The World of Fables and Legends - 01

A Bird's Eye View

Almost all civilizations in the world have used fables and legends since ancient times to illustrate and glorify their cultural and socio-religious legacy as well as moral and ethical ethos. They largely represent literary genre often claimed as succinct real or fictional story in prose and verse, featuring legendary deities, kings, supernatural creatures, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects or forces of nature in many cases deriving some moral or specific inference at the end. Fables most often have animals as characters with or without human beings and invariably derive a moral (lesson) while a legend is a genre of folklore representing traditional stories and beliefs comprising of human and/or divine characters often with a teller and listener(s) at some point of the human history. The most popular fables of the Western and Indian genre are those of Aesop's Fables and Vishnu Sharma’s Panchtantra, respectively. Similarly, several legendary tales in the form epics in prose or verse forms exist in almost all parts of world. Being the world’s oldest surviving culture and religion, Hinduism is particularly rich in scriptures and other literary treasures, of which Puranas and Epics contain many legendary tales as main story and within frame.

Evolution of Fables and Legends

As already mentioned, this genre of literature is found in almost all parts of the world where civilization had ever evolved and prospered but richness of the same is largely proportional to the size and length of the evolution, its sustenance and survival through various ages. However, some of the tales such as Aesop's Fables evolved in the West are very old of BCE vintage while many others derived inspirations from it but were compiled and documented in medieval era in Europe.

Of particular mention are Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra and Jataka Tales in the Indian sub-continent which are far more elaborate and perhaps of even older BCE vintage than Aesop. Similarly, Hinduism being the oldest surviving culture and religion has a rich ancient literature in the forms of scriptures and text with numerous fables and legends. Accordingly, such literature and history of Hinduism is more pronounced too compared to the West or far East.

While a general tendency is to use the terms fable and legend in the same context but there seems to be a fine distinction between the two terms. In common parlance, a fable may feature animals or even many other animate and inanimate objects of nature with human characteristics, more essentially speech, while A legend is usually a tale that has been passed down through ages and generations via oral storytelling and recorded at some point of time. It is usually an illustrated account of the real people, places, and incidents of the past yet with no means to verify or judge their authenticity. As the times passes, the legendary facts are often extrapolated with more facts and/or fictions making it exaggerated, hence making it unbelievable in cases. Legends often contain narratives to the extent that the concerned characters or events take a ‘larger than life’ shape with or without any explicit lesson. In contrast, fables are essentially imaginary and deliver a certain lesson or moral at the end in a simple manner.

Africa had a tradition of oral culture of story-telling for thousands of years; people of all groups and ages in the continent habitually had interface and connectivity with the nature, plants and animals, inanimate objects like rivers, forests, mountains and deserts. Elders traditionally had great hold over the family or clan and enjoyed respect in African societies including the role of story-telling at the retirement age. For centuries, this oral tradition of stories from grandfathers to grandchildren and young has continued in African and American continents. Joel Chandler Harris was an American journalist, fiction writer and folklorist of 19th century, who wrote many 'Brer Rabbit' stories from the African-American oral tradition and is best known for his collection of Uncle Remus stories. His stories of the animal characters such as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear fall in the modern genre of African-American story-telling. Some South-African animal fables such as The Monkey's Fiddle,  Crocodile's Treason, and The Judgement of Baboon etc. are loaded with ancient wisdom and a fresh worldview.

In the modern age, when we refer to the West, a larger picture of the modern Europe emerges. The European literature was enriched in Fables and legends largely during the Middle Ages. However, the oldest record of the varying corpus denoted as Aesopica or Aesop's Fables includes majority of best-known western fables. They are assigned to one legendary “Aesop”, believed to have been a slave in the ancient Greece around 550 BCE. In fact, it is uncertain if at all he really existed and even another theory that it was actually Phaedrus, who wrote these famous fables also exists. Some famous and worldwide familiar fables such as "The Crow and the Pitcher", "The Tortoise and the Hare" and "The Lion and the Mouse" are included in Aesop’s fables. The available records suggest that in the ancient Greek and Roman education, the fables were introduced as training exercises in prose composition and public speech, wherein students were naturally asked to grasp fables, expand upon them, create their own in many cases besides using them in test debates and speeches. Apparently, such regular use of fables inspired the contemporary people to assemble them together in the collection like Aesop’s Fables, which now exist as timeless treasure of messages and morals inspiring readers.

