Sunday, 8 January 2012
The Centipede and the Dragon Princess
(An Alternate Version of Rice-bag Toda (Tawara Toda)
Once upon a time a warrior called Fujiwara no Hidesato was crossing the Seta Bridge at Lake Biwa. Suddenly a monstrous serpent appeared and lay across the roadway just ahead of him. The hero was not least bit perturbed and, shrugging his shoulders, calmly stepped over the giant snake and continued on his way. No sooner had Fujiwara passed than the serpent slid into the lake only to reappear again a few feet in front of him in the form of a beautiful woman, blocking his way.
Sporting an enchanting smile, she bowed to him in formal greeting and said, “For two thousand years sir, it’s been my unfortunate fate to be kept away from my home, held prisoner under this bridge. In all that time, I have never before seen such a courageous man as you. It is for that reason that I dare ask this favour.” In a sorrowful voice she related her tragic story to the hero. She told him how once she’d been a Dragon Princess from a far away sea. Wanting to see more of the world, she had forsaken her safe home, snuck away and travelled far and wide. After many years, as she grew older and matured, she relented and wished to go back home but could no longer find her way no matter how hard she tried. Alone and forlorn, constrained to remain in human form, she had been fortunate enough to meet a brilliant scholar and married him.
For a time they lived happily with their three children, but then one unfortunate day a monstrous centipede emerged from a valley beyond the ridge of hills and, having spotted her, abducted her and hid her in a cave where no one could find her. While she was captive, the centipede had gone back and murdered her loving husband and children. Claiming the region around their old home and the river as his own, he’d brought her back to that precise spot and, from that time on, condemned her to the life of a captive slave. He used his power to endlessly torment her. She had made her home in the depths of the river, forsaking solid land as it had reminded her too much of what she had lost. Still she could not attain any solace. She was forced to give him whenever he wanted each time he came to call on her. She had been most miserable since then, powerless to escape the clutches of the trickster centipede. The few times she’d sought help from wandering warriors, or anyone courageous enough to be willing to help, it had ended disastrously. The monster, delighting in torture, had eaten each champion slowly and painfully in front of her.
“I have been most frank and now you know just what is at stake. Dare I hope for your help, for salvation from my nightmare?” She cupped her face in her hands and sobbed tragically. As he had not taken to his heels in fright and still hung about, she came to believe that he might be the one to save her and again implored the hero to do all he can to destroy the centipede and rescue her from this dire predicament.
Fujiwara was as compassionate as he was brave and he consented after only a very brief consideration. “Rest assured dear lady, I’ll do all I can within my power to help you.” he promised her. “Please go home to your place in the lake and await the results.”
That evening armed with a bow and arrow he planted his feet solidly in the centre of the bridge and waited patiently for the arrival of the centipede. It was a particularly cold night, cumulous clouds rode the sky, driven by strong winds that buffeted his sleeves and thrashed at his face. Often they hid the moon’s rays, leaving him in pitch darkness. Adding an ominous choir to this dramatic scene were the continuous cries of the wild beasts.
Suddenly from the top of Mt. Mikami, following in the wake of a flash of lightning, two enormous lights burst into the black sky. The vast blinding light, resembling two hundred lit torches, had suddenly turned night into day. It took Hidesato only an instant to recognise the two beams of light as the centipede’s eyes.
Unafraid, Hidesato sightlessly launched three consecutive arrows directly at the blinding lights. Being a great marksman, he hit his mark and the blinding lights were instantly snuffed out; the monster was no more.
The Dragon princess was overjoyed at the news of his decisive victory. Filled with gratitude, she invited Hidesato to be her guest for a time at her own Dragon abode. With her powers now at full capacity after the death of the centipede she was able to transform the simple dwelling into a palace more befitting a Dragon Princess. There she regaled him with music, tasty, delectable dishes and rewarded him with fine gifts: a roll of fine silk, a temple bell, a sword and armour, as well as a tawara bag of rice. She told him in no uncertain terms that these were magical items; that the silk roll, no matter how much he cut from it, would not diminish in size, nor would the bag of rice ever empty no matter how many scoops he took from it, and that the magic would last as long as he lived.
Hidesato returned home and lived comfortably till a ripe old age. At one point, he did come to know how the Dragon Princess, with her continually growing powers, had eventually attained her ultimate goal of returning home. She was eventually reunited with her parents, who forgave her after learning of all that she’d gone through, had married another dragon and they both lived happily ever after.
Before the end of his life Hidesato saw fit to donate the bell to Mii-dera temple at Mount Hiei. Unfortunately it was stolen by a priest from rival Enryaku-ji temple. When the bell spoke to the culprit priest he took fright and threw the bell over a cliff and into a valley. The long drop and the landing on hard rock made a long crack appear in the side of the bell. Eventually when the cracked bell was returned to Mii-dera a small snake, perhaps an offspring of the Dragon Princess, used his tail to repair the damage. She was known to visit the lake from time to time, to pay homage to her late human husband and deceased children, whom she’d never forgotten.
Note: In another version of the story, set during the Genpei War, when Hidesato encounters the Dragon Snake on the bridge it is transformed, instead of a beautiful woman, into a “strange small man” instead, who was none other than the Dragon King himself. There is a Shinto shrine near the Seta Bridge at Lake Biwa where, even to date, people worship Tawara Toda, “Rice-bag Toda”.