John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

Shri Badat The Cannibal King:
A Buddhist Jataka from Gilgit

by John Mock, Ph.D.


In proposing a new interpretation of a legend from the town of Gilgit in northern Pakistan, this paper makes three central points. First, positing a historical specificity for legends is often neither relevant nor valid. Second, the reasons why folklore is meaningful to people in a specific locale should be sought within the local context. Third, analysis of the morphology of such material provides a methodology for opening it to a broader interpretation. Interpreting the Shri Badat legend as folklore enables us to ask a new and interesting set of questions about Gilgit and Hunza, both past and present. Further, seeking a historical identity for the cannibal king obscures the interesting relations between the legend and remarkably similar folklore in wide circulation throughout the mountain regions of South and Central Asia.

Shri Badat The Cannibal King

A few weeks ago, I was sitting with some Hunzakutz friends in Gilgit. We were commiserating about the irregularity of PIA plane service to Gilgit, when one of them said, "You know, it is because of Shri Badat that the runway is not being lengthened for jet service". Startled to hear Shri Badat's name invoked in this context, I asked him to please explain. "Well, you see," he replied, "The land at the end of the runway, on the other side of the Jutial road, is the site of Shri Badat's fort. He does not want the runway to pave over his home, so it is because of this that the runway cannot be extended".

So the legend of Shri Badat, the Cannibal King of Gilgit, is alive even today. Who is or was Shri Badat? Why is his legend important in Gilgit and Hunza?

Dr. G.W. Leitner, in 1866, was the first European to record the story of Shri Badat, which he published in 1877 as "The Historical Legend of the Origin of Ghilghit". He noted that, "the legend … which chronicles the … rise of Ghilghit … is not devoid of interest either from an historical or a purely literary point of view". (Leitner 1877 III:6)

Leitner seems to have considered the legend a mixture of fact and fiction, as evidenced by his title and by his reference to both "historical" and "purely literary" points of view. Yet it was the historical point of view that drew the attention of those who came after Leitner.

Captain H.C. Marsh visited Gilgit in 1875 where he heard the legend of "a former Raja by name of Shirbudut" (Marsh 1876:128).

Major John Biddulph, the first in a succession of British Political Agents to reside in Gilgit, published "Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh" in which he asserted:

In spite of the supernatural attributes now assigned to him, there can be no doubt that Shiri Buddutt was a real personage; the term Shiri is doubtless the title of respect still given to Hindu princes. (Biddulph 1880:134)

In 1905, Munshi Ghulam Muhammad, Chief Clerk of the Political Office in Gilgit, continued the focus on a historical identity, publishing a version of the Shri Badat story as "Historical Folklore" (Muhammad 1905:114-115).

H.L. Haughton, a British officer visiting Gilgit in 1913, followed precedent in presenting another version as historical legend. (Haughton 1913: 178-179, 184-191)

Colonel Reginald Schomberg, who visited some 20 years after Haughton, commented that:

The last ruler [of Gilgit] reputed to have been a Hindu was Sri Badat; … he was a real person, but has become legendary on account of his reputed cannibalism. (Schomberg 1936:249)

Colonel David Lorimer published a version sent to him in writing by Muhammad Ghani Khan, the son of the Mir of Hunza, which placed Shri Badat at the head of the genealogy of the Mirs of Hunza. (Lorimer 1935:376-389)

John Clark, while staying with the Mir of Hunza, heard a version of the Shri Badat legend, which was described to him as "the traditional song of our [the Mir's] dynasty … our history". (Clark 1956:175)

Professor A.H. Dani is the latest in the series of those who focus on a historical reality underlying the legend. Professor Dani has refined the historical point of view, writing:

