HOW THE KING OF PAGAN CAUGHT THE THIEF (SHAN FOLK LORE STORIES, 1902) BY WILLIAM C. GRIGGS
MANY, many years ago there lived near the old city of Pagan a famous robber chief who was so fierce and cruel that he made all men fear his name. He stole and killed and burned till the mothers used to frighten their disobedient children by saying, “Boh Lek Byah will get thee.” He was a very brave and clever thief, and he became so strong that the headmen and elders of all the towns and villages throughout the country were obliged to fee him with money and goods, and if by any chance they did not pay this blackmail immediately it was demanded, that very night the followers of the robber chief would assuredly burn down their village and kill every man, woman, and child within it, for this was Shan and Burmese custom.
Boh Lek Byah entered every house in Pagan. None was too big, none too small. He stole from the whon’s house as easily as from the hut of the poor man; it made no difference to him, till at last the palace where the great king lived was the only place whence he had not gotten booty. Several of his followers were caught and crucified, but that did not stop his bad actions or frighten him. In the old days, when a robber was caught he was taken to the jungle where the tigers are. All the tigers knew the place of execution as well as a dog knows worship days when the women offer rice and curry at the pagodas. They used to tie the thieves fast to the cross by their feet, hands, and hair, and when they had jeered at them and the women and children had pelted them with stones and beaten them with bamboos, everybody went home and left them for the tigers to eat, and thus they did to the followers of Maung Lek Byah, but they could never catch the robber chief himself.
At last the people of Pagan city came to the Amat Löng, who was next in rank to the king himself, and said:
“Our lord, for long thy slaves have been in great and sore trouble, and unless our lord takes pity upon his servants we shall all arrive at destruction.”
“What can I do?” cried the amat, in a loud, angry voice, “has he not stolen from me? Did I not pay him two whole ticcals of pure silver as protection money no later than the last Water Feast, and yet did he not rob me as I was coming home in my boat yesternight, and when I told him that I was the Amat Löng, did he not laugh in my face and yet rob me just the same. What can I do?”
“Our lord can go to the Ruler of the Golden Palace and plead for his slaves,” suggested one of the suppliants.
Now, the Amat Löng was a very cunning man, and he knew that if the king heard that Boh Lek Byah had stolen so much from his subjects he would be very angry, and might perhaps even deprive him of his rank as chief amat, for it was his duty to see that all robbers were caught and punished, therefore after thinking for a while, he said:
“My friends, listen to me; let us each give silver, as much as we can afford; it is better to give part of our possessions than to have everything taken from us. Dost hear? This silver we will give to the boh, and he will then not trouble us any more, but will go to towns where the people are poorer and cannot afford to give as much as we, the citizens of this royal city of Pagan; then shall we have peace.”
This advice was very good and would have been acted upon, but unfortunately, one of the little princes happened to be in the audience chamber that morning and heard what had been said. He went to his father, the ruler of the Golden Palace, and told the king what he had heard; therefore his majesty called the amat to the Golden Foot and asked him of these things.
“What is this I hear?” he demanded. “Has this wicked man robbed as much as the people say? Why hast thou not caught him as it was thy duty to do?”
“Son of the Sun,” replied the servant, trembling very much as he kneeled before him, for who would not be afraid when the king is angry? “it is true; but this thief is a very wicked and clever thief, besides which he has a wonderful charm tattooed upon his body which is so potent that it makes him invulnerable to wounds from sword or gun, neither can he be bound with ropes, therefore it hath been impossible for the slave of our lord the king to capture or harm him.”
“Then,” said the king, still very angry, “get thee a charm still more potent than the one the robber chief hath, for if thou dost not bring him or his head to me ere three days have elapsed, thou shalt fall from thy rank of chief amat. Dost thou hear?”
