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Moral Fictions: Tamil Folktales from the Oral Tradition

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The following 99 folktales were collected from storytellers in Tamil Nadu in the mid-1990s by Stuart Blackburn, and were among those published in his book, Moral Fictions: Tamil Folktales from the Oral Tradition, Folklore Fellows Communications No. 278, Helsinki, Finland: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2005. The stories were told in Tamil, and were translated into English. Stuart Blackburn’s commentaries on the stories appear in the book, but are not included here.
Story Page

  1. Fraternal Unity 4

  2. Straightening a Dog's Tail 6

  3. Tenali Raman 8

  4. The Guru and His Disciple 10

  5. The Abducted Princess 14

  6. A Brahmin Makes Good 19

  7. A Cruel Daughter-in-Law 21

  8. A Mosquito's Story 23

  9. Loose Bowels 25

  10. The Bouquet 28

  11. Killing the Monkey-Husband 32

  12. A Dog's Story 33

  13. Poison Him, Marry Him 35

  14. The Disfigured Eye 37

  15. Family of the Deaf 39

  16. A Thousand Flies in a Single Blow 40

  17. A Parrot's Story 42

  18. Four Thieves 43

  19. The Blinded Heroine 45

  20. A Daughter-in-Law's Revenge 48

  21. The Three Diamonds 50

  22. The Kind and the Unkind Girls 52

  23. The Singing Bone 54

  24. The Fish-Brother 56

  25. The Story of a Little Finger 57

  26. Cinderella 60

  27. Animal Helpers 62

  28. The Clever Sister 64

  29. A Flea's Revenge 65

  30. The Story of Krsna 66

  31. The Seventh Son Succeeds 69

  32. The Prince Who Understood 72

Animal Languages

  1. A Dog, a Cat, and a Mouse 75

  2. Three Golden Sons 77

  3. A Princess Becomes a Monkey 79

  4. Disobedient Muthirali 84

  5. A Mistreated Stepdaughter 89

  6. Nalla Tambi 92

  7. The Rat-Wife 97

  8. Sattitalaicci 100

  9. Selling Yogurt for Pearls 103

  10. The Sandalwood Merchant's Daughter 106 and the Kumkum Merchant's Son

  11. The Fish-Boy and His Wife 108

  12. Two Cheats 112

  13. "Claw-Paw": the Story of a Goatherd 114

  14. Rescuing a Princess from the Underworld 115

  15. The Bouquet 117

  16. The Magic Ring 122

  17. The Pomegranate and the Magician 125

  18. Eclipse of the Sun 127

  19. The Fake-Horse 130

  20. Outwitting Thieves 133

  21. The Slandered Sister 134

  22. "Life is Tough, Even When We're Dead" 136

  23. A Pair of Cakes 137

  24. Brother, Sister, and Snake 143

  25. The Squirrel-Brother 145

  26. A Cruel Mother-in-Law 148

  27. A Cruel Daughter-in-Law 150

  28. A Hunter's Story 151

  29. An Overzealous Servant 153

  30. A Tale of Greed 154

  31. A Clever Daughter 155

  32. The Clever Wife Recovers the Jewels 158

  33. The Power of Jealousy 160

  34. The Four Friends 163

  35. The Great Indian Scientists 164

  36. The Dummy Mother-in-Law 165

  37. A Farmer's Daughter's Riddle 166

  38. Great Desire Breeds Great Disaster 167

  39. A Never-Do-Well Succeeds 169

  40. The Cruel Sisters-in-Law 171

  41. Dying for a Dosai 172

  42. The Crow and Sparrow 173

  43. Saiva Wife and Vaisnava Husband 174

  44. Misfortune Strikes 175

  45. A Thousand Parrots 178

  46. The Prophecy of Three Wives 181

  47. A Husband's Food Craving 185

  48. Rama’s Best Devotee 186

  49. A Clever Woman's Riddle 187

  50. Two Great Liars 189

