Origin Of The Tiger#

(A Khmer Folk Tale)

retold by Toni Shapiro

A long time ago, there lived a great king who ruled over a rich Kingdom. He had a wise and beautiful Queen, four Chief Ministers, a Royal Astrologer, who always helped the king make decisions, and a whole class of Mandarins and great Officials to perform all the honors for the king.

But unfortunately, neither the King, nor the four chief Ministers knew anything of magic practices, which were so necessary for victory in battle. Because of this the king was very worried about his kingdom. As he got older, he worried that if an army should invade his Kingdom, it might be easily overrun.

One day, early in the morning, the King, accompanied by the Queen, went to his Throne Room. The Royal Astrologer, all the Mandarins and Officials, and the four Chief Ministers were prostrated for the Royal Audience. It was then that the King formed the idea of going to learn magic with a great and famous teacher called Tisabamokkha, who lived in the far-off kingdom of Takkasila. There they found Tisabamokkha and asked him to instruct them in magic, which the great teacher did.

So the King and his whole retinue were taught magic practices. They learned how to change themselves easily into all kinds of animals and heavenly beings.

When they had learned all that their teacher could tell them, the King decided it was time to return to their own Kingdom. He set out on his journey again accompanied by the Queen, the Royal Astrologer and the four Chief Ministers. After they had traveled for three whole days from Takkasila, they got lost in a huge forest. They had eaten all the food they had brought with them and they began to eat all the roots and berries they could find. The king began to worry that perhaps he would die so he called all the other members of the group together. "Our end may be near because we have no food to keep us alive, what should we do?" The Royal Astrologer suggested to the king "perhaps we should use the magic which we learned to turn ourselves into a tiger, then we could catch other animals to eat. We could wait until we got back to our own Kingdom to turn ourselves back into humans again. The other members of the group all agreed with the Astrologer's idea. Which part of the tiger's body do you each wish to be?" the king asked. The four Chief Ministers wanted to turn into the four legs of the tiger, the Astrologer into the tiger's tail and the Queen into the tiger's body. The tiger's head was left for the king himself.

So they all recited the magic formulae to transform their bodies and . . . there stood a Royal Tiger. Soon the Tiger felt quite hungry and bounded off to catch deer and antelope to eat. After a time, the Tiger was so happy that he forgot to return to his own Kingdom. He did not regret his wonderful new life.

This is how there came to be tigers in the world which are stronger than any other animals. When the tiger goes off to hunt for his prey, the tail, waving from side to side and guiding him on is the Royal Astrologer; the supple, pliant body is the Queen, that wise woman; the four strong feet of the tiger, with their sharp claws, are the four Chief Ministers; and the head, awesome and majestic as it looks around, is the King greater and more powerful than all the other kings.

"The Origin of the Tiger" in Cultural Context

The word Tisabamokkha is a word of Pali origin, which means "great teacher." Also Takkasila is a district in north-west India. The use of such words shows the Indian influence in Cambodia.

This story is a famous Cambodian folktale because it explains the origin of the tiger and also emphasizes the idea that people must cooperate together for the common good. However, it is also meant to teach the audience that people should not turn their backs on their country or community when they experience increased wealth or great happiness. Many Cambodian proverbs warn people not to forget their responsibilities. In this tale, the King and his entourage originally wanted to help the people of the kingdom. However, in their excitement of being able to transform themselves into tigers they forgot the original reason that they wanted to learn such powerful magic, which was to assist the people of the Kingdom.'