There is something fascinating about ghost stories, isn’t it? Even if we don’t like the idea of horror, we still want to know what the ghost did!
Today we start a new series in our podcast-the stories of Vikram and Betaal! Talk about a ghost story that holds so many of us in thrall—generations of Indians have grown up listening to and reading these stories.
The original Vikram and Betaal stories are very old…, the stories were written in Vetala Panchavimshati or Betaal Pachisi by the poet Somdev Bhatt from Kashmir. Guess how old they are? Almost a thousand years old! It is believed that these were based on even older tales! These stories have been around for a loooong time. As with other stories, our version has been adapted to make it more suitable for young children.
Vikram from Vikram and Betaal is Vikramaditya, the great king of Ujjain. He was clever and brave. Who was this Betaal? We’ll have to find out more about Betaal as we move forward in the series.
Vikramaditya was at his court, listening to the people who brought their cases to him one after another. It must be boring for clever, great kings to have to listen to others endlessly. He wanted a break! Vikram (The poet knew Vikramaditya would be a mouthful. He called him Vikram, so let us also call him Vikram).
Vikram let his eyes roam around his court. “More people fighting over land, water, crops… Will there be anyone here with something interesting for me? Come on people!” he thought to himself. He ran his fingers over his face and hid a yawn.
No, nothing interesting. If they didn’t come to settle an argument, they had strange gifts for the king. One man with long bushy hair and a beard and dressed in old clothes walked over to the king.
At first, Vikram just stared at the hermit’s hands…then he felt happy! “A mango! How I love those!’ he cried joyfully. The startled looks of the people around him reminded Vikram that he was the KING! “KKKKKKKm!” He cleared his throat and spoke regally, “A fruit fit for the king! Sir, I thank you!”
The hermit’s eyes twinkled. He played along. “Yes, your highness! the mango is a fruit fit for the king. That is why I brought It to YOU, sir”.
Vikram asked his attendant to put it aside for him.
The following day, Vikram was surprised to see the hermit at court again. The man held another mango in his hands. Vikram got used to seeing the hermit, for he was there every day at court with a mango. The attendant collected the mangos and set them aside. Now on the seventh day, when he went to add the mango to his collection, the man noticed that it was a bit soft. As he moved it around, his fingers dug into the fruit, and the skin broke! Out popped a huge ruby! Dropping the mango, he ran to the king.
WHERE DO FRUITS GROW GEMS? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Vikram pretended to be all calm and collected, but inside, he had a tingling feeling. This was something different. “Cut all the mangoes,” he ordered his attendant. When kings order, the attendants better follow immediately! So, the poor man hid his fear and cut all the mangoes. Plop, plop, gems tumbled from each mango: SAPPHIRE! EMERALD! DIAMOND! PEARL! And all as big as the mango seed!
“Aaaaa, the hermit who is not a hermit! I wonder what he’s playing at! I can smell an adventure…Let’s see if he comes today.” Vikram drawled and walked back to his court. The attendants brought the gems and gave them to the treasurer for safekeeping.
The morning went by quietly. Midday, too, passed. As evening approached, Vikram kept looking past the line. The courtiers were surprised that the hermit kept away. “That man has his highness where he wants him! Look how eagerly he waits for the hermit!” somebody remarked.
If you are the king, you can’t stop to wait for someone, can you? You still have work to do. And work, Vikram did! He became engrossed as his ministers brought different matters to his attention, and the court buzzed with all the activity. And then it all stopped! You could hear your own breath in the absolute silence. Vikram’s head shot up, and his eyes searched the line of people waiting to see him. There he was, the man with the long flowing beard!
No one was surprised to see the king’s attendant walk up to the strange man and bring him to the king. Vikram got off his throne swiftly and walked out to the courtyard, taking the old man with him. “Sir, You didn’t come to me because you thought I’d like the gems. You brought the mangoes as bait. Consider that I’ve taken the bait. You might as well tell me what you want.”
The old man had a sheepish look. “Forgive me, your highness. I knew you to be a brave and intelligent king. I thought that if I appealed to your sense of adventure, you will take the time to do me a favor. After all, it is not easy to ask a king to run errands for you! I had to go about it in a roundabout manner.”
“There are many people who are brave and intelligent,” the king was still not sold.
“Oh, but hear me out. Only the bravest can help me! I am performing a very powerful puja for the well-being of all people. And for one part of the puja, I need a very special guest, a betaal. Not just any betaal but one particular betaal!
In the forest near my abode, there is a graveyard. In that graveyard, there are many peepal or bodhi trees. If you go there at night, you will find a corpse, a dead body hanging upside down on one of these peepal trees. I want the betaal that resides in that dead body for my Puja.” Vikram stared at the hermit.
“You must go to the graveyard at night when it is a new moon and bring that corpse to me before the sun rises. No one can go with you nor can anyone else help you.”
Vikram was silent. “Hmmm…a strange kind of Puja with a corpse. Let me see what this is all about.”
Aloud, he told the hermit, “I will do as you ask and bring you the Betaal if it will benefit my people.”
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