It is amazing just how pervasive the myths and legends of vampires are. Although most may think of these creatures as a purely European construct, the fact is that stories of various blood sucking monsters, demons, and other decidedly vampiric entities have been present all around the world, across cultures for a very long time. One region of the world that has an expansive mythology of vampires and vampire-like creatures is India, and they are as scary as anything else and perhaps predate and influence the lore of the European type that have become ingrained into popular culture.
One of the most well-known of India’s various vampires are the demonic beings called the Rakshasas, which are mentioned often in ancient Indian texts and epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and historically were depicted as shape shifting inhuman denizens of a dark, subterranean region called the Tala. Many of the attributes of these nefarious creatures match the typical lore of vampires, such as that they are only active at night, they have long fangs, the sunlight can kill them, and that they feed off the blood of the living. In the case of the Rakshasas, their preferred meal was the sweet blood of infants or that of pregnant women, and they were particularly at home in cemeteries, where they were said to enjoy harassing priests and disrupting funerals or rituals. The Rakshasas supposedly have the ability to possess the dead, and were regarded as being very hard to kill, with many heroes of epics lauded for their ability to defeat one, and one of the only known ways to get rid of them was through the invocation of a deity called Agni, the dispeller of darkness, although they could also be destroyed through sunlight and fire, very similarly to the European legends.
Perhaps even more hideous and feared, and often mentioned in the same breath as the Rakshasas, are the fearsome ghouls called the Pisachas, which literally translates to “eaters of raw flesh,” and who were in legend brought into the world through the anger of the the mighty deity Brahma. Beastly and highly aggressive, whereas the Rakshasas were at least thought to have some semblance of an intellect, the Pisachas are always depicted as more animalistic and slavish to their desire for blood and raw flesh, and their appearance demonstrates this, with a goblin like inhuman visage with bulging eyes, popping veins, and rows of wicked, jagged teeth. They were said to enjoy possessing the living and forcing them to do vile things, driving them insane in the process, and were able to be killed with sunlight or fire. It is believed that even escaping one of these foul beasts is no respite, as anyone who survives meeting one of the creatures will die within 9 months.
Joining the ranks of frightening vampiric entities of Indian lore are the Vetala, also called the Vetaal or Baital. These entities are said to come in a variety of forms, but the most common is as bat-like humanoids or half-human bat monstrosities. The Vetala feature heavily in the classic piece of Indian literature the Vetala-Pachisi, and they are usually depicted as not being nice in the slightest. They are said to be extremely malicious and sadistic demons who are known to possess the bodies of both the living and the dead in order to shamble about and feed on blood, especially that of children, and they are said to be able to change bodies at will, like a person changing clothes. They traditionally have the power to drive people insane with a thought or glance, as well as the ability to cause miscarriages, and their main joy seems to be causing havoc and strife wherever they go. It is said that a person who is not given proper funerary rites upon death or is otherwise buried in an improper manner is doomed to rise as a Vetala, requiring a sort of exorcism or ritual to cast the demon out.
We also have the creatures called the Bhuta, which were born from the deaths of the insane, the deformed, and those who had died too soon or in an untimely manner, such as a murder or a sudden accident. The Bhuta are said to appear as shadow figures, orbs of light, or misty wraiths with the ability to shapeshift into a bat or owl or to possess a corpse, and they lurk about cemeteries, ruins, and cremation grounds, as well as deserts and abandoned buildings, looking for victims to drink the blood from. Rather bizarrely, besides blood the Bhuta are said to crave the milk extracted from babies who have just fed, which does not traditionally end well for the baby. Chilling indeed.