  51. The Beggars' Pact 190

  52. Searching for the Secret of Food Charity 191

  53. A Chain Tale 195

  54. All Because of a Single Pea 197

  55. A Dog's Story 198

  56. The Elusive Thief 201

  57. The Turtle Prince 205

  58. Broken Mirrors 209

  59. "Dead or Alive, He Cheated Us" 210

  60. The Kunniberry Girl 212

  61. The Raksasi-Queen 214

  62. Peacock Beauty 216

  63. Young Nagammal, the Snake-Girl 220

  64. Breaking Coconuts at the Temple 225

  65. A Story Told by a Wooden Doll 227

  66. The Sixteen Wooden Blocks 229

  67. Rose Bush over the Grave 232

Storytelling Sessions Page
Storytellers: Ettirajalu, Vanamayilu, Celvi. 4

Karaiyamputtur and Pakur, Pondicherry

(stories 1-7)
Storytellers: Vijayalakshmi, Kalaicelvi, Alli. 23

Panaiyakkottai, Thanjavur District

(stories 8-29)
Storytellers: Velliyamma, Nakarattinam, Nevvi. 66

Melalavu, Madurai District

(stories 30-43)
Storytellers: Tirunanam, Jeyaraman, 112

Nilavati, Puspavalli, Celvantiran, Kamala,

Suppiramaniyan, Mallika.

Sakkottai, Thanjavur District

(stories 44-57)
Storytellers: Kariyaperummal, Arunan. 148

Thanjavur, Thanjavur District

(stories 58-65)
Individual Tellings 163

(stories 66-99)

In a certain town, three brothers lived together after their father passed away. Soon it was time to divide the assets, the house and all the land. Now the youngest brother was lame, and his older brothers spoke among themselves, "Why should we give the gimp a full share? We'll give him the worst land and when we partition the house, we'll give him the section with the weak walls. Then we'll give him those mangy, old bullocks for ploughing."
When they gave this to the cripple, his wife said, "What's this! They gave you the scrub land and kept the fertile land for themselves!" She picked a fight with him like this, but he scolded her, "Fool! If it's given by god, it will pour through the roof. Just mind that advice and shut up because my brothers are good fellows." That's what he said: "If it's given by god, it will pour through the roof."
A heavy rain fell. So the brothers hitched their bullocks and ploughed the fields, but the lame fellow with his emaciated bullocks bumped along dragging his bad leg. What they could do in two days he needed four days to complete. When the field was ready, he took some sesame seeds to his wife and said, "Fry these." "What? You think fried seeds will sprout?" "Don't talk back; just do what I say." Thinking there was no point in arguing with him, she fried the seeds and gave them to her husband. He went out and threw them everywhere, all over the field, without knowing what he was doing.
That night - you must understand that ants love fried food and of course a sesame seed doesn't normally smell, but when it's fried, it smells wonderful. So that night all the ants came, not just one kind of ant but all kinds - little ones, big ones, red ones, all of them. They came in huge numbers, like an army, and marched into the lame brother's field and ate his seeds. Not a single seed was left uneaten.
Then one of big ants said to the others, "This isn't right. He's a cripple, and we've eaten all his seeds. We were hungry, but this is wrong. Now what shall we do?" Another ant said, "Over there are the seeds in his brothers' fields; let's put them in the cripple's field." And that's what they did: they went as a huge army and rolled the seeds from the brothers' fields into the cripple's field.