The amat bowed till his head touched the floor before the Golden Foot and he crawled away from the presence the most unhappy man in all the king’s possessions. Then in great haste he ran to his house and called all the charm-makers in the city to come to him without delay. Then when they had assembled before him he commanded them to make him a charm which would be stronger than the one tattooed upon the body of the robber chief, Boh Lek Byah. But the charm-sellers one and all declared that this was an impossibility, for the thief had upon the luckiest day of the whole year eaten a piece of flesh cut from the body of a murdered man, and so he could not be harmed in any way, neither was it in their power to give his lordship the amat a charm stronger than his.
Very frightened was the amat when he heard this, and very frightened were the soldiers who had been ordered to go with him and catch the thief. Their wives also cried all that night, for they knew what a terrible man the robber was, and how angry he would be with the men who had dared come to capture him. He would show no mercy, and without doubt would kill them all, and in derision send their heads back to the city afterward. This the robber had done before more than once to parties of soldiers sent to take him.
Now it happened that among the soldiers who followed the Amat Löng was one who had a very wise and clever wife, and when she saw her husband march away and knew the great danger that he and his fellows were in, she went to the wife of another soldier, and this is what she said:
“Sister, oie, listen to my words. If we do naught but sit in our houses and weep our husbands will all assuredly arrive at destruction, for the boh is a very cruel and cunning man. Of what use will our houses be to us if we have no husbands? Listen, therefore, to what I say. The man who collects the blackmail for the boh from the headman of a village across the river and delivers it into his hand is well known to me. His name is Maung Gyei, and he sells books in the bazaar. He is a very wise man, and knows all the followers of the Boh Lek Byah. Let our husbands fight the boh with silver. It is sharper than a sword, and injures not the man who handles it skillfully. We will collect all the money we can. I will sell my earrings, thou canst sell thy bracelets, and the wives of all the other soldiers can do likewise. This will bring a big bag of silver, and half of it we will give to Maung Gyei. He will then call some of the followers of the boh to a secret place and tell him that the Amat Löng will give him the balance in return for the head of their master, if they take it to his lordship ere three days have have elapsed. Our husbands will then bring the head of this wicked man to the royal palace and lay it before the Golden Foot; they will reap much honor and glory for having fulfilled the order of the king and the country will be freed from this great trouble.”
Now, when the wives of the other soldiers heard these words they perceived that she was indeed a very clever woman, fit to be the wife of a great amat instead of a common soldier, and one ran swiftly after the amat and his men, for in truth they had not gone far, but were traveling slowly, because they feared to come up with the boh and his fierce followers; and they were filled with joy at the good news the messenger brought them. At the order of the amat his men hid themselves in a thick jungle till the money should be collected and brought to them.
After two days and when it was very dark, a man came to them saying that he was the friend of Maung Gyei, and bore with him the head of the robber chief, and thereupon showed it wrapped up in a cloth. Then were the soldiers full of joy again, and they paid the money to him, and that night they slept peacefully, for they knew that their enemy could harm them no more, and that they had been delivered from the great danger which had been threatening them. Before they slept the amat sent a swift messenger to the city to tell the king the good news that the robber chief was dead, and that they were bearing his head with them and would present it before the Golden Foot the next morning.
Next day, therefore, at the head of his men, he marched to the Golden Palace, and the people of the city were so full of joy over the fact that Boh Lek Byah was dead, that great numbers followed the procession to the palace gates in the hopes of getting a glimpse at the head of their enemy, and everybody praised the Amat Löng for his bravery and wisdom in killing the robber chief who had oppressed them so sorely. His wife also called musicians and dancers, and gave orders to her servants to prepare a great feast that night in honor of her brave husband. They reached the Golden Foot and knelt before the throne, but when the basket was opened, behold, it contained the head of another man, and not that of the boh at all.
Then did all the people in the city laugh at the amat because his enemy had deceived him, and he fell from his rank of chief amat. All his golden umbrellas were taken away from him and given to his successor, and he was obliged to earn his living by selling medicines in bazaar, and from that day till he died he bore the nickname of Amat Toak Arah; but the people all praised the cleverness of his enemy, the thief.
