India, Vampires in

India, Vampires in

(pop culture)

Among the vast number of deities and supernatural entities found in India’s religious world were a number that possessed vampiric characteristics and were noted in the vampire literature. They merge into a wide variety of demonic entities that more closely resemble ghosts, ghouls, living witches and sorcerers. The Indian vampire and vampiric entities appeared in ancient Indian texts, and some have speculated that India was one place where belief in vampires originated and from there spread to surrounding lands.

There was certainly evidence that the Gypsies brought a form of vampire belief from India with them when they migrated westward. In ancient Hinduism (the dominant religion of India), creation was portrayed as beginning with the formation of a golden egg (cosmic intelligence). Visible creation resulted from the division of the egg into the heavens, the earth, and the twenty-one regions of the cosmos. These twenty-one regions of the cosmos were roughly divided into three zones, one of which was the Tala, or subterranean region, the abode of the chthonian entities including ogres, spectres, and demons.

The most well-known of the vampiric beings from the Tala were the rakshasas (feminine, rakshasis), generally described as ogres and demons who lived in cemeteries and disturbed the affairs of people by disrupting rituals and interrupting devotions. The slaying of infants was among their most loathsome actions. The rakshasas came in a variety of forms, some male and some female, some more humanoid and some half animal. Hanuman, the deity that appeared in the form of a monkey, was reported to have observed rakshasas in every imaginable shape when he entered the city of Lanka as an envoy of Ramam. The rakshasas were characters in many Indian epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (which contains the Hanuman episode), and many of the deities and mythical heroes gained their reputation by slaying rakshasas. The rakshasas were cited as vampires because of some of their characteristics. For example, they were nocturnal wanderers of the night. They had a fearsome appearance with elongated fangs. Texts described them as asra-pa or asrk-pa (literally: drinkers of blood). Like the Greek lamiai, they sought pregnant female victims and were known to attack infants. The natural enemy of the rakshasas was Agni, the dispeller of darkness and officiator at sacrificial ritual, and people called on Agni to destroy or ward off demons.

Closely associated with the rakshasas were the yatu-dhana (or hatu-dhana), sorcerers who devoured the remains left by the rakshasas. On occasion the term yatu-dhana was used interchangeably with rakshasas. Also frequently mentioned with the rakshasas, but even lower on the scale of beings, were the pisachas (literally: the eaters of raw flesh), also described as hideous in appearance, repellant, and bloodthirsty. The texts described them as flesh-eating ghouls and the source of malignant disease. In the Puranas, a set of Hindu writings, the pisachas were described as the products of the anger of the deity Brahma.

After creating gods, demons (asuras), ancestors, and humankind, Brahma became afflicted with hunger, and they began to eat his body, for they were raksasas and yaksas. When Brahma saw them he was displeased, and his hair fell out and became serpents. And when he saw the serpents he was angry, and the creatures born of his anger were the fierce flesh-eating pisachas. Thus Brahma created cruel creatures and gentle creatures, dharma and adharma, truth and falsehood.

Also possessing some vampiric characteristics were the bhuta, the souls of the dead, specifically those who had died an untimely death, had been insane, or had been born deformed. They wandered the night and appeared as dark shadows, flickering lights, or misty apparitions. On occasion they would enter a corpse and lead it in its ghoulish state to devour living persons. The brahmaparusha was a similar entity known in northern India.

Bhutas lived around cremation grounds, old ruins, and other abandoned locations, and in deserts. They might undergo a transformation into either owls or bats. The owl had a special place in Indian mythology. It was considered unlucky to hear the owl’s hoot, possibly fatal if heard in a burial ground. Owl flesh could be used in black magic rituals. Bhutas were the ever-present evil spirits and were considered dangerous for a wide variety of reasons. They ate filthy food and were always thirsty. They liked milk and would attack babies who had just fed. They could enter the body through various orifices and possess a person. While the bhutas might act in a vampirish way on occasion, they generally were seen as simply malevolent beings.

The Indian demon-like figures possibly closest to the Western vampire were the vetalas, or betails, spirits that inhabited and animated the bodies of the dead. A betail was the central character in The Vetala-Pachisi, a classic piece of Indian literature comparable to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or the Arabian Nights. Originally translated and published in English in the mid-nineteenth century, a new translation of 11 of what he deemed were the most interesting of the stories was made by Sir Richard F. Burton and published in 1870 under the title Vikram and the Vampire. The Vetala-Pachisi described the encounter of King Vikram with a betail who told him a series of tales. Vikram, like King Arthur, was an actual person who lived in the first century C.E. and became a magnet for many tales and fables. In the book, a yogi cajoled Vikram to spend an evening with him in the cemetery. He then asked Vikram to bring him a body he would find some four miles to the south at another burial ground. The body, the yogi told him, would be hanging on a mimosa tree. The body turned out to be a betail. Vikram encountered great difficulty in getting the vampire to accompany him back to the yogi, but finally succeeded through his persistence. To entertain them on the return trip, the betail told a series of stories that form the body of the book.

