This is another tale from the Buddhist Jatakas involving quails. These small ground-dwelling birds are members of the family Phasianidae and related to pheasants, partridges, peafowl and domestic chicken. South Asia is home to several species. The Jatakas are a vast collection of stories dealing with ethics and human behaviour. Revolving around the former lives of the Buddha, they are simple, yet beautifully crafted tales. Each one takes up an episode from the lives of a particular Bodhisattva (one of the many forms assumed by the Buddha during his previous births – supernatural being, nobleman, outcaste or even animal).

Apart from their fascinating insights into human psychology and morality, the Jatakas are a treasure trove of information with regard to the history, society and economy of ancient South Asia (going back to the 4th century BCE or even earlier). They reveal precious nuggets of information about the ancient cities, rural hinterlands and great forests of the subcontinent. Buddhism was an urban phenomenon but Buddhist monks and laity regularly encountered wild beasts, forest brigands and impenetrable woods on their sojourns from one town to another. No wonder then that the Jatakas have such a panoply of animal characters – fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Latukika Jataka (The Quail’s Friends)

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta came to life as a young elephant, and growing up a fine comely beast, he became the leader of the herd, with a following of eighty thousand elephants,  and dwelt in the Himalayas. At that time a quail laid her eggs in the feeding-ground of the elephants. When the eggs were ready to be hatched, the young birds broke the shells and came out. Before their wings had grown, and when they were still unable to fly, the Great Being with his following of eighty thousand elephants, in ranging about for food, came to this spot. On seeing them the quail thought, “This royal elephant will trample on my young ones and kill them. Lo! I will implore his righteous protection for the defence of my brood.” Then she raised her two wings and standing before him repeated the first stanza:

Elephant of sixty years,
Forest lord amongst thy peers,
I am but a puny bird,
Thou a leader of the herd;
With my wings I homage pay,
Spare my little ones, I pray.

The Great Being said, ” O quail, be not troubled. I will protect thy offspring.” And standing over the young birds, while the eighty thousand elephants passed by, he thus addressed the quail: “Behind us comes a solitary rogue elephant. He will not do our bidding. When he comes, do thou entreat him too, and so ensure the safety of thy offspring.” And with these words he made off. And the quail went forth to meet the other elephant, and with both wings uplifted, making respectful salutation, she spoke the second stanza:

Roaming over hill and dale,
Cherishing thy lonely way,
Thee, forst king, I hail.
I am but a wretched quail,
Spare my tender brood to slay

On hearing her words, the elephant spoke the third stanza:

I will slay thy young ones, quail;
What can thy poor help avail ?
My left foot can crush with ease
Many thousand birds like these.

And so saying, with his foot he crushed the young birds to atoms, and staling over them washed them away in a flood of water, and went off loudly trumpeting. The quail sat down on a bough of a tree and said, “Then be off with you and trumpet away. You shall very soon see what I will do. You little know what a difference there is between strength of body and strength of mind. Well! I will teach you this lesson.” And thus threatening him she repeated the fourth stanza:

Power abused is not all gain,
Power is often folly’s bane.
Beast that didst my young ones kill,
I will work thee mischief still.

And so saying, shortly afterwards she did a good turn to a crow, and when the crow, who was highly pleased, asked, “What can I do for you ?” the quail said, “There is nothing else, Sir, to be done, but I shall expect you to strike with your beak and to peck out the eyes of this rogue elephant.” The crow readily assented, and the quail then did a service to a blue fly, and when the fly asked, “What can I do for you?” she said, “When the eyes of this rogue elephant have been put out by the crow, then I want you to let fall a nit upon them.” The fly agreed, and then the quail did a kindness to a frog, and when the frog asked what it was to do, she said, ” When this rogue elephant becomes blind, and shall be searching for water to drink, then take your stand and utter a croak on the top of a mountain, and when he has climbed to the top, come down and croak again at the bottom of the precipice. This much I shall look for at your hands.” After hearing what the quail said, the frog readily assented.

So one day the crow with its beak pecked out both the eyes of the elephant, and the fly dropped its eggs upon them, and the elephant being eaten up with maggots was maddened by the pain, and overcome with thirst wandered about seeking for water to drink. At this moment the frog standing on the top of a mountain uttered a croak. Thought the elephant, “There must be water there,” and climbed up the mountain. Then the frog descended, and standing at the bottom croaked again. The elephant thought, “There will be water there,” and moved forward towards the precipice, and rolling over fell to the bottom of the mountain and was killed. When the quail knew that the elephant was dead, she said, ” I have seen the back of mine enemy,” and in a high state of delight strutted over his body, and passed away to fare according to her deeds.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and shows an illustration of  the Jungle Bush Quail from ‘The Birds of Asia (John Gould), Volume 7’ (published between 1850 and 1883). The book was produced by the famous ornithologist John Gould in collaboration with illustrator Henry Constantine Richter (both Englishmen).