A young man with flashing dark eyes strode out of an elaborate and imposing wooden edifice. His walked swiftly, almost impatiently, in anticipation of a favorite pursuit – hunting. This was his usual means of escape from the stifling routine and intrigues of palace life. The thrill of the chase also provided solace whenever he was troubled or just bored.
The sun was already peering over the horizon, rays of pale light illuminating the sky with a clear rose tint. It was going to be a glorious day with barely a hint of clouds. His men – hunters and porters – were already waiting for him outside the palace grounds, equipped for the journey. Like him, they were dressed in brown and green hunting clothes. They greeted him cheerfully, “Lord Skanda, you are late as always!”
They spent several days in the forest chasing wild game but failed to bring down anything worthy of mention. He was forced to admit to his men, “We can’t possibly return home empty handed; I will be the subject of jokes for weeks to come!”
So they decided to venture further south to the edge of the Kingdom until they came into a part of the forest they had never encountered before.
Here, the primeval woods were dark and foreboding, untouched by man. Trees were immensely tall, with pale white orchids hanging down from the branches. Wild ginger plants bearing flowers in vivid shades of orange and crimson grew on the ground. They walked slowly in the dim light under the arching canopy until a deer darted in front of them. Suddenly alert, the hunting party gave chase, with the prince far ahead. Finally, the deer disappeared behind a clump of bamboo and the prince realized that he was alone and lost.
He thought to himself, ‘How can I be lost? I am Skanda, the greatest hunter in the kingdom, more at home in the forest than in the palace!”
He walked around the bamboo stand and came upon a hidden little forest pool. There was a woman bathing in the pool — her back was towards him and she was washing her long hair. It was the most extraordinary hair he had ever seen. It fell down her back like a cascade of polished silver. At first he wondered if she was aged but her elegant arms, the sensuous curve of her back and her slender waist told him that she was young and beautiful beyond imagining.
He watched her, mesmerized. It never occurred to him to wonder why a young maiden would be bathing by herself in a pool deep in the woods. He did not move at all until she seemed to sense his presence, turned and saw him. Her dark eyes registered her surprise but it was only momentary; she smiled at him without a trace of alarm or shyness. He called out quickly, “My lady, do not be afraid of me! I am not a brigand and I mean you no harm! Please do not run away!”
The maiden burst out laughing, her laughter an echo around the grove. “Afraid of you? You don’t have to plead with me, young man! But what an unexpected surprise, I never expected a royal prince to honor me with a visit!”
He was of course speechless after hearing this. She walked slowly in the water towards him and held out her hand to him, “Why don’t you join me in the pool, my lord Skanda? You’re covered in sweat and grime!”
And the bewitched young prince did enter the forest pool, not quite aware of what he was doing. The coldness of the water revived him somewhat and he was able to say to her, “Who are you? How do you know my name?”
She laughed again, obviously amused, “I am the yakshi of this forest grove! My life is tied to this place and I will perish if I am away from the grove for too long!” and she started to move away from him. But Skanda pulled her towards him and tried to kiss her lips. The strange maiden pushed him away and warned him, “My prince, I can give you one moment of pleasure but remember there is always a price to pay!”
Skanda replied without a moment‘s hesitation, “I am willing to pay whatever price you ask of me!”
Her dark eyes were alluring when she smiled and placed one hand on his shoulder while the other caressed his dark hair.
She said, “Very well, my lord Skanda, come to me then! But know that when a mortal man mates with a yakshi he loses the ability to procreate with mortal women.” And she placed her hands on his shoulders and kissed him with her cold lips.
They made love and for him, it was a strange and delirious dream.
She parted with the words, “All is not lost, Lord Skanda. I have a parting gift for you. Look for her in the wild places of your kingdom.”
When Skanda woke up he found himself cold and shivering, on the banks of the stream. Earlier on his men had found him unclothed and delirious, and covered him with a blanket. They helped him to make the journey home to the palace. His mother immediately summoned a pawang, the most powerful spirit medium in the kingdom, to treat the prince, “Skanda has been in such a distressing state since he returned from the forest! What could be the matter with him?”
The pawang replied, “My lady, I believe Lord Skanda must have encountered a mysterious entity, while in the forest. He mentioned the word, yakshi, several times in his delirium. According to foreign merchants, a yakshi is a forest sprite, sometimes capable of draining the life force of men. The place must be keras, heavy with dark magic. To heal him, its influence must be exorcised.”
It took Skanda many weeks to recover but he was never quite himself again and he never told anyone about his encounter with the yakshi of the forest grove. Whenever he went on the hunt, he always sought out the grove with the forest pool but he could never locate it again.
One fine day, the Raja of Samarlanga decided to go hunting with his men. Although they spent several exciting days in the forest chasing wild game, they failed to bring down anything worth mentioning. The raja said to his men, “We can’t possibly return home empty handed; our reputation as mighty hunters will be tarnished!”
