Nov 9, 2012

The Legend of the Malabar Vampire


You are probably more familiar with the term 'vampire', the most famous being the legend of Count Dracula of Romania. There are variations of this legend spread all across the globe, ranging from Portugal, Malaysia, Arabia, Russia and even Scotland. But are you aware of the fact that India has had it's own vampire tale since many centuries, long before we had any form of communication with the above mentioned countries ?  In the southern state of Kerala, specifically the Malabar region, lies the origin of the infamous 'lady in white' from our movies, also known as the 'Yakshi'. 

According to folklore, the Yakshi appears as a beautiful woman who seduces lonely travellers at night. Dressed in a white sari with her hair loose and flowing in the wind, she stops them with a simple request for lime for her betel nut. From there, she uses her guile to seduce him with the promise of further pleasures and gets him to follow her to her palace. The fate awaiting the poor traveller is sadly more gruesome. The palace is, in fact, the palm tree where she resides and once there, the yakshi assumes her dreadful form of jet black eyes and elongated bared canines before proceeding to devour the man. The only remains that would be found in the morning are the leftovers at the base of the tree - the victims hair, teeth and nails.
So how were travellers warned to identify a Yakshi ? 


Is this a Yakshi ?


Well, close but no. You see, 
the real Yakshi is a good actress.



Anyway, before it's too late and you find yourself falling for her charms, take a good look at her feet - After all, we all know 'The devil wears Prada'. 
No, I was just kidding. The Yakshis feet apparently do not touch the ground even when they walk, according to legend. Of course, a more unique characteristic is the scent of the woman. Legend has it that the body of the Yakshi has the very distinctive fragrance of a particular flower, Astonia scholaris. The regional name, Yakshippala, is in fact derived from the legend of the Yakshi. Any guesses for what the flowers are called in English ? *drum roll* 

Indian devil-tree flowers




Yes, I can see you're shocke... SALMAN !! C'mon !
There should be a basic reason for removing your shirt !
Even the monkey's keeping his on !!



While the description of the large canines may seem common to all evil spirits, there is another feature of this folklore that remarkably links it closer to the ancient legend of the vampire. Like the first legends of vampires in Romania, the Yakshi too can be warded off by iron. In fact, as per folklore, many scholars would offer the lime stabbed onto the tip of their iron pen called Ezhuthani, which they used for writing on palm leaves in the earlier days. Even today, superstitious travellers of the Malabar region of Kerala still carry a small iron pocket-knife as part of their belief to protect them from Yakshis.


Yakshi statue in Malampuzha Garden.
 (Let's avoid any comments on 
trimmed bushes, shall we ?)


As per the Malabar folklore, women who suffered an unnatural end would stay back on Earth as Yakshis. Exorcisms were aplenty in those days and the evil spirit would be 'nailed to the nux vomica tree' with iron nails. Should the nails be accidentally removed, the yakshi would be freed to feast once more upon poor travellers. There are many individual tales of encounters with yakshis. The most infamous of them all is of Kalliyankattu Neeli in a forest called Kalliyankadu to whose beauty not even the most pious of brahmins were immune. 


A final point to ponder is on how legends scattered across such diverse parts of the globe from centuries ago could have such close similarities with that of a small state of India. 


  •  Like the Yakshis of Kerala, the vampires  Bruxsa ( Portugal ) , the Baobhan Sith ( Scotland ) and Dearg-due ( Ireland ) were also similar in appearance and went after lonely men at night. 
  • Unlike the Yakshis and Pontianak ( Indonesia ), the Baobhan Sith and the Langsuir ( Malaysia ) prefer green attire to white in their folklore.  
  • Eerily, our own Yakshi shares her love for floral fragrance with that of the Pontianak, albeit a different flower ( the plumeria ) . 
  • The Yakshi shares one other significant similarity with the Bruxsa, Boabhan Sith and the original vampire tale – they are all vulnerable to iron.


So that's your 'How to avoid getting seduced and eaten by an Indian Vampire 101' class for the day. Stay safe... and carry an iron pen, men !