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The upside down king, p.1
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       The Upside-Down King, p.1

           Sudha Murty
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The Upside-Down King



  Sudha Murty was born in 1950 in Shiggaon, north Karnataka. She did her MTech in computer science, and is now the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. A prolific writer in English and Kannada, she has written novels, technical books, travelogues, collections of short stories and non-fictional pieces, and eight bestselling books for children. Her books have been translated into all the major Indian languages. Sudha Murty is the recipient of the R.K. Narayan Award for Literature (2006), the Padma Shri (2006), the Attimabbe Award from the Government of Karnataka for excellence in Kannada literature (2011) and, most recently, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Crossword Book Awards.

  Also in Penguin by Sudha Murty

  How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and

  Other Stories

  The Magic Drum and Other Favourite Stories

  The Bird with Golden Wings

  Grandma’s Bag of Stories

  The Magic of the Lost Temple

  The Serpent’s Revenge: Unusual Tales from

  the Mahabharata

  The Man from the Egg: Unusual Tales about

  the Trinity






  Unusual Tales about

  Rama and Krishna

  Illustrations by Priyankar Gupta


  To Mattur Nandakumara,

  who has worked tirelessly for the preservation of

  Indian culture on foreign soil





  I. The Solar Dynasty

  1. The Man in the Anthill

  2. A Measurement of Time

  3. From the Heavens to the Earth

  4. The Upside-Down King

  5. The Promise of a Promise

  6. The Tree of Gold

  7. Ravana, the Complex Asura

  8. How Not to Outsmart a God

  9. Hanuman

  10. The Ball of Sand and the Five Witnesses

  11. The Power of a Name

  12. The End of Rama

  13. Time Travel

  14. Ramayana in Different Countries


  II. The Lunar Dynasty

  15. The Diamond That Produced Gold

  16. Krishna and His Enemies

  17. Visions of a Blind Grandmother

  18. The Groom in a Dream

  19. Krishna’s Consorts

  20. Three and a Half Diamonds

  21. The Demon Who Spat

  22. The Sage Who Wanted Water

  23. The End of Krishna


  I have known Mattur Nandakumara, or Nanda, for a long time. He is an exceptional person. His admirable detachment from money and passionate attachment to India and its culture has made a great mark in the UK, especially in London. For the past thirty years, his tremendous work has helped many people in India and abroad learn more about the culture and heritage of this beautiful country. It is due to his tireless efforts that today Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London, is a vibrant cultural hub of India. I consider him a true gentleman, a great connoisseur of arts and, above all, a good human being.

  I am grateful to my trusted and brilliant editor, Shrutkeerti Khurana, and to Dr Praveen Murthy for his kind suggestions. I would like to thank Hemali Sodhi, Sohini Mitra and Piya Kapur from Penguin Random House India for all their effort with this book.

  Most of all, I would like to thank those young readers who are fascinated by the rich mythology of our country, which unites us all.


  In India, Lord Rama and Lord Krishna play an important role in the daily lives of people. Irrespective of the state one is in or the language spoken in that region, everybody knows them! It is not surprising then that milestones from their personal lives are celebrated in various ways. For example, the festival of Ramanavami marks the day of Lord Rama’s birth, and Vijayadashami or Dussehra is famously celebrated to recall the victory of Rama over the misguided Ravana. Meanwhile, Krishnashtami or Janmashtami is the day Lord Krishna was born, and Diwali is known to be the day that Krishna killed Narakasura.

  Due to their association with Rama and Krishna, places like Ayodhya, Mathura, Dwarka, Govardhan, Panchavati and Chitrakoot have become popular pilgrimage destinations.

  Both Rama and Krishna are believed to be the human incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the eternal protector; yet, there is a stark difference between their personalities and approaches.