They decided to venture even deeper into the woods until they came into a part of the forest they had never been to before. Here the vegetation was unusually lush, bursting with life; the trees were heavy with flowers and fruits; even the orchids hanging down from the trees were alarmingly exuberant. They walked slowly under the dim canopy of the forest until the hunting party came upon a grove of giant bamboo, so tall that they seemed to be reaching for the skies. The bamboo formed a wall which blocked their way and made it impossible for them to pass through. Although the air was still and heavy, the bamboo leaves rustled, creating an eerie and oddly melancholic sound. The raja asked his men to cut down some of the bamboo to allow the party through.
Suppressing their unease at the strange sound of the bamboo leaves, the porters swiftly cut down some of the bamboo to create a path for the raja and his hunters. The porters entered the grove first and found a huge bamboo growing in the middle of the grove. The plant was as thick as a man’s thigh and had a large bulge in the middle. It was a buluh betung, a giant species of bamboo. The stem of this bamboo was shining gold while its leaves were silver-green in colour. When one of the porters tried to cut down the bamboo, milky white sap spilled from the wound and the cut in the stem healed immediately. The porter was alarmed. “
He dropped his machete and rushed to the raja. “My lord! There is an enchanted bamboo in the forest! When we attempted to cut it down, white blood flowed from the wound and the plant healed itself immediately.”
The raja quickly followed the porter to the site to examine this bamboo. He drew his sword and cut the bamboo down, just above the bulge. This time the bamboo did not grow back, instead they heard the cry of a child from inside the stem. The surprised raja looked into the hollow stem and saw a tiny baby girl inside.
The raja said, “This is surely a gift from the forest folks…” His hands trembled with emotion when he picked the child up. He wrapped her in his fine cotton shoulder clothe and took the child home with him. He named her Princess Bright Bamboo and threw a great feast to announce to the people that he had found an heir at last. The raja of Samarlanga also invited his kin, the raja of Gunung Sanggung to the feast.
It so happened that the raja of Gunung Sanggung was also childless. He was full of envy at the beautiful child his brother had been blessed with and asked him, “How did you come by this precious child, Brother?”
His brother replied, “We were out hunting one day and found the child in the stem of a giant golden bamboo right in the middle of the forest. I feel sure it was a gift from the forest folks. The benevolent ones are known to grant wishes.”
The raja of Gunung Sanggung thought to himself, “Why shouldn’t the forest folks give me a child as well?” When he returned home, he asked his own men to prepare for a long hunt in the forest.
A few days later, the raja of Gunung Sanggung went on a hunt with his men. They spent several days hunting and feeding off the land. The raja told his men to keep a lookout for any large bamboo grove but all they found were small thickets of bamboo.
Finally, the raja was about to return home when he came across an old man resting under an ancient tree. The old man greeted him, “Greetings to you, Raja! What brings you to this isolated part of the forest?”
“I am on a quest, old man!” said the raja.
“As it happens, I have divined what your quest is Raja: You are looking for an heir, a special child to raise as your own!” said the old man.
The raja was surprised and said, “You have the gift of a seer! Can you help me in my quest after all?”
“If you go along the path ahead of you, you will come across a clearing where there is a female elephant. She is raising a human child but he is already able to stand on his feet and needs to learn human speech. You should take this child and raise him as your own,” advised the old man. Then he vanished.
The raja followed the advice of the old man and took the forest path ahead of him. He was careful not to make any sound and eventually came to a clearing. There was an old female elephant sleeping in the clearing with a small male child sitting beside her. The child had dark shiny eyes and was robust and healthy; he smiled at the raja. The raja offered the boy some fruits and when the child walked towards him, he silently picked him up and took him away. The raja raised the child as his own and named him Merah Gajah, which meant ‘red elephant.’
Teachers were hired to teach him how to speak first, and later to read and write and everything else he needed to know to become a prince. But he never quite lost his wild ways and impetuous nature; somehow deep in his heart he was still the wild boy who was raised by an elephant. He also never lost his affinity for elephants and was happiest when he was training and grooming these great and intelligent beasts.
As for Princess Bright Bamboo, she was the light of her father’s eyes. Her beauty captivated everyone’s attention and her skill at dance and music was unsurpassed. Everyone in the palace fell under the sway of the princess with the graceful bearing and exquisite manners. But she always remained a self-possessed and enigmatic figure, even as a young child. As the years passed, she blossomed into a beautiful young woman. One day, as she was playing a game of chess with her father in the garden, the sunlight caught the strand of golden hair on her head. Something about the princess, triggered his memory and the raja had a vision of the yakshi of the forest grove. It was a memory he had long suppressed, a terrifying event which had befallen him when he was young Prince Skanda, but it came unbidden at this moment. At that instant, he realized that the princess was his own flesh and blood. As the princess looked at him in consternation, silent tears filled his eyes and spilled on to the marble chess board. He had found the yakshi’s gift to him, without realizing it all these years.
