Friday, April 26, 2019

W is for the Wood Apple Princess (A to Z Challenge 2019: Fruit Folktales)

The fruit known in India as bilva, bel, or bél (Aegle marmelos) was unceremoniously renamed by English colonizers as "wood apple." It is a fruit of great importance in Hindu mythology and folklore, sacred to Shiva and Parvati among other deities (more information here). In a book titled Indian Fairy Tales, collected by Maive Stokes in the late 19th century, I found a story called The Bél-Princess. For our purposes she shall be incorrectly called the Wood Apple Princess.

Once upon a time there was a king with seven sons. The six older sons were married, but the youngest wasn't, and he had a bad relationship with his six sisters-in-law. One day, they started mocking him by saying he will only ever marry a Bél-Princess - so the prince, mostly out of spite, set out to find one.

Traveling for a long time, he encountered a fakir who was asleep for six months of a year, and awake for another six. When he woke, the prince told him what he was looking for, and the fakir directed him to the land of fairies and demons, giving him a handful of dust to make him invisible. In the middle of the fairy garden was a tree, and on that tree a single bél fruit, with a princess inside. The task was to knock the fruit off the tree, catch it before it hit the ground, and then ride away, pursued by fairies and demons, without looking back. The prince failed at the first try (he looked back) and turned to stone, but the fakir revived him, and gave him a second chance. The bél fruit was successfully acquired.

The fakir also told the prince not to open the fruit until he was home in his father's house - however, he once again failed to follow instructions, and opened the wood apple in the royal gardens. A beautiful and graceful princess appeared. The prince grew tired, admiring his new bride, and fell asleep. While he slept, an ugly woman came across the princess, tricked her into exchanging clothes and jewels, and pushed her into a well. When the prince woke, he found himself with an ugly and unkind bride, and no explanation.

From this point, the story progresses through a series of transformations. The princess in the well turned into a lotus flower, but the new fake queen tore it apart. From the remains of the lotus grew a bél tree and bore a single fruit, which the queen threw away. From the fruit came a baby girl, whom the gardener adopted and raised. The queen tried to have her killed, but the girl killed herself instead, her eyes turning into birds, her body into a palace, her heart into a water tank. Eventually, the prince found the palace and spent five nights in it; at last, he found a trap door, and in a hidden room, the princess herself. The truth came to light; the fake queen was killed, and the royal couple lived happily ever after.

Transformation tales like this always carry a lot of deep symbolism - and like all traditional stories, they say a different thing to everyone. 
What meanings do you see in this story?


  1. That wood apple is touching off my trypophobia...

    1. Ah, yes... my daughter feels that way about some things. Pipa frogs for one. Some seed pods. You probably know the ones she means.

  2. Follow directions! Or suffer the consequences.

  3. Lesson one: Picking fruit to be your bride is very risky.

  4. Do as you are told! And probably not to worry about what others say about you (he was trying to prove his taunting brothers wrong).
    I wonder why he had a bad relationship with his brothers' wives? That might tell us something about his personality.

  5. I didnt know Bel is called wood apple princess. This folktale is from my county, India.

  6. This story is hard for the youngest son, maybe he was just loving men?

  7. oh gosh i need to read this tale. a fake bride, lol.

    Joy at The Joyous Living

  8. Life can be arduous and filled with our mistakes and our impatient actions rarely work to our advantage. Above all, make sure you have harmonious relationships with your inlaws so they don't mock you and you feel obligated to go off on ridiculous adventures. And definitely be careful of wood apples.

  9. Hmm, by the time the prince found his bride, he would have been approaching middle age, surely? Poor girl, going through all that for a man who can’t even follow instructions!

  10. What an interesting story...though I feel bad for the princess, like Sue said - she did have to wait so long and go though so much
    We make Bel sherbet here in Summer in India and it is a popular hydrating summer drink.

  11. While Bel is quite popular here in summers, I have never heard of this folk tale about it. Honestly, I can't find any symbolism in it, but do feel that the youngest son was pretty much an idiot and deserved to remain stuck with the old fake queen.
    Find my W post @ 14 Water-Rich Vegetables That Help You Stay Hydrated in Summers

  12. Wow! That was quite a story...thanks for sharing.

    DB McNicol, author
    A to Z Microfiction: Wall

  13. The leaves of the bel are part of nearly all Hindu religious ceremonies. Interesting story - haven't come across it before, thanks. The presence of the fakir means its earliest possible origin can be pegged at 8th century but was probably later - 11th/12th century?

  14. I've never heard of this fruit. Great tale!

    Ronel visiting with the A-Z Challenge music and writing: Most Amazing

  15. I like this tale as it seems to have a persistence moral - and echoes of other fables.