Wetmore Carryl, an American poet, humourist, worked on Aesop's material to make several new tales with amusing twists and turns. Yet another writer, Jean de La Fontaine was greatly influenced by Aesop but he mostly wrote keeping the adult audience in mind. Rudyard Kipling, a renowned English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist of 19th – 20th century vintage, wrote “The Jungle Book” which became his most famous work featuring stories of animals with human traits and characteristics carrying strong moral and ethical tenor. Encashing on the popularity of The Jungle Book, television series and animation pictures have been created in several countries. Best known for his art, inventions and scientific work, Italian Leonardo da Vinci also wrote and illustrated several fables during his lifetime. In fact, the list of Western writers and their contributions during the Middle Age is long and cannot be accounted for in this piece but it might be unfair to ignore George Ade, another American writer and columnist, who specialty contributed tales of ordinary lives of ordinary people and his two illustrated compilations are known as Modern Fables (1901) and Ade's Fables (1914).

Perhaps the Indian sub-continent has been richest in so far as fables and legends are concerned. Unlike West, hundreds of fables were created and composed during the first millennium BCE in the ancient India, many of these tales were a mix of humans and animals, and exclusively humans or animals. Many of these stories begin and then often accommodate other relevant illustration(s) or tale(s) within the frame. In this context yet another term ‘parable’ is relevant which is different from fable in that the former excludes plants, animals, and inanimate objects and other forces of nature with acquired speech of humans or such other potential for that matter. The Indian fables and parables have a distinct identity from the Western counterparts in that the conversation and dialogues are often found longish and the actors (mostly animals) try to outwit one another through sheer wit, cunning or even deceit. Another characteristic is that usually the man is not shown superior to other animals and is often found taking their assistance. Among the wide range of such compilations, the Panchatantra, Jataka tales and Hitopadesha are considered the best and most popular among the Indian masses, particularly children.

Panchatantra collection of fables is widely believed to have been authored by Vishnu Sharma, an Indian scholar and author although there is some uncertainty about the vintage of collection, as different estimates vary it from 1200 BCE to 300 BCE. Originally, it was compiled in Sanskrit verse and prose, arranged within a frame story. It is a classical literature classified as Hindu text based on earlier oral traditions possibly as old as we can imagine as civilization. Many stories of Panchatantra are well known and common with similar tales in other parts of the world. Panchatantra is so popular that there is a version of it in almost every major language of India; besides nearly 200 versions exist in more than 50 languages around the world too. The very word “Panchatantra” is a blend of the two words Pancha that means five in Sanskrit, and Tantra, which means weave. It connotes interlacing five skeins of customs and lessons into one book (five parts work), which provides teachings and moral lessons to the children, and even adults, onto social virtues and ethics to become good and morally strong citizens.

The Jataka tales is another voluminous literary work native to India of very old times dealing with the previous births of Gautam Buddha in both human and animal forms before he became the enlightened soul. It is a collection of more than 500 fables that recounts on specific virtues. These tales include an extensive cast of characters who interact and get into various kinds of difficulties, then invariably have an encounter with the Buddha character that resolve all the issues leading to a happy ending. Buddha may appear as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant, and so on but in every form, he is virtuous and kind towards others.  Then Hitopadesha is yet another bulky Indian text originally in Sanskrit and translated in other Indian and foreign languages comprising of fables with both human and animal characters. The literal meaning of Hitopadesha is “beneficial advice”; not much is known about the exact authorship, which is ascribed to Vishnu Sharma or Narayana by different scholars and the last surviving manuscript is believed to be of 12th century vintage. Some other well-known fables and parables from the Indian sub-continent from old times are Katha-sarit-sagara, Baital Pachisi, Tenaliram, and so on. In the modern age, the fables and parables have been mostly trivialized in children’s comic book. Legendary tales usually contain one or more protagonists with exemplary heroic character and events, including even supernatural elements, and the tale is often upheld as linked to real characters, places and occurrences. Another essential feature is that the legend is usually linked with the history and culture of that society. Narratives of this genre also manifest human values and beliefs of the contemporary society that give the tale enough credence. Because of the extrapolation and supernatural elements, legends are often found oscillating within the realm of uncertainty of being true or fictional, accepted by believers and doubted by non-believers. Urban legends are yet another genre of modern age tales particularly in West mostly rooted in local popular culture, comprising of usually fictional stories presented as true, with ghastly, unearthly or even humorous plots and themes.

