Once, during the reign of a great king, there lived a little girl name Sunimaya, the daughter of a hill shepherd, Mahan Singh, and his wife, Dahn Jita. The three had a very happy life together. In the summertime, they wandered with their flocks over the high mountain pastures of Dhor, and in the wintertime, before the snows came to close the pass, they came down to their stone house in the river valley of Neeshee to plant corn.
When Sunimaya was ten years old her mother, Dahn Jita, fell sick and died. For days Sunimaya grieved. Mahn Singh did not know what to do to comfort her. Finally, he decided to marry a widow whose husband had left her with a girl Sunimaya’s age and a boy a few years younger. “In this way,” thought Mahn Sing, “my little girl will have a sister and a mother, and I will have a wife and a son.”
After they had lived together for a while, Mahan Singh knew he would have a difficult time caring for such a large family. His little flock of goats and sheep was too small.
There was no money for clothes or peppers. One day he told his wife: “I will go into the army so I can send money home every year. Then, when you have bought enough animals and land to feed us all, I will come home to stay.”
Now the stepmother treated Sunimaya as well as did her own children while Mahn Singh was at home, but as soon as he left for the army she began to treat Sunimaya differently. She made her stay up all night to guard the flock after working all day in the fields. She gave her husks to eat instead of good rice she cooked for her own children. But Sunimaya never complained.
One day the stepmother sent Sunimaya into the jungle to bring fodder for the animals, but she would not give her a Khukuri, a large hunting knife, to cut the leaves or a tumpline to carry them home. Sunimaya went into the jungle and wept. When some snakes came by and asked her why she was crying, she told then what the stepmother expected of her.
“Stop crying, Sunimaya,” said the snakes. “We will crawl up into the trees and cut some branches for you if you will gather the leaves. Then, we have a good load, you can make us into a tumpline and we will help you carry the fodder home. Set us down gently, so we won’t get hurt, and we will slip back into the forest.”
Sunimaya gathered the leaves as fast as the snakes threw them down from the trees, and she piled them into a big bundle.
When the stepmother saw the load of fodder Sunimaya had brought home, she was very puzzled. “I will have to think of something she cannot do at all,” she thought to herself. “Then I can send her away for disobeying me, and her father will not blame me when he returns.”
Some time alter the stepmother gave Sunimaya a sieve and told her to bring some water from the spring. Sunimaya knew this would be a hopeless task, but she went to the spring with the sieve as she told. She tried and tried to make the sieve hold water. She cupped her hands under it, she lined it with leaves, she filled the holed with clay. But always, before she reached home, the sieve would be empty. Finally, she sat down on a stone near the spring and wept.
Some ants came out of the ground and asked Sunimaya why she was weeping.
“My stepmother expects me to carry water in this,” she moaned, holding up the sieve so they could see it. “What shall I do?”
“Stop crying,” pleaded the ants when they heard her story. “We will help you. Each of us will sit over a hole in the sieve and you can fill it with water. When you get home would the water very slowly in your storage jar. Then tap the sieve lightly with a stick and we will fall to the ground and come back to the spring.”
Sunimaya was grateful to the ants and did just as she was told. When the stepmother saw the water in the storage jar, she was surprised and annoyed. “This girl is too clever,” thought the wicked woman. “I shall have to find a more dangerous task.”
When the monsoon arrived the stepmother told Sunimaya to go into the jungle to get some tiger’s milk for her stepbrother and sister. Soonimya did not know how she could obey without being eaten by the tiger. She started into the jungle with her wooden pot, but the trail was so slippery she fell after every few steps. Finally, she sat down on a big rock and wept from fear and exhaustion.
Now it happened that under the rock lived a mother tigress and her four baby kittens. The kittens heard Sunimaya crying and came out to see what the matter. When Sunimaya told them the task her stepmother had set for her, they said:
“Do not cry so loudly, Sunimaya, our mother will wake up and eat you! Give us your taykee and we will fill it while she is asleep.”
Sunimaya sat very still while the tiger kittens disappeared into the den to collect the milk. When they returned he hugged them all and hurried home to give the milk to her brother and sister. The stepmother saw her children drinking the tiger’s milk and stared. “This girl is a witch,” she muttered to herself. “I must get rid of her.”
It was a long time before she thought of something else for Sunimaya to do. Finally, she said to her, “I need a Champa flower for some medicine. Get me one.”
Sunimaya walked to the base of the mountain that rose steeply behind her village and looked for a way to climb to the high shelf where the Champa flowers grew. There was no path and she could not find footholds in the cliff. After a few hours, she gave up in despair. A big vulture, seeing her distress, swept don and landed on the ground in front of her.
“Oh, Little Sister, why are you so upset?” he asked, hopping nearer.
