The Magic Bowls
An Indian (Tamil) Tale
A man was poor, and his
wife nagged him every day for being such a lazy
good-for-nothing. The poor fellow would listen to all
her abuse patiently, slip out of the house whenever
he could, and stay out till it felt safe to come
One day, her anger boiled over.
She scraped together whatever stale food remained in
her pots, tied it up in a dirty cloth, thrust it into
his hand, and sent him packing. "Go somewhere,
anywhere, and earn something. And don't you come back
till you do!" she said, as she slammed the door.
The man took his bundle of cold
rice and trudged out of the village. He walked and
walked for miles till he came to place where three
roads crossed. A huge banyan tree had grown up there
and had lent its shade to weary travelers for many
years. The man was tired and his legs ached. He sat
down under the tree. He tied his bundle of rice to
one of its branches and soon he was fast asleep, his
head pillowed on the roots of the banyan.
Now, there were forest spirits
living in the banyan tree. They sighted the sleeping
man below and the bundle of rice on the branch above
him. They wanted to taste his dinner. No sooner did
they think of it than it was done. What's more, they
liked that cold rice very much. They had tasted
nectar and all the dishes of heaven, but this was
something new. They had never tasted stale rice
before. It had a wonderful flavor of its own. What a
change from their dull routine of ambrosia and fruit
from heaven's trees!
The few handfuls of rice in the
poor man's bundle were just enough for a round among
the forest spirits. They were pleased and thought
they should give their poor sleeping host something
in return for the food they had taken away.
When the poor man woke up, he
was hungry and looked for his bundle. When he found
it, the food was gone. In its place, there were four
oddlooking empty bowls. Raging with hunger, he banged
the bowls on the ground. At once, several lovely
women appeared before him with all sorts of divine
dishes in their hands, ready to serve him. He was
dumbstruck by the magic of it all, but he was too
hungry to be frightened or ask questions. As he fell
to, the lovely women served him gently, silently,
attended to his slightest gesture, and treated him
like a god. Soon he came to believe that he was
indeed master of these nymphs. His marvelous dinner
over, his heavenly servants disappeared without a
trace, leaving the four empty bowls behind them.
Praying gratefully to all the
gods, he picked up the empty bowls with great
respect. He held them to his bosom and hastened home,
big with his story. When she heard it, his wife
nearly burst with joy. They placed the magic bowls at
the feet of their household gods and looked at them
again and again to make sure they were still there.
They could not believe their own good fortune. They
felt they should use their god-given gift
worshipfully, only after offering public prayers to
the gods and charity to their neighbors.
Even as the next day dawned, the
man was out of the house. He went to every door and
invited every family in the village, rich and poor
alike. Everyone was skeptical. Some laughed outright.
Some thought it was a practical joke, some that the
man must be crazy. They quoted a proverb: "The
guests of the poor come back home early."
The guests gathered by noon in
the small hovel. Many of them had taken the
precaution of eating well before they arrived. They
came just to see what was happening, and were they
The poor man and his wife
brought forth four odd-looking vessels and very
respectfully requested them to bestow upon the guests
their gracious gifts. And lo and behold! dozens of
lovely women, each lovelier than the next, adorned to
the fingertips, rose out of the bowls. In their hands
were plates full of the daintiest dishes. Silver
platters appeared from nowhere before the bewildered
guests, and service began.
As the guests ate, new dishes
arrived by the dozens and the heavenly women served
them so readily that everyone felt that they
forestalled one's slightest wishes. The guests were
fed till they were ready to burst. They had trouble
getting up and carrying themselves home.
The village buzzed with the
news. Everyone talked about it. The poor man, no
longer poor, was the rage for months.
Now, there was a rich man in the
village who thought no end of himself. He grew
envious of the sudden wealth and the growing
popularity of his neighbor who till yesterday had
been a penniless beggar. He paid a visit to his
fellow villager one day and was treated to the
miracle of the bowls and the lovely women who rose
from them for the mere asking. He quickly made
friends with their owner, gave him and his wife
gifts, and soon wormed the secret out of them.
"It's so easy," he
thought. "There's nothing to it." He
hurried home and ordered his best cook to make the
most sumptuous dishes at once. Next morning, he
traveled in a palanquin, as fast as his bearers could
take him, and arrived at the spot where three roads
crossed. He carefully arranged a big basket full of
the finest dishes that money could command, right
under the banyan tree. Then he dismissed his servants
till evening, and composed himself as if for sleep.
Of course, he wasn't going to sleep. He was too
curious to see the forest spirits and what they would
do. He lay there for a long time till somehow sleep
stole over him. When he woke up, all in a hurry, he
saw beside him four odd-looking bowls. And his basket
He had succeeded. Of course, he
had never once doubted he would. After all, he had
brought for the spirits in the banyan tree the
tastiest, the richest, the most royal of all human
dishes. How could they help giving him what he
wanted? Here they were, in full view, the magic
He hurried home, asking his
palanquin bearers to go faster. He called his entire
household and sent them running with the news and
invitations to every family in the village.
People from all corners flocked
to his dining hall. Their mouths watered at the
memory of the recent banquet. Here was another, and a
rich man's, too! Many starved themselves all day to
do justice to his hospitality.
The rich man beamed at his
guests and motioned them to their seats. Servants
brought in the bowls with great ceremony and placed
them on a pedestal. His head wrapped in a lace
turban, wearing earrings and turquoises, their master
stood before the bowls and loudly ordered them to
bring forth a divine banquet for everyone assembled.
Hardly had his voice stopped ringing when out came
dozens of big burly men. They looked like wrestlers.
They had rolls of muscle on their arms, and their
looks would have scared the bravest of men. They came
out of the bowls and went after the host and his
hungry guests. They seized them one by one, whipped
out gleaming razors, and with great gusto shaved
every head in the hall, shaved them so close that
every head was clean and shiny like a bronze bowl.
Not a single guest escaped the barbers' banquet, not
even the wives.
And as the terrified guests
crawled out, a muscular fellow at the door held up a
large mirror to their faces and forced them to take a
good long look at themselves before they left the
hall, never to return.