Among the famous Western epics and legendary tales, some prominent names are The Epic of Gilgamesh, Aeneid, Odyssey, Iliad, Beowulf, Judita, The Daredevils of Sassoun, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, Mabinogion, The Mountain Wreath, The Song of Roland, Lord Byron, and a host of others. The Gilgamesh, Odyssey and the Iliad are among the oldest extant works of Western literature, which arguably span from 2000 to the 800 BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh is supposedly written about 4000 years ago, the epic poem narrates the legendary story of the young god-king Gilgamesh in Sumerian city-state of Uruk. He befriends Enkidu, a Wildman and together they confront Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, who is sent to attack them by Ishtar (alias Inanna) after Gilgamesh rejects offer to become her consort.

The Iliad is famous ancient Greek epic poem traditionally attributed to Homer. The story is set in the background of Trojan War, the ten-year siege of Troy by the coalition of Greek states, with illustrated accounts of the battles and events as also the quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. Although the main story covers only few weeks of the last phase of war, it includes within frame many of the Greek legends about the siege; past events; and the cause of the war.  Virgil – The Aeneid of 19 BCE vintage falls in the category of great Roman epic that narrates the Emperor Augustus’s stoic attitude and commitment to the national duty to ward-off enemies of his empire. Similarly, from the middle ages, John Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1667 is colloquially known as legendary Protestant Epic depicting the fall of Lucifer (Satan) in heaven and the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

In the Indian sub-continent, Ved Vyasa's Mahabharata and Valmiki's Ramayana are two great epics. These epics include several legends within the main story, as side stories or back-stories. The Ramayana is also called the Adi-Kavya or the first epic poem. This is based on the life of all-time great and ideal Sri Ramachandra, considered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The epic is a legendary tale of  about twenty-four thousand verses and the story establishes ideal role-model of a man and woman, how a person should conduct in family, how one should conduct with his elders, superiors, equals, and subordinates, how a ruler should rule, how a man should lead his life in this world.

The Mahabharata is the greatest epic ever written most probably in the world history and it contains approximately one lakh verses. The storyline covers Kuruvansh (the Pandavas and Kauravas clan) and Yaduvansh (Yadava clan) with Shree Krishna as chief protagonist. Along with its great storyline, the epic delivers the gist of Hindu Vedas and Upanishads through moral teachings, legends and fables, discourses, sermons, parables and dialogues. Vintage-wise, the Ramayana is considered even older than the Mahabharata, which is about five thousand years old and both the epics have been translated in several Indian and foreign languages.

Yoga Vasistha and Harivamshsa are two other great but less known epics based on the lives of Sri Rama and Shree Krishna, respectively conveying essence of Hindu Darshana through legends and fables. Bhartrihari’s Satakatraya, Somadeva Bhatta’s Katha-Sarit-Sagara, Kshemendra’s Brihat-Katha-Manjari, Kalidasa’s Abhijnana-Shakuntalam, Meghadutam, Kumara-sambhava and Raghuvamsha are other classical writings in the category of poetry and drama in ancient India. Puranas are yet another genre of Hindu scriptures which conveyed the essence of religion and philosophy through storytelling, legends and fables. They were primarily composed in Sanskrit but also in Tamil and other Indian languages, and many of these texts are named after the major deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma and Shakti, covering diverse subjects like cosmology, genealogies of gods, goddesses, kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, folk tales, pilgrimages, temples, humour, love stories; apart from the theology and philosophy. In all, there are eighteen Maha (major) Puranas and equal number of Upa (minor) Puranas; the prominent ones being Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, Linga Purana, Siva Purana, Markandeya Purana, Skanda Purana and Garuda Purana.