Sunimaya told him as well as she could between sobs.
“Well now, this is a problem we can solve,” said the vulture cheerfully. “Hang on tight and I will carry you up.”
Before the tears had dried her cheeks, Sunimaya found herself aloft on the back of the big bird, sailing up and up, above the valley floor to the top of the mountain. Suddenly her ride came to an end and she was tossed, with a swoosh and a bump, into a bed of beautiful Champa flowers. The bird and the girl laughed with pleasure.
While they sat looking out over the valley, the vulture spied a number of his relatives circling the river to the south.
“Something is going down there,” he said to Sunimaya. “I will have to leave you for a little while, but pick all the flowers you want and I will come back to carry you home.”
The vulture swung into the air and soared out across the valley toward the river. Sunimaya watched the flight of her friend, then turned her eyes to the main road winding along far below her. She saw travellers moving up and down the narrow trail. Some of them were carrying heavy loads and some were walking behind the herd of goats. Tiny bells tinkled in the wind. One of the travellers was a soldier coming up the trail with two porters, each lowry as he sat down under a tree to rest. Suddenly she recognized him! He was her own father coming home on leave, with wonderful presents for everyone.
“Oh, Ba! Ba! “ she shouted, jumping and waving her arms to catch his attention. But Sunimaya, forgetting where she was in her excitement, slipped and fell to her death.
Word of Mahn Singh’s homecoming had already reached the village. People ran to tell him the terrible news and to take him to the foot of the cliff. When Mahn Singh reached his little girl he was overcome with sorrow. He carried her to a place near the river and buried her there. Slowly his sorrow changed to anger. “What was Sunimaya doing on such a high cliff? “ he said to himself. He went straight home to his wife and demanded an answer.
“I don’t know,” said the deceitful woman, “I told her not to go up there, but she would not obey me. Oh dear!” she sighed, “I expected something like this would happen because she did very strange things. She was never quite the same after you left, you know. Why she even tried to carry water in a sieve!”
When the evil stepmother thought she had calmed her husband, she cooked him a fine meal of curried chicken and long, white rice. She gave him wine of three-waters and rubbed his tired legs. But Mahn Singh, though his anger slowly left him, still felt deeply the loss of his little daughter. He stayed only a week home before he returned to the army.
A few days later, a beautiful golden pillar sprang up from the ground where Mahn Singh had buried Sunimaya. A blacksmith passing by saw it and hurried to report it to the king.
“Bring it at once!” was the order. “So I may judge its worth.”
The king stood in awe of the golden pillar. Never had anything like it been brought to the palace. He reached out to feel the gold with his hands, and instantly the pillar turned into a beautiful young girl.
The king was delighted.
“See what has come to us!” he exclaimed to his courtiers. “Is this not a fitting bride for my eldest son?”
All the people of the palace were enchanted with the girl who had sprung from the golden pillar. They knew the king had been searching everywhere for a bride for their favourite prince, and at last, one had been found. Now, amidst great rejoicing, the wedding preparations began.
News of marriage went out all over the country and soon it reached the ears of Mahn Singh’s wicked wife. She was very disappointed, for she had hoped her own daughter would one day be the queen.
Months later the king announced the birth of a son to the happily married pair. Everyone in the country was invited to the naming feast. The wicked stepmother was so eager to see the princess that she was the first to arrive at the palace on the feast day. She turned pale with astonishment to find the girl sitting beside the handsome prince, holding the baby in her arms, was Sunimaya.
When the stepmother returned home, she said to her daughter: “You will never guess who is the mother of the baby prince. Sunimaya!” Squatting by the fire, she added: “And to think someday she will be queen over us all.”
After a long pause, she coughed and said: “You look enough like your stepsister to be her twin. Why not go to the palace tomorrow to visit her? After you are acquainted again, you can invite her to the river for a swim. Perhaps she might have an accident and drown. Remember, the girl who is married to the eldest prince will someday be the queen.”
The daughter, who had grown as wicked as her mother, would have done anything to become the queen. She carefully packed a basket full of food and presents and set out the next morning for the palace. When she was shown into the room where the princess was sitting, she rushed over and, covering her head with her shawl, bowed very low in a gesture of great respect. Sunimaya returned the greeting graciously and ordered tea brought for both of them.
“Sister,” said the visitor, after she had given Sunimaya the presents and talked a while. “The day is full of sunshine. Let us go to the river and bathe together.”
Sunimaya could think of no good reason to stay at home, so she strapped her little son onto her back and left the palace with her stepsister. When they reached the river, the stepsister said:
“The water is much clearer over here in this lovely big pool. I will hold baby Lakshman for you while you take your swim, and you can hold him while I take mine.”
