The Bewitching Yakshi

The middle aged Namboothiri (A class of Brahmins in Kerala) was on his way across the fields that warm & sultry summer evening, going from his mana to the neighboring one, only that the other one was some distance away. He was indeed walking the distance and alone. Dusk had approached and he was moving swiftly, muttering the name of the lord under his breath to keep away various evil spirits lurking around. As he walked, a figure appeared from the side path. A voluptuous figure dressed in white, flowing hair, a jasmine wreath on one side of the head approached him. To his eyes, at first look she seemed afraid of the darkening gloom. On second looks he was mesmerized, the jasmine smell was sweet and enticing, and the woman, this fully endowed ‘apsarass’ left nothing more to be desired. Such was her beauty and figure. He stopped transfixed.

The lady softly asked if she could accompany him on the walk as she was terrified to venture on her own, she was a bit too late returning home. As they walked, talking about all kinds of interesting things, in tones and words that had many a meaning, the namboothiri could not resist his carnal urges and started to fantasize. Soon a ‘nalukettu’ appeared on the side of the road. The lady stated that this was her house (the namboothiri could see that it was indeed a noble nair’s tharavad, so he had nothing to fear) and hinted that she would be delighted to spend the evening with the namboothiri at her house, if he so preferred. She offered as a token of the offer (that was the sambandham token of yester years) betel leaves and arecanuts but asked for lime. The Namboothiri could not resist the offer and shared the betel package after offering the lime from his Chunnambu duppi. Soon they reached the doorstep. The lady opened the door and the namboothiri was happy to note that it seemed empty, but for them.

Within seconds after the heavy teak door closed, the beautiful apparition changed to a hideous witch with bloodshot eyes and big monstrous teeth. Much too late the Namboothiri realized that he had been ensnared by a yakshi.

When people went out to look for him the next morning, all they could find were a few rotten teeth stained after many years of betel chewing, a few discolored nails from his feet and hands, and the tuft of his hair, under the tall palm tree on the side of the walking path.

This small narrative above is typically the gist of most old yakshi stories. Of course the story advanced with time, had other variations and the ‘yakshi’ became more mobile and entered modern houses, took other forms and so on. For a teenager, it was the figure of the ‘yakshi’, her hormones on overdrive and the various carnal possibilities and the danger that provided continuing fascination. And soon the storyline was to be seen in books, novels and movies of Kerala. Sometimes the palm tree became a ‘pala’ or ‘murukku’ tree. These yakshis are normally beautiful women with long flowing hair which covers their entire back (it appears that their backs are hollow) and their feet are turned backwards. I understood also that they are able to float or glide through the air. The jasmine flowers were in some stories replaced by ‘pala’ flowers. But I am not narrating any more stories. Let us try to figure out what this is myth is all about.

This is a classic Kerala subject, one who is found in many an old Malayalam novel or movie, dressed in white, wearing jasmine flowers and bewitching men who pass her by with her sweet songs and looks and caressing voice….The yakshi songs of Malayalam films are some of the best to date. As a child, when wandering around the fields and roads in Pallavur, late in the evenings or at night, while crossing tall palm trees I have myself been terrified, knees knocking. We had all spent restless evenings and nights terrified that a Yakshi might catch hold of us, and the older story tellers always had this card up their sleeve when faced with a truant child.

While the Yaksha and Yakshi in North India is the good type, note specifically that the Yakshi in Kerala folklore is not always the benevolent kind, she is actually a blood thirsty woman (usually wronged before her death by an upper class man = so her soul is not resting in peace and is constantly out to take revenge on these men), who can take the form of a lovely lady with a fantastic figure and lure you into her arms. What was the significance of the Jasmine or Pala flowers? What is the connection with the Palm tree? Well some enthusiasts or experts, whichever way you put it say that the smell of these flowers is very sexually stimulating (hence also scattered over the nuptial bed!). It is clear that the tree sprouts flowers that have a heavenly fragrance supposedly exciting to the male senses. Supposedly you can see Yakshi pala or Ezhilam pala trees near Bhagavathy temples? Did somebody work out a solution perhaps to keep the lust in check? There is a version that a Yakshi is usually a Namboothiri, Varasiyar or other ambalavasi woman who dies unmarried.

