Baital Pachisi: An Indian Vampire Meta-Story

Pondering the glut of vampire fiction and television dramas this Halloween, I thought I’d share a fun-scary piece of my childhood. This is the traditional Indian meta-folktale, Baital Pachisi (The Twenty Five Tales of Baital). It concerns the wise King Bikram and a rather strange philosopher ghoul-vampire, a Baital (sometimes spelled Betaal or Vetal). I have no clue about its historical origins, but Wikipedia attributes the tales to the 8th century poet Bhavabhuti, and identifies the hero, the fictional King Bikram, with the real King Vikramaditya of Ujjain (102 BC to 15 AD). Here is a depiction of the core premise of the folktale by Harshad Dhavale (public domain):

439px-Vetal

The stories are curiously interesting because they set philosophical, moral and ethical conundrums in the context of a life-or-death struggle between Bikram and the baital. Here’s how they run.

Since the Wikipedia synopsis is pretty compact, I’ll just use an edited version of that:

King Bikram  promises a vamachara (a tantric sorcerer) that he will capture a vetala (or baital), a vampire spirit who hangs from a tree and inhabits and animates dead bodies. King Vikram faces many difficulties in bringing the vetala to the tantric. Each time Vikram tries to capture the baital, it tells a story that ends with a riddle. If Vikram cannot answer the question correctly, the vampire consents to remain in captivity. If the king answers the question correctly, the vampire escapes and returns to his tree. In some variations, the king is required to speak if he knows the answer, or else his head will burst. In other versions, the king is unable to hold his tongue if he knows the answer, due to his ego. Regardless of the reason, he knows the answer to every question; therefore the cycle of catching and releasing the vampire continues twenty-four times.

On the twenty-fifth attempt, the baital tells the story of a father and a son in the aftermath of a devastating war. They find the queen and the princess alive in the chaos, and decide the take them home. In due time, the son marries the queen and the father marries the princess. Eventually, the son and the queen have a son, and the father and the princess have a daughter. The vetala asks what the relation between the two newborn children is. The question stumps Vikram. Satisfied, the vetala allows himself to be taken to the tantric.

Curious, the imponderable twenty-fifth story being so similar to redneck humor in America. It is interesting to note that the English translators seem to turn baital into vampire. The creature though, is more like a mix of zombie, Harry-Potteresque inferi and regular graveyard ghoul. It does not suck blood. Random piece of pop-culture trivia: the Hindi translation of the American Phantom comics (which for some obscure reasons are way more popular in India than they ever were in America) use the word betaal as the translation for phantom.

I remember two versions of the Bikram-Baital stories. One, in a popular children’s magazine, and another in a popular TV show in the eighties. The magazine stories used to scare me, since I was very young when I first encountered them, and they were always illustrated with a picture of the doughty king grimly marching through a dark forest, with the baital on his shoulders, with skeletons grinning from the trees.  In each story, the King hikes alone through the grim forest, gets to a spooky graveyard and grabs the manic-scary baital off the tree. He would then hike back, and the baital would tell the story. The stories themselves were not scary, but the start and end always were.

The stories themselves ranged from silly riddles to philosophical and moral dilemmas to questions of royal judgment.  I don’t remember any of the stories, but I remember being fascinated by the bloody-minded philosophizing. In the TV show version, at the end of his tale, after stating the riddle, the baital would suddenly add the life-death threat, laughing demonically, “If you know, you must answer. If you do not, your head will explode in a million pieces.”

I think these stories work because they juxtapose the sheer physical, bloody horror of death and (for the believers) the darker side of the afterlife, with rarefied philosophical questions and everyday decisions and judgements.

Happy Halloween! If you want some more, you might want to read about one of my other favorite ghoulish characters from fiction: the sometimes-good-sometimes evil witch Baba Yaga, in traditional Russian folk tales.  One of my favorite quotes is a Baba Yaga line: “Sleep, for morning is wiser than evening.”

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. shiela choudhri says:

    The reference to the head exploding derives from the Brahmoyuddha tradition mentioned in Sama Veda etc.
    Essentially the notion is that the loser in a debate must lose his head.
    This was part of the consecration rites of a King.
    This tradition of debate is carried on by Tibetan Buddhists.
    The vetala as a truly horrific figure- rather than an Academic examiner- is best represented by the churel. The shape-changing spirit- her feet turned backwards- who died in childbirth.
    The Irishman who authored ‘Dracula’ knew very well that
    1) absenteee landlords had sucked the blood out of Ireland.
    2) in the literature of resistance to the Sassenach, the woman drinking the blood of her lover slain by the British was a symbol of the ever renewed vigor of National Spirit.
    These elements are missing from the story of Vikram and the Vampire.
    Interestingly, there are a number of such stories in Hyderabadi lore which I, personally, remember from Grannies and old retainers who came from that part of the Deccan.

  2. Thanks Shiela, that is very interesting stuff. I am not as up on mythologies of the world as I’d like to be, and these connections/nuances are illuminating.