Maṇimēkhalai

Book XVIII
[The Grandmother’s Scheme]

Chitrāpatī, having heard that her grand-daughter Maṇimēkhalai had assumed the dress of a nun with the begging bowl in her hand for begging food, and that she had entered the common resting place, was beside herself with anger. Distracted in mind she resolved somehow to get Maṇimēkhalai back from this life of hers, and addressed the dancing women of her caste in the following words:

‘Ever since the death of Kōvalaṉ, Mādhavī, my daughter, has given up life, and entering the hermitage of the holy ascetics, has herself assumed the form of a nun, a proceeding which evokes the laughter of our community. We are not the people that burn ourselves, like chaste wives, on the pyre of their husbands. We are like the lute of a musician; when he should die we pass from his hand to another’s. Our profession is like that of the honeybee which sucks the [156] honey from out of the flower and passes on when it is exhausted.

To assume the garb of a nun, and perform all the austerities of hermits, is not conduct in keeping with the customs of our caste. I have resolved, therefore, to make Maṇimēkhalai change her ascetic dress, hand her begging bowl over to beggars, and see her placed upon the car of prince Udayakumāra, who has for a long time been deeply in love with her. If I should fail to carry out this resolution of mine, let me share the fate of those who have fallen from our caste by having seven burnt bricks piled upon my head, and taken round the dancing hall and cast out so as not to have entry into the houses of dancing women ever after.’

Having said this, she went at the head of a few of her companions to the palace of the prince. Saluting him in due form, and, with words of praise due from those of her station, she hinted to him how worthy of his affection Maṇimēkhalai was, and conveyed to him the information that she had betaken herself to the travellers’ hall of the city.

The prince on his side, who had never lost thought of her, described how unhappy he had been ever since he saw Maṇimēkhalai in the crystal hall and mistook her for a picture, and ended by saying that overnight there appeared before him a golden-coloured damsel who pointing out to him what was proper conduct, admonished him to give up thoughts of Maṇimēkhalai. He could not understand whether it was a goddess or one connected with a goddess.

Chitrāpatī smiled at the simplicity of the prince, and asked him whether he was not aware that the gods themselves were not free from the attractions even of illicit love, citing as examples Indra’s love to Ahalya and of Agni’s to the wives of the seven Rishis.

She pointed the moral by telling him that the guardianship of girlhood, the careful [157] watch in married life, the complete abstinence from seeing or being seen after the death of one’s husband, and, overall these, the great guard that the feeling of chastity actually keeps over women who do not know of guards other than their own virtue, is not conduct imposed upon women of our caste. It was our profession to enter public halls, and the presence of all, to exhibit our skill in dancing and music, and be seen by all in all the charms of our beauty.

That is not all, our function is to be so attractive as to get into the minds of everybody that sees us, and thus enslave their minds, and remain with them so long as they proved profitable, giving them up the moment they ceased to be.

She concluded by enquiring whether it was not the duty of kings to bind such to their caste custom and to save them from the evil reputation that is certain from the conduct of both her daughter and grand-daughter.

Thus instigated, the prince drove down to the travellers’ hall, and seeing Maṇimēkhalai there distributing food, approached her, making the enquiry what her purpose was in assuming the form of an ascetic. Thinking that it was due to him that she should make her obeisance, the more so as he was her husband in the previous birth, she made a profound obeisance, and told him,

‘Birth, growth and decay, disease ending in death; these are the sufferings of the human body. Understanding this, I have taken it upon myself to do permanent acts of charity in this life.’

Saying this, she wanted to get away from him and assume another form. She entered the temple of Champāpati, and reciting the incantation which the Goddess Maṇimēkhalā had taught her, she assumed the form of Kāyaśaṇḍikai, and came out of the temple with the begging bowl in her hand. The prince entered the temple and enquired of the goddess where Maṇimēkhalai was in hiding after handing her [158] begging bowl to Kāyaśaṇḍikai. He vowed that if the goddess would not let him know, he would lie there hungry till she should grant the boon. So saying he touched the feet of the goddess in token of his unswerving resolution.