The strange adventures related in the story of the Beetle and the Silken Thread took place in the town of Allahabad, “the City of God,” so called because it is situated near the point of meeting of the two sacred rivers of India, the Ganges, which the Hindus lovingly call Mother Ganga because they believe its waters can wash away their sins, and the Jumna, which they consider scarcely less holy.
The ruler of Allahabad was a very selfish and hot-tempered Raja named Surya Pratap, signifying “Powerful as the Sun,” who expected everybody to obey him without a moment’s delay, and was ready to punish in a very cruel manner those who hesitated to do so. He would never listen to a word of explanation, or own that he had been mistaken, even when he knew full well that he was in the wrong. He had a mantri, that is to say, a chief vizier or officer, whom he greatly trusted, and really seemed to be fond of, for he liked to have him always near him. The vizier was called Dhairya-Sila, or “the Patient One,” because he never lost his temper, no matter what provocation he received. He had a beautiful house, much money and many jewels, carriages to drive about in, noble horses to ride and many servants to wait upon him, all given to him by his master. But what he loved best of all was his faithful wife, Buddhi-Mati, or “the Sensible One,” whom he had chosen for himself, and who would have died for him.
Many of the Raja’s subjects were jealous of Dhairya-Sila, and constantly brought accusations against him, of none of which his master took any notice, except to punish those who tried to set him against his favourite. It really seemed as if nothing would ever bring harm to Dhairya-Sila; but he often told his wife that such good fortune was not likely to last, and that she must be prepared for a change before long.
It turned out that he was right. For one day Surya Pratap ordered him to do what he considered would be a shameful deed. He refused; telling his master that he was wrong to think of such a thing, and entreating him to give up his purpose. “All your life long,” he said, “you will wish you had listened to me; for your conscience will never let you rest!”
On hearing these brave words, Surya Pratap flew into a terrible rage, summoned his guards, and ordered them to take Dhairya-Sila outside the city to a very lofty tower, and leave him at the top of it, without shelter from the sun and with nothing to eat or drink. The guards were at first afraid to touch the vizier, remembering how others had been punished for only speaking against him. Seeing their unwillingness, the Raja got more and more angry; but Dhairya-Sila himself kept quite calm, and said to the soldiers:
“I go with you gladly. It is for the master to command and for me to obey.”
1. What is the best way to learn to keep calm in an emergency? 2. Why does too much power have a bad influence on those who have it?
The guards were relieved to find they need not drag the vizier away; for they admired his courage and felt sure that the Raja would soon find he could not get on without him. It might go hardly with them if he suffered harm at their hands. So they only closed in about him; and holding himself very upright, Dhairya-Sila walked to the tower as if he were quite glad to go. In his heart however he knew full well that it would need all his skill to escape with his life.
When her husband did not come home at night, Buddhi-Mati was very much distressed. She guessed at once that something had gone wrong, and set forth to try and find out what had happened. This was easy enough; for as she crept along, with her veil closely held about her lest she should be recognised, she passed groups of people discussing the terrible fate that had befallen the favourite. She decided that she must wait until midnight, when the streets would be deserted and she could reach the tower unnoticed. It was almost dark when she got there, but in the dim light of the stars she made out the form of him she loved better than herself, leaning over the edge of the railing at the top.
“Is my dear lord still alive?” she whispered, “and is there anything I can do to help him?”
“You can do everything that is needed to help me,” answered Dhairya-Sila quietly, “if you only obey every direction I give you. Do not for one moment suppose that I am in despair. I am more powerful even now than my master, who has but shown his weakness by attempting to harm me. Now listen to me. Come to-morrow night at this very hour, bringing with you the following things: first, a beetle; secondly, sixty yards of the finest silk thread, as thin as a spider’s web; thirdly, sixty yards of cotton thread, as thin as you can get it, but very strong; fourthly, sixty yards of good stout twine; fifthly, sixty yards of rope, strong enough to carry my weight; and last, but certainly not least, one drop of the purest bees’ honey.”
