(Last Updated on : 29-03-2010)
The district of Lahaul-Spiti forms part of the state of Himachal Pradesh. It is a high altitude desert where vegetation is limited. Most people living in Lahaul-Spiti are shepherds belong to the Gaddi tribe. During summer they graze their flocks on the mountain slopes of the district. But before the onset of winter, they move down to the lower hills of Kullu. People who do stay on during winter are confined to their homes. And that is when they spin wool and weave or knit shawls and other woollen garments. They also while away their time telling stories. The Stone Lion is one such story.
The Stone Lion is said to be hundred years old. Among the high mountains of Lahaul-Spiti there was a small village. It can very well be called a village. But in truth it was no more than a cluster of five or six huts tucked away in the fold of a hill. One can call it a hamlet. One of these huts stood apart from the others and in this hut lived a boy called Ranchen.
Ranchen lived alone as he was an orphan. But Ranchen was by nature a very jovial boy. Slender, brown and merry-eyed, he was also possessed a rich voice. As he walked up and down the mountain paths, Ranchen sang aloud, for it brought him great happiness. People loved to hear him sing because it made them happy too. But there was one person who did not like to hear him sing and that was Wangu. He was the oldest man in the village. Wangu was quite the opposite could not bear to see anyone happy. All he wanted was more money, more land and more sheep to his flock. The people in the hamlet also did not like Wangu.
The people in Ranchen's village were known as Gaddis. They were shepherds and earned their living by rearing sheep. Ranchen also owned a flock of sheep, some thirty in number. Ranchen sold the wool from his sheep. Sometimes, when he needed more money, he also sold a sheep. He had enough of sattu (roasted and pounded grain) to eat, two warm woollen tunics to wear and a roof over his head. Ranchen did not desire more than this. Early in the morning he took his sheep out to graze. Well before dark he would come back home. Locking up his sheep for the night, he ate his sattu, sat around humming for a while and finally fell asleep. It was a simple, hard life without any comforts but Ranchen was perfectly contented with his lot.
Ranchen always took his sheep out to graze in a pasture near his village. One day he thought that the grass on that pasture has become very sparse and his sheep remained hungry. For that he needed to find another pasture.
The following day Ranchen woke up very early. He took his staff and enough sattu for his midday meal. Then he called out to his sheep. Singing at the top of his voice as he led his sheep, Ranchen set out.
After walking for about an hour, Ranchen climbed a hill. And right there before him lay a deep valley. Here and there in the valley were remnants of a broken stonewall. They seemed to be part of an old palace that had once stood there. The walls were surrounded by grass, so lush and green that Ranchen was thrilled at the sight. He had successfully found a new pasture for his sheep.
Ranchen left his sheep to graze there and began to roam around. When it was time to have his midday meal, he climbed up one side of the valley from where he could keep an eye on his sheep. He was looking for a suitable place to sit when something caught his eye. A few paces away, on an outcrop of yellowish rock, stood a lion. It had been carved out of the rock but it had been done so well that it looked real. Its mouth was closed but the eyes were wide open. It seemed that the lion was the guard of the valley and had kept watch over it for hundreds of years.
Ranchen was a friendly boy. He loved talking to people. He went and sat near the lion and started to talk to him. He offered the stone lion his friendship. But as it was a stone lion it said nothing. But without paying heed to this fact Ranchen went on to introduce himself to his new found friend. He told the stone lion everything about himself, where he lived, how he had lost his parents, and how he reared sheep to earn his living. When the story was over, Ranchen put an arm around the lion offered him the sattu that he had bought.
Ranchen opened his bundle of 'sattu' and placed a little before the lion. Then he ate his own share and went down the hill to mind his sheep. Well before sundown he took leave of the lion, herded his sheep together and left for his village.
Ranchen was very pleased with himself. He had not only found a pasture for his sheep, he had also found a new friend. Now he went to the valley every day. While his sheep grazed their fill, Ranchen sat near the stone lion and chatted to his heart's content. When it was time to eat, Ranchen shared his sattu with the lion. He knew it was the birds who ate the sattu and not the lion. But it gave him great satisfaction to know that he had shared with his friend. At the end of the day, Ranchen took leave of the lion and went back home, singing all the way.
Three or four months went by in this manner and then the weather began to change. The sun no longer felt so warm and the nights were much colder. Winter was coming. And winter in Lahaul-Spiti was very harsh. So everyone in Ranchen's village was getting ready to go down to the lower hills of Kullu valley. All the villagers went together, their sheep in one large flock, for there was safety in numbers. Together they could fight the dangers on the way-robbers, snowstorms and wild animals. They spent the long nights together, huddled around a fire, somewhere on a mountainside. One man kept watch while the others snatched some sleep. Ranchen did not wish to be parted from his newfound friend, the stone lion but he knew the importance of going down to the Kullu valley with the others. Finally he made up his mind to go.
