'The Nine Sticks' | Circle Round 8218:35

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Have you ever helped someone solve a problem?

Maybe you helped a friend with homework, or you helped a family member find something they’d lost.

In today’s story, we’ll meet a man who’s famous for helping others - and he does so in a most dazzling way!

Our story is called “The Nine Sticks.” Versions of this tale come from the South Asian country of India, where it’s one of many legends featuring Birbal: a wise advisor to an emperor long ago.

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Voices in this episode include Nikesh Patel and Maulik Pancholy. Grown-ups, you might recognize Nikesh Patel from Four Weddings and a Funeral on Hulu. And you might know Maulik Pancholy from 30 Rock on NBC and Phineas and Ferb on The Disney Channel. He’s also the author of the new young-adult novel, The Best At It.

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Virginia Marshall. Circle Round’s original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn. Circle Round’s executive producer is Katherine Brewer.

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on FacebookTwitterInstagram or Pinterest, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

When you have a problem you can’t solve, is there someone special you turn to for help?

A teacher? A family member? A friend?

Find some paper, and draw a picture of you and your helper. Then, if you’d like, share your picture with us! Ask your grown-up if they can post a photo of your drawing on Instagram, and tag us. Our handle is @circleroundpodcast.

Musical Spotlight: Harmonium

(Joe Morris/wikimedia)
(Joe Morris/wikimedia)

The harmonium is a small portable instrument similar to an organ: you play the keyboard with one hand while your other hand pumps air into the bellows. The harmonium is so popular in the Indian subcontinent that many people believe it originally comes from India. But the truth is, it migrated from the western world in the late 1800s, by traders, religious missionaries, and musicians. Still, Indian instrument makers have put their own touches on the instrument, and its sound is common in folk, dance, vocal and movie music across India.


NARRATOR: As the highest ruler in the land, the emperor resided in a spacious stone palace... with throngs of obedient servants and so many riches and treasures, it would take all one-thousand of his elephants to carry them!

The emperor’s most precious riches and treasures were his jewels. Glittering gold crowns... sparkling silver anklets... radiant ruby earrings... The glistening gems were so dear to the emperor that he kept them locked away in a cavernous vault hidden deep beneath the palace.

Only ten people had a key to that vault: the emperor himself, plus nine attendants who had a very special job.

Every time the emperor wished to wear a piece of jewelry, be it a glimmering necklace…

EMPEROR: I want my emerald pendant — the one shaped like a peacock!

NARRATOR: ...or a shimmering bracelet…

EMPEROR: How about those pearl-encrusted bangles? They’d look glorious with this new robe!

NARRATOR: ...he’d call one of his nine attendants to go fetch it. To get to the vault, the attendant had to push through a secret hole in the wall. Then they had to run down a hidden set of stairs, and unlock a heavy steel door. Once they entered the vault, they would seek out whichever jewel the emperor desired, bring it back to the great ruler’s chamber, then help him put it on as he admired himself in the mirror.

EMPEROR: (admiring himself) My, my, my! Don’t I look marvelous! Absolutely marvelous!

NARRATOR: One day, the emperor decided he’d wear a thick gold ring set with a dazzling diamond the size of an apricot. The ring had been passed down in his family from generation to generation, and the emperor considered it to be his greatest treasure.

So he asked one of his nine attendants to fetch the ring from the vault. But when the attendant came back, the great ruler was flabbergasted to hear that the ring wasn’t there!

EMPEROR: What?!? My greatest treasure is missing? It can’t be! (beat) Send for another attendant! Let them try!

NARRATOR: So a second attendant journeyed to the vault to look for the ring… and, like the first attendant, claimed it was nowhere to be found.

EMPEROR: Come now! That ring didn’t just get up and walk away! The door to that vault is as thick as the trunk of a banyan [BAN-yun] tree!

NARRATOR: But then a third attendant reported the ring was gone.

EMPEROR: (growing exasperation) Seriously?!?

NARRATOR: As did a fourth...

EMPEROR: (growing exasperation) You must be joking!

NARRATOR: ...And a fifth...

EMPEROR: (growing exasperation) What?!?

NARRATOR: ...All the way down…

EMPEROR: (growing exasperation) No!

NARRATOR: the ninth!

EMPEROR: (ad-lib groan)

NARRATOR: By now, the emperor was so exasperated, he threw his trembling hands in the air.

