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Ek Tha Raja

Posted by on March 4, 2013

One of the perks of begin in an intercultural relationship is that you find out tons of weird things about your own culture. Like today, when I began to consider the sad truths behind common nursery rhymes.

This morning, Varun and his sister Vasudha were joking about a Hindi nursery rhyme when Varun asked, “Why did she die?”. As you can imagine, this caught my attention. After some discussion, it became apparent that the Queen in the rhyme experienced death by frying. Whatever that is.

Ek Tha Raja (There Was A King)

[loosely translated into English by the Rana Siblings]

There was a king and there was a queen and there was a child.

The king died in the war.

The queen died in the frying pan.

The child died studying.

The more common version goes:

Once upon a time there was a king and there was a queen.

They both died.

End of story.


As I thought about it, I realized that the nursery rhymes I grew up with aren’t much better.

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her!
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well!


Um…What? Why couldn’t he ‘keep’ her? How did she fit in a pumpkin? And why does she look so happy knitting in her pumpkin shell?

If that’s not weird enough, how depressing is Humpty Dumpty?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.


These rhymes aren’t exactly heralds of joy and hope. I guess I knew this before, but it wasn’t until I started perusing nursery rhymes (because I have a life and am a contributing member of society) that I realized many of them are quite dark. On the one hand, I support the idea of preparing children for the realities of life. But on the other hand, pithy rhymes about broken heads, fried queens and imprisoned wives are a little bit creepy. Or maybe it’s just me.

What do you think is the most odd nursery rhyme? Was it ever confusing to you as a kid? If you have a nursery rhyme from another language, please share!


7 Responses to Ek Tha Raja

  1. Patrick

    First of all, congratulations! I Googled “Ek tha raja rhyme” and ESL Marriage came up as the first hit!

    To the point, the weird nursery rhyme in my young life (which apparently persists into my old age) is Four and Twenty Blackbirds:

    Sing a song of sixpence,
    A pocket full of rye.
    Four and twenty blackbirds,
    Baked in a pie.

    When the pie was opened,
    The birds began to sing;
    Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
    To set before the king?

    The king was in his counting house,
    Counting out his money;
    The queen was in the parlour,
    Eating bread and honey.

    The maid was in the garden,
    Hanging out the clothes,
    When down came a blackbird
    And pecked off her nose.
    A couple of thoughts:

    Memories of this rhyme caused uneasiness every time a pie was cut, especially mince meat. Also, would they be dead or alive after 45 minutes at 400 degrees F?

    Once I watched Hitchcock’s The Birds, it all made sense, and I was right to be freaked out by the idea. Especially that freaky last stanza. Later versions had various attempts to repair said nose. I don’t buy it, especially with 17th century medicine.

    Apparently, when the rhyme first appeared, it was only one stanza, and they weren’t “blackbirds” baked into the pie. They were 4 and 20 naughty boys. Talk about behavior modification!

    Thanks for bringing up the topic.

    • Amelia

      Wow, Dad, I have so many thoughts. How big is this pie? Why did they fly all the way to the garden to peck off her nose?

      Naughty boys?! GASP!

      And thankfully, my parents didn’t let me watch scary movies. So I haven’t seen Birds.

      P.S. I’m glad that ESL Marriage is taking over google one Hindi rhyme at a time…

  2. Beth (@bethaf)

    Oh man, SO MANY nursery rhymes are actually sad or disturbing:

    Rockabye, baby, in the treetops
    when the wind blows, the cradle will rock
    when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
    and down will come baby, cradle and all.

    Um, seriously!? Also:

    Ring around the rosie
    pocket full of posie
    we all fall down!

    Some say that one is about the plague.


    Jack and Jill went up the hill…
    Old Mother Hubbard…
    Three blind mice…
    Little Tommy Tucker…

    • Amelia

      How could I forget about Rock a bye baby? So true! I knew I could count on you to think of more!

      P.S. Can we please come up with non-disturbing rhymes for children?!

  3. Lisa

    German nursery rhymes are the worst! Look up Struwwelpeter on wikipedia. Also Max and Moritz. They’re longer nursery rhymes, more like cautionary tales but they are absolutely terrifying. I’m going to have nightmares tonight.

    • Amelia

      Ahh! Terrible! Thumbs cut off and children being burned to death!?


      What do you read/sing to your boys?

      • Lisa

        I mumble certain words in Three Blind Mice and refuse to read some nursery rhymes until they’re a little older. My big boy is very lyrically minded and will catch on to words in songs that have played as radio background noise so I try to pay careful attention to what nursery rhymes he hears. So far we sing any songs that came on toys and also jingle-type tunes I’ve made up for Bible verses we’ve studied (maybe one day I’ll put out an album, ‘Bible verse jingles for Kids.’). By keeping the music and rhymes flowing in some way they don’t miss out but I get to manage exposure for now.

Thoughts? I love hearing from you!