Now, when the king saw how cunning Boh Lek Byah was and how easily he had deceived his servant, he determined that he himself would take the robber chief and thus gain great credit and renown. To this end he gave orders to the headman of every village throughout his kingdom that directly the robber should come within his jurisdiction he was to report immediately, and the king would send a trusty officer to arrest him. He did not tell them that he himself would go, therefore for a long time the headmen feared to obey the order of the king for, said they among themselves: “The boh deceived the Amat Löng, who was one of the most cunning of men, and will he not escape from any other whom it should please our lord the king to send against him? Is there any more cunning man in the palace now than before? When he finds out also that we have reported his presence to the king his mind will become hot against us, and he will without doubt return and destroy all our houses and kill everybody in our village. Nay, it is better to give him silver and beg him begone elsewhere,” so although they told the messengers of the king they would follow his words, they simply held their peace when the dreaded robber chief was near their village.
But after a long time the headman of Myo Haung, who was braver than his fellows, came to the palace and told the king that the boh was then at his village, and would leave when it became dark, taking boat for Myo Kywe, which was a suburb of the city of Pagan.
The heart of the king was filled with joy when he heard this piece of good news, and he gave the headman a great reward. Also he took off the royal robes such as is the custom of kings to wear, and put on very poor ones so that no one would think that he was the lord who ate the country of Pagan. He also took with him a sword; not the royal sword with the silver sheath and ivory handle, but an old dah with a wooden handle bound around with rattan string, and a sheath of wood, such as the common people carry, then he went to the bank of the river near Myo Kywe and waited. He waited long, but his heart was strong and he did not become discouraged by reason of the waiting, and at last he saw coming down the river a small boat, and in it a man whom he knew immediately to be the thief.
Maung Lek Byah guided his boat toward the bank near where the king was seated, for he was a skillful oarsman, and when he had fastened it with a rattan loop to the end of his oar stuck into the soft mud at the water’s edge he ascended the path to the village, and as he reached the top of the bank he caught sight of the king in his dingy clothes and wearing the old sword with the wooden handle, sitting on the side of the path.
He was surprised to see a man there at that time of night, for the gongs which call the priests and old women to worship had sounded long before, and everybody in the village was sound asleep, therefore he gazed earnestly at the king and then called out:
“Who is that?”
“It is a man who wishes to arrive at the rank of disciple to our lord,” replied the king.
“Art thou a man of the day or a man of the night?” asked the robber looking down at him.
“Thy servant is a man of the night,” replied the king.
“Hast thou not heard how many of my followers have been caught and executed? How that the tigers at the entering in of the villages will not now eat oxen but wait till one of my men is tied up for them? I tell thee they have not long to wait either. Art thou not afraid?”
“Ah, our lord,” replied the king, “thy disciples suffered because they did not take heed and follow in the footsteps of our lord, therefore have they arrived at destruction; but thy servant will study thee, O payah, and thus will I learn how to become a great boh and also to escape their fate.”
Now when the king talked in this fashion the boh was very pleased with him, and gave him permission to follow. He also promised to teach his new disciple all his arts; that he would not let him ever be caught and would make him as famous a boh even as he was. “And so,” said he, “as thou hast a sword with thee, follow me. I will give thee thy first lesson.”
Now it happened that as they walked along toward the city the thief began to think within himself, “Who can this new disciple be? He surely comes from a high family, for he speaks not like the common people, but as kings have a custom of speaking. He wears the clothes of a common man, and carries the sword of a coolie, but yet his words are the words of one used to command. Can he be a spy sent by the amat whom I tricked so nicely the other day, I wonder?” and thus he turned it over and over in his mind.
