Shri Badat The Cannibal King:
by John Mock, Ph.D.
A Buddhist Jataka from Gilgit
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
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
The last ruler [of Gilgit] reputed to have been a Hindu was Sri Badat;
was a real person, but has become legendary on account of his reputed cannibalism. (Schomberg
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.