bharthari becomes a disciple of Baba Gorakhnath, obeys his order of killing a blackbuck and brings its hide for him, later becoming a Jogi and leaving his empire to his younger brother Vikramaditya. The tale portrays various aspects of human life full of exciting emotions. The Bharthari tale can be divided into three parts but it is sung in a way gives it the feel of a unified story completed in a single night. Once the tale is sung, gods and goddesses are worshipped, followed by distribution of bhog and prasad.
The tale of Bharthari
This tale belongs to a time when the celestial nymphs of King Indra danced on earth and fragrant plants beautified the land. Indra asked his son Gandharavsen to be born as a foal on earth and hence he was born in Lakha, the potter’s house.
In a few days the foal matured and cried every night to Lakha asking him to get him married to King Pepsingh’s daughter, Paan-de. This daily request worried Lakha as he could not go to the King to ask him to marry off the princess to his foal. This could have proved fatal so he decided to leave the village instead. He asked his wife to pack their belongings and load them all on the donkeys. As he left the village, people started questioning his decision and asked him to stay because he was the only potter in the village from whom everyone bought their household utensils. They said that if he did not stay back, they would go with him too, as it was impossible to live without a potter in the village. After the intervention of the panch-patel (community leaders), Lakha agreed, but on the condition that they had to spend a night in his home before returning. The villagers and the patels had no choice but to agree.
As the night grew, the foal again cried out to Lakha to get him married to the princess. Listening to this, the patels and villagers also decided to leave the village with Lakha as they also could not go to the King and ask him to get his daughter married to a foal. When King Pepsingh came to know that the villagers were leaving, he came on his horse preventing them from leaving and asked them the reason behind such a decision. He reasoned that a king is nothing without the people he rules. So the villagers said that Lakha would explain. Lakha told the king that if he was ready to spend a night at his home, he himself would know the reason for their leaving the village. The king spent the night and heard the foal cry. He was shocked to listen to the demand for his daughter. To prevent the match he told the foal that if he was able to make the fort’s boundary out of brass and copper in one night, he would let his daughter marry him.
King Pepsingh then left for his palace, but both Lakha and the foal were nervous about the deal that the king had made. The foal asked Lakha to load him on one side with black sand and on the other with yellow sand and to take him round the fort. Lakha had no other option but to accept the foal’s demand. To his surprise, the boundary wall of the village was converted into brass and copper. This came as a shock for Pepsingh who heard the news in the morning. He then asked the queen to arrange for the marriage of their daughter with the foal as he had given his word to him. He decided that the princess should stay with the foal in the palace. The king asked his barber to carry lagna (invitation) to Lakha’s house for the marriage of the princess and the foal. Lakha called out to everyone to see the lagna. He did all the arrangements to form the marriage procession and kept everything quiet and simple. The groom foal was excited and was distributing money to those who were dancing in his procession. When the procession reached the palace, ladies sang at the toran (welcome entrance), welcoming the groom, and the queen herself welcomed the groom. The knot was tied and marriage ceremonies were conducted following the Hindu rituals. The guests went back leaving the bride and groom in the palace.
The newly-weds were given a separate portion in the talghar (basement) of the palace to reside. To the princess’ surprise, the foal became Gandharvasen (human-being) at night, and in the morning he turned back into a donkey. After some time Paan-de delivered four babies at short intervals, the oldest was Bharthari, next to him was Vikramaditya, followed by a sister Menawanti and the youngest was Salimadit. All of them were happy together.
One day the queen was thinking of her daughter and to check on how she was doing, she sent her maids to find out about Paan-de and her whereabouts. The maids saw that Paan-de was reading a book and her four children were happily playing. Paan-de told the maids to go back and inform the queen that even though they made her marry a donkey, she is a mother of four human children. In the evening the donkey came back home after grazing and at night he turned into Gandharvasen and hung the donkey’s hide on the hanger. When the queen came to know about this, she immediately instructed the maids to burn the hide so that only the human form of Gandharvasen stayed with her daughter. As soon as his hide was set on fire, Gandharvasen could not bear the heat as his body was burning and he asked Paan-de to escape to the jungle with their four children. He promised that he would take revenge on those who did this to him. He set the palace on fire.