In about a week, the sesame seeds began to sprout up everywhere in the cripple's field, but nothing grew in his brothers' field! How could anything grow? There weren't any seeds! So they called their little brother, "Tambi, your field is growing nicely but ours hasn't grown at all." "That's right. You see, I roasted the seeds first." "Roasted them! But that'd ruin them." "Suit yourself, but that's what I did. Go ask my wife if you don't believe me." So the brothers bought seeds, roasted them and scattered them in their fields, but the ants came again and ate them.
That year, when the youngest brother harvested four bushels of sesame, he gave one to each of his brothers and kept two for himself and his wife. You see, he really loved his brothers and wouldn't listen to anything his wife might say against them. But his brothers, well, they were determined to keep him at a distance.
One night when the moon was very bright and his wife went out to make cow dung cakes, she saw seven pots of gold, just sitting there on the ground! She ran back to her husband out of breath and said, "Quick! Get a bullock ready! I found seven pots of gold! Got to drag it back here and bury it. Hurry!"
"Fool. Why should we go drag anything in the middle of the night? Remember what I said: 'If it's god-given it will come through the roof.'" "He's useless," she thought and went to her brothers-in-law and said, "There's seven pots of gold over there and my husband doesn't want it, so you might as well go get it." The brothers ran off and saw the seven pots, each covered by a plate; lifting one plate, they looked inside - and saw that the pot was crawling with snakes and scorpions. "I see," they thought, "our brother tried to kill us with this little trick. Thought we'd take the pots home, open them and get bitten. Can't let him get away with this."
They put the lid back on the pot, took them all to his house where they climbed a ladder and then threw the seven pots through his roof! The pots crashed into his house, but when they hit the floor, jewels, emeralds, rubies, and gold coins lay scattered everywhere! That's what he had told his wife, hadn't he? "See what god has given us," he said to her. "Right through the roof! Gather up the jewelry and wear it."
The two brothers waited awhile, until they were sure that their brother and his wife would have died from snake and scorpion bites. Then the older brother sent the other one to the Harijan ceri to summon the drummers for a funeral. They came banging their drums, but inside the house the lame brother and his wife were sound asleep. It was four in the morning so he got furious and screamed, "What the hell are you doing at this hour? Can't a man get some sleep?"
"The dead man's talking!" screamed the drummers and brothers and ran off. But the lame brother chased after them, yelling, "No, no! It's me, your brother. Stop, stop!" They stopped and he asked, "Why were you banging those drums at me?" "We... thought the snakes would have killed you. You see... we've done wrong, brother, forgive us." "Come home and see how those snakes have turned into gold," he said.
Back home, he gave two pots to each of his brothers and kept three for himself. That's a story about unity between brothers.
Storyteller: Ettirajalu (stories 1-4)