3. Do you think the vizier thought of all these things before or after he was taken to the tower? 4. What special quality did he display in the way in which he faced his position on the tower?
Buddhi-Mati listened very attentively to these strange instructions, and began to ask questions about them. “Why do you want the beetle? Why do you want the honey?” and so on. But her husband checked her. “I have no strength to waste in explanations,” he said. “Go home in peace, sleep well, and dream of me.” So the anxious wife went meekly away; and early the next day she set to work to obey the orders she had received. She had some trouble in obtaining fine enough silk, so very, very thin it had to be, like a spider’s web; but the cotton, twine and rope were easily bought; and to her surprise she was not asked what she wanted them for. It took her a good while to choose the beetle. For though she had a vague kind of idea that the silk, the cotton, twine, and rope, were to help her husband get down from the tower, she could not imagine what share the beetle and the honey were to take. In the end she chose a very handsome, strong-looking, brilliantly coloured fellow who lived in the garden of her home and whom she knew to be fond of honey.
5. Can you guess how the beetle and the honey were to help in saving Dhairya-Sila? 6. Do you think it would have been better if the vizier had told his wife how all the things he asked for were to be used?
All the time Buddhi-Mati was at work for her husband, she was thinking of him and looking forward to the happy day of his return home. She had such faith in him that she did not for a moment doubt that he would escape; but she was anxious about the future, feeling sure that the Raja would never forgive Dhairya-Sila for being wiser than himself. Exactly at the time fixed the faithful wife appeared at the foot of the tower, with all the things she had been told to bring with her.
“Is all well with my lord?” she whispered, as she gazed up through the darkness. “I have the silken thread as fine as gossamer, the cotton thread, the twine, the rope, the beetle and the honey.”
“Yes,” answered Dhairya-Sila, “all is still well with me. I have slept well, feeling confident that my dear one would bring all that is needed for my safety; but I dread the great heat of another day, and we must lose no time in getting away from this terrible tower. Now attend most carefully to all I bid you do; and remember not to speak loud, or the sentries posted within hearing will take alarm and drive you away. First of all, tie the end of the silken thread round the middle of the beetle, leaving all its legs quite free. Then rub the drop of honey on its nose, and put the little creature on the wall, with its nose turned upwards towards me. It will smell the honey, but will not guess that it carries it itself, and it will crawl upwards in the hope of getting to the hive from which that honey came. Keep the rest of the silk firmly held, and gradually unwind it as the beetle climbs up. Mind you do not let it slip, for my very life depends on that slight link with you.”
7. Which do you think had the harder task to perform—the husband at the top of the tower or the wife at the foot of it? 8. Do you think the beetle was likely to imagine it was on the way to a hive of bees when it began to creep up the tower?
Buddhi-Mati, though her hands shook and her heart beat fast as she realized all that depended on her, kept the silk from becoming entangled; and when it was nearly all unwound, she heard her husband’s voice saying to her: “Now tie the cotton thread to the end of the silk that you hold, and let it gradually unwind.” She obeyed, fully understanding now what all these preparations were for.
When the little messenger of life reached the top of the tower, Dhairya-Sila took it up in his hand and very gently unfastened the silken thread from its body. Then he placed the beetle carefully in a fold of his turban, and began to pull the silken thread up—very, very slowly, for if it had broken, his wonderful scheme would have come to an end. Presently he had the cotton thread in his fingers, and he broke off the silk, wound it up, and placed it too in his turban. It had done its duty well, and he would not throw it away.
“Half the work is done now,” he whispered to his faithful wife. “You have all but saved me now. Take the twine and tie it to the end of the cotton thread.”
Very happily Buddhi-Mati obeyed once more; and soon the cotton thread and twine were also laid aside, and the strong rope tied to the last was being quickly dragged up by the clever vizier, who knew that all fear of death from sunstroke or hunger was over. When he had all the rope on the tower, he fastened one end of it to the iron railing which ran round the platform on which he stood, and very quickly slid down to the bottom, where his wife was waiting for him, trembling with joy.