Later I saw the movie based on the great Malayatoor’s novel ‘yakshi’ though I hardly remembered the story. Many other ‘yakshi’ movies and yakshi songs followed and many a time in my teens, I have looked at the awesome & famous Yakshi nude statue at the Malampuzha dam in Palakkad (She is Yakshi, a divine enchantress, sculpted by Kanai Kunhiraman, a leading Kerala sculptor), imagining various possibilities with the female form. Remember that Palakkad was also the place where there existed plenty of palm trees (pana) and of course many namboothiri mana’s and Illam’s.

The yakshi was terrified of iron and holy books. So if one held up the nail, he was saved. This was the trick used by the Katamattathu katthanar. The story of the Iron ezhuttani scaring away the witch comes from the Missionaries who presumably exemplified the use of the holy book and Biblical methods to scare away the voodoo spirit. The iron nail is reminiscent of the nails used to nail truant men to the stake from ancient times, but nailing the seductress to a Kanjiram tree was supposed trap them for ever! Yakshi’s was later equated to the vampire of the Western tales by the title Rakta rakshassu – which of course became a very popular drama in Kerala (remember Thiraskarani manthram…?). Any idea why young ladies in Kerala (many years ago when they listened to parents, that is) were told never to sleep without undergarments? It is said that if they did so, they would be visited by a Gandharva, and you can imagine the consequences. Well, well…I will leave it at that..

But then, are yakshi’s demons, witches? No – Not really for we have temples for yakshi’s in Kerala. One version (Marlene Pitkow) has it that Yakshi’s are female ghosts of unhappy women who die before having se or before marriage or before giving birth. She is the lalitha or Mohini form in Kathakali. They are also associated with goddess Durga; there are special festivals for yakshi’s on durgashtami. According to some definitions, yakshi’s are the feminine kin of yaksha’s and both yaksha’s and yakshi’s are godly beings, not demons. The reader must again note that I am only covering the Kerala yakshi’s. The name has different meanings in different places.

During the heydays of Jainism in India, Yakshas and Yakshis were worshipped. Then came the brahminism wave and the namboothiris, So was it a brahminical method of luring people away from that older religious cult? It could very well have been. So, it could have been the disorderly erasure of the Jainist and Budhist history of Kerala. Or as an old English historian wrote, just a case of prostitutes luring travelers and ripping them off, documented differently to keep the trade in check?

A person who covered this subject many years ago in his popular novel and later a very popular Movie ‘Yakshi’ is Malayatoor Ramakrishnan. Would you like to know about their fascinating world? He writes in his novel about his fictional trip to the world of yakshi’s

Translation excerpted from Gayatri Devi’s blog. Check here for the full chapter

“Thus it was that lying down I saw the world of yakshi’s.
All around inside you see plants you have never seen before growing. Flowers made of sapphires, emeralds, garnets, and topazes bloom on them. A small stream, just like the ones you have seen, dribbles by with a song. But it is not water that is flowing in it, but molten silver. The grass thicket bending into the brook is not green but crimson in color. Huge dragonflies, each about six feet long and with golden wings fly above the stream. Young yakshi children cross the stream on the back of these dragon flies……….

A big path covered with the most beautiful carpet sewn with the skin of golden fish starts at the edge of the stream. This carpet will never get dirty, its colors will never fade because yakshis do not walk on them. They glide and float over it…….