When they reached the cemetery with the yogi, the king found him invoking Kali. He was surrounded by the host of demons from Indian lore, including the rakshasas, the bhutas (who had assumed various beastly shapes), and the betails. The yogi led them to the shrine of the goddess Kali. There Vikram killed the yogi who was about to kill him. As a boon, the gods granted him fame.

A survey of Indian vampiric entities would be incomplete without further mention of the goddess Kali, often associated with Siva as a consort. She was a dark goddess, usually pictured as having black skin. She had a terrible and frightening appearance, wearing parts of the human body as ornaments. Her favorite places were the battlefield, where she became drunk on the blood of her victims, and the burial/cremation ground. In Vikram and the Vampire, Kali appeared in the shrine located at the cemetery, and as Vikram entered he saw her:

There stood Smashana-Kali, the goddess, in her most horrible form. She was a naked and a very black woman, with half-severed head, partly cut and partly painted, resting on her shoulder; and her tongue lolled out from her wide yawning mouth; her eyes were red like those of a drunkard; and her eyebrows were of the same colour; her thick coarse hair hung like a mantle to her knees.

Burton comments on this passage:

Not being able to find victims, this pleasant deity, to satisfy her thirst for the curious juice, cut her own throat that the blood might spout up into her mouth.

Other Vampiric Entities: Throughout India, among the various ethnic/linguistic groups, there were a multitude of ghosts, demons, and evil spirits who lived in or near cemeteries and cremation locations and who bore some resemblance to the vampires of Europe. Many fooled others by assuming the form of a living person. They reverted to a horrible demonic appearance just before attacking their victims. For example, in Gujarat there were the churels, women who died an unnatural death (in western India the churel was also known as a jakhin, jakhai, mukai, nagulai, and alvantin). If such a woman had been treated badly by her family, she would return to harass them and to dry up the blood of the male family members. Such a woman could become a dakini, an associate of the goddess Kali, and a partaker in her vampirish and ghoulish activities. If a young man was tempted by the churel and ate of the food she offered, she would keep him with her until dawn and return him to his village a grey-haired old man. The churel had one noticeable feature that gave her away—her feet were turned backwards so her heel was in front and her toes in back.

Women at the time of childbirth and their infants were given great attention by family and friends. A woman who died in childbirth was likely to become a ghost. To prevent that from occurring, the family would bury rather than cremate the body. They would then fix four nails in the ground at the corners of the burial spot and plant red flowers on top of the grave. A woman who died in childbirth was also buried in a special place (the exact spot differing in various sections of India). For example, the corpse could be carried outside the house by a side door and buried within the shadow of the house by the noontime sun. It was believed that by not using the front door, the churel would be unable to find her way home. Some used iron nails in the house’s threshold and sprinkled millet seeds on the road to the burying ground. As in eastern Europe, the churel must count the seeds, a task that kept her busy until daybreak. In the Punjab, a woman who died in childbirth would have nails driven through her hands and feet, red pepper placed in her eyes, and a chain wrapped around her feet. Others broke the legs above the ankles and turned the feet around backward, bound the big toes together, or simply bound the feet with iron rings.

Among the most interesting vampires were the chedipe (literally: prostitute), a type of sorceress in the Godavari area. The chedipe was pictured as riding a tiger through the night. Unclothed, she entered the home of a sleeping man and sucked his blood out of his toe. Using a form of hypnotism, she put the others in the household into a trancelike sleep so that they were unaware of her presence. In the morning, the man would awaken but feel drained of energy and somewhat intoxicated. If he did not seek treatment for his condition, the chedipe would return. On occasion the chedipe would attack men in the jungle in the form of a tiger with a human leg.

Devendra P. Varma has made a case that the vampire deities of the ancient Hindus are the source of vampire beliefs in Europe. He asserted that such beliefs were carried by the Arab caravans over the Great Silk Route from the Indus Valley into the Mediterranean Basin. They probably arrived in Greece around the first century C.E. This theory, while entirely possible, has yet to be developed in the depth necessary to place it beside alternative theories that project multiple origins of vampiric myth in different cultures to meet a set of fairly universal needs.

Sources:

The Baital-Pachisi; or, The Twenty-five Tales of a Demon. Ed. by Duncan Forbes. London: Crosby, Lockwood, 1857.
Burton, Richard, trans. Vikram and the Vampire; or, Tales of Hindu Devilry. 1870, 1893. Rpt.: New York: Dover Publications, 1969. 243 pp.
Crooke, William. Religion and Folklore of Northern India. Humphrey Milford: Oxford University Press, 1926. 471 pp.
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