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April 10, 2010

Namaste: Vampires of the Sub-Continent

India is seen to be one of the centers for the origin of the vampire myth.  However, many attribute the origins of the vampire myth to Gypsies.  Muslims may have spread these early legends into India in the ancient caravans that used to travel along the great silk route.  However, each of these ideas on the origins of the vampire myth are merely theories and cannot be proven yet without further research.  India is the home to many vampire myths, with some of these myths and legends holding a closer resemblance to the western idea of the vampire than others. 

One of the first vampire myths from India that I encountered in my research is the legend of the Rakshasas.  Rakshasas are ogres and demons who lived in cemeteries and disrupted rituals and devotions concerning the dead.  These creatures were also known to slay infants and pregnant women, and came in a variety of forms.  The Rahshasa could be either male or female and either took the form of a humanoid or animal.  These supernatural creatures were described as vampiric because they were nocturnal and had a fearsome appearance along with a set of fangs.  The Rakshasa are also described as asra-pa or asrk-pa, meaning “drinkers of blood.”  I was conducting an image search for Rakshasas and found a lot of demons with tiger-heads and bodies.  I had not found any ties to tigers in my research on Rakshasas, so upon further sleuthing I discovered that there is a Rakshasa character in the popular game dungeons and dragons.  It seems that in an online version of the game there is a realm in which Rakshasas serve as the enemies whom the player fights to attain a goal.  The artists must have decided to assign a tiger-like appearance to these characters in the game. 

Above: A Rakshasa from the Dungeons and Dragons game.

A second vampire myth originating in India is the legend of the Bhuta.  Bhuta are souls of the dead, especially of those lost souls who suffered untimely deaths, had been afflicted with insanity or were born deformed.  The Bhuta wandered the night and appeared as shadows, flickering lights or misty apparitions.  Bhuta could enter a corpse and then use the corpse to devour the living.  Bhuta lived on or near cremation grounds, old ruins, abandoned locations or deserts.  These vampiric creatures could transform into either owls or bats.  Owls held particular significance in India, as it was considered unlucky to hear an owls hoot, especially when on was near a burial ground.  Owl flesh was also used in black magic rituals, so these animals already held supernatural attributes in Indian culture.  Bhuta ate filthy food and were always thirsty.  The Bhuta were especially fond of milk and thus craved babies who had recently fed, as they tasted of milk.  The Bhuta was generally seen as a malevolent being and does not have as many vampiric attributes as other myths and legends found in Indian folklore, but I thought they were worth mentioning. 

In some respects, the myth of the Bhuta is not so different from a few other legends explored in this blog.  There seems to be a theme in vampire folklore that sudden or violent deaths result in the person becoming a vampire, or some form of vampire.  The vampire myth at large appears to be a response to issues resulting from fear of death, as so many of these beings are a consequence of death or the fear death and loss instills in others. 

A third vampire legend in India is the myth of Chedipe.  Chedipe literally means prostitute, and these beings are a sort of sorceress from the Godavari area.  The Chedipe are often depicted as riding a tiger through the night, unclothed.  These sorceresses would enter the home of a sleeping man and would suck his blood from his toe.  The Chedipe used a sort of hypnotism to put others in the household of their victims into a trance-like sleep so they are unaware of the Chedipe’s presence.  The man would wake up in the morning after the Chedipe-attack and would simply feel drained of energy and somewhat intoxicated.  If the victim did not seek treatment the Chedipe would return.  On occasions the Chedipe would attack men in the jungle in the form of a tiger with a human leg. 

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Above: Hindu Goddess Kali Ma

The final vampire legend from India is the legend surrounding the Hindu goddess Kali Ma.  Kali Ma is depicted as a dark goddess, usually having black skin and wearing parts of the human body as ornaments.  Kali Ma is associated with the battlefield, where she drank the blood of her victims.  The goddess also frequented the cremation and burial grounds in lore.  Kali Ma is said to have red eyes, like a drunkard, and a half-severed head, partly cut and partly painted.  She is often depicted sticking out her tongue, with long hair flowing to her knees.

Filed by at April 10th, 2010 under Legends/Folklore
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