Both kingdoms grew and prospered; however Samarlanga outshone Gunung Sanggung; it seemed that fortune favored her, for there was never a bad harvest or sickness among the people since the day the princess was brought into the kingdom.
Eventually, Princess Bamboo and Prince Merah Gajah reached marriageable age and agreed to marry one another according to their parents’ wishes.
According to the custom of the land, Merah Gajah rode to Samarlanga on a magnificent elephant, accompanied by his warriors and men-at-arms. After the lavish wedding ceremony which lasted seven days and nights, Merah Gajah moved into the royal palace to live with his new wife, the magical bamboo princess, according to the custom of the land.
In time, the princess and Merah Gajah had two sons. They were twins but completely unlike each other as day was to night. One was called Merah Hasun while the other was called Merah Silau. Merah Hasun resembled his mother in appearance and was polite, refined and cultured. He was also the favorite of his grandfather, the Raja of Samarlanga, who groomed him to be his heir. The younger twin was a ‘wild child’ who took after his father; he was restless indoors and could not sit still in one place long enough to learn how to read and write. Merah Silau was strong and rugged, he loved the outdoors and even as a young child he had the power to tame wild water buffalos.
Princess Bamboo found a kindred spirit in Merah Hasun but she also understood the wild streak which ran in her husband and her younger son.
As for Merah Gajah, although he loved his wife dearly, he felt that there was a small flaw which detracted from her perfection. This was a single strand of white gold hair which grew among her raven black tresses. Although it was only a single strand of hair, it floated over her head and shone with a brilliance that made it stand out. Each time he saw her, Merah Gajah wondered why his wife allowed her perfect beauty to be marred by that single strand of hair?
Merah Gajah finally told his wife, “You have the most beautiful black hair in the entire kingdom! But why do you allow that brazen pale hair to mar your beauty? I believe your beauty will be perfect if you pluck out that single strand of hair!”
The princess turned pale with fear when she heard her husband’s suggestion. She hid her distress and answered him as calmly as she could,
“My lord, I am truly sorry to disappoint you but it is impossible for me to pluck out that one strand of hair! Please do not ask me to do such a thing as it will mean our separation forever!”
The prince was startled by his wife’s reply. He tried to force himself to forget about the offending strand of hair but he could not get it out of his head. Each time he looked at his beautiful wife, all he could see was that single strand of shining hair! The princess was aware of her husband’s strange obsession with her hair and it frightened and saddened her.
Late one night, Merah Gajah woke up from sleep and saw his wife sleeping beside him. It was a night of the full moon and the bright silvery light streaming in from the window bathed his wife in its preternatural glow. Merah Gajah noticed the single strand of hair glowing in the moonlight and without thinking he stretched out his hand and wound the strand of hair around his finger. Then he gave the hair a tug and pulled it out!
To his horror, white blood started to trickle out of the tiny wound onto her black tresses and the bed clothes. Merah Gajah tried to stem the flow by pressing his hand against her head, but it was to no avail; the blood kept trickling out. Finally, his hand was covered with pure white blood! Merah Gajah sat up in despair and took the princess in his arms and tried to wake her up, “My dear princess, please wake up! Open your eyes please, I beg you!”
But the princess’ eyes remained shut and her body was as cold as ice. Merah Gajah shook her still body, “Wake up! Please wake up!”
It was then that he realized that his precious wife was dead! Princess Bamboo was dead and he had taken her life with this one foolish, thoughtless action. He finally understood that her life-force was bound to this single strand of hair, which had shone so brilliantly before!
He was filled with remorse and sorrow and held her close to him. When he finally released her body, he was shocked to see it vanish before his very eyes!
Dawn was breaking and fear filled his heart. He knew that her father, the raja, would never forgive him. In blind panic, Merah Gajah picked up his weapon and a few of his belongings and fled the palace as quietly as he could.
Later in the morning, the princess’ handmaiden found that her mistress had vanished and her bedclothes soaked with her pure white blood. A long strand of pale gold hair lay on the bed.
Tutu Dutta has a B.Sc. from Universiti Putra Malaysia and an MPhil from the University of Malaya. As an undergraduate, she won a scholarship from Japan Airlines, to attend Summer School at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, which was a life changing experience. She is the author of eight books, including Timeless Tales of Malaysia, Eight Treasures of the Dragon, and the middle grade series The Jugra Chronicles. Based partly on folklore and partly on history and imagination, The Jugra Chronicles is set in 17th Century Borneo. Tutu is also the author of Phoenix Song, a picture book commissioned by Lantana Publishing (UK) and illustrated by Martina Peluso. It was released on September 2015.