9. Do you see anything very improbable in the account of what the beetle did? 10. If the beetle had not gone straight up the tower, what do you think would have happened?
After embracing his wife and thanking her for saving him, the vizier said to her: “Before we return home, let us give thanks to the great God who helped me in my need by putting into my head the device by which I escaped.” The happy pair then prostrated themselves on the ground, and in fervent words of gratitude expressed their sense of what the God they worshipped had done for them. “And now,” said Dhairya-Sila, “the next thing we have to do is to take the dear little beetle which was the instrument of my rescue back to the place it came from.” And taking off his turban, he showed his wife the tiny creature lying in the soft folds.
Buddhi-Mati led her husband to the garden where she had found the beetle, and Dhairya-Sila laid it tenderly on the ground, fetched some food for it, such as he knew it loved, and there left it to take up its old way of life. The rest of the day he spent quietly in his own home with his wife, keeping out of sight of his servants, lest they should report his return to his master. “You must never breathe a word to any one of how I escaped,” Dhairya-Sila said, and his wife promised that she never would.
11. When the vizier got this promise, what did he forget which could betray how he got down from the tower, if any one went to look at it? 12. Do you think there was any need for the vizier to tell his wife to keep his secret?
All this time the Raja was feeling very unhappy, for he thought he had himself caused the death of the one man he could trust. He was too proud to let anybody know that he missed Dhairya-Sila, and was longing to send for him from the tower before it was too late. What then was his relief and surprise when a message was brought to him that the vizier was at the door of the palace and begged for an interview.
“Bring him in at once,” cried Surya Pratap. And the next moment Dhairya-Sila stood before his master, his hands folded on his breast and his head bent in token of his submission. The attendants looked on, eager to know how he had got down from the tower, some of them anything but glad to see him back. The Raja took care not to show how delighted he was to see him, and pretending to be angry, he said:
“How dare you come into my presence, and which of my subjects has ventured to help you to escape the death on the tower you so richly deserved?”
“None of your subjects, great and just and glorious ruler,” replied Dhairya-Sila, “but the God who created us both, making you my master and me your humble servant. It was that God,” he went on, “who saved me, knowing that I was indeed guiltless of any crime against you. I had not been long on the tower when help came to me in the form of a great and noble eagle, which appeared above me, hovering with outspread wings, as if about to swoop down upon me and tear me limb from limb. I trembled greatly, but I need have had no fear; for instead of harming me, the bird suddenly lifted me up in its talons and, flying rapidly through the air, landed me upon the balcony of my home and disappeared. Great indeed was the joy of my wife at my rescue from what seemed to be certain death; but I tore myself away from her embraces, to come and tell my lord how heaven had interfered to prove my innocence.”
Fully believing that a miracle had taken place, Surya Pratap asked no more questions, but at once restored Dhairya-Sila to his old place as vizier, taking care not again to ill-treat the man he now believed to be under the special care of God. Though he certainly did not deserve it, the vizier prospered greatly all the rest of his life and as time went on he became the real ruler of the kingdom, for the Raja depended on his advice in everything. He grew richer and richer, but he was never really happy again, remembering the lie he had told to the master to whom he owed so much. Buddhi-Mati could never understand why he made up the story about the eagle, and constantly urged him to tell the truth. She thought it was really far more wonderful that a little beetle should have been the means of rescuing him, than that a strong bird should have done so; and she wanted everyone to know what a very clever husband she had. She kept her promise never to tell anyone what really happened, but the secret came out for all that. By the time it was known, however, Dhairya-Sila was so powerful that no one could harm him, and when he died his son took his place as vizier,
13. What lessons can be learnt from this story? 14. What do you think was Dhairya-Sila’s motive for telling the Raja the lie about the eagle? 15. What did Surya Pratap’s ready belief in the story show? 16. How do you think the secret the husband and wife kept so well was discovered?
The Beetle and the Silken Thread – Hindu Tales from the Sanskrit