EMPEROR: (angry/exasperated) This is unacceptable! Obviously, you’re not searching that vault hard enough! (beat) I’ll go down there and bring back the ring myself!

NARRATOR: So the emperor grabbed his key, marched down to the vault and spent hours sifting through his vast collection of jewels… until, at last, he collapsed in a heap.

EMPEROR: (crestfallen) Oh, it’s true! My greatest treasure is gone! (beat) There’s only one thing left to do… call Birbal [BEER-bahl]!

NARRATOR: Birbal was the emperor’s favorite advisor. The wise and witty man was famous for his razor-sharp intellect, and was the first person the emperor called whenever he had a problem he couldn’t solve, a question he couldn’t answer, or a puzzle he couldn’t crack.

As the emperor told Birbal his latest dilemma, the shrewd advisor listened carefully, scratching his chin and nodding his head. By the time the emperor finished his story, Birbal’s brilliant mind was already hard at work.

BIRBAL: (mental wheels already turning) Hmmmm. Very interesting... (beat) Kindly remind me, Your Imperial Highness… Who in this palace holds a key to the vault of jewels?

EMPEROR: Well, I do, of course… plus my nine jewelry attendants. And all nine of them gave their word that the ring isn’t there!

BIRBAL: I understand that, sir. (beat, carefully) But just because they gave you their word doesn’t mean you have to take it.

NARRATOR: The emperor cocked his head.

EMPEROR: What do you mean, Birbal?

BIRBAL: Well, I’m afraid to say it, Your Imperial Majesty…

NARRATOR: Birbal leaned forward.

BIRBAL: ...but your ring has been stolen!

EMPEROR: Stolen?!? 

NARRATOR: The emperor’s jaw dropped open.

EMPEROR: It can’t be!

BIRBAL: I’m afraid it can! And one of your nine jewelry attendants is the culprit! (beat) But leave everything to me, sir, and you will see your greatest treasure. (mysterious, playful) All I need is a little bit of wood, a little bit of time... and maybe… just maybe… a little bit... of magic!

NARRATOR: ‘Wood’? ‘Time’? ‘Magic’?

What do you think Birbal is talking about?

We’ll find out what happens, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “The Nine Sticks.”

When we left off, the emperor had a problem. Missing from his secret vault beneath the palace was what he considered to be his greatest treasure: a dazzling diamond ring the size of an apricot.

All nine of the emperor’s jewelry attendants went down to the vault to look for the ring, and all nine claimed it wasn’t there.

So that night, the emperor’s favorite advisor… wise, witty Birbal... summoned the attendants to his office.

BIRBAL: Welcome, everyone. As you know, we have a mystery on our hands. The emperor’s diamond ring is missing from the vault… and one of you has stolen it!

NARRATOR: The attendants exchanged a nervous glance.

BIRBAL: Now ladies and gentlemen... other than the emperor himself, you nine are the only ones in this entire palace who possess a key to the vault. So if you’re the thief who made off with His Imperial Excellency’s diamond ring, confess now and you will be forgiven.

NARRATOR: Birbal waited a moment, but no one would confess.

BIRBAL: (putting his plan in motion) You know, I had a feeling this would happen. So, since none of you will come clean, we’ll just have to resort… to magic!

NARRATOR: Birbal strolled over to his desk and pulled open a drawer. He reached inside, then lifted out nine sticks of wood. All nine sticks were identical: same color, same thickness, same length. The wise advisor handed one stick to each attendant.

BIRBAL: (laying it on thick) Ladies and gentlemen, you may think these nine identical sticks look like ordinary pieces of wood… but no! 

NARRATOR: His eyes flashed.

BIRBAL: (continuing to lay it on thick) These sticks have special powers… powers that will tell us who stole the emperor’s ring!

NARRATOR: The attendants looked confused. Birbal smiled.

BIRBAL: (relishing this) I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Birbal! How in the world can a silly little stick uncover the thief”? Well, I’ll tell you! (beat, explaining carefully) It’s been said that if you give one of these sticks to an honest, trustworthy person, nothing will happen; the stick will stay exactly as it is. (beat) Buuuut...

NARRATOR: He raised his eyebrows.

BIRBAL: (playing it up) ...if you give the stick to someone who is dishonest and deceitful… (pointed) someone who has stolen, say... the stick will grow exactly two inches longer! Overnight! (beat) Two whole inches!