Yakshis have a test, a rite of passage into adulthood. The candidates have to climb up and slither down a black palm tree made out of cast bronze standing under their blue sun, in the nude, three times. ……….. With this test they become mature yakshis. The queen of yakshis will pronounce the winners into mature yakshis in front of all their peers. The queen will dip her finger in the blood of kings and emperors of the earth stored inside diamond-studded crowns and anoint the adult yakshis.
Milk from the milky way is the staple diet of yakshis. It is stipulated, an unbroken law, that once a year, mature yakshis descend into earth to drink the blood of mortal men. If they break this law, their feet will trip over the golden carpet made out of shiny scales.

I witnessed this strange and magical world two or three times from my bed.

Nevertheless I did not quite understand Gayatri Devi’s remarks about Yakshi’s - ‘Their demonization either speaks of an essential definitional ambiguity about "godliness" or can perhaps be explained by a historicist reading of such texts and events’

The Zamorin, the Bhattathiri and the Yakshi - This one is a slightly different story actually where the yakshi falls in love with the exorcist Bhattathiripad and promises not to harm him. As the story goes, she delivers a girl, and leaves the man. As the old scholar is on his deathbed, he tells the story to his son and asks him to erect a temple for the invisible yakshi daughter and worship her…

Not withstanding all the above, the lovely Yakshi will always be in the minds of the people of Kerala especially those born and brought up there. When you walk those lanes between the fields, and as a mild breeze brings the smell of jasmine mixed with drying paddy, you will always be reminded of the lovely lass with those stupendous mammaries and you would gaze up at the palm tree by the side, and wonder.. the danger will battle with the carnal desires…and then you would sigh and walk on…shrugging off the superstitions, to the concrete home with the modern living room, the TV dishing out the latest soap and then to bring you back to reality, the mobile phone would chirp out the latest ring tune after having finally established a link with its master, the network...


Venattu Yakshikal – K Ramesan Nair
Legend of Kadamattathu Katthanar
Guptan Namboothiri’s story
A modern Vada Yakshi story from LA
Melankode yakshi’s story
The Kadamatom church
The Pynanarkavu Yakshi :
Kalliangattu neeli
Naaga Yakshi temples
Chottanikara Bhagavathy Aithishyam
Thurston also provides some interesting stories about Yakshis

Tail note - And it was while researching this many months ago that I came across a fine writer & blogger Anuradha Warrier, who helped me later on the Krishna Menon subject. See her take on Yakshi, the novel


Jina said...

Wow..Thats a scientific version of the Yakshi story. Never thought of the flowers and the holy objects that way.
As always interesting read

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoy reading every post of yours, with the kind of research you put into most of them. My thoughts on this particular post might be a bit far fetched, i am not sure.

I have read quite a good amount of stories on Yakshis in Malayalam literature as well as in 'Aithihyamaala' by Kottarathil sankunni.

Recently I had started thinking that the scary stories on Yakshis in a way are documentations of the female sexuality. The novel by Malayattoor kind of touches on the topic. In Anuradha Warrier's post she writes, "If he were to make love to her, she was sure to kill him".
Isn't that an explicit way of looking at the long debated female sexuality and the aggressiveness of women which had always been thought about as insatiable.

A bit of psychoanalysis and Lacan might prove helpful in Yakshi deliberations!

Nikhil Narayanan said...

I am slightly lost on the Jainism angle if the Yakshi was a Jain or Brahmin; and on whose idea was to make the Yakshi a witch.
Maybe will discuss by email.

Maddy said...

Hi Nikhil - I did not want to complicate the issue by talking at length on Jainism & Buddhism in Kerala prior to the Brahminism coming in...

Quoting from a Jainism book - A yakshini is the female counterpart of the male yaksha, and they both attend on Kubera (also called Kuber), the Hindu god of wealth who rules in the mythical Himalayan kingdom of Alaka. They both look after treasure hidden in the earth and resemble that of fairies. Yakshinis are often depicted as beautiful and voluptuous, with wide hips, narrow waists, broad shoulders, and exaggerated, spherical breasts. In the Uddamareshvara Tantra, thirty-six yakshinis are described, including their mantras and ritual prescriptions. Although Yakshinis are usually benevolent, there are also yakshinis with malevolent characteristics in Indian folklore. In Jainism they were also known as Yakshinis and Vidyadevis. The concept of a pair of Yaksha and Yakshini linked with a Tirthankara does not appear prior to the 6th century CE.