Local traditions agree about the name of the last Buddhist ruler of Gilgit. They all call him Sri Badad or Sri Badat. … This traditional history sounds more romantic than real. However, it is possible to make sense out of it in the light of other historical evidence. In the traditional name Bagartham [the name given for Shri Badat's grandfather in one version] one could recognize Bagra or Vajra. The word "Tham" is certainly "Thum", which, in the local language, means "a ruler". Thus the two names Bagartham and Vajraditya appear to be one and the same. … The last ruler, according to the Hunza Rock Inscription, was Chandra Sri Deva Vikramaditya. He should be identified with Sri Badad. The last known date of this ruler, according to inscriptions, is AD 749. (Dani 1989:163-164)

Indological scholarship has long held central the search for historical origins. Proto-languages, origins of peoples, and ur-texts are some of the concerns of this scholarship. However, the results obtained from "attempts to discover the representation of some historical reality" (Goldman 1984:26) behind tales, legends, and epics should be examined carefully. The historical specificity obtained through such exercises may hold a significance for scholars quite apart from the significance the legends have for the people who tell them. Apart from the ethnocentrism of such studies, they do little to increase understanding of the development of the social reality and worldview of the people whose legends they are. Moreover, the sometimes disastrous results of the combination of these two separate significations should caution us about attempts to posit a historical specificity for the figures of legend. As an example of this volatile combination, we need only look at the historicization of the epic of Rama and the resulting violent conflict over the contested physical space in Ayodhya. Such examples lead us to reexamine scholarship's historicizing tendencies and consider whether the positing of a historical reality behind legends and epics perhaps obscures as much, if not more, than it reveals.

As an alternative interpretive strategy, some scholars have turned to psychology. I have heard Shri Badat's cannibalism interpreted as a case of the "demonization" of past history in order to validate a new social order. That is, Shri Badat, as the last Buddhist king of Gilgit, has been turned into a tyrant and a cannibal in order to discredit Buddhism by demonizing the previously sacred. This interpretation, however, still retains the central notion of the historicity of the legend, a suspect notion as I have argued above. Furthermore, legends just don't behave in this way. Legends are legends in part because they persist. The basic structure of a legend is not inverted 180 degrees by the winds of change of human affairs. As a case in point, we do not find a demonization of Rama in Muslim Malaysia. Folklore does not readily permit its morphology to be completely restructured. The interpretation may vary, but the morphology stays the same.

So, if we are to abandon the historical interpretation of Shri Badat and cut it loose from the moorings of historicity, where are we to place this intriguing legend? How should we understand it? I believe the answer to this question lies in understanding how the "folk" themselves understand it.

It is widely observed that legends help people understand their own history. Hence people often interpret their legends in historicizing ways (Pollock 1991:71). So, we find the people of Hunza interpreting Shri Badat as the original legend of their ruler's lineage. Oral epics and legends "derive much of their meaning from intense engagement with the conditions of social and political existence" (Pollock 1986:14). In Hunza, the genealogies of regicide, parricide and fratricide accord with what we know about recent succession history (Biddulph 1880:134-143, Mueller-Stellrecht 1981:52-53) and the Shri Badat legend as told in Hunza supports this condition of political existence there. We should also note that the legendary hero who married Shri Badat's daughter and founded the line of Hunza Mirs (Biddulph 1880:135) was no mere human, but a "fairy-born" prince, who descended to earth from another realm. The rulers of Hunza were ascribed magical powers and held to be "sky-born" (Ayesho in the local language Burushashki) like the hero who routed Shri Badat. The celebration in song and ceremony (Clark 1956:175) of the overthrow of Shri Badat by his own daughter and her sky-born husband forms a narrative about kingly power and its legitimate usage. Because of this significance, the legend finds a place in Hunza history as a validation of social and political conditions. John Clark shows us the legend being sung in the royal assembly, its singing patronized by the ruler, and the ruler sponsoring the tumshiling festival which reenacts the legend (Clark 1956:175).