NARRATOR: Birbal fixed the attendants with a steely gaze.

BIRBAL: (carefully, dramatic) Now… I want each one of you to go back to your room. Take your stick with you. Put it under your bed. Lock your door. Make sure no one else comes in. Then… first thing tomorrow morning… bring your stick back to my office… and we shall see which one of you is the rascal who stole the emperor’s ring!

NARRATOR: Bright and early the next morning, the nine attendants grabbed their sticks, unlocked their doors, and returned to Birbal’s office. Waiting for them was Birbal, of course, with a surprise guest: the emperor!

BIRBAL: (sly) Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! The emperor and I hope you slept well. (beat, cheerily getting down to business) Now, what do you say we measure those sticks of yours! Why don’t you do the honors, Your Imperial Excellency?

EMPEROR: (not yet in on the ruse) It would be my pleasure!

NARRATOR: Birbal handed the emperor a measuring tape. The great ruler walked from attendant to attendant, measuring each of their sticks with care.

EMPEROR: (ad-lib as he measures each stick) Mmm-hmm… mm-hmm… Okay… Got it… Yes… Alright…. Uh-huh...

NARRATOR: Once the emperor was finished, he turned to Birbal with a quizzical look.

EMPEROR: (not in on Birbal’s ruse) Well, this is most peculiar! According to my measurements, none of the nine sticks have grown longer! (beat) But one of the nine sticks... has gotten shorter!

NARRATOR: The attendants gasped. Birbal’s eyes gleamed.

BIRBAL: (relishing this) One of the sticks has ‘gotten shorter,’ you say? (beat) How much shorter, Your Imperial Highness?

NARRATOR: The emperor held up two fingers.

EMPEROR: Two inches! One of the sticks is two inches shorter than all the rest! (beat) That one there!

NARRATOR: The emperor gestured toward one of the attendants… who immediately began to shudder and sweat. Birbal walked over to the nervous woman and took the stick from her quivering hand. He peered at the stick closely.

BIRBAL: (peering at the stick, loving this) Well, what do you know?!? This attendant’s stick is two whole inches shorter than all the rest! (beat, dramatic) Ladies and gentlemen, we have found the rascal who stole the emperor’s ring! (beat) Guards!

NARRATOR: Birbal snapped his fingers. A pair of uniformed guards appeared by the door.

BIRBAL: (to the guards) Take this attendant to her room. Then please, bring back the emperor’s diamond ring.

NARRATOR: As the guards led the guilty attendant out of Birbal’s office, everyone else stared at the advisor with wide eyes… including the emperor.

EMPEROR: (confused) Birbal… I don’t understand. In the hands of someone dishonest and deceitful, the stick was supposed to grow two inches overnight. But that attendant’s stick didn’t grow two inches... It shrank!

NARRATOR: The wise advisor smiled… then began to explain.

BIRBAL: (carefully) Well… like I said… those sticks had the power to tell us who stole the emperor’s ring. (beat) But it wasn’t a magical power.

EMPEROR: It wasn’t?

BIRBAL: No! Though, just as I’d hoped, our culprit believed it was. And because of how dishonest and deceitful she had been, she was certain her stick would grow two inches overnight. (beat) That’s why… before she went to bed... she snuck over to the woodcutters’ shed… found the woodcutters’ saw… and cut two inches off of her stick! (beat) Now do you understand?

NARRATOR: The emperor furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. Then… all at once… he smiled.

EMPEROR: (figuring it out) Yes! I see! The guilty attendant cut two inches off of her stick because that way, if the stick grew two inches overnight, it would still look like all the other sticks come morning!

BIRBAL: Exactly! But her stick didn’t actually grow, so when everyone came back to my office today...

EMPEROR: (figuring it out) ...hers was the only short stick in the bunch! (beat) Birbal! You are a genius! (beat, sincerely) In fact… you’re a real gem.

NARRATOR: Thanks to Birbal’s wit and wisdom, by the end of the day the emperor was wearing his thick gold ring set with a dazzling diamond the size of an apricot.

But the great ruler no longer considered the bright, brilliant jewel his “greatest treasure.”

Because now he realized that his greatest treasure was bright… and brilliant… but it wasn’t any bauble.

It was Birbal! A wise and witty friend who was always there for him, no matter what.

Rebecca Sheir Twitter Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.