Paan-de and her four children ran into the jungle to save their lives. They were without any food. As she couldn’t breastfeed, Salimadit became very weak and was dying of hunger. They saw a tiger and tigress coming towards them. Finding themselves in danger, Bharthari suggested that the mother should abandon the dying Salimadit for the tigers and leave for a safer place. She left Salimadit under a Narsal tree and went to a mound called Dhoba-pyaad. Reaching there, Vikramaditya and Bharthari decided to take turns to conduct a night-watch. First was Vikramaditya’s turn. Near the baoli (step-well) lived a pair of skylarks in a banyan tree. A black snake also lived there. He overheard them saying that if anyone killed them and ate the male skylark, the person would become the king of the Dhara kingdom, and the one who could eat the female skylark would receive one gold coin every day.
Vikramaditya thought to himself that if he was able to kill them and if Bharthari ate the male skylark he would become the king of the Dhara kingdom. And if he himself ate the female skylark, he would receive a gold coin daily. He killed them both, woke Bharthari up and told him everything. Bharthari ate the male skylark and Vikramaditya ate the female. It was now midnight and Bharthari’s turn to stand guard, as Vikrmaditya slept. While he was asleep, the black snake came out of the tree and bit Vikramaditya. He died in his sleep and ants crawled all over his face.
In the morning when Paan-de discovered this, she started crying at the loss of her second son. Bharthari wanted to make arrangements for the rituals of his dead brother and went across the forest to the kingdom of Dhara, but he found the gates of the kingdom closed. The kingdom was without a king. Previously, all the kings had been devoured by the devil and the goddess Kamakhya. Finding Bharthari, people of the kingdom pleaded him to become the king of Dhara, to which he agreed. In the process, he forgot all about his mother, sister and dead brother. He spread fragrant flowers around his seat to welcome and to impress the devil and the goddess. Both were pleased by this gesture and gave him a boon that only he could become the king, fearlessly. Meanwhile in the forest Paan-de, with her daughter was in tears and waiting for Bharthari to return. Seeing her pain Lord Shiva appeared to ask about her trouble. He played his Naad and the black snake which had bitten Vikramaditya came down from the tree and sucked out all the poison from his body. Lord Shiva then sprinkled holy water from the Ganges and brought him back to life.
Meanwhile in the kingdom of Dhara, one night some dacoits took away the cows. The people of the kingdom pleaded the King to help them to get their cows back. King Bharthari went on his horse to the place where the dacoits had camped and threatened them to return the cows, but their leader Ganpat Singh threatened him in return. A battle ensued between the dacoits and King Bharthari, in which the dacoits lost and Bharthari was able to rescue the cows and even married the daughter of Ganpat Singh, Shyam-de. When he brought Shyam-de to his palace she asked him how he stayed alone in such a huge palace. If only he had a younger brother and sister, she would have loved them as her own. She continued that if she would have had a mother-in-law, she would have massaged her legs. Suddenly, he remembered his mother and the incident of the snake and how he had left them behind to get the khappan (piece of white cloth) for the last rites. He went back to the same place in the forest where he had left them and on finding his family, took them back to his kingdom.
As time passed, Bharthari remembered his vow made to Lord Shiva while rescuing the cows from the dacoits. He had promised to worship him for twelve years if he succeeded in the mission and so he left the palace and handed over the responsibility of the kingdom to Vikramaditya. Bharathari’s reign was so peaceful that a tiger and a goat drank water from the same pond without any fear. He asked Vikramaditya to manage the kingdom in a similar manner, and left for the jungle.
After Bharthari left for his penance of twelve years, his queen Shyam-de, overcome by physical desire, asked her maids to call for the male servant in the pretext that there was a black snake in her room. Then she forced him into a relationship. One day they were caught in the palace by Vikramaditya. The servant got worried for his life but Shyam-de reassured him and planned to teach a lesson to Vikramaditya.