Now it is stated that when the Jains & Buddhists were driven away, many of their ways were decried in Kerala. So as an example, the benevolent yakshi may have been recast as a blood sucking witch.

check these out for details

Maddy said...

thanks Jina..
the religious transformations in Kerala have been a subject of much study. perhaps my comment to Nikhil might help clarify a little better, for I believe that this was all about recasting a favorite goddess of a period as a witch by the newcomer.

Maddy said...

oooH Gayathri - you brought in the tricky angle. Not difficult in anyway to discuss, but has all the possibilities of being misinterpreted.

The world cast by the modern novelist with aspirations of meeting a sexually forward woman is I think a flight into his own fantasy. He wished it so possibly, but on the other hand it could also be a manifestation of the fear of a balance of sexes which was against his norm (of that time)...If you read Malayatoor's Verukal, I think it was, you can see the strong undertones between the protagonist and his socialite wife..

Cynic in Wonderland said...

Can i complicate issues and bring in the sirens of greek mythology? AND if i remember correctly jung-also had one archetype ( or perhaps shadow archetype) like that ( will have to google to find out the exact one). But essentialy the theme is constant - that of a unhappy woman who seeks revenge by carnally trapping an unsuspecting man. The psychological angle on this ought to be fascinating.

Unknown said...

In the villages around Mangalore, where I hail from, there is a strong cult of "Bhoot" which primarily consists of a couple of female ghosts named "Karluti" and "Panjurli".

They have a little song-and-dance thing called a "kolaata" to summon the ghost into the body of a designated "patra", a low caste man dressed in a kathakali like outfit. There is also some speciesw of blood sacrifice - a chicken usually.

Once the man is possessed, the organisers of the song-and-dance ask him all kinds of questions from "Will my next child be male" to "should I invest in such-and-such business".

Being a bit of a rationalist, I'm always tempted to ask verifiable questions - something on the lines of "what is the cube root of 33452734?", or "is 47219 a prime number?"- but the family frowns upon frivolous questions like this.

Anyway, my point was that this is a bit like the yakshis you were speaking about. Indeed, the past-masters in the art of capturing and harnessing the yakshi for black magic purposes are from Kerala. Any insights?

L N Srinivasakrishnan said...

The grandmommy of all these yakshi stories ought to be the 'Pazhaiyanoor Neeli' story from old Tamil literature. It has been refered to by poets from the 4th century thru 14th century fairly continuously and also upto the modern time.

The story has many variants but all of them involve the 'wronged woman' motif, the woman after death turning into a revenge seeking yakshi full of blood lust etc etc. Until recently, it used to be a favorite of the folk theatre.

The narrative is full of 'virasa' as opposed to formal theatre where the narrative rests on 'rasa'.

Until recently, baby girls would not be named 'Neela', 'Neeli' etc by Tamil communities.

Happy Kitten said...

sometimes I do think that this was one way suppressed/wronged women (of a certain period) took revenge upon the menfolk.... else why do they have only the female version?
I imagine a group of women getting together and plotting their act...nd one rarely hears the Yakshi troubling a good man.. or did she?

Kamini said...

Yet another fascinating post from you, Maddy. It brought back distant childhood memories of yakshi stories, as well as stories involving something evil called "kutti chattan". I wish I could remember them more clearly.
You put in so much effort into each of your posts, they are wonderfully detailed and full of information - you really should turn all of this into a book.

My twisted logic said...

As usual you posted a good article Maddy.Like kamini said it brought back to my Child hood memory also .I read most of Yaksi stories when i was in my 8 th or 9 th class.I don't exactly remember why i read more stories of this genre at that time.Well ...this yakshis were my favorite topic too.Though i became an atheist now, but Still it fascinated me...It made me to go back to old library in my village, where i used to visit every Sundays and Wednesdays when i was in my school and search for those old books.