While discussing this interpretation with Hunzakutz friends, I heard another Hunza interpretation of the Shri Badat legend and its connection with the tumshiling festival. In December, torches were lit in every household and carried to a central place, where they were thrown together to form a bonfire. Just as torches were piled around Shri Badat's fort to melt his soul/heart of butter, Hunza people would reenact the overthrow of Shri Badat through tumshiling. (Although tumshiling is not practiced presently, it is in the living memory of 30-year-olds.) When, my friends told me, infant mortality rises in Hunza, people say that the soul of Shri Badat is rising, and figuratively "eating" the infants. In such years, the tumshiling would be celebrated more vigourously, in order to put down the soul of Shri Badat.

From looking at how the legend engages with social and political existence, we begin to see that what is interesting about the legend is not a postulated historicity at its core, but how the elements of plot and theme, the "motiphemes", as Alan Dundes has termed them (Dundes 1962), work together to signify a social reality for the people whose story it is.

Rather than working to confine the legend to a specific historical location by stripping it of its morphological texture, we can open it up to a broader significance. This is a far more interesting pursuit, for motifs, themes, and structural relationships between characters "participate in an international network" (Ramanujan 1992:6), traveling widely through repeated telling.

Using the well known Aarne-Thomson tale type index, we find the legend of Shri Badat to be a particular instance of a well-known genre - a princess rescued from an ogre by a hero. It is classified as AT tale type # 302 (Aarne & Thompson 1961:93-94). This tale type is common in Europe, India and China. It is also known in Persia, though it does not occur as frequently as in India or China. The fact that the princess of the Gilgit version is the ogre's daughter, marks the Shri Badat legend as a distinct Indic variant (Thompson & Roberts 1960:46).

Hence, we can state that the morphological elements of motif, theme and the identity of and relationships between the main characters are not unique to the Gilgit legend. What we find in using the tale type indexes are numerous examples of multiple existence and variation. This helps us to confirm that we are not dealing with history, but with folklore. Of course, even on the local, very specific level, we also find this multiple existence and variation. We have at least six versions of the Shri Badat legend for Gilgit and Hunza, and Rohit Vohra informs us of a version in the Nubra valley of Ladakh (Vohra 1985:248).

It is ironic that the one motif which for Biddulph and Schomberg obscured the historicity they sought in the Shri Badat legend turns out to reveal a most interesting broader significance of the legend. I am referring to Shri Badat's distinguishing characteristic, his cannibalism. This is a motif in wide circulation, especially in South Asia. Of course, for demons, ogres, or Rakshasas, by whichever term we know them, humans have always been their main meal. But what is food for demons is not an acceptable meal for humans, and especially for kings. When we search for this particular motif, "Taste of Human Flesh leads to Habitual Cannibalism", classified as motif G 36.2 in the Thompson and Balys South Asian motif index (Thompson & Balys 1958:203), we are led to a very interesting Pali Jataka tale (Malalasekara II 1938:573). The striking structural congruence between the Jataka tale and the Shri Badat legend points to a more fundamental unity between them.

In the Jataka, we find one Brahmadatta, King of Benares, just as Shri Badat was king in Gilgit. As Shri Badat is a demon in his present life, Brahmadatta was a demon in a previous life. Brahmadatta unknowingly tastes human flesh, and so, like Shri Badat, accidentally develops his cannibal habit. Brahmadatta becomes a tyrant, like Shri Badat, demanding a daily human sacrifice to meet his desire for human meat. Like Shri Badat, Brahmadatta's cannibalism revolts the people, leads to an uprising, and he is driven out of his kingdom.

Brahmadatta, as it turns out, was not a historical figure either. Rather, this was the name of a whole line of kings (Eck 1982:54). Stories about King Brahmadatta appear in the Kathasaritasagara, the Kashmiri Ocean of Story (Towney 1923), and many Jataka tales begin with the stock phrase "When Brahmadatta reigned at Benaras." (Morris 1884)

No one, as far as I am aware, has noticed the remarkable structural congruence between Shri Badat's story and Brahmadatta's story. Given the known previous existence of Buddhism in Gilgit, it seems not unreasonable to assume that the Gilgit legend is a local version of a widely known South Asian tale that came to Gilgit in the form of the Jataka tale. My assumption of some unity between the two tales, implicit in their structural congruence, can be made more explicit through the congruence of the names of the two kings. The phonological derivation of the name Badat from Brahmadatta is more plausible than the complex phonological and semantic derivation of Badat from Vikramaditya via Vajraditya and Bagarthum proposed by Professor Dani.