The following morning Ranchen went to see the stone lion. He told him that he was going to the Kullu valley. He must go there or else he and his will freeze to death. He even asked the lion if he would miss him. To Ranchen's utter amazement, the lion opened its mouth and replied that he would miss Ranchen very much. He also informed that in few days time he would leave and before going away forever he wanted to give him a little gift.
Out of his modesty Ranchen protested saying that he had every possible thing that he needed which included a flock of sheep, a home to live in and my fill of sattu everyday. He did not wish for anything else.
But the lion insisted that Ranchen returned to him the next morning as soon as the eastern sky begins to turn light and brings a bag with him. On coming there Ranchen would find the mouth of the stone lion open. He would have to thrust his hand in and fill your bag with whatever he finds inside the lion's mouth. But that needed to be done before sunrise. As soon as the sun peeps over those hills, his mouth will close.
Ranchen laughed and asked what the lion was going to give him. But the lion's mouth had snapped shut and Ranchen had no choice but to collect his sheep and go back home.
Early next morning Ranchen was fast asleep when a rook flew over his hut and called. Ranchen shot up in bed, suddenly wide awake. He threw off his quilt and ran to the window. The eastern sky had just begun to turn light. His friend would be waiting.
Ranchen ran all the way and arrived at the valley completely out of breath. The stone lion was waiting. On seeing Ranchen he enquired about the bag. Ranchen drew his breath in sharply and answered that he has completely forgotten about the bag but he has his cap.
He took off his cap and without a moment's hesitation, thrust his hand into the lion's mouth. When he withdrew his hand, it was full of gold nuggets. Just then the sun cleared the edge of the tallest hill and the lion's mouth shut tight. Ranchen thanked the lion. Covering the cap with one hand, he went back home as happy as he could be.
Ranchen had almost reached his village when he ran into old Wangu who was taking his sheep out to graze. Wangu squarely blocked Ranchen's path and started to question him about his whereabouts. He pushed Ranchen's hand away roughly. The gold nuggets dazzled Wangu's eyes, but only for a moment. He leapt at Ranchen and grabbed him by the neck. He charged Ranchen with robbery and asked him about the gold. Wangu threatened Ranchen to take him to the village headman if he did not tell him.
At the very mention of the headman, Ranchen got scared. And out came the whole story. He even showed Wangu the way to the valley of the stone lion. Wangu was delighted. As soon as Ranchen began to pack his belongings to go down to Kullu, Wangu began his visits to the valley.
Wangu went every day. And he always carried delicacies for the stone lion like a bowl of yak butter, as white as freshly fallen snow. Or a jar of clear, golden honey gathered from the hives of rock bees. He took freshly roasted, hand-pounded sattu and a leather bottle full of rich, creamy milk. He took all these things, placed them before the lion, bowed with folded hands and stood on one side. He would often invoke the lion and entreat him to accept the offerings. Wangu asked the stone lion to forgive him for his foolishness and ignorance, as he had not paid his obeisance earlier.
Sometimes Wangu took a fan made of yak's tail and stood beside j the lion, fanning away flits and insects. And he talked incessantly, trying to please the lion with flattery. But the stone lion never opened his mouth for Wangu.
This went on for a week or more. The weather was becoming colder by the day and the villagers had left with their flocks. But Wangu stuck on. His family begged of him to accompany them to Kullu but he refused, and in the end they left without him. Now Wangu was alone. As grey clouds gathered in the sky, he began to get desperate. Now he started to doubt the truth of the whole story that Ranchen had told him. Yet he went on with his endeavors.
But finally Wangu's patience was rewarded. One day he placed a bowl of porridge before the lion and started to pray to him as usual. The stone lion spoke once more. He thanked Wangu for his services and asked him to come the next morning. It repeated the same instructions that it has given to Ranchen
Wangu went home dancing for joy. He rummaged around and found a stout bag, used for storing grain. He cleaned and dusted the bag. That night he went to bed with the bag beside him but he was too excited to sleep. When the night was far gone Wangu thought that if he goes earlier than dawn then he can gather more gold nuggets. He set out right then.
It must have been around four in the morning when Wangu set out for the valley. He wore a thick woollen cloak and a cap that covered everything save his eyes. In one hand he carried a staff, in the other a lantern. The bag hung from one shoulder. An icy wind was blowing down the mountain and the sky was overcast. But Wangu was sure of the way. After all, he had been born among these very hills and had spent his entire life there.
For some time he continued in the right direction. And then suddenly he stubbed his foot against a rock. Wangu stumbled and rolled down the hill. He was not hurt but his lantern was smashed to pieces. The night was draped in darkness. Wangu walked and walked but without the lantern he could not find his way again. When day dawned he had wandered far, far away from the valley of the stone lion and was hopelessly lost. To this day, nobody knows what happened to Wangu.