"The King's Ankus" is a short story by the British author Rudyard Kipling. It was first published in the United States, appearing in the March 1895 edition of St. Nicholas Magazine. It is also included in the 1895 anthology The Second Jungle Book.
The story concerns Mowgli, a young man who was raised in the Indian jungle by wolves, spent some time living among people in a village and then returned to the jungle. Mowgli's friend Kaa the Python tells him about a cobra that guards something that men greatly desire. It is revealed that the cobra guards a vast treasure horde. Mowgli has no interest in any of the many priceless items that the cobra watches over, apart from an ankus made of gold, ivory and many precious stones. Furthermore, the only reason why Mowgli is interested in the ankus is because it has pictures of elephants on it. Ignoring the cobra's warning that the ankus brings death with it, Mowgli takes it away. The cobra's words prove to be true. The ankus is an item that men will kill to possess.
It is highly likely that Kipling drew inspiration for "The King's Ankus" both from an episode in the Jataka tales, a collection of Indian folktales about the previous lives of the Buddha, and "The Pardoner's Tale", one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Mogli is grateful to the python Kaa for having saved his life and regularly visits the snake. Kaa asks Mowgli if he has everything he desires. Mowgli replies that, although he often wishes for more and better meat to eat and for changes in the weather, he is largely content. Kaa tells Mowgli that while hunting in the abandoned city, he came across a white cobra who claimed to be guarding something that men would dearly love to possess. Kaa told the White Cobra about Mowgli and the cobra, who has not seen a human being for many years, would like to see the young man. Mowgli assumes that what the cobra is guarding must be a large amount of meat. Kaa tries to explain that it is not food but something else entirely. Unfortunately, Kaa lacks the words to describe what the cobra is watching over is. Nevertheless, Mowgli is intrigued.
Kaa and Mowgli make their way to the abandoned city and the underground chamber where the White Cobra is. The cobra is extremely old. He was not originally white but lost his color as a result of living for many years in complete darkness. Long ago, the poisonous cobra was placed in the underground chamber to guard the king's treasure inside it. The snake was tasked with biting and killing anyone who tried to steal any of the treasure. Kaa and Mowgli both repeatedly try to tell the cobra that he does not need to guard the treasure anymore because the men who tasked him with guarding it have all long since gone, the city has fallen into ruins and been swallowed up by the jungle. The cobra does not believe them. He says, however, that Mowgli is welcome to try to take any item he chooses from the treasure trove.
When Mowgli's eyes adjust to the darkness, he sees many beautiful objects. None of them, however, appear to be of any value to Mowgli because none of them are edible. Eventually, Mowgli sees an ankus. It is made of rubies, turquoises, jade, emeralds, ivory, gold and steel. It is only of interest to Mowgli, however, because there are pictures of elephants on it. Those pictures remind Mowgli of his friend Hathi and he decides that he would like to have a better look at them outside in the sunlight. Mowgli goes to take the ankus. The cobra then makes it plain that, although Mowgli is welcome to try to take the ankus away, he will bite and kill him if he does. Mowgli and Kaa both quickly overpower the cobra. Mowgli discovers that the White Cobra's fangs have turned black and withered, indicating that the old cobra has lost all his poison and is no longer dangerous. As Mowgli leaves, the cobra says that Mowgli will surely be killed by someone else who wants to take the ankus from him anyway. The cobra repeatedly says of the ankus, "It is Death!"
Mowgli is keen to show the shiny thing he has acquired to his friend Bagheera the Panther. Baghera, who was born in captivity and knows something of the ways of men, tells Mowgli that the thing was designed to inflict suffering on elephants. Upon hearing this, Mowgli throws the ankus down in disgust. He then goes to sleep. When he wakes up, however, Mowgli decides that he wants to look at the ankus again. Bagheera tells him that a man has taken it and that his tracks are still visible. Mowgli is keen to follow those tracks because he wants to see if death will come to the man as the White Cobra said. Bagheera, however, insists that they kill and eat some prey before following the man's tracks. By the time they have finished eating, three hours have passed.
By following the tracks, Mowgli and Bagheera see that the man who took the ankus was followed by a second man, a tribesman armed with a bow and arrows. Bagheera and Mowgli eventually find the body of a dead villager with an arrow in his chest. They continue to follow the tribesman's tracks. They see that the tribesman was followed by four men wearing shoes. Mowgli and Bagheera find the dead body of the tribesman. Mowgli sees that he was beaten to death with a bamboo stick. Bagheera and Mowgli follow the tracks of the four men wearing shoes. They find the body of one of the men. He has also been beaten to death with a bamboo stick and there is some flour on the ground next to him. Shortly afterwards, Bagheera and Mowgli find the bodies of the other three men and some burned bread on a grill on a smoldering fire. The ankus is lying on the ground and there are no signs of violence on the bodies of any of the men. From the smell of the smoke, Mowgli, who has learned a lot about poisonous fruit during his years in the jungle, realizes that the bread that the three men ate was poisoned. The three men's companion managed to poison the flour before he was beaten to death.
Mowgli, who had thought the White Cobra to be an old fool, gains a new respect for him having seen that what he said about the ankus was true. Mowgli takes the ankus and returns it to the underground chamber in the abandoned city so that nobody will ever kill for it again. The White Cobra asks Mowgli how he managed to avoid getting killed for the ankus. Mowgli replies that he does not know.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 An ankus or elephant goad is a tool used in the handling and training of captive elephants. It consists of a metal hook attached to a handle that is 2-3 feet (60-90 centimeters) in length. The use of an ankus obviously inflicts pain on an elephant. For that reason, use of the tool has been made illegal in Los Angeles and Oakland, California and in the state of Rhode island.
- ↑ The story of how Kaa saved Mowgli's life is related in "Kaa's Hunting" from The Jungle Book.