Here is the expanded author note from my picture book Princess of India: An Ancient Tale (a reissue of Savitri: A Tale of Ancient India).—Aaron
The story of the princess Savitri is one of the best-known and best-loved tales of India. Traditionally, Hindu women celebrate an annual festival in Savitri’s honor to secure a long and happy married life.
The story is found in the Mahabharata (“MAH‑hah-BAR‑a‑ta”), one of the two great ancient epics of India’s Hindus. Appearing in Book 3, “The Book of the Forest,” the story is related as an instructive tale to Yudhisthira, one of the epic’s heroes, by the wise hermit Markandeya. It is one of many such independent tales woven into the epic.
The Mahabharata achieved its final written form around the time of Christ—but having originated in the oral tradition, it was by then already centuries old. The story of Savitri itself most likely started out as a folktale, long before its insertion in the epic. Then, with the rest of the epic, it underwent a number of changes and additions over the centuries.
In the epic’s final version, Savitri’s story shows vestiges of a number of historical periods with very different cultures. Major story elements, though, tend to place it in the Brahmanic period of the late Vedic Age. As a focal point for my retelling, I’ve narrowed this to a rough date of 800 B.C.
The Mahabharata places the story in “the kingdom of the Madras,” the region between the present‑day rivers Chenab and Ravi, tributaries of the Indus. It is today situated mostly in northeast Pakistan, and partly in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir. In the Brahmanic period, the capital of this kingdom was Sakala—near the modern Pakistani city of Sialkot, in the foothills of the Himalayas. I’ve set my retelling there in Sakala and in the foothills just north of it.
The story’s meaning itself seems to have shifted over the centuries. In its final form in the Mahabharata, it aimed mainly to portray the devotion and submission of an ideal wife to her husband and his family. This reflected the attitude of Hindu authorities by this later period.
Still, beneath the doctrinal tampering, a storyteller’s eye discerns clearly the tale of a strong, remarkably independent woman—a trickster tale, in fact, in which a woman dares oppose even a god. And women were indeed treated much more equally in the period when this story likely originated. Being a storyteller myself—and an aspiring friend of women—I’ve adopted the stance of the folklorist rather than the priest.
In other ways too, the culture of the Brahmanic period was very different from the classical Hindu culture more familiar to us. The following will help in understanding various aspects of the story.
Ethnic origin. Savitri’s people were Aryans, part of the conquering tribes that had come over the Himalayas starting in 1500 B.C. Not at all the homogeneous race of modern conception, the Aryans were Caucasians of various ethnicities, probably originating in central Asia. Since they had not yet fully integrated with the natives of India, they were lighter-skinned than most Indians today.
Worship. The Aryans worshipped the Sun and Fire, as well as Brahma and other gods. For this worship, they built fires on brick altars that were probably constructed to standard dimensions. Rituals were performed at these altars at sunrise and sunset.
Religious practice was based largely on the concept of sacrifice. This was meant, however, in the broader sense of consecration. In a typical sacrifice, for instance, food would be set on the altar as an offering to a god. After a suitable period, the food would be removed and eaten.
In the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom walked together around the fire on the altar as they recited their vows. A detailed description can be found in the ancient Grihya Sutras.
Savitri (the goddess). As told in the story, the princess Savitri was named after the goddess Savitri, who had announced the coming birth. This goddess was the daughter of Savitar, the Sun, who was worshiped at that time. She was also the personification of the Savitri Mantra (also called the Gayatri Mantra), the prayer to the Sun that the princess’s father repeated for years to attain children.
The Savitri Mantra is found in the Rig Veda and is considered the most sacred passage in all the Vedas. A loose translation might be, “We fill our minds with the wondrous glory of the divine Sun. May He enlighten our every thought.” It was to be recited at dawn while standing and facing east, and at sunset while sitting and facing west.
Yama. Though the image of Yama and his realm became more sinister and terrifying over the centuries, in much of the Vedic period he was seen as relatively beneficent. His earliest role was merely to reign over the virtuous in the land of the dead, supplying them with food and shelter—much like the Norse god Odin in Valhalla. Later, the job of harvesting souls was added.
Yama’s realm was often said to be in the south. For the Aryans, who had invaded from the north, this was a convenient direction for the unknown and mythical, as the territory to the south was still unexplored.
Cities. The cities were really forts—square or rectangular, surrounded by walls and then a moat. If located on the plain, they were built of wood; if on higher ground, of mud and brick. Stone was not yet in use. The palace was generally an enclosed courtyard or courtyards with a number of buildings.
Hermitages. The hermitage, or ashram, served as a center for those who wished to devote themselves to a more intense religious regimen. Besides providing homes for monks, the ashrams were retreat centers for city-dwellers, and men often took up residence there after retiring from public life. Some ashrams were also boarding schools for the young.
The ashram would consist of scattered huts and cottages, plus a common hall for worship and sacrifice. Ashram residents devoted themselves to contemplation, scripture study, and ritual. Celibacy was not required, and men often brought their families along to live there. Residents didn’t grow or cook food, but instead ate fruit, herbs, and roots gathered from the wild.
Natural setting. The region where the story is set has been described as “a delightful country, a paradise of rivers and mountains and woods.”
In Indian literature, hermitages are described as being in “the forest,” “the jungle,” or “the wilderness.” But these are Indian terms for anything other than a settlement or farmland. Even a desert could be called a jungle. Typically, an ashram was located on a major highway where it crossed a river. Most were easily accessible.
In my retelling, I’ve used the term forest only when it means just that. This is not at all a tropical jungle. The weather in the western Himalayas is relatively temperate and dry, the forest cover is relatively thin, and the trees are mostly conifers.
The “tall, sharp grass” by the river is kusa, a kind of saw grass.
Dress. In the cities, women wore brilliant, fine clothes, with many gold ornaments and gems. Hermitage residents wore simple saffron-colored robes. For warmth, they could wear outer coverings of bark cloth. This was made by soaking, pounding, and felting the inner bark of certain trees—a practice once common in many parts of the world, including among some native Americans.
Travel. For their journey, Savitri and her party probably traveled on horseback and in horse-drawn carriages. Savitri may well have held the reins herself in a kind of four-wheeled chariot. Elephants were not used for transport at that time.
Women. Women and men in this period were not treated as entirely equal, but much closer than later under classical Hinduism. Women were educated and were not secluded. They could perform rituals, though this would not be encouraged. Women often chose their own husbands. Though Savitri was no doubt a teenager, women at that time weren’t married off right at puberty. She was likely around 16.
Though I have spent time in India, I heard this tale first at home in the U.S. from a storyteller and dear friend, the late Will Perry. This introduction inspired me to explore many other versions, both ancient and modern. For my own retelling, though, I went straight to the source, working solely with the Mahabharata itself—that is, in the translation by J. A. B. van Buitenen, Vol. 2, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1975. Sources for background information included:
The History and Culture of the Indian People, edited by R. C. Majumdar, Vol. 1, The Vedic Age, Allen & Unwin, London, 1951; and Vol. 2, The Age of Imperial Unity, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1951.
The Cultural Heritage of India, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Vol. 1, The Early Phase, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1958.
Righteous Rama: The Evolution of an Epic, by J. L. Brockington, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1984.