The hpeas have ever aided the kings of Burma, and now those whom the king had been in the habit of feeding daily were watching over him, and when they heard the boh thus talk with himself, for the spirits can hear us think even when we make no sounds of words, they put it into the head of the robber to go to the house of the king’s own astrologer. It was not very far and they soon arrived there. Then Maung Lek Byah said to the king:
“Stay thou here and watch; if thou dost see or hear aught come and call me,” but he himself went under the house of the astrologer to discover whether he slept or not. When he knew that the man was sound asleep he would draw a sharp knife which he carried in his girdle, cut a hole in the mat side of the house, creep in through this hole and take what he wished; then he would escape before the lord of the house awoke.
As he was watching, however, he heard the astrologer come out upon the veranda so that he could study the stars, for that was his custom; then he heard him say to himself:
“Truly this is a good thing to marvel at, for I see the star of that famous robber chief, Boh Lek Byah, and following it closely is the star of none other than the ruler of the Golden Palace himself.”
For a long time the astrologer sat upon his veranda pondering over this strange occurrence and trying to think what it should portend; but in vain. He could think of no solution of the mystery, so after again saying that it was a good thing to marvel at he gave it up and went into his house to sleep.
Thus did the thief discover the high rank of his new disciple, for the astrologer knew the star of the boh well and would make no mistake. He also knew the star of the king. Had this same astrologer not cast the horoscope of the robber chief and foretold which days were lucky and which unlucky to him, so that by taking heed he had never been caught? Therefore when he again came forth from under the royal astrologer’s house and saw the king was still waiting without, even as he had given orders, his mind was filled with great fear.
Then said the king directly he saw the robber: “O Kin Byah, thy servant knows a place where there are so many rubies that they are as common as maknin seeds that the children play with in the dust; gold is as plentiful as iron is with us, and there is enough silk to stock ten bazaars. All this is within reach of our hands. I can guide thee to the place, for I know it well; wilt thou follow?”
Then said the thief: “I know of but one place of which thou canst say that with truth, and that is the Golden Palace; but a man may not enter there and live. Knowest thou not that the guards carry sharp dahs, and that if a man is caught there without permission from the king or one of his amats, he is immediately impaled? In very truth it is a place good to shun and fear greatly, even as the den of a hungry tiger in the jungle.”
“True, O brave man,” replied the king, “but this evening as I passed by the palace I saw hanging from the top of the wall a rope-ladder; we can climb over, take enough to make us rich for the rest of our lives, and run away before the guards with the sharp dahs discover that we have been there. Thus shall we earn much wealth and glory, and people throughout the land will call our lord the ‘Boh Who Entered the Golden Palace,’ and all men will fear his name more than the name of a hungry leopard.”
Then were the thoughts of the boh in great confusion, and he said to himself: “Of a truth I am about to arrive at destruction at last. I have had my last adventure. If I do not follow the king he will assuredly call out to the guard and I shall be taken. If I go, how shall I be delivered from the great dangers which will surround me in the Golden Palace? I am undone whichever way I take.”
Then said he to the king: “O disciple, whom I love much, I fear to enter the Golden Palace, for this I perceive is one of my unlucky days. We will therefore go to Pin Tha village, for I saw this morning a great number of coolies there. They were following a great prince from the hills. They have been traveling far to-day and are therefore heavy with sleep, and we can despoil them of as much as we can carry away. As they are very weary with their journey, none will know aught till they awake in the morning.”
“Upon what day wast thou born?” demanded the king, and the boh said that it was upon a Saturday.
“Then,” said the king, “behold! this is a lucky day,” and he drew forth from under his jacket a horoscope, which showed that this was a lucky day upon which a man who had been born upon a Saturday could undertake any deed requiring great wisdom and bravery in its accomplishment, and in spite of all that Maung Lek Byah could say the king led the way toward the palace, and the boh was obliged to follow him, which he did with very slow and hesitating steps, for his heart had become as weak as water.
Even as the king had said, there was a rope-ladder hanging over the palace wall, and the boh perceived in what manner the king had left the Golden Palace, but being a very wise man he followed without opening his mouth.
