Here’s an unusual folktale from Kashmir, a region in the far north of South Asia, nestled among the mighty Himalayas. Sourced from J. Hinton Knowles’ ‘Folk-Tales of Kashmir’, it speaks of a cat that was married to a prince, and turned into a beautiful princess by the Hindu deities, Shiva and Parvati. Shape-shifting usually has a darker aspect associated to it but this particular story is entirely domestic and placid.
The Cat Who Became a Queen
“Ah me! Ah me! What availeth my marriage with all these women? Never a son has the Deity vouchsafed me. Must I die, and my name be altogether forgotten in the land?” Thus soliloquized one of the greatest monarchs that ever reigned in Kashmir, and then went to his zanána [the apartment where his wives lived], and threatened his numerous wives with banishment if they did not bear him a son within the next year.
The women prayed most earnestly to the god Shiva to help them to fulfil the king’s desire, and waited most anxiously for several months, hoping against hope, till at last they knew that it was all in vain, and that they must dissemble matters if they wished to remain in the royal household.
Accordingly, on an appointed time, word was sent to the king that one of his wives was enciente, and a little while afterwards the news was spread abroad that a little princess was born. But this, as we have said, was not so. Nothing of the kind had happened. The truth was, that a cat had given birth to a lot of kittens, one of which had been appropriated by the king’s wives.
When his majesty heard the news he was exceedingly glad, and ordered the child to be brought to him — a very natural request, which the king’s wives had anticipated, and therefore were quite prepared with a reply. “Go and tell the king,” said they to the messenger, “that the Brahmans have declared that the child must not be seen by her father until she is married.” Thus the matter was hushed for a time.
Constantly did the king inquire after his daughter, and received wonderful accounts of her beauty and cleverness; so that his joy was great. Of course he would like to have had a son, but since the Deity had not condescended to fulfil his desire, he comforted himself with the thought of marrying his daughter to some person worthy of her, and capable of ruling the country after him. Accordingly, at the proper time he commissioned his counselors to find a suitable match for his daughter. A clever, good, and handsome prince was soon found, and arrangements for the marriage were quickly concluded.
What were the king’s wives to do now? It was of no use for them to attempt to carry on their deceit any longer. The bridegroom would come and would wish to see his wife, and the king, too, would expect to see her. “Better,” said they, “that we send for this prince and reveal everything to him, and take our chance of the rest. Never mind the king. Some answer can be made to satisfy him for a while.”
So they sent for the prince and told him everything, having previously made him swear that he would keep the secret, and not reveal it even to his father or mother. The marriage was celebrated in grand style, as became such great and wealthy kings, and the king was easily prevailed on to allow the palanquin containing the bride to leave the palace without looking at her. The cat only was in the palanquin, which reached the prince’s country in safety. The prince took great care of the animal, which he kept locked up in his own private room, and would not allow anyone, not even his mother, to enter it.
One day, however, while the prince was away, his mother thought that she would go and speak to her daughter-in-law from outside the door. “O daughter-in-law,” she cried, “I am very sorry that you are shut up in this room and not permitted to see anybody. It must be very dull for you. However, I am going out today; so you can leave the room without fear of seeing anyone. Will you come out?”
The cat understood everything, and wept much, just like a human being. Oh those bitter tears! They pierced the mother’s heart, so that she determined to speak very strictly to her son on the matter as soon as he should return. They also reached the ears of Párvatí [the wife of Shiva], who at once went to her lord and entreated him to have mercy on the poor helpless cat.
“Tell her,” said Shiva, “to rub some oil over her fur, and she will became a beautiful woman. She will find the oil in the room where she now is.” Párvatí lost no time in disclosing this glad news to the cat, who quickly rubbed the oil over its body, and was changed into the most lovely woman that ever lived. But she left a little spot on one of her shoulders which remained covered with cat’s fur, lest her husband should suspect some trickery and deny her.
In the evening the prince returned and saw his beautiful wife, and was delighted. Then all anxiety as to what he should reply to his mother’s earnest solicitations fled. She had only to see the happy, smiling, beautiful bride to know that her fears were altogether needless.
In a few weeks the prince, accompanied by his wife, visited his father-in-law, who, of course, believed the princess to be his own daughter, and was glad beyond measure. His wives too rejoiced, because their prayer had been heard and their lives saved. In due time the king settled his country on the prince, who eventually ruled over both countries, his father’s and his father-in-law’s, and thus became the most illustrious and wealthy monarch in the world.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a painting of the Leopard Cat from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1871), and was uploaded by the Biodiversity Heritage Library.