Fables and Legends in Scriptural Teaching in Hinduism

No other human society and religion in the world boasts of an incredibly rich collection of scriptures as Hinduism. Among them are the four Vedas and ten Principal Upanishads; besides there are nearly 200 minor Upanishads in various disciplines, a host of other texts like Agamas, Brahma-Sutras, Mimamsa, Yoga-Sutras, Dharma-Sastras, and so on, covering not only the religious and spiritual aspects but also all other disciplines including sciences, ayurveda, astrology, yoga, music, dance, architecture, statecraft, social duties and laws. Though these texts are highly valued for their scriptural knowledge and spiritual content, the inherent problem with them was that during the then hierarchical society based on Varnashrama, they were created and transmitted in Shruti and Smriti traditions keeping the particular priestly class for such education and learning. Therefore, the ordinary man could not understand and absorb the abstract philosophy of the Vedas; though Upanishads, Sutras and Shastras occasionally used illustrations and legends, usually they were also beyond wisdom and understanding of the common man.

As the common folks would find it difficult to learn or understand high spiritual contents, the visionary sages and scholars in the post-Vedic period attempted creation of Puranas to popularise the teachings and message of Vedas through narratives, stories, myths and legends depicting the lives of gods, demi-gods, kings, saints and great men, as also the allegories and chronicles of the significant historical events. The chief aim of Puranas was to convey the essence of the Vedas through examples and illustrations to motivate people for the righteous duties and actions in the contemporary society and devotion to God. In a way, the Puranas were not essentially meant for those who depended on logic and rationale but for the common folks who cannot read or understand high scriptural philosophies yet can learn through examples, observations and devotion. The epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata in the Itihasas (history) category also fall in the same genre representing five common features namely history, cosmology (symbolical illustrations of philosophical principles), secondary creation, genealogy and manavantaras.

Thus, the Puranas and Itihasas were written employing the same logic and rationale that the ordinary man cannot understand and absorb the abstract philosophy of the Vedic scriptures. Hence, the sages like Valmiki and Ved Vyasa (also known as Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa) wrote the Ramayana and Mahabharata, respectively, for the use and benevolence of the common folks, which reflected the same spirit and philosophy but through narratives and analogies making use of legends, fables and parables in an interesting and tasteful manner. Though they were originally written in Sanskrit but later written and translated in other Indian languages too for the universal reach and circulation. Though this fructified through the combined efforts of several ancient sages and scholars but the name of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa alias Ved Vyasa is considered most significant as the compiler of several Puranas and Mahabharata. These aspects are further illustrated through the following few legends and fables:


Nachiketa and Yama Dialogue

In Katha Upanishad (also Kathopanishad), the essence of spiritual and metaphysical mysteries of this universe has been explained through an allegory in a simple way of the dialogue between a teenage boy Nachiketa and the lord of death Yama. Nachiketa was the son of the sage Vajashravas, who performed a yajna (sacrifice) wherein (Viswajet Yajna) the performer was required to give away his valuable possessions and wealth. In those times, cows were also considered as valuable possessions, hence among other valuables the sage also resolved to donate his cows to Brahmins, some of which were very old and disables animals no more able to render milk and calves. The intelligent and pious heart boy was watching the ritual with curiosity and he became restless with the plight of cows.

Therefore, the boy asked his father that what he knew was the performer of yajna was expected to give away all his possessions and so what he had planned for him (son) in the process. Initially, Vajashravas ignored his query but when Nachiketa persisted for the answer, the former became furious and uttered, “I will give you to Yama, the Lord of Death.” The utterance of the sage tantamount to sort of curse and the boy had to travel to the Kingdom of Death. As Yama was away, Nachiketa had to wait at the gates for three days unmoved and unfed. When Yama returned, he felt sorry for the unscheduled arrival and inconvenience incurred to the boy during the wait. So, he admitted the boy in and told him that he would have to go back but before that he must seek three boons in lieu of all inconvenience incurred during his absence.

