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Dark tales of cannibalism are scattered across the South Asian region and can be traced from popular love stories to the Buddhist Jataka Tales.

In two popular romances they take the form of sacrifice. In the Sohni and Mahiwal story, Mahiwal roasts flesh from his thigh to feed Sohni when he is unable to catch her any fish. In Muree and Mongthar’s tale from Sindh, Mongthar is unable to hunt anything for his beloved, and cuts off a piece of his thigh and cooks and feeds it to Muree. It bears remembering that later Muree is taken with another man and kills Mongthar to become free of him, figuratively cannibalizing him whole.

In the folk tale of King Lal Malook from Sindh, cannibalism is hinted at as a phenomenon of necessity, with the protagonist’s parents planning to eat him to survive during a famine. They are unable to carry out their plans as the child is taken away by a lioness who raises him as her own. The human child escaping his parents to find refuge with a wild beast thus becomes a commentary on the ephemeral nature of human bonds.

The Jatakas give us the legend of King Jayaddisa, whose stepmother turns into an ogress. She eats his brothers, and raises one of them as a cannibal and ogre who one day confronts Jayaddisa as his predator. The story has features in common with another Jataka tale, the legend of King Brahmadatta of Benares, who turns into a cannibal by unwittingly eating human flesh. Ultimately both characters recover from their degenerate state and are redeemed.

The story of Shri Badat, the last Buddhist king of Gilgit, explores the same dark theme, but differs from other tales of cannibalism in one fundamental aspect.

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Shri Badat was the despotic ruler of Gilgit who had levied the tax of a daily sheep on his subjects. One day he found the meat tastier than usual. The owner of the sheep was investigated and Shri Badat learnt that the sheep cooked for him had been nursed on human milk. It occurred to him that if an animal nursed on human milk could be so tasty, a human being would be even tastier to eat. From that day, instead of demanding a sheep from his subjects, Shri Badat demanded that a human child be offered him, to be cooked in his kitchen and served him. His subjects were in an uproar at the monstrous edict but Shri Badat had mysterious magical powers and none could defeat him.

One day three fairy-born princes landed in his kingdom. One of them, named Azur Jamshed, stayed behind, and fell in love with Shri Badat’s daughter Miyo Khai. The two of them got married in secret.

The people of Gilgit were already planning a revolt against Shri Badat’s despotic rule. They knew that because of his magical powers he could not be killed by ordinary means. They sought Miyo Khai’s help, and she and her husband planned together to topple Shri Badat.

One day Miyo Khai asked Shri Badat to tell her the secret of his invincibility. At first he would not, but when she persisted, Shri Badat revealed to her that he was born of a demon and was proof against all attempts to kill him but one. Only heat could kill him, as his heart—or his soul, as recorded in other versions of the legend—was made of butter.

Miyo Khai communicated this secret to Azur Jamshed, who finalized the plan with the people of Gilgit. On the appointed night they surrounded Shri Badat’s castle carrying burning torches, and lit up fires around his palace. As his soul became increasingly restless, Shri Badat broke the fiery cordon and flew away to escape his enemies.

He arrived parched with thirst in a field where a farmer was working in a vineyard, and demanded water of him. But the farmer offered him a cup of wine instead. As nobody would give him water, Shri Badat cursed the people and the region, and flew away.

It is said that Shri Badat hid under a glacier, where he remains to this day, and will one day return to rule Gilgit with an iron hand. Prince Azur Jamshed and Miyo Khai later claimed the Gilgit throne, but the region Shri Badat had cursed was doomed and no longer yielded fruit.

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What sets apart this legend from other tales of cannibalism is that Shri Badat is not redeemed and does not die at the end, but goes into occultation, which is an attribute of saints, holy men, and messiahs who will one day return to restore a certain order. His legend thus elevates cannibalism to a sacred act, investing one who indulged in it with occult and holy powers.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF

This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.

Also Read | Musharraf’s previous lounge columns

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