They passed through the palace courtyard and saw there a thing good to marvel at; all the guards who ought to have been watching their lord were slumbering, so that the king and the boh gathered up all the spears and dahs belonging to these men and carried them away, hiding them in a secret place under one of the houses.
As they entered the palace buildings the thief became so full of alarm that all his strength left him and he could hardly walk. Then the king saw that his follower had arrived at great fear, and as they passed the house where the royal food was prepared, he said:
“Friend, I perceive that thou art in sore distress; come, eat the food I am about to prepare for thee and thou wilt become strong.”
“Nay,” said the boh, “that I cannot do. Can a common man eat of the golden food and live? This will I not do; surely I should be accounted worthy of death.” The king would not listen to him, but entered the royal kitchen, and with his own hands cooked some food which he compelled the thief to eat.
Now, the king had prepared two messes, one in which he had cunningly placed some opium and one without, and it was the food which contained the opium that the king gave to the boh. Therefore, after a little time, he said to the king:
“O disciple of mine, I know not what is the matter with me. I have no strength and although it is death to sleep in the Golden Palace yet must I sleep, for if I do not I shall surely die.”
As he said these words his head drooped upon his chest, his eyes closed and he fell asleep. Once more was the heart of the king filled with joy and he bound the boh with strong ropes in great haste and made him a prisoner.
Early the next morning the king called the officer who was in charge of the guard the night before and when he was come before the face of his majesty, the king said:
“I have a parable to tell thee. Once upon a time there was a great king and in his country was also a famous robber chief and, behold, one night the king was sore troubled with questions of statecraft so that he could not sleep, therefore he walked throughout his palace. As he was passing through the courtyard he spied a ladder hanging from the top of the wall. Now the thief of whom I have spoken had that very night entered the Golden Palace and at that same moment the king caught sight of him, loaded down with plunder, creeping toward the rope ladder beside which he stood. Then the king fell upon him and took him prisoner, bound him securely with strong ropes and dragged him to a safe place; but the soldiers who should have been watching were all asleep. What should be done to such guards as these?”
Now the officer did not yet know that the dahs of his men had been stolen, so bowing before the Golden Foot, he replied:
“Head of thy servant’s body, there is but one thing to be done, they are worthy of death. Their lord should pass judgment upon them without mercy and that immediately.”
“That is a good judgment,” replied the king, and turning again to the officer of the guard, he said:
“Last night I saw the great and renowned robber chief, Boh Lek Byah, in this palace. I took him prisoner with mine own hands, behold, he lies tied fast with ropes in yonder room, but all the guards who should have been watching were asleep. Where are their dahs? Let every man who has no sword be impaled before I eat my morning rice.”
Then were the hearts of the king’s amats full of joy when they heard that the thief whom they all feared was a prisoner in the palace, and they praised the wondrous bravery and subtlety of their royal master, saying that without doubt he was the bravest and wisest king who ever sat under a white umbrella.
The king was very proud as he listened to their praises and gave orders that the robber chief should be brought before him.
When Boh Lek Byah was led to the Golden Foot he prostrated himself, and the king said:
“If a man be found in the royal palace at night what hath custom decreed should be the punishment for his presumption?”
Then the prisoner said: “King above all kings, it is death.”
“Hast thou anything to say why thou shouldst not be impaled or given to the tigers to eat?” demanded the king in a terrible voice.
“Lord of the world,” replied the unfortunate man, “last night thou didst ask to become disciple to our lord’s slave. Will the disciple order his teacher to be executed? When our lord’s slave was beneath the royal astrologer’s house he discovered that his new disciple was the Eater of the Country and so when our lord of the Golden Palace ordered his slave to enter, he would have been worthy of death had he not obeyed. Will the Son of the Sun execute his slave for following his words?”
Then when the king heard that the robber had known who he really was, he marveled much at his wisdom, and said:
“Assuredly thou art too wise a man for the tigers to eat. Take thou yonder sword, it belonged to him who yesterday was captain of the royal guard. Follow me and thou shalt later become my chief amat.”