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Mythology for the Millennial: From vetalas to chudails, terrifying supernatural creatures abound in Indian lore

I love a good scary story — and I think this is universal, because mythology is full of random supernatural beings who are legit terrifying. I took a closer look at some of the more spooky ones, because apparently, I'm a sucker for punishment and now I might never sleep again. Here's my list of the most horrific creatures in Hinduism:

Bhoots: Almost every kind of ghost is a bhoot, within Hindu mythology, but I went down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole and discovered an entire bhoot-ian subculture particular to Bengal. Their bhoots can be split into several different (terrifying) categories including the married woman ghost who you can identify by her shell bangles, the evil fairy damori who will follow their master's orders and kill whoever they choose, the cannibal owls, the Girl-from-the-Ring ghosts who live in ponds and lure young men to their watery depths, and most terrifying: the Nishi, who uses the voice of your favourite people to call you to your death. (The best way to guard against the Nishi? Remember that she can only call out your name twice, so wait to be beckoned three times before you walk out into the night.)

Chudail: Now chudails are about as common in India as bhoots, so no doubt you've heard the term. You've also probably heard of it as a synonym for “witch”, which is incorrect. In fact, chudails (a Persian import to India, actually) are the ghosts of mothers who died either during childbirth or before the ritual impure period was over, which seems totally unfair. Versions of this origin myth somewhat vary, but stay true to the Impure Mother part of it — if a mother dies during Diwali, boom, chudail; if you just happen to accidentally die in a confinement room, boom, chudail. Even infants are not spared: if you're a baby girl, and you die before you turn 20 days old, boom — you guessed it — chudail.

 Mythology for the Millennial: From vetalas to chudails, terrifying supernatural creatures abound in Indian lore

Ernest Griset's depiction of a vetala escaping from King Vikram in Vikram and the Vampire, Richard Francis Burton's 1870 retelling of Baital Pachisi. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Either way, no matter how old or young or beautiful you were before you died, what is agreed upon is that your appearance post-chudail is the worst. Black tongues, saggy tits, head hair that looks coarse and curly like pubes (which is just a really mean thing to say about curly haired people, of which I am one), pig snouts, and in all of these versions, her feet are always turned backwards, so you know what to look for. She's somewhat vampiric in her sexual desires, and will drain a man of all life force, sometimes having sex with unmarried boys till they get super weak and die and join her. And all of this is beginning to sound like a story made up by men. I mean, why would a woman who died in childbirth — childbirth! — love sex so much that she goes after every man she can lure into her web? It seems absurd.

Pishachas: Funny name aside (just say it out loud), these demons are literally born of Krodha, or anger. They eat flesh, obviously, and can possess human bodies, turn into different creatures and become invisible (so yes, you don't see them coming, and yes, you're f*cked if you ever encounter one). The mythology surrounding Pishachas is interesting though: while in some texts they're these evil demons, in others, like the Mahabharata, they are just a warrior clan, so much less scary. However, demons or just normal human warriors, they were given their own offerings at certain religious festivals, just to keep them at bay.

Vetalas: If you're an older sort of millennial, you might remember the TV programme Vikram aur Betaal which aired on DD National in 1985. But while that Betaal was cute, kind of cuddly, long white wig, saffron robes and lots of red lipstick, actual vetalas are really zombies, who live in cremation grounds and grab on to whatever body they can find to live in. A description in Encyclopaedia of Demons in World Religions and Culture goes on to say that a vetala is created every time a child dies and the corpse is not disposed of with all the proper rites. Once the vetala jumps into the body, “the face twists about until it resembles a fruit bat with slitted eyes”. Then the vetala uses its magic to suck the blood from any human it encounters, which lets its flesh bag body live forever and not disintegrate. Mostly it eats human shit and intestines, all of which makes you wonder how Vikram could stand to have the vetala so close to his face and breathing all over it all the time.

I hope you're not reading this column at night, alone in bed though. It's all very well to dismiss them with cold hard facts when the sun is shining brightly; but when it's dark and there are mysterious sounds coming from outside your window — well, it's probably best to not think about it at all.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2019 09:47:16 IST

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