This opera is based on the legendary Indian play Shakuntala, written by Kalidas. It was believed that the first translation into Tibetan in the eighth century was carried by Vairocana and completed by the eleventh century translator Sherawoo Lotsawa.
There once was a kingdom near Bodh Gaya called Semkyi Lodro (Wisdom of Thought), which was ruled by a monarch who propitiate an evil god. This evil god demanded the sacrifice of many innocent animals. Nearby, in a cave in the woods lived an old hermit called Drangsong who led a life of austerity and meditation. He deplored these evil practices and prayed that one day the ruler and his people would see the futility of their practices.
One day an old couple come to seek the teachings and blessings of the hermit Drangsong. To show their gratitude, they present him with a white loin cloth. The hermit wears it immediately, thanking them. That evening while he sleeps he experiences a wet dream, so he washes the garment in a stream. After he returns to his cave, a female deer comes to drink from the stream, and as a miraculous consequence becomes pregnant.
The kindly hermit looks after the deer during her pregnancy and nine months and ten days later, amid extraordinary signs of rainbows and uncommonly bright sunshine, the deer gives birth to a baby girl. As soon as she is born, the baby recites the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” and offers prayers to the Three Jewels of Refuge. Drangsong, amazed by her beauty, calls her “Sukyi Nyima” which means “embodiment of sun”. The girl grows up to be a gentle maiden and lives her young years happily with the hermit Drangsong in his humble dwelling.
Meanwhile, the barren Queen of this kingdom performs special Pujas for fertility and gives birth to two consecutive sons, firstly Dawa Sengey (Moon’s Lion) who grows to disagree with his father’s religious practices, and secondly Dawa Shonnu (Young Moon). After some discussion, the King proclaims his elder son, Dawa Sengey as his successor and orders him to visit the temple of his evil god. On the way to the temple, Dawa Sengey and his minister encounter a maid called Rignyen Bumo, who pretends to be a princess. The young Prince is smitten by her, but the minister distrusts her and urges the Prince to move on.
They get to the temple and make the appropriate prayers to the King’s god. Dawa Sengey asks the god through an oracle where he shall find a wife. Such absurdities are offered as answers, such as “Winter will be cold and summer will be hot” and “If you eat tsampa all year you will never lose your teeth!” At last the prince is told that he will find his wife in the east.
On the journey home, they are once again way-laid by the captivating Rignyen Bumo who offers him chang (Tibetan beer) and seduces him into believing that she is the girl of the oracle’s prediction. Willingly, the prince takes Rignyen Bumo to his palace where they celebrate their marriage with a huge feast.
The new King has a patriotic talking parrot who attempts to awaken the King’s mind to his new wife’s evil origins, but Dawa Sengey will not listen. His wife is beautiful, and this alone satisfies him. He does not notice her perverse characteristics, such as her desire to kill animals. One day a boar enters the garden and she gleefully orders the hunter to kill it. The hunter tries to do so, but loses sight of the boar in the forest. Next he spots a deer and decides to pursue it instead, but it too escapes. Finding himself hopelessly lost, tired and frightened of the Queen’s anger, he falls asleep next to a steam. As he sleeps, Sukyi Nyima comes to draw water, and the man awakens and sees her. The hunter asks her for directions and may be a protective charm to help him get home, and she kindly gives him what he asked.
On returning to the palace, the hunter tells the King of the astounding beauty and kindness of this girl in the forest. The King decides he must see her for himself and sets off into the forest. On finding Sukyi
Nyima, the King is overcome with love and begs her hand in marriage. The modest girl says nothing, but directs the King to her father. The hermit Drangsong has his apprehensions, but consents to the marriage on two conditions. Firstly, she must prostrate back to her home at the top of every hill on her journey, and secondly, she must never part from the protective rosary that he gave her.
Unfortunately, Sukyi Nyima forgets to prostrate and the old hermit, overcome with grief, falls off the roof and is taken to heaven by five angels.
The new Queen Sukyi Nyima so overshadows the King’s other wife, Rignyen Bumo, that the latter becomes green with jealousy. The new Queen gives birth to a son, but still feels sad and lonely. To cheer her up, she is given a maid, Yama, who can sing and dance. What is unknown to Sukyi Nyima is that Yama is a witch. She and Rignyen Bumo conspire to get rid of the beautiful Queen.
Yama tricks her into parting with her protective rosary and whilst unprotected, poisons her. Sukyi Nyima, unconscious, is framed for the murder of the King’s favorite white elephant. The King was furious, until the parrot tells him that Sukyi Nyima is not guilty of the crime. However, when Sukyi Nyima is found lying next to their own son’s dead body, knife in hand, then no amount of reasoning will calm the King down. He orders the execution of the Queen.
The parrot pleads with the King, telling him that if he is lying about Sukyi Nyima’s innocence, then his blood will flow red. The angry King cuts off the parrot’s head, and sure enough, the blood is white. Still fury clouds the King’s reason and the planned execution is to go ahead. The executioners took Sukyi Nyima to the forest with the idea of feeding her to the wild animals. Luckily, her mother, the deer, came along at that very moment and saved her.
Shaken by the recent events, Sukyi Nyima decides to go into meditation for three years. She then decides to go amongst the people, preaching Buddhism. One day, her former maid, unaware of her identity, confesses all her sins to Sukyi Nyima who forgives her immediately. One of the King’s ministers also goes to the renowned Lama Mani (religious story-teller) and, noticing that one of her front teeth is made of conch, recognises her as Sukyi Nyima and in amazement hurries off to tell the King.
The King rushes to her and passionately begs her forgiveness. She grants him this and returns to the palace as his Queen. The wicked Queen is imprisoned and Yama is maimed for life for punishment of her sins. Sukyi Nyima and the King live happily together, and have another son called Nyima Sengey (Sun Lion), who eventually grows up to become King and spread Buddhism throughout the land. People come from all of the different regions of Tibet to celebrate and rejoice.