Posts Tagged India

Accidents and Sagacity

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendip, in the Far East, a great and powerful king. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need.”


The father searches out the best possible tutors. “And to them he entrusted the training of his sons, with the understanding that the best they could do for him was to teach them in such a way that they could be immediately recognized as his very own.”

When the tutors are pleased with the excellent progress that the three princes make in the arts and sciences they report it to the king. He however still doubts their training and summoning each in turn, declares that he will retire to the contemplative life leaving them as king. Each politely declines, affirming the father’s superior wisdom and fitness to rule.

The king is pleased, but fearing that his sons’ education may have been too sheltered and privileged, feigns anger at them for refusing the throne and sends them away from the land.

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the king and demands punishment.

The king asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. It was the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands.”

At this moment a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. The king spares the lives of the three princes, lavishes rich rewards on them and appoints them to be his advisors.


The Three Princes of Serendip. It comes originally from the Hasht-Bihist (Eight Paradises) of Amir Khosraw written in 1301. In this poem, in Persian, king Bahram Gur, restless on his return from the hunt, has seven pavilions (“paradises”) built for him. Each pavilion is a different colour and in each is a princess from a different part of the world. Bahram visits each princess on a different day of the week. It’s the first princess, from India, and in the black pavilion, on Saturday, that tells Bahram the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

It’s really the mother of all stories of improbable detection. And yet, this skill would have been commonplace once upon a time – when we lived by following the tracks of animals, when we crossed sees by the stars and the currents and winds.

The story has a European history too.  It has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by the letter writer Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” – a translation of Khusraw’s – where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.

There’s a French connection too. Voltaire”s has Zadig do the same thing as the three princes. This story too became emblematic, this time of detective work. There is the “Method of Zadig” as it was called. The story could has worked its way into the world of detective fiction and into the laboratory.

There is a wonderful scholarly book – and if such a thing is possible, this is it – called The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert Merton. He traces the route of the word serendipity, and the idea, and its influence on science.

But all that is another story. This one, The Three Princes of Serendip, is crying out to be an illustrated children’s book. And as it’s written by an Indian and set in India, wouldn’t it be great if the amazingly creative people at Tara books could be the ones to make it?


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I saw…

I saw a Peacock  with a fiery tail

I saw a blazing comet  drop down hail

I saw a Cloud  with Ivy circled round

I saw a sturdy Oak  creep on the ground

I saw a Pismire  swallow up a whale 

I saw a raging Sea  brim full of Ale 

I saw a Venice Glass  sixteen foot deep

I saw a Well  full of men`s tears that weep

I saw their eyes  all in a flame of fire

I saw a House  as big as the Moon and higher

I saw the sun  even in the midst of night

I saw the Man  that saw this wonderous sight.

The pictures are from the wondrous I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail by Gond tribal artist Ramsingh Urveti and book designer Jonathan Yamakami.
What they don’t show you here is the die cutting that lets you see through from one line to the next in exactly the playful way the poem hides and shows itself. This in itself is an achievement. It takes Eric Carle’s idea of putting holes in a picture book a step further, to creatively reproduce the trick of the poem in visual form. It’s worth reading Yamakami’s blog post describing the process he went through to get to this point.
Are you looking for a beautiful Christmas present to give someone?  Try Tara Books’ amazing handmade volumes. The fantastic (it’s all superlatives today) introduced me to I Like Cats  and The Night Life of Trees.
 You can get both books on amazon, but I imagine they won’t last for ever because they are handmade:

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kalila and dimna

My picture of the boy and the tiger has a long history (see wikipedia). Perhaps it was first told in Sanskrit in India.

Then a man called Borzuy went to India. Not looking for stories at first, but following information about a mountain herb that could restore life to the dead. He found his herb, eventually, but trialling it discovered that it’s revivifying powers had been greatly exagerated.

His Indian companions directed him to a sage, who told him that he should have taken his information more metaphorically. The real thing is in fact a book, Kalila and Dimna.

(more on this in the Panchatantra article in Wikipedia)

And I, Simon Gregg, have part of this excellent book, rendered into English by Ramsay Wood.

And here he is talking about it:

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