Finally Bharthari’s twelve years’ penance was over. Shyam-de was unhappy seeing Bharthari in the palace. Bharthari too noticed that his wife looked upset, and in her anger she twisted her ivory band. He asked, ‘Oh my queen! If you’ve been hit I shall remove mountains from here. If a thorn pricked you, I shall trim the bamboo trees. And if someone has pointed a finger at you I shall cut his finger. Tell me what happened?’ She started complaining saying, ‘I am not happy with Vikramaditya’s rule. He had ill-governance and management. If you want to know the truth, then ask the maids and the servants.’
After listening to his queen, Bharthari called for Vikramaditya who came running, excited to meet his brother after twelve years. As soon as he entered the palace Bharthari hit him hard and reprimanded him ‘Did I leave behind such kind of a kingdom? What kind of rule was yours?’ Vikramaditya started crying seeing his brother angry. Bharthari hung his brother from the ceiling hook. Taking advantage of the situation, the servant suggested that Vikramaditya should be thrown out of the palace. Bharthari agreed and Vikramaditya was thrown out.
One day Bharthari gave the immortal fruit to his queen saying, ‘This is an immortal fruit given to me by Shiva as a blessing for my penance. You should eat this and you shall remain young and beautiful always.’ She realized that by eating it she would have to always abide by Bharthari, so she gave the fruit to her servant. The servant thought that by eating it he would have to be in the service of the king forever. He gave it to the charvardar (one who grazes horses). The charvardar too did not have it thinking that he would have to keep feeding grass to the horses all his life. So he passed it to the maid, who again refused to have it as she did not wish to work as a maid all her life. She took it to the temple priest telling him that king Bharthari would give him half of the villages of the fifty-two garh (states) if he ate it. But even he didn’t eat it knowing he would have to conduct rituals at the temple all his life and keep banging the iron bells forever. So he thought of giving the fruit to King Bharthari. When the king saw the immortal fruit coming back to him he went and asked Shyam-de about it. She lied saying that she had eaten it herself. Bharthari called the priest and asked from where he had got the fruit. The temple priest got scared and said that the maid had given it to him. The maid said the charvardar, who said that it was the servant, and the servant in turn revealed the truth about the queen to the king. Listening to the truth he felt sad for his brother and repented his mistake.
After leaving the palace Vikramaditya started working at a bania’s (trader) home. The bania had a son with impaired vision and his marriage was finalised with the daughter of another bania. The parents of the bride demanded that nobody in the groom’s procession and gathering with an eye problem could be present. The father of the groom decided to let Vikramaditya conduct all the marriage rituals, but to see to it that later the girl should remain with his son and not with Vikramaditya.
During the marriage rituals, Vikramaditya wrote on the odhni (shoulder cloth) of the bride that even though she was getting married to the prince Vikramaditya, she would be given away to the bania’s son who was visually impaired. The bride’s name was Pingla. After marriage, the groom’s parents sent Vikramaditya to do his routine chores, they took the bride and groom to seek blessings from the gods and goddesses but Pingla refused to do so. Pingla had read what Vikramaditya had written and she said that she would only seek blessings when she was with the man with whom she got married and also that she would only stay with him.
The parents of the groom complained about Vikramaditya and the king ordered his soldiers to bring him to the palace. When the King’s men brought Vikramaditya in front of Bharthari, he was overwhelmed with emotions and realizing his fault, ordered that he should be released immediately. He asked for forgiveness from Vikramaditya and ordered Shyam-de to be hung from the ceiling. He threw her out from the palace for deceiving him. Vikramaditya pleaded forgiveness for her but in vain. Bharthari did not agree and she was banished.
Bharthari asked Vikramaditya of his whereabouts for the last twelve years. Vikramaditya said that he was at the bania’s house and that they made him marry Pingla. Both the brothers hugged each other. After sometime, Bharthari also got married to Pingla, daughter of Raja Prakshit of Singal town. The Dhara kingdom was eventually renamed Ujjain.