From the Indian Gypsy lore is the Mulo, which simply means “one who is dead,” and which are also the bloodthirsty wraiths of people who have died sudden or untimely deaths such as suicides or accidents. The Mulo are said to come after those who have caused their death to torment them and feed on their blood, and will often turn on relatives who have taken any of their possessions after their death. According to the lore, a mulo will look just as they did in life, only with something a bit off or unsettling about them, such as a deformity, slightly warped visage, or missing digit, although in some traditions they are more monstrous in appearance. Both female and male versions of the Mulo are known for their voracious sexual appetites, and seem ot feed as much off of sexual energy as they do off of blood and gore.
Despite their undead nature and blood drinking, the Mulo have other similarities to European vampires, in that they cannot stand sunlight and can be traditionally killed with a hawthorn wood stake through the heart, head, or stomach, and fire or boiling water can also be used, as well as good old fashioned decapitation. In the old days in order to make sure that a person would not come back from the dead as a Mulo the corpse would traditionally often have steel or iron needles driven into the heart, steel placed in the mouth or over the eyes, and a hawthorn stake placed between the legs. Interestingly, even though the Mulo are greatly feared they are not the immortal beings of common vampire myth, but rather are believed to live for only 40 days after rising from the grave. The Mulo directly influenced the lore of the Indian creature called the Gayal, which is also the bloodthirsty revenant of a person who was not buried properly or died suddenly and will come back to torment those responsible.
One of the most horrific vampire demons of India is one from the northern part of the country, called the Brahmaparusha. This type of vampire is known for its horrifically brutal kills, ripping the head from its victim and then drinking the blood from the torn open skull. The vampire will then devour the victim’s brain and wrap the intestines around itself like some sort of macabre trophy, after which it will cavort about the mutilated corpse in a dance of ecstasy. Unlike some of the other vampires we have looked at here, there is no particular way to ward off or kill the Brahmaparusha, and it was widely thought that to encounter one was to be the last thing you would see.
One very persistent type of vampire within the legends and lore of India is that of the “vampire witch,” and evil female vampiric entities abound. One good example is the entity called the Churel, also known by other regional names such as the Jakhin, Jakhai, Mukai, Nagulai, and Alvantin. The monster was the risen corpse of a woman who had been mistreated and tormented by her own family, or who had died in childbirth. The churel would then come back to kill and drink the blood of male family members, and they were also known to seduce men and lure them away, after which they would return to the village as a shriveled up old man, drained of their life force.
A Churel typically appears very beautiful, but can be identified by feet that face backwards, and there were several ways to stop them in the old myths. In order to keep a corpse from returning as a churel, nails were put through the hands and feet, a chain or iron rings wrapped around the legs or feet, and red peppers placed in the eyes. To keep a prowling churel out of a house, residents would spread millet seeds around entry ways, because like the European legends it was thought that she would feel compelled to count them all until the morning sun drove her away.
Another vampire witch is the Chedipe, which was a kind of evil sorceress or seductress who rides a tiger and who would break into people’s homes, put the residents in a hypnotic trance, and then drink the blood from the toes of male family members, but not kill them. If a Chedipe took a liking to a particular victim she would come back again and again for the same victim, leaving him feeling drained every time and eventually withering away to death unless he had a special ritual performed to keep her away. More over the top in her blood drinking ways is a type of vampire witch called the Peymakilir, which prefers to just hang out at battlefields to creep out of the darkness and engorge herself on the blood of the corpses and dying men scattered about.
The fearsome and eerie vampires we have looked at here aren’t even all of such entities haunting Indian lore, and it certainly seems that the country has more than its fair share of stories of bloodsuckers going back centuries. So old and pervasive are the legends of vampiric creatures in India that it has even been speculated that India and the Roma Gypsies who inhabited its northern regions might have been the origin of the myths and beliefs on vampires that would later take hold in Europe, passed along through by travelers and caravans from the east and going on to form the basis of what we imagine the vampire and its mythology to be today. Whether this is true or not, despite the prevalent image many have of vampires originating in Europe, vampire myths have been present in a great many cultures for thousands of years, and India surely has a healthy menagerie of bloodthirsty monsters of all types that are as scary as anything else out there.