Karaiyamputtur, Pondicherry


The one thing you can't make straight in this world is a dog's tail. You see, it works on the "lever" system. If you straighten it out, it just snaps back again! Even if you tie it down, it won't stay put. It's just made that way.
Now there was a mantiravati and he had a clever disciple. One day as they were talking, the mantiravati said, "This magic power I've got now isn't really enough. I'm going to do some ferocious tapas, really hard stuff, and get even more powerful magic from god. Then I'll control the whole world. I'm going now; you look after the ashram."
So he left and began to perform exacting tapas. God came and asked, "What do you want?" "Swami, I want the whole world in the palm of my hand!" "The world's bigger than your hand, you know," explained god. "I don't care! I want that kind of power!" "All right," said god. "Five bhutas govern this world, and I'm going to put them under your control. Then you can rule the world as you like."
God called the leader of the bhutas and said to him, "See that fellow over there, that mantiravati. From now on, obey him. Do whatever he says and don't refuse anything." "All right, swami. But there's one condition: he must give me work every day. I'm not the type of person who can just sit around idle, not even for a minute. If he doesn't keep me occupied, I'll eat him." "Hear that, mantiravati?" asked god. "Yes. That’s fine. I've got loads of work for him; he can't possibly finish it." So god sent the bhuta to work for the mantiravati.
Accompanied by the bhuta, the mantiravati returned to the ashram, where he said to his disciple, "I wanted a boon, but... well, I guess I made a mistake." "What else is new?" "What happened was that god didn't give me what I asked for. I mean, I told him I wanted to control the world, and he gave me this bhuta. The thing is the bhuta must be kept busy all the time; if not, he'll eat us up!"
Shaking with fear, the mantiravati also said, "You be the one to give him work; I know you can manage it somehow." Then, telling the bhuta to take orders from his disciple, the mantiravati slipped away.
Next day the bhuta went to the disciple and asked, "What work shall I do, swami?" "Look at that ocean; you must empty it completely before nightfall. I don't want to see a single drop of water!" said the disciple. The bhuta went to the ocean, sucked deeply and half the ocean disappeared! He drank again and the whole ocean was gone. "This is too easy," he thought and sat down.
It was about four o'clock in the afternoon when he went back to the disciple, who asked, "Well, have you drunk up the ocean?" "Nothing left, not a drop, only a dry bed." When the disciple saw that this was true, he began to feel a little worried: "This bhuta might be big trouble. Of course, he is the head bhuta who rules the world." "How about some more work today?" asked the bhuta but the disciple sent him away.
The next day, the bhuta came to the disciple and said, "Swami, that was nothing; give me some real work today." "Nothing, he says!" thought the man. "All right, let's use this bhuta to make us rich; we could do with a nice house, at least." So he said, "See those sixty acres over there. Go and cut down all the trees and bushes, and then build two golden mansions - all before nightfall!"
When the bhuta blew hard, he uprooted huge trees which flew in the air and landed miles away. Then he leveled the ground and blew a whistle. Suddenly thousands of bhutas appeared and began to construct pillars and windows made of the nine gems - diamonds, emeralds, rubies, cats-eye, coral, pearls, hi two hours that army of bhutas had built two mansions glittering with jewels.
The bhuta returned to the man, who asked if he had completed the task. "Look at the mansions! C'mon, you're giving me simple tasks," said the bhuta. "We'll see about that; come back tomorrow," said the man, a little more worried.
At home, the man began to think, "Right. We've got our golden mansions; now I've got to get rid of him somehow." As he was wondering what to do, a dog came and lay down outside the ashram. Looking at the dog, he remembered what people said about a dog's tail - you can't straighten it out. In the morning the bhuta appeared arid said, "What's up for today?" "Listen," said the man, "today you've got to straighten that dog's tail. It's got to be perfectly straight! And you can't hurt the dog or do anything to its hair. Can't harm it in any way. Not a scratch on its tail, mind you. But the tail must stand up straight, before dark." With these words, the man left.
First the bhuta gave the dog whatever it wanted. He fed it lots of meat because he wanted the dog to fall asleep. When it had eaten a lot and fallen into a deep sleep, the bhuta had his chance. He grabbed the tail, smoothed its hair and slowly unrolled it. "The dog's sleeping and the tail is nice and straight," thought the bhuta. "Now let's see what happens." With these words, he let the tail go. Snap! It snapped back into a tight roll! The dog was asleep, but its tail did what it always does.
The bhuta grabbed the tail again and straightened it out, but again it snapped right back into place. He tried and tried, but only got more and more frustrated. He tried smearing it with butter, thinking that might smooth it out, but that didn't work either. Snap! Right back into a curl.
What to do? He found some silk thread and a stick, then laid the stick along the straightened tail and tied it on with the thread. You know, like a splint for a broken limb. He kept it like that for half an hour, but when he untied it - snap! Back went the tail into a curl. Again and again, he tied it and loosened it, but the tail rolled back up every time. By this time the sun had set.
In the morning the mantiravati came and asked his disciple about the bhuta. "He's gone, swami, gone forever. Couldn't straighten the dog's tail; that's what defeated him. Now you! You went looking for a boon so you could control the whole world. But me, all I did was use my brains!. And look! We have these golden mansions to spend the rest of our lives in! Don't need anything else, no land, no money, nothing." And they lived a rich man's life in those golden mansions.
Storyteller: Ettirajalu (stories 1-4)