There were one thousand, four hundred and fifty disciples of the guru Gorakhnath. Except one, all the places at the dhoona (fire place) were occupied by his disciples. One day his disciple asked him, ‘Why is this one vacant?’ Gorakhnath replied, ‘Because this one is for Bharthari.’ The disciple said, ‘Why would Bharthari come here for penance? He is a king of fifty-two forts!’ Gorakhnath asked his two disciples to go to Bharthari asking him to fetch the skin of a deer named Heera, and he was given three days to bring it.
Heera was the Lord of 70 female deer, who thought of moving to the kingdom of King Bharthari, considering it to be safer for them and their Lord. They would have grass to graze and the Kshipra River to quench their thirst. What they weren’t aware of was that now the saviour King Bharthari was after Heera’s life. Bharthari asked for his best horse for the hunt. Bharthari’s wife requested him not to go for the game. She had the gift of premonition and knew about events about to occur six months in advance. Bharthari asked her to prepare for him five sets of clothes and to give him his spear. She kept on requesting him not to go but he said that once he had mounted the horse he wouldn’t get off before completing his task.
On his way to the hunt, the King came across many bad omens such as hearing the hoot of an owl on his right, the howling of a jackal on his left. The ivory bangle on the wrist of Bharthari’s queen broke too. She said to the King, ‘I shall become a widow.’ But Bharthari didn’t pay any heed and reached the bank of the river Kshipra. In a few hours, the day would be over and so the king decided to camp near the river bank.
To their amazement the seventy deer with Heera came there to have water. Half went to have water and the rest went to the king to ask about the reason for his visit to the forest with his soldiers. The deer said, ‘Oh! You are the Lord of fifty forts. Why are you here with your troops? Did you fight at home? Did you leave home in anger and was there a tiff between you and your parents or wife? If so then you must go back to your palace.’
Bharathari replied ‘I have heard that amongst seventy of you, there is one blackbuck. I am here to kill him for his hide.’ The deer were dumbfounded at Bharthari’s words. They said ‘Oh King! Why do you want to kill our husband? We shall become widows and roam the jungle without him. Instead you can kill one or two of us but do not kill our Lord.’ Bharthari said ‘I shall not leave without hunting the blackbuck.’’ He added that if they wanted to talk to their husband one last time, they might do so but in the morning, he would hunt Heera.
The deer became anxious and started running in panic but Heera calmed them by saying, ‘Do not run like this and make your mother’s milk ashamed.’ He said to Bharthari ‘Like you have a wife, these are my wives. I am not scared as the previous three hundred and fifty attempts to kill me have failed. This time too I would save myself.’ Severely angry, Bharthari mounted his horse and aimed his spear at the blackbuck but Heera camouflaged himself by flattening himself on the ground. Bharthari fell from his horse and all his weapons too fell down. He blamed his horse. The horse advised him to worship the earth by touching it three times and then it would launch to kill the deer. Bharthari followed the instructions and then mounted his horse. Once again, he aimed at Heera and this time it went piercing right through his chest. While dying, Heera asked for a promise from Bharthari, ‘Donate my four legs to a thief, they might help save his life; give my heart to a baniya who shall always keep it in the shade; give my horns to a Nath Jogi so that my sound can travel far; give my eyes to a lady who shall keep them in purdah (cover) and give my skin to guru Gorakhnath to meditate upon.’ He asked Bharthari to fulfill his wishes and died on the banks of the river Kshipra.
Bharthari was carrying the dead deer on his horse back to Ujjain. On his way he was surrounded by the seventy female deer who had lost their husband. They were crying unstoppably and cursed the king saying that now he too would never be able to go back to his wife and would spend his life as a Jogi. Bharthari left the mourning deer and moved towards Ujjain. On his way, he met Baba Gorakhnath with his dhooni. The King thought of giving the skin to the Baba to lessen his guilt but on seeing him the Baba got angry and said ‘You have committed a sin by killing the animal.’ Bharathari replied, ‘Even you are sinning by cutting so many trees for your dhooni. I shall only believe you, if you have powers to bring this deer back to life.’ Goraknath replied, ‘If I bring the deer to life what will you give me in return?’ Bharathari said he would become his disciple and serve him forever.
