It was spring in Vrindavan. There was a freshness in the atmosphere. One day a formation of white swans was floating in the air above. They looked like beautiful sky-boats. Beating their graceful wings in the air, the swans were sailing to their far-away home in Europe, after passing wintertime in the warmth of Central India.
One pair of young swan-mates, Shipra -- the Swift One -- and Sundari -- the Beautiful One -- had fallen behind the others. They were so happy frolicking with each other that they forgot to keep their proper places in the swan group-formation. Their cries of joy and fun could be heard even from a far distance. Upon hearing their joyous calls to each other, many animals in the forest below and travellers on the road looked skyward and were charmed by their lovely play.
But this peaceful scene changed in a flash. Out of the only dark cloud in the sky, suddenly swooped a terrible flying demon with red eyes and fierce claws. King Kamsa had sent him to find and kill Krishna. But when he saw the flock of swans he decided to have a tasty swan breakfast. He saw the two swans who had lagged behind the main swan flock.
With greedy glee he pounced upon Shipra and said, "Ha, ha, ha, my little swan, now I have got you." He began drooling at the very thought of this delicious meal.
The rest of the swan flock began to fly away as fast as they could, sounding the alarm cry, "Danger, danger." Soon the swan leader noticed that Sundari was lagging behind. She was looking first at the retreating flock and then looking back at the demon clutching her beloved Shipra.
The swan leader called "Sundari, come quickly! Save your life! Shipra is doomed."
Her mother called, "Come, my sweet child, flee from danger!"
Poor Sundari didn't know what to do. She could hear Shipra singing his swan song of death. She also heard the calls from her flock family. In her heart she knew she did not want to live without Shipra. Swan pairs are mated for life. If one dies the other never takes another mate.
She made her choice and with a great hope that all was not yet lost she turned and flew after the retreating demon.
Sundari cried out with all her might, "Oh, save my swan! Oh, someone, please save Shipra!"
Upon hearing her cries, the fire-eyed demon looked back. He saw Sundari following him. "My, my," he thought, "now I shall have two swans for breakfast. What good luck for me today!"
He then said to Shipra, "First I will finish you off and then catch your foolish mate."
Then he opened wide his great mouth and with a terrible laugh swallowed Shipra whole in one hasty, greedy gulp.
Suddenly the demon howled with pain. What has happened? What has gone wrong?! The demon began to choke. He had tried to swallow too fast and Shipra's legs were stuck in his throat. To save himself he must do something at once.
He looked down and saw the river Yamuna flowing below. "Aha! If I can drink enough water, this stuck bird will slide right down into my stomach," with this thought he dived down to the river bank.
Sundari followed behind, crying even more loudly as she dived, "Help, help! Someone, please save us!"
It just so happened that at this very moment Krishna and his cowherd friends were by the river Yamuna. What a day it had been! That morning the happy group had set out for a far corner of the forest of Vrinda. They were searching for delicious Tal fruits. They had many adventures on the way (but those are stories for another day). Now, after eating their fill of juicy Tal fruits, all the children were resting under a majestic Kadamba tree growing on the banks of the Yamuna. It was a very warm day. They were still hot from their long journey. The cool waters of the river looked so inviting.
Srikant, one of the cowherds, exclaimed, "Oh, Krishna, let us go for a swim in the river!"
Krishna said, "Yes, go ahead. I will keep watch over the clothes and lunch baskets."
He knew that someone should stand guard in case a demon from King Kamsa attacked them. In the past few months many of his demons had come to steal or kill the children. Time after time Krishna saved them. Sometimes other gods also came to help.
At that moment only Krishna was thinking of demons. The others were a happy splashing crowd. Some of the boys were throwing water at each other. Sunil dared Madhu to swim to the far bank of the river. Vishal, Prem and Mangal started to collect floating flowers that had dropped onto Yamuna's waves from the myriad blossoming trees along the river bank.
Vishal started throwing flowers at Prem, shouting, "Holi, Holi, Holi!"* (*Holi is an Indian festival of spring. On the occasion of Holi people throw coloured water and coloured powders on each other.)
Soon all the boys had joined in the Holi game and the air was filled with happy shouts of "Holi, Holi!" What fun the children were having!
But they could not have fun for long without their Krishna. Soon they climbed onto the river bank and gathered around him, begging him to tell them the story of Holi.
Always ready to entertain his beloved friends, Krishna told them about the demon King Hiranyakashipu. The king wanted to become immortal. For many, many of years he poured all of his energies into the worship of Brahma -- the God of Creation.
Brahma was finally pleased with him and appearing before him said, "I am pleased with you and will grant you a boon. What do you want?"
The king asked for immortality.
Brahma replied, "Human beings cannot become immortal. You must ask me for something else. That I will surely grant."
But the king only wanted to become immortal. He wanted this so much that he tried to trick Brahma. He said, "Grant then that neither man nor beasts nor gods may kill me, that I may not die either during day or night, inside the house or outside it, or by defensive or offensive weapons."
Brahma granted him the boon.
Then Hiranyakashipu became all puffed up with pride. He thought that now he was invincible and immortal. He began constantly fighting the gods. He even banned the worship of God in his own kingdom. So he was greatly shocked when one day his own son Prahlad proclaimed to him that God was greater than him. Hiranyakashipu became very angry. He tried his best to get his son killed. Every means was tried but nothing could destroy this boy. Finally Hiranyakashipu called his sister Holika to his aid.