What this evidence suggests is that we can dispense with a specific historical interpretation of Shri Badat and posit instead that the legend is a local version of a widely known South Asian tale. We find the tale preserved as a Buddhist Jataka tale and as a legend in Gilgit. The Jataka tale should not be regarded as the original source of the legend, but rather as another version of a very common, very old story. The Jataka version is an adaption and interpretation to suit a didactic religious purpose. Rather than limiting the legend to an externally imposed meaning, this approach enables us to focus on what the legend might signify in the worldview of the people who regard the legend as their own story. The king in the Jataka tale is a cannibal and the story of the cannibal king existed even during the heyday of Buddhism in Gilgit. I suggest that Shri Badat never existed except in popular folklore just as Brahmadatta in Benares never existed as an individual king.

Once we place the Shri Badat legend within the field of folklore, we can, through morphological analysis, explore the extent to which this particular legend participates in a broader circulation. The story of the King's cannibalism forms one part of the story, and the story of the hero who triumphs over the demon king forms another part. The two parts usually occur together. When we look at the story of the hero, of Azur Jamsher and how he overthrows Shri Badat, we note the many parallels of motif, theme and character with an epic in wide circulation in the Karakoram and the Himalaya, including northern Pakistan. This is the epic of Gesar or Kisar. In the Demon of the North (bDud 'dul in Tibetan) episode, Kisar kills a cannibal demon with the help of the demon's daughter. She reveals to him the way in which her father can be killed, just as Shri Badat's daughter reveals her father's secret to the young hero.

In an earlier Kisar episode, the Heaven (Lha gling in Tibetan) episode, Kisar is the youngest of three brothers. He enters into an archery contest with his two elder brothers, wins, but is tricked into descending to earth by his brothers, just as in the Shri Badat legend, Azur outdoes his two elder brothers in archery but is then tricked by them into remaining on earth while they return to their home in the sky.

And here I must also briefly mention a Werchikwar text collected by Lorimer, titled "The King Who Had Two Wives" (Lorimer 1962:322-337). This previously unnoticed tale also contains these precise elements of motif, plot, and character relationships as found in both the Kisar epic and the legend of Shri Badat's overthrow by Azur Jamsher.

The fact that these three narratives from the Gilgit-Hunza area all share the same plot, theme, and structural relationships between characters points to a shared typology of folklore for the high mountain regions of South and Central Asia. But, here I enter into the topic of a separate study on the nature of the hero in Gilgit-Hunza and Central Asian oral narratives, so I must stop with just pointing out these most interesting parallels.

To conclude, I suggest that we should seek the significance of folklore from within the context in which it is told. The significance can, and does, in this case, vary depending on the interpretive frame and social reality being validated. The Shri Badat tale may originally have had a didactic significance as preserved in the Jataka Brahmadatta version. In Gilgit now, in that the usurper is ascribed a Muslim identity, the legend finds significance as an allegory of the change from Buddhism/Hinduism to Islam and is functioning as "symbolic language" (Ramanujan 1992:2) by which to generate a new social order. In Hunza, the hero's role has significance as a narrative about kingly power and the limits of its legitimate use, and the hero is principally identified as the founder of the Mir dynasty.

Yet in every version, from every place and time, we find the king was always a cannibal. The hero was always a bringer of truth. Whether the hero is a sky-born prince, a Buddhist or a Muslim depends on how the teller wishes to tell the legend and what social order is being validated. The legend remains the same; it is the context of interpretations that changes and so changes the meaning of the legend.

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