  Rama was born in Treta yuga, the second of the four eras that define the age of the world. His stories are often depicted in paintings, literature, dance and music. The epic Ramayana exists in many versions in different languages and with different titles, such as Valmiki Ramayana, Adbhuta Ramayana, Uttara Ramayana, Tulsi Ramayana, Kamba Ramayana, Jain Ramayana, Pampa Ramayana, and so on. Despite the differences between the versions, the core of the story remains the same.

  Rama is worshipped as the ideal man, son and ruler. He was an obedient son and very devoted to his wife, Sita. His reign, Rama Rajya, is believed to have been perfect, with no crime, misery, poverty or corruption. His was a kingdom of peace and happiness, where the subjects were taken great care of by their king, and they in turn loved and worshipped him akin to God. Such were the tales of Rama’s exemplary archery that it was said that an arrow shot by him was certain to reach its destination, no matter what that might be. The word ramabana derives from this legend, indicating that the event in context is certain to occur.

  Rama was highly dharmic and made all his decisions based on right and wrong as accorded by his dharma. He believed that like an ascetic, a ruler too must lead his life completely detached from worldly thoughts and desires; only then could he be a fair and just king. However, this belief came at a grave personal cost—estrangement from his beloved wife, Sita.

  Lord Krishna, however, was very different from Lord Rama. He was born in Dvapara yuga. Though born a royal, he was taken away by his father in the middle of the night to save him from his uncle, who planned to kill him at birth. His father handed over his precious son to his friend Nanda and Nanda’s wife, Yashoda. Hence, Krishna grew up in the village of Gokul as a cowherd. Eventually, his destiny led him to Mathura, where he slayed his cruel uncle Kamsa. Despite the opportunity to become king of the land, Krishna did not accept it. Later, he moved his clan to the kingdom of Dwarka to save his people from war, misery and certain death at the hands of his enemy Jarasandha. In the great war of Mahabharata, Krishna was Arjuna’s charioteer and guide; he never participated in the actual war even though he played a critical role in the outcome.

  Krishna’s story is described in the Bhagavata, which details the lives of all the avatars of Lord Vishnu. Just like the Ramayana, it has many versions in different languages.

  Unlike Rama, Krishna is perceived to be a romantic, much loved by everyone, and exuding a certain godlike charm that enthrals young and old alike. Songs and hymns often tell tales of his Raasleela (his dance with the gopis), his love for Radha and his unique camaraderie with the Pandavas. People adore Krishna because of his compassion, the happiness associated with him, his charm and the magical melody of his flute. He frequently comes across as a ray of hope.

  We have all heard commonly told stories of the lives of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. Many versions of these abound and can be easily found in books and on the Internet. I wanted to delve a little deeper and bring out the tales of their human side, instead of just reflecting on them as gods. And this is why you now hold this book in your hands.

  The Solar Dynasty

ia has been ruled by many dynasties through the course of history. One of the most prominent ones is the Suryavamsha, or the Sun dynasty. This vamsha is also known as the Ikshvaku dynasty. Ikshvaku literally translates to ‘something that is pleasing to the eye’. Many important kings and princes were born in this dynasty, such as Vishvamitra, Harishchandra, Kakutsa and Rama.

  Once, there was a king named Khatwanga, who was a powerful ruler. Also known as Dilip, he was handsome and brave.

  One day, when Dilip ran into the divine cow Kamadhenu, he forgot to pay his respects to her. Kamadhenu, because of her gentle nature, did not notice, but the gods were offended and thought she should have been treated better by the king. They said, ‘A cow provides milk and is like a second mother to humans. Not respecting a cow is as bad as not respecting your mother. Dilip must understand that. Until such time that he does, he will not have any children of his own.’

  As decreed, Dilip remained childless for a long time. It bothered him no end, and he often wondered, ‘Who will succeed me?’

  So one day, Dilip went up to his guru, Sage Vasishtha, who was a saptarishi. He asked his teacher, ‘Guruji, will I be blessed with a successor?’