Holika had a certain power. Once Shiva had granted a boon to Holika that fire would not be able to destroy her. King Hiranyakashipu persuaded her to use her power to help him kill Prahlad. His plan was to have Holika take hold of Prahlad and sit in the flames of a large fire. Because of her power Holika would be unharmed but at last Prahlad would be killed.
A great pile of firewood was collected. Holika sat upon it holding Prahlad in her lap. The soldiers of Hiranyakashipu lit the pyre. Flames began to rise up around Holika and Prahlad.
Here Krishna paused for a moment. The children were listening to his words with rapt attention.
"What happens? What happens? Will Prahlad die, Krishna?" asked Subal.
"No, Subal, when a boon is used for a bad purpose the gods withdraw it."
That is what happened in this story. Holika died but Prahlad who called to Lord Vishnu to save him, remained alive. Since then on the full moon day of Falgun month (approximately the end of March) people in India burn huge bonfires which are called Holi after the name of demoness Holika. On the next day they throw coloured water at each other to rejoice that evil was destroyed and truth triumphed.
"What happened then?" asked Madhumangal.
Then the King called Prahlad and asked him, "Is your God everywhere?"
"Yes, father," answered the boy Prahlad.
"Is he in this pillar also?" asked the king, pointing to a nearby pillar of his court.
"Yes, Sire, he is everywhere," said Prahlad.
"Then let him come out," saying this the king struck the pillar with his sword.
At once Lord Vishnu (who would later, in another age, incarnate as Krishna) came out in the form of Narasimha, the man-lion. Narasimha had a frightening appearance: fiery eyes, a dagger-like tongue with blood oozing from it, and a shaggy neck with trembling eyebrows. He had two teeth, one on each side curved like the crescent moon, a black face inside a cave-like heap of manes, hair straight and pointed like diamond needles, nails white and cup-like and a body as bright and brilliant as a thousand suns.
The children held their breath. Some of them shivered a little and came closer to Krishna for comfort. They felt secure while with him. Krishna continued the story.
It was evening -- neither day nor night. Narasimha pulled Hiranyakashipu to the door-sill which was neither inside nor outside the house and killed him with his nails which are neither offensive nor defensive weapons. And that is how God saved Prahlad and also ended Hiranyakashipu's dream of immortality.
After he finished the story Krishna laughed and said, "Now, fine friends, it is my turn for a swim." "Surely, surely,"said the children, "and we will stand guard while you cool yourself."
Krishna then took a flying leap into the blue waters of the Yamuna.
While Krishna was swimming in the river, the story he had just told kept echoing in his mind. He could hear from a time-gap of thousands of years the roaring of fire as its flames climbed up to surround Prahlad. And just as then, Krishna felt an upsurge of the need to protect a weak devotee from injustice. The story had awakened this strong emotion. Then he realised that it had been he, himself, who had taken that form as Narasimha, the Man-Lion. And suddenly he felt himself turning into the man-lion once again. His hair became a lion's mane, his face turned dark and fierce, his boy's body became that of a strong man with arms that were strong paws with sharp claws. In place of Krishna it was Lord Narasimha, Man-Lion, swimming in the river.
It was just at that moment that the flying demon descended on the banks of the Yamuna. The swan Shipra was still in his stomach with his legs sticking out of the demon's throat. Sundari was diving down from the sky above still crying, "Help, Help!"
When Krishna heard her call it seemed as if Prahlad was once again calling to him for protection. All the Divine Force of Lord Narasingha entered into him. He gave out a roar equal in volume to the roars of a hundred lions all together. And with a great lion-leap he pounced upon the demon and opened him up.
Poor Shipra was quite afraid and had turned a bluish-grey colour from the heat of the demon's stomach. But he was unhurt. Krishna gently lifted him out of the large stomach and poured some cool river water into his mouth. As if by a magic nectar, Shipra fully revived. While tending Shipra all the lion-power left Krishna and he became once again his sweet curly-haired self, smiling down at the rescued swan.
Sundari had watched the rescue. She now came near her mate full of joy. They talked for a long time in their swan language. Krishna could understand the languages of birds and beasts. From the swan's happy, excited talk he learned the story of what had happened. He was full of admiration for Sundari's love and told her so in swan language. Shipra and Sundari were astonished to hear a human being speaking their language.
Suddenly they realised that this child who could change form and could kill demons and could speak with swans was surely a great and good God. The swan couple came and laid their beaks at the feet of their divine saviour.
Meanwhile all the cowherds who had run away at the first sight of demon and hid amongst trees and bushes, now came out of their hiding places. They had seen a strange being who was half-man and half-lion kill the demon. With excitement they ran to where Krishna was lovingly stroking the swans. They crowded around Krishna and each boy began to tell of the strange God he had seen. Krishna smiled. He didn't reveal his secret of having become the Narasimha.
The children too began to pet the swans both of whom now felt quite safe and at home.
"Oh, don't leave us," pleaded Sunil.
"You are such beautiful swans! And we will come and play with you and you can swim in the river with us."
And that is how Shipra and Sundari came to live always on the banks of the river Yamuna. Even now if one visits the banks of the river Yamuna one might see two beautiful swans, one white and one grey-blue, floating on the light blue waters, followed by their cygnets (baby swans) sailing behind.