Bharthari lowered the dead deer to the ground and Gorakhnath, playing his drum sprinkled holy water, brought the deer back to life. Bharthari wanted to learn this magical power from Gorakhnath so that he might help anyone in trouble in Ujjain. He requested the Baba to take him as his disciple. As his first test, the Baba asked him to get some alms from his wife addressing her as his sister.
Bharthari left his horse, clothes and weapons in the forest and changed his attire into that of a Jogi clad in saffron clothes. He wore a necklace and playing a drum went to his wife. He started calling her ‘Sister,’ saying, ‘I have to do bhagati (service) of Baba Gorakhnath, you should give me some alms as charity.’ Hearing his words, she started mourning and crying, ‘If I knew that you would do this I would never have married you! What will become of me now?’ She started cursing the barber who carried out the marriage rituals, ‘May he be bitten by the black snake and the Brahmin who tied the knot should be hit by a thunder bolt!’
Bharthari said he was going to do penance and have his own dhooni there. He assured her that Vikramaditya would manage the kingdom and would also take care of her needs. She disagreed, ‘He will keep taunting me.’ At this, Bharthari replied, ‘Then you may choose amongst the five sons of your sisters to be the king.’ She objected again, ‘People will taunt me about not having my own son.’ She pleaded with Bharthari, ‘Take me too and let me become the joganiya.’ Bharthari refused saying that everyone would doubt his intentions. He bade farewell to his queen. Finally, she asked him, ‘When will I be able to see you again?’ King Bharthari replied, ‘Adolescence and wealth are like guests, they don’t stay for long and what is written in the destiny, cannot be avoided.’
The queen kept begging and pleading with him not to go and that Ujjain would be deserted in his absence, that the colours and jewelleries would lose their lustre, that everything would become lifeless and only crows would reside there. But Bharthari had made up his mind to leave and become a Jogi. He wore mandra in his ears, put on seli on his neck and playing his sumaran drum went to Baba Gorakhnath. He bowed to his guru and asked for his blessings. Gorakhnath blessed him saying that his name would be immortal and people would sing his glories forever.
For six months Bharthari did not have food. His hard penance even made the dhooni of Gorakhnath tremble. Gorakhnath told him that he could now wander to places as a Jogi and carry the message of good deeds for people. He should envision women as his sisters and mothers and should live on the charity given to him by people.
Later he went to Alwar and stayed there for twelve years in the home of a potter. When only a day was left for the completion of his twelve years of penance, Jogi Bharthari reached a Gujari’s (herder) place and asked for a bowl of milk. The Gujari said, ‘I cannot keep feeding people who come to my door every day! As it is my home is placed such that people keep coming here to ask for a bowl of milk. I have two-day old butter-milk. If you want to have it, you may have as much as you want. I will give milk only to my servant who works in the field.’
King Bharthari went away and sat across from her home under a Goolar tree and started his dhooni by hanging his bag and flags on the tree. Angered, Bharthari called Bhairu who scared Gujari’s cows away. They broke away and ran towards the mountains, the udders of the cows and buffalos were affected. Even the bulls stopped eating. Gujari realized her mistake and rushed out in search of Bharthari. It was raining heavily and she kept asking people about him. Having found him, he asked for forgiveness. She vowed that in the month of Bhadwa on the sixth and seventh day, she would organize a fair and on the eighth day she would arrange a feast for people in his honour. In Alwar, it is still celebrated by the descendants of the Gujari.
After the Bharthari-ki-Katha is completed, the gods and goddesses are invoked and sweets are distributed to people as prasad. The Jogi who sang the tale are given gifts and tokens. By this time the sun rises and the jagaran gets over.
Original text in Hindi. Translated by: Dr Shubhra Joshi
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