The forest was no place for riding that day, with air heavy and unforgiving, like swamp water to the lungs. Hands of foliage appeared ready to catch those falling from exhaustion, but all instantly gave way on touch. King Theinkho, son of Sale Ngahkwe, was drained and hungry. Far ahead of his company, he reached a clearing and dismounted. An empty squint revealed leafy rows extending up to a farmhouse in the distant shade, and, growing right before him, line on line of dark green gourds. Tearing one free, the monarch took a ravenous mouthful.
Hunched over his meal and crunching away, Theinkho heard nothing of the figure rising behind him. Then a thick spade handle crashed into the back of his skull, forcing his jaws to make their final bite. His body collapsed on the soil.
Cucumber plants. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.
Many things have led to the deaths of kings, but ‘cucumber-stealing’ is difficult to imagine as being one of them. Bizarre as the crime may be, it appears to have occasioned the end of this Burmese Pagan dynasty ruler of the 10th century CE, with the exchange of power begun not at the tip of a sword, but the butt of a spade. Of course, the above description is fanciful; one entry in the Hmannan Yazawin, translated into English as The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, puts it rather more plainly:
‘This was the manner of his death. He rode abroad for sport in the forest, and being hungry he plucked and ate a cucumber in a farmer’s plantation. And because he plucked it without telling him, the farmer struck him with the handle of a spade that he died.’
The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, translated by Pe Maung Tin and G. H. Luce (1960).
Not that the story closes there – Hmannan Yazawin goes further. Theinkho’s groom, perhaps foreseeing chaos among the people, carried out a desperate cover-up operation. He told the farmer that ‘he who slayeth a king, becometh a king’. The man of the soil was less than keen, being more content with tending to his cucumbers. He was eventually won over by the groom’s promise that he would not only have all the riches of a ruler, but would also be allowed to keep his plantation going.
The temples of Bagan, once the capital city of the Pagan dynasty. Photo from Flickr user KX Studio.
Secretly brought before the queen, who greatly approved of the whole plan, he took to the throne as Nyaung-u Sawrahan, also known as Taung-tah-gyi or Taungthugyi, the ‘Cultivator King’. The Glass Palace Chronicle terms him ‘the farmer king’, while G. E. Harvey uses ‘Cucumber King’ in his History of Burma. Nyaung-u went on to turn his beloved cucumber patch into a grand garden.
There is likely to be more legend behind this tale than solid fact. In Hmannan Yazawin it is claimed that a concubine and a minister who scorned the new king were killed by a living stone statue near the palace door. Harvey mentions that there is another version of the cucumber story in the Burmese narrative of one Princess Thudhammasari, with two more in historical accounts from Cambodia. While The Glass Palace Chronicle gives his reign as 931 to 964 CE, sources dispute when exactly Nyaung-u Sawrahan lived. It also credits him with the founding of five Buddhist temples; a stone tablet found in 1212 CE apparently mentions his refurbishment work on a local monastery, which may link to this.
More certain is the history of cucumbers. The plant is held to have originated from the region between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, with excavations in 1970 at the Spirit Cave site between Burma and Thailand unearthing cucumber seeds dating to 9750 BCE. As for Burmese kings, several seem to have had unusual deaths – so Ben Schott writes in his classic collection of knowledge, Schott’s Original Miscellany. A number died through the actions of elephants, one due to laughter, and others thanks to buffaloes or poison. Even so, Theinkho’s end and the rise of the ‘Cucumber King’ remains the strangest of all.