Ancient Sanskrit tale of Vedic sages translated, retold and illustrated by U. Mahesh Prabhu
A long time ago there was a small kingdom somewhere around the India’s Gangetic plains ruled by a king named Shashijit. One year it faced a great crisis. The monsoon was good, and the crops were fine. But just before harvest, swarms of locusts invaded the fields and consumed almost the entire crops. This happened for two consecutive years! As a result the land was threatened by a severe famine. The desperate king even sent his army to fight the menace of the locusts. The soldiers dashed into farms with long sticks and swords. They even tried to scare the locusts away with burning torches. But all such efforts were found futile.
King Shashijith made proclaimed that he who can rid the land of the locusts would receive gold to the measure of his weight.
Days passed. But nobody came foreword to claim the reward. At last his spies informed the king that an acre of land situated in an area bordering his kingdom had been spared by the locusts during both their invasions. “Perhaps the owner of the land, an old farmer, knew magic to drive away the locusts.” they suggested to the ruler in despair.
The king summoned the old man and wanted to know how he saved his crop from the locusts.
“My King! I know how to drive them away,” answered the man.
“Then you must teach the secret to all the people of my land. You must have heard of the reward I have announced That will go to you if you succeed in the mission.” assured the king.
“In order to teach the secret to all the people, I must undertake a tour of the entire country. My sons, too, because I alone cannot cover all the villages. This will mean, my own acre of land will go untilled.” murmured the old man.
“What does that matter if you are going to receive gold amounting to your own weight?” observed the king.
The old man and his sons toured the length and breadth of the land, teaching the people how to produce noise in a particular rhythm which scared the locusts. Besides, they also taught the farmers how to mix a few herbs and prepare a paste. Pieces of cloth with dabs of that paste were to be placed on sticks which were to be planted amid the fields. They exuded a peculiar smell which was shunned by locusts.
The locusts came like the previous year, but were scared away by the noise and the smell. The harvest all over the land was excellent. Only the old man’s acre of land lay barren as he had no time to till it.
After the locusts were gone, the old man approached the king and asked for the reward. The king had much gold with him. But he was in no mood to part with even a portion of it as he had failed to realize taxes from his subjects for two years.
“Don’t you worry. I will ask the people to contribute their mite and that should make a handsome reward for you,” said the king.
But the response to the king’s appeal for subscription was poor, for the loss of crop for two years had reduced the people to abject poverty.
The king summoned the old man and handed over to him the small fund he had been able to raise, saying “You have to remain content with this sum, I’m afraid!”
The old man grumbled. At that the king became furious and shouted “What is the proof that locusts left our land because of your devices? Who knows if they did not leave of their own? Begone!”
The old man left the court quietly for the fear of the wrath of the king.
The locusts were not seen for ten years. Then, on the eleventh, just before the harvest, they suddenly loomed in the horizon like clouds and swooped down upon the crops. By then the people had forgotten the rhythm of the sound as well as the mixture of herbs the old farmer had taught them.
The king’s messenger ran to summon the old farmer. But they returned and reported that the old man and his entire family had left the kingdom over ten years ago! Their hut now lay in ruins.
The locusts ruined the entire crop that year and the next. This collapsed the entire economy of the state which made king’s treasury run completely dry. Unpaid soldiers began deserting the army while unhappy people starting taking arms against the king leading to strong rebellion. Seeing the weakened Shashijit, he neighboring kings invaded his land. There was utter chaos leading to absolute destruction of the state and king. All this owing to one unkept promise.