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A folktale from Central India about a raja (king) who loved himself too much. One day, he woke up to discover a terrible secret. Desperate to keep it hidden, he screamed at and threatened his subjects. What is the raja's secret?
A long time ago, there lived a raja who was known for his good looks. He would never pass up on a chance to look at his reflection in a mirror or a pool of water.
Rather than being concerned over the welfare of his people in the kingdom, he was more occupied by his appearance. He was always dressed in the best finery and the most expensive jewels. And he made sure that his hair was never out of place. He washed and brushed it every day until it shone and glistened, displaying it in its full glory.
As he preened and pruned in front of the mirror like a mighty peacock, his people grew poorer and more miserable with each passing day.
One day, a minister in his court spoke up, “Your royal highness, you have to do something about your kingdom. Your people, they grow poorer and hungrier every day.”
“What utter nonsense! We are a rich kingdom. Look at all the wealth we have," he said as he pointed to all his jewelleries and finest silk. "And what more do the people want? They have a king who looks the part – royal and handsome! In fact, I am even better looking than all of the gods. They should be proud to have a king like me!” the arrogant raja dismissed his minister’s advice and laughed.
Unbeknown to him, a god was passing by overhead when he heard the king’s proud words. Angered by his comparison and lack of compassion, he knew that the raja had to be punished. At that moment, the god saw a bull grazing in the fields. He laughed. He had the perfect punishment for a vain mortal like the raja.
The king woke up the next morning, ready to drape himself in the best clothes and jewellery before parading in front of all his subjects. "Aren't they the luckiest?", he thought to himself.
But first, he had to look at his handsome face in the mirror. He pulled out a handheld mirror from under his pillow and gazed into it.
What... are... these things on my head? I...No! What is happening to me?” the raja shrieked.
Sticking out the sides of his head were two buffalo horns.
The palace guards came rushing into his chamber, fearing that the king was under attack. They entered to the sight of the king covering his head with a turban, his face flushed red as a tomato, and seething in anger.
"OUT! ALL OF YOU! LEAVE ME ALONE! Tell the court I will not see anyone today and call the royal barber at once. Nobody enters my chamber except for him," the king barked.
The royal barber was summoned to the Raja’s chambers.
When the man entered, he saw the king with a turban on his head.
“I am about to show you something but before I do, you have to promise that you will not reveal what you see to anyone or else, I will have you flogged and punished!" said the distraught king.
Yes, your highness. I…I promise. I will never utter a word,” the barber replied, trembling in fear at the king’s threat.
The king hesitantly removed his turban. Out peeked his buffalo horns. The barber stared at the king’s head in disbelief at first but realised very quickly how ridiculous the man looked. He could feel the first tickles of laughter rising from his throat but the barber swallowed it, knowing that it would mean certain death for him if he let his laugh escape.
And so, the barber got to work. He tugged and pulled and snipped and clipped at the raja’s hair till the horns were hardly visible.
The king stared at his reflection in the mirror and after what felt like an eternity, he finally waved the barber off, dismissing him without a word of thanks. But before the barber left, the king warned him, “Remember what I said. If one word escapes from your lips, you are done for."
It was hard to take the king seriously knowing that the man had a pair of horns hiding underneath his hair, but the barber nodded and bowed in fearful reverence, before leaving the room.
Once he was a good distance away from the palace, he bellowed with laughter. He could not hold it back anymore. It was so loud that the villagers turned and stared at him. Wary of the king's warning to keep the terrible secret to himself, the barber bolted, guffawing into the forest.
He could not hold back the secret any longer. He had to tell someone! Something! Anything! He looked around.
It was then that he saw a tamarind tree. It had a small hole in its trunk that was just big enough to fit his head through.
An idea struck him! He would whisper the king's secret into the hollow of the tamarind tree. After all, he was not sharing the secret with another person. And with that, he let out the secret!
"The king has horns on his head!"
Relief washed over him as he let the secret out. The barber walked home unburdened.
However, that night, a fierce storm ensued and uprooted the tamarind tree – the very same tree that the royal barber had screamed the king's secret into!
A drum-maker passed the uprooted tree and saw its fine trunk. It would make a perfect drum! He sawed off the trunk and lugged it back home. The drum-maker worked on it day and night, turning the humble tree trunk into a beautiful drum fit for the royal court.
When the drum was ready, the drum-maker gifted it to a royal musician who brought it to court, to be played in front of the king and everyone in attendance. The musician was sure that the drum would please the king. Surely, for a drum so finely made, its rhythmic beats would pulse and echo through the palace halls, even beyond the palace gates!
And so, he began to hit the head of the drum. But instead of the clear 'Dum, dum, dum!' that the musician expected to hear, the drum seemed to say, 'Dum, dum! The king dum dum has horns dum dum on his head! Dum dum!'
The king gasped. He was mortified. He clasped his head and tried to cover his horns frantically, but the more he tried to sweep his hair back to cover his horns, the more it kept peeking out.
The musician hit the drum again not realising that the words had come from the instrument! Again, the secret echoed through the halls, past the gates.
Everyone in court stared. One by one, people started to laugh. Soon, the halls filled with laughter. The king was mortified. His eyes glistened with tears. “Stop! Stop! I am your king! You do not laugh. All of you will be punished!” The raja screamed, but to no avail. His threats were drowned out by the raucous laughter.
Humiliated, the raja ran towards the drum, grabbed it from the musician and tore his way through the halls of his palace. Red-faced with embarrassment, he dashed through the village, shielding his face as his subjects laughed at him and his horns.
He finally made his way through the village and into the forest. The king could not bear the humiliation. He decided that he would lead a quiet life of solitude, away from his kingdom.
The raja had changed. He stopped thinking about how he looked and started to appreciate the beauty of nature around him. He lived peacefully with the animals, plants and trees that surrounded him and he became a wiser man.
Over the years, he had mastered the drum and played it so beautifully that it no longer echoed his secret. It was so delightful that even the spirits in the trees and forest were pleased.
They took pity on him and appealed to the god who had cursed the raja. Appeased by the pleas and the beautiful rhythms that escaped from the drum, the once-angry god forgave the raja and took away his horns.
One day, the king went to a nearby lake to drink some water and his reflection caught his eyes. At first, the king barely noticed a difference because he no longer paid much attention to how he looked. But something was amiss. He looked again and realised that his horns were gone. They had vanished!
At that moment, he saw his old courtiers riding towards him. They had been searching for him for years! The kingdom was in disarray and they needed their raja to rule the land.
It dawned on the old king that he had made a mistake right from the beginning. Too concerned with appearances, he had shirked his responsibility to his people and never ruled as a king should—fairly, justly and with compassion. He had to make up for his mistake. And so, the raja agreed to return.
He went back to his kingdom to rule it the way he should have from the start.
But as a reminder, the raja kept the tamarind drum with him at all times.
The drum that spoke the truth had turned the proud king into a wise ruler, and it was a lesson that he would never forget.
Illustrations by: Teresa Leong Qin Xin
How many Indian percussion instruments can you name? Download the handout to learn more about Indian drums. Then, make a handheld drum inspired by the damaru, a small two-headed drum.