The first boon Nachiketa sought was that his father should not be worried about him, his anger be vanished so that he recognized and accepted him when he (son) goes back. The boon was instantly granted by Yama. As the second boon, Nachiketa expressed desire to learn the ritual of the fire sacrifice which was considered most pious those days and the same was promptly granted too. Now as the third boon, Nachiketa posed a question if there was indeed a life beyond death and if so Yama was required to unravel the mystery about the same. Yama discouraged him to pose queries about the life and death saying that even gods are not very clear on this subject. Yama offered all worldly possessions and pleasures in lieu but the boy persisted with his question and told Yama that he had no other desire except his wish to learn the mysteries of the life and death. He argued that the worldly possessions are transient and do not offer long lasting happiness and bliss; hence they were of no use to him. When Yama found it impossible to change his mind, he finally agreed to Nachiketa to divulge with the details of the mysteries of life and death.

In the ensuing dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa the following points emerged:

  • that the Self (soul) is immortal as it neither dies nor born. When the physical body is destroyed through death, the soul remains untouched and unaffected by any external force or change. Be it a minute or the mighty creature, the soul manifests all; and it only changes carrier i.e. body;
  • that the physical body is like a chariot, the intelligence is the driver, the senses are horses and the soul is charioteer (master) of the chariot, which is far superior to body, mind and senses;
  • that Superior to the individual Self is the all-pervading Supreme Consciousness or Supreme Self (Brahman). In fact, individual Self is only an extension of It under the influence and impurities caused by Maya. Once Brahman is realized, the soul archives supreme bliss beyond the vicious cycle of life and death;
  • that the path of realization is long and arduous, explained in scriptures that wise men follow to achieve; failure to achieve Supreme Consciousness brings back the soul to experience hardships of life, death and rebirth time and again.

Daksha, Moon and 27 Wives

This legendary story is part of Shiva Purana with varying versions at other places too as part of the Indian mythology. The story begins with Chandra (Moon)’s ardent desire to marry Daksha Prajapati’s twenty-seven daughter, which was granted by the latter. However, following the divine matrimony, Chandra became more lustful and attached to one daughter named Mohini, whom he started giving preference and precedence over the other wives. Consequently, he used to spend a lot of time with Rohini while ignoring others. The other twenty-six wives naturally became upset with his behaviour and made a joint complaint to their father Daksha, who got angry and cursed Chandra that he would gradually lose all his splendour and perish. Realizing his mistake, he sought the advice of sages to get rid of the curse.

Consequently, Chandra along with Rohini did penance to please Lord Shiva who had the powers to undo many wrongs done. However, pleased with his penance, Lord told Chandra that it was not possible to completely reverse the curse of Daksha but he would soften it to minimize the curse on him. He said that Chandra would henceforth increase in its size and glow for the first 15 days, decrease to the next 15 days and this cycle will ever continue with the crescent shape remaining as the reminder of the curse one time fallen on him. Chandra was initially disappointed with the idea of waxing and waning but Shiva consoled him that with the crescent he would be able to retain some of his glow and powers; and that he (Shiva) would wear Chandra’s crescent on his hair as a mark that the devotees are dear to him even in their lowest forms.

After this event, Shiva acquired another name of Chandrasekhar, Chandra also came to be known as Soma with one day in week i.e. Somvar (Monday) dedicated to him. Ever since, the Moon started spending each night with one of his wives in a circular ever ongoing cycle. In reality, this mythological tale relates the position of moon (Chandra) with the 27 constellations (Nakshatras) surrounding its orbit. This story is a mark reminder of the evolution and reach of Hindu astronomy even during the ancient ages in the absence of the high-resolution telescopes and other astronomical instruments of the modern times. The stated Nakshatras representing moon’s consort in the legend are Ashwini, Bharani, Krittika, Rohini, Mrigashirsha, Ardra, Punarvasu, Pushya, Ashlesha, Magha, Purva, Uttara, Hasta, Chitra, Svati, Visakha, Anuradha, Jyeshtha, Mula, Purva Ashadha, Uttara Ashadha, Sravana, Sravistha, Shatabhisha, Purva Bhadrapada, Uttara Bhadrapada and Revati.