Karaiyamputtur, Pondicherry
You know the Tenali Raman stories? He was a counselor to a raja. He couldn't give him advice directly, of course, so he had to use his wits. During the Vijayanagar period this Tenali Raman was sort of a court jester - he wasn't the raja's bodyguard, you understand. No, he had the job of keeping him happy because the king should never worry. That was his job: to keep the raja from worrying about anything.
One day, when the queen was very ill and close to death, the raja asked her what she wanted. "A mango," she said. "I want a mango." But it wasn't the season for mangoes then, so the raja ordered his army to get her one -to go wherever it was necessary, but they must come back with a mango for the queen. The horses galloped off at a furious pace, but before they returned, the queen died.
The raja was miserable: "I am a famous king, but I can't even get a mango for my ailing wife. What's the point of all this raja stuff?" He called his guru, head of a thousand Brahmins, and complained that he couldn't get a mango for his queen. "Don't worry about that," said the Brahmin. "Just give the thousand Brahmins a golden mango, a silk cloth, and a cloth with golden thread; give us these gifts as offerings. If you do that, the sin of her death will leave her. She'll be there in heaven, but the sin will stay here."
That's what the raja's guru said, and the raja gave the order - the ceremonies were conducted, the gifts given and the thousand Brahmins walked away happy. Tenali Raman was furious - he was also a Brahmin - but he didn't like what had happened. Throwing caution to the wind, he stood at the threshold of the head Brahmin's room and said, "Swami, my wife has been sick for three days." "I see, well... the raja gave us golden mangoes." "I can't possibly manage that." "Well, you've got to make some offering if you expect all the Brahmins to come and alleviate her suffering." "Fine. Tell them to come directly to my house!" said Tenali Raman with pride.
So the Brahmins went to his house, which was really very small. He told them to finish their rituals and then line up to receive gifts. "Stand there in a line and when I open the door, I want you to enter one at a time. As you can see, this is no palace, so I've got to conduct a separate ceremony for each of you. When I call you, enter and receive your offering one by one."
What he did was hook up two electrical wires to a wide brass serving plate, on which he placed fruits and money. Then he invited one of them in, saying, "Swami, please accept this offering." When the Brahmin picked up the plate, Tenali Raman touched the wires together and gave him a powerful shock! He did this to the thousand Brahmins, who ran off in pain to the raja. "Tenali Raman has burned our hands. You must punish him."
The raja summoned him and said, "You can't burn Brahmins like that! It's a crime, a terrible crime!" "But when the queen died she wanted mangoes, didn't she? To satisfy that hunger you gave away mangoes which were transferred to her in heaven, right? Now my own wife," continued Tenali Raman, "had rheumatism. They told me to keep her warm, and I had the wires all ready for that. But she died suddenly, so I thought if I heated those Brahmins the heat would reach her in heaven; that way her longing would be fulfilled. We both wished our wives to be happy in the afterlife: you gave the Brahmins golden mangoes and I gave them heat."

What could the raja say? Tenali Raman had done the right thing - he had removed the sin of death! Still the raja was furious and ordered him put in prison to await an execution. But the raja knew that somehow he would escape - that prison was just a "test", so he ordered two guards to take him away and execute him. They marched him off, with threatening words, "Move! You have sinned against the raja. Your time has come!"

Tenali Raman said, "Chop off my head, by all means, but instead of having to deal with my bloody body, just throw it in the River Ganga. You see the river is holy to me. If you let me die there, it'll be easier for you and I'll go to heaven. lust take my head back and show the raja." "Right. That's easy," said the guards.
Stepping into the water, Tenali Raman said to them, "Now, please do what I say so that I can go to heaven. I'll stand here and you two stand on either side of me. When I say 'one', raise your swords; when I say 'two', get ready; when I say 'three', lower the swords and chop off my head. Both of you, at the same time. Don't hesitate. Afterward just throw my body into the river and take my head back, to the raja."
He said "one" and they drew their swords. "Two" and they got ready. "Three" and they both swung their swords, but Tenali Raman ducked, so they chopped off each other's heads! They killed each other!
Tenali Raman returned to the court, where the raja was amazed: "What's this? I sentenced you to death yesterday. Where are the guards?" "They're gone, both dead." "You are really something," exclaimed the raja. "I can never defeat you!"
Storyteller: Ettirajalu (stories 1-4)

Karaiyamputtur, Pondicherry


In a town, there was a raja. Now, today people have ten or twelve children, but back then it was often difficult to get just one child. Even those who lived in luxury suffered from childlessness; even the raja, who was the wealthiest of all, suffered. He enjoyed every other kind of pleasure: his many servants fed him, fanned him, served him water in golden vessels and dressed him in silk clothes.
So this raja's world was filled with pleasure, surrounded by fragrant flowers and continuously fanned with fly whisks. But the raja's pleasure was a false pleasure; his fans couldn't cool him like our electric fans [pointing to his fan] because they were only fly whisks. Besides, he was childless.
One day a muni arrived at his court. The raja said, "I have no heir, no one to carry on my name, our line. What can I do?" And the muni said, "You'll have two sons; that’s your destiny. At first you'll lose your kingdom, but then through the children you'll regain it." "The kingdom is not important to me," the raja said. "I only want a son."
Soon the queen was pregnant. Then an enemy army threatened the palace, so the raja and queen escaped through a tunnel to a foreign country and hid in a village. Working in a Chettiyar's house, she pounded rice, got her wages and they were able to eat. Month by month she got bigger and the raja, watching this, grew anxious wondering how they would feed the child. "What did we do to deserve this fate? Why should my wife and child suffer?" he said to himself and cried a flood of tears. His wife cried even more, as she pounded the rice.
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