  The sage did not answer his question directly. Instead he told Dilip, ‘I am giving you my precious cow, Nandini. You must take care of her. You must be sincere and protect her, and she must be fed only by you or your wife. You must not delegate this task to your servants and hence, you should live away from your palace for a while because your kingly responsibilities there will not allow you to take care of her. If your devotion to Nandini is pure and complete, and you succeed in taking good care of her, your desire may be fulfilled.’

  So Dilip accepted the sage’s advice and moved with his wife, Sudakshana, to a small hut in a forest, where he devoted himself to the cow. He bathed her every day and took her to graze, while his wife cleaned her shed, milked her and looked after Nandini’s other needs. As time passed, the bond between Dilip and Nandini developed to such an extent that they became inseparable.

  One day, Nandini strolled ahead of Dilip to graze in grounds they hadn’t been to before. Out of nowhere, a fierce lion appeared, ready to attack Nandini. Immediately, Dilip took out his bow and arrow and stood in front of Nandini to protect her.

  To Dilip’s surprise, the lion spoke to him in a human voice. ‘O King Dilip, I eat cows to survive. It is part of nature’s cycle. One animal is food for another, and that is how the universe works. Please move aside and let me eat.’

  Dilip refused to budge, and replied, ‘You are right about the balance of life. But I have given my word to my teacher that I will protect Nandini, and I will fulfil that duty under all circumstances.’

  The discussion continued for a long time, but they couldn’t reach an agreement.

  Dilip finally said, ‘If your hunger is uncontrollable, then eat me. It doesn’t matter if I die. But you must let Nandini go unharmed.’

  The lion roared with impatience. ‘Don’t be foolish, O King! You are a great warrior and an asset to your kingdom. Your subjects depend on you. If your cow dies, you can always get another one. But if you die without an heir, it will be tough for your kingdom to survive.’

  Dilip understood the weight of the lion’s words, but he had promised to be devoted to Nandini. He remained firm in his decision and did not budge.

  Suddenly, the lion vanished, lightning flashed across the sky and a voice said from the heavens, ‘Dilip, I am really touched by your love for Nandini and the promise that you have upheld. May you be blessed with all the good things life has to offer.’

  Stunned by this turn of events, Dilip returned to his hut with Nandini.

  Sage Vasishtha stood there waiting for him. ‘You have passed the test, my dear child,’ he said with a smile. ‘In the past, you had insulted a cow by ignoring her, and today, you were willing to lay down your life for one. May you obtain whatever your heart desires. Now, you may return to your capital.’

  Dilip bid goodbye to Nandini with sadness and affection, and returned with Sudakshana to his capital.

  The following year, the royal couple was blessed with a son, whom they named Raghu.

  Raghu was an extraordinary boy, blessed with striking looks, bravery and a good disposition. When he grew up and succeeded his father to the throne, he conquered many lands and became such a famous king that Suryavamsha also came to be known as Raghuvamsha.

  Time passed and Raghu had a son named Aja, who grew up to be a kind-hearted man.

  One day, a letter arrived, inviting the prince to attend the swayamvara of the princess of the Vidarbha kingdom, Indumati. In those days, the tradition of swayamvara was prevalent—a ceremony for a princess to choose the most suitable husband for herself. Young princes would assemble in the hope of winning the princess’s hand in marriage. Their accomplishments would be announced, and the princess would then choose her suitor.

  The moment Indumati saw Aja, she garlanded him, thereby declaring her choice. The two were wed, and soon after, Aja returned with his bride to rule his kingdom.

  In time, Aja and Indumati had a son named Dasharatha.

  One day, Indumati and Aja were taking a stroll in the royal gardens, when suddenly a flower fell from the heavens and landed on Indumati. Instantly, she dropped to the ground, dead. Aja was heartbroken—his beloved wife had been taken from him. His grief knew no bounds as he bent over her, sobbing.

  Just then, the travelling sage Narada appeared. He was a sincere devotee of Lord Vishnu and could traverse through different realms. He told Aja that the flower was from his tambura.