The Loyal Mongoose

This fable with a significant moral teaching has been derived from the Panchatantra. As the story goes, there lived a Brahmin with his devoted wife in a village. After a considerable wait, they were blessed with son; so, the Brahmin decided to have a pet mongoose who could protect as well as give some company to his infant son. When he brought the mongoose to house, the wife agreed to keep it after initial resistance as she was apprehensive about the animal might cause some harm to her child. However, the child and mongoose soon developed immense liking for each other; hence both the husband and wife too started loving the mongoose like their own child but, somehow, the woman remained always bit sceptical about the man’s wisdom of bringing the mongoose as pet to their household. She always got perturbed whenever the mongoose came too close to her son.

One day, the woman had to go to the market to fetch vegetables and she asked her husband to take care of the child in her absence. But after some time, the Brahmin also went out to beg alms with the confidence that the mongoose would take care of the child who was quietly sleeping in the cradle. After some time, when the woman returned, she found mongoose at the door with its mouth blood-stained. Assuming the mongoose had killed her son, she hit the mongoose with the loaded basket and ran inside for her child. To her utter surprise, the son was still sleeping peacefully and a dead snake was lying on the floor nearby cut into pieces. Now she realized the truth that a snake had sneaked into the house endangering the life of her son and the mongoose actually fought and killed the snake for the sake of her son’s safety. Realizing her grave mistake, she rushed back to check the mongoose but it was already dead. Both Brahmin and his wife kept crying and repenting for days but all this was of no avail.

In many Western variants of the same fable, the animals like dog, cat, weasel, bear or even lion have been used in place of mongoose, and snake has been replaced by other ferocious animals like hyena or wolf but the essence of the tale and underlying message remains the same. The moral of the fable is that the pets are as dependable as human beings and one should not perform any action in haste because acting without due thought and consideration could be dangerous.


Since time immemorial, fables and legends have been an essential component of the literature of the contemporary societies world over, including India. Traditionally, education was the privilege of elites and priestly classes in ancient times, hence the contemporary literature as well as socio-religious contents of high metaphysical and spiritual tenor were beyond the comprehension of the common folks. Therefore, the sages and scholars discovered rather an easy and simple way of educating them with appropriate messages and moral teachings through interesting and tasteful stories that led to evolution of the genres of fable, parable, legend, folklore, and so on. Hindu scriptures Vedas could be cited for illustration which are so difficult and beyond comprehension of the common man, hence to disseminate and popularise their message, more scriptures variants such as Upanishads, Puranas and Epics rich in legends and fables content were created by the sages to ensure its reach to the common folks.

Three stories illustrated in the foregoing paragraphs are derived one each from the Indian texts Katha Upanishad, Shiva Purana and Panchatantra, respectively. The tale of Nachiketa unfolds the greatest mystery of the universe and essence of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism by explaining the nature and relationship of Brahman (God) and Individual Self (soul) in so simple and lucid terms. The story of Chandra and his wives unravels the astronomical knowledge of moon and the constellations found on its orbit. Similarly, the fable about the mongoose conveys vital messages of the value of loyalty and avoiding undue haste in actions. Believers and non-believers might indulge in unnecessary debate of the stated fable and legends being real or fictional while what needs to be captured is the underlying spirit and objective behind these tales which is the dissemination of right education and moral message through illustrations and allegories.

Continued to Next Page  

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More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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Views: 3508      Comments: 2

Comment Thank you, Mr Ashby, for your well meaning remarks. I have tried to briefly capture world scenario on subject with emphasis on Hindu traditions for obvious reasons. The films and other contemporary means of entertainment are often viewed as mirrors of the contemporary society and perhaps vice versa too. To my mind, science and machines have always been part of human society during evolution with its own dynamics in different ages. Also morality cannot be entirely delinked from human faith.

Jaipal Singh
12-Aug-2020 01:23 AM

Comment Thanks for a resume of the role of fable and legend in Hindu tradition, which the last line explains as teaching of life values. In today's vast outpouring of films and soap operas, it is rather to tell stories about life as it happens or might happen. It is now a case of man’s lived experience, saving the situation through science and machines; and natural morality based on respect for human - and animal - life, without a divine compass.

Richard Ashby
08-Aug-2020 15:16 PM

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