Sunimaya did not notice that the pool was very deep. She handed Lakshman to her companion, removed her velvet blouse and golden sari, and turned to step into the river. At that moment the stepsister pushed Sunimaya. The princes lost her balance, tumbled into the pool, and sand out of sight. The girl on the bank dressed quickly in Sunimaya’s beautiful clothes, strapped the baby onto her back, and hurried up the trail to the palace.
Everyone, including the prince, though the girl who returned from the river was Sunimaya. Only Baby Lakshman knew she was not his mother; when it was time for him to nurse he began to fret, and soon he was crying loudly.
When Sunimaya sank down into the deep pool she came to the home of two large water snakes. She bowed to each in turn, very politely. The male snake was so surprised he said:
“When we saw you coming we were planning to eat you, but since you have greeted us with such respect we will spare your life for three days.”
That night Sunimaya asked the snakes if she could go back to the palace to nurse her little son. The snakes consented to let her go if she promised to return into the river before dawn. Soonimya readily agreed and left for the palace. She circled the courtyard to avoid being seen in the moonlight, ran up the long flight of stairs to the balcony, and stole cautiously along the wall to the nursery door. In her haste, she failed to notice a tailor, wrapped in a blanket lying against the balcony wall. He had not been able to go to sleep because of the baby’s crying. The tailor was startled to see a woman walk past him in the middle of the night, but he lay very still. Sunimaya unbolted the door and slipped inside. At once the baby stopped crying. “That is an unusual way for the princess to enter the palace,” the tailor thought to himself. “and why does she let the baby cry so long before she feeds him?”
When the visitor left the nursery just before dawn, in the same mysterious fashion, the tailor was even more puzzled.
The tailor worked hard all the next day, but by sundown, he still had not finished his master’s vest. He set his work aside, lay down, and rolled up in his blanket. He was awakened from sleep by the cries of Baby Lakshman, and soon after, he heard the light step of feet on the stairway. He opened his eyes and saw Sunimaya, again entering the nursery.
Sometime after the baby had been quieted, the princess departed in the same stealthy manner. The tailor sat up and peered through the carved grill of the balcony. He watched his mistress circle the courtyard, run along with the shadow of the garden wall, and hurry down the trail to the river. “Something very strange is going on,” he thought. “When the prince awakens, I will tell him all I have seen.”
As soon as the prince heard the tailor’s story he said, “We will both watch tonight. If the woman comes again, we will catch her and make her tell us what she is doing.”
That night the prince hid in a corner of the balcony and the tailor lay against the balcony wall under his blanket. Baby Lakshman began to cry, as usual, because he was now very hungry. About midnight the tailor saw the woman running up the hill toward the palace. “Here she comes, Saheb ji,” he whispered to the prince. They both watched her circle the courtyard and run forward to the palace stairs. They heard her footsteps as she climbed to the balcony. In another moment she had reached the nursery door, lifted the latch, and gone inside. Instantly the baby stopped crying. The prince ran to the door and peeked into the room. There he was Sunimaya holding little Lakshman in her arms, rocking him gently while he nursed. The prince knew at once that his son’s real mother. When Lakshman had finished nursing, Sunimaya bathed him with, sweet oil and laid him in his cradle. Then, with her tears in her eyes, she kissed him and turned to leave. But when she reached the door the prince jumped and caught her.
“Oh! Please!” she begged. “Do not detain me. The snakes in the river gave me three days’ grave to live, and they permitted me to visit Lakshman if I promised to return before dawn. Perhaps if I keep my promise they will spare my life a little longer.”
But the prince would not let her go. He took her inside the palace and made her tell him everything.
Now, it was the habit of the stepsister to rise very early in the morning and go for a walk. This morning she as up at the usual time and out walking in the garden. Just as the sun came up, the palace was aroused by a terrible scream! Everyone rushed out to see what was the matter and there, disappearing in the distance, were two large snakes, dragging a girl down the trail to the river.
“The princess!” shouted the excited cook. “Get your Khukuris!”
“But there is the princess!” answered the shepherd boy, pointing to the balcony.
Great was the rejoicing when everyone discovered the real Sunimaya was standing by her husband’s side.
The stepmother was banished from the kingdom forever, and the prince and Sunimaya were able, at last, to live happily ever after the little baby name Lakshman, who never had to go hungry again.
Ba – Father
Jungle – The Nepali word for “forest”
Khukuri – The famous Gurkha knife, used by most him people for their cutting needs
Lowry – soldier
Pice – 1/100 of a rupee
Saheb ji – Form of address to an influential person
Taykee – A wooden pot made from a log, used to carry liquids
Tumpline – A rope strap which is worn around the forehead to support a load carried on the back.