  ‘That flower was a special one, Aja, and your wife was no ordinary woman. She was an apsara who was cursed to take human form. She could only return to her former state when a flower from my tambura touched her head. Now her curse has been lifted, and she has gone back to the heavens.’

  Aja understood the sage’s words, but he still missed his wife terribly. Grief-stricken, he gave up his kingdom, handed over the crown to his son, Dasharatha, and left the palace to live out the rest of his days in the forest.

  Dasharatha had three wives: Kausalya, the princess of Kosala; Sumitra, the princess of Maghada; and Kaikeyi, the princess of Kaikeya. Dasharatha’s wives bore him four sons: Rama from Kausalya, Lakshmana and Shatrughna from Sumitra, and Bharata from Kaikeyi.

  The following stories are dedicated to Dasharatha’s eldest son, Rama.

  The Man in the Anthill

  Ratnakara was a highway robber who would hide near roadsides and loot all the travellers who passed by on horseback or on foot. If people resisted his attack or tried to run away, Ratnakara would murder them and take away their belongings. He shared the wealth he thus obtained with his large family.

  One day, while Ratnakara was crouched behind a bush waiting for his next victim, he saw a sage pass by him. The sage wore saffron robes and carried a tambura in one hand. He was busy singing to himself as he walked. Ratnakara thought, ‘The man must be carrying something valuable in the tambura, and has disguised himself as a sage to discourage thieves from stealing from him.’

  So he came out from behind the bush and stood in the sage’s path.

  ‘Give me all you have!’ he yelled.

  The sage smiled. ‘I only carry God’s name with me. So I can share all my learning with you if you like.’

  ‘Don’t get smart with me. Where are you coming from, and what is really in your tambura?’ Ratnakara barked.

  ‘My name is Narada, and I am coming from Lord Vishnu’s house. I don’t know where I’m headed. I will go to the home of whoever remembers me,’ the sage replied pleasantly.

  The strange answer intrigued Ratnakara. Unlike others, this man wasn’t scared of him.

  Narada spoke again with affection. ‘O innocent man, I know that you don’t realize what you are doing or the sins that you are stacking up. Tell me, why are you wasting this life? You should use it to become a better person.’

  Ratnakara didn’t understand a word
. ‘What sins am I collecting?’ he asked, nonplussed.

  ‘When you hurt somebody intentionally, you are committing a sin. You will have to pay for it eventually,’ Narada explained.

  ‘But I am not doing this just for myself. I share what I collect with my family,’ replied Ratnakara.

  ‘May I ask you a question?’ asked Narada.

  Ratnakara did not respond but continued to stare at him.

  ‘If you are also collecting sins along with wealth, will your family members share that with you too?’

  ‘Yes, of course,’ Ratnakara replied confidently.

  ‘Go home now and ask your family if they will share the punishment for your sins. Until then, I will wait here,’ said Narada.

  ‘And while I’m gone, you will run away,’ retorted Ratnakara.

  ‘I will not go anywhere. But if you don’t believe me, then tie me to this tree. I will wait here till you bring me your family’s answer.’

  Ratnakara had never seen such a bold traveller before. Narada was confident and happy, and didn’t seem perturbed by his threats at all. Something about the sage attracted Ratnakara.

  Hurriedly, he went home. When his wife, children and relatives saw him come back early, they were happy, thinking that Ratnakara had chanced upon a huge loot. But when they saw that he was empty-handed, the disappointment was starkly visible on their faces.

  Ratnakara stood in front of his family and addressed everyone who was present. ‘I have just learnt from a traveller named Narada that hurting people and stealing from them is a sin. I must have already piled up many sins by now, and some day I will have to face the punishment too. I did what I did not just for me but also for all of you. So you are also my partners in crime and must share my sins. Do you agree?’

  At first, everyone was silent. Then someone said, ‘Ratnakara, you rob people for us, and we share the wealth with you. But we have never asked you to hurt anyone in the process. How you obtained that wealth was your decision, so we will not share your sins with you.’

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