Maddy said...

Hi Cynic..I have not read Jung's theories - they sounded pretty complex to me and require a few pegs to even attempt to understand...

but on the other hand in my opinion developed as a method to satisfy dissatisfaction of the people of a village. to balance out the evil as they understood it with good..

Maddy said...

LNS - Actually triggered a thought. If you look around Palakkad, the chermuar caste have plenty of neeli's. As we read in many analyzes, they as well as other indigenous communities could have been the ones who followed Buddhism & Jainism in the historic times.

Yup - the Pazhanur yakshi's story is pretty fascinating - got a whole village to move to pondicherry!!

Maddy said...

Hi narendra - thanks..

Bhootam is different - i.e they posses you - in other words spirits. Rakshassu also does that I think, but yakshi's do not really do that - they are one timers (wham bham thank you sir) unless the story takes a special turn and the yakshi falls for you...

Maddy said...

Narendra I forgot - the tantrics were very much from the nambuthiri clan in Kerala. yes, I think you are right.

Maddy said...

HK - I am not too sure of that. In theory at least the yakhsi troubles unsuspecting travelers. I think is is a plot gone wrong. It possibly started out as a ploy to suppress bhagawati worship, but suddenly the story got adapted as a cure all

Maddy said...

Thanks Kamini and Dec Chills...

Yes, Kamini I start to try & do that this summer..

Dec Chills...we have chills now - it is snowing today

R.Sajan said...

Deva, Yaksha, Gandharva, kinnara, Apsarass etc are only 'species', like humans, animals and birds. [Aarsha jnaanam - Nalappaattu Narayana Menon]

Maddy said...

thanks sajan...
the invisible species unfortunately!!

Rohith said...

can i get ur mail id..? wud like to discuss something with you.. as part of ma documentary .
or pls mail

Maddy said...

thanks rohith
will do

Anashwara said...

Oh! Thank you for a wonderful article. It kindled a thought.
The demonization of yakshi in modern kerala which is propagated and gets stereotyped through popular culture must have a history. Then as you said, if it was consequence of Brahmin culture or Aryanization in Kerala, then does it speak anything about the denegration of women in a larger context.
The silencing of women in the Aryan period finds a parallel in the destruction of Yakshi by religious rituals (by a “mantravadi” usually an upper class man). History says that in Dravidian culture women enjoyed a good position and they also worshipped wild forms of women (like Kali). But during Aryanization the position of women deteriorated and they were withdrawn to the interiority of home.
“If Yakshi symbolizes female power, then it is dangerous and has to be subdued”- Is this then the agenda behind her demonization, disempowering by rituals and deification which is the crux of many Yakshi folktales in Kerala.
… just a wild thought, does it make any sense?

Unknown said...

Yakshi, gandharva..etc is not a myth. It's real.Regarding their pala flower fragrance, each species have their own palas near bhagavathy temples etc..the yakshi there serves us guard for the diety..they do not wear white dress as commonly believed...they wear shining dresses..

Meera Sundararajan said...

Hi, I just stumbled upon this site and I must say it was fascinating! I like the research that you have put into it. You know my first introduction to the Yakshi concept came w hen I read a translation of Malayatoor's novel. From a feminist perspective I can say that the Yakshi is a symbolism of female sexuality which in our male dominated culture is something that men cannot handle and hence the demonization. You know in northern India you have a similar entity called the "Chureil" who is actually the spirit of a woman who died at childbirth or during periods of rituaal impurity like menstruation. Again, I would say that it is something to do with the entire reproduction angle -something that men and the patriarchal culturedoes not understand. There is another commonality here - the guilt angle. A woman dying at child birth ( may be she was not looked after properly) a woman who is wronged by an upper caste man? Most of these things are inside our minds and it is our conscience that plays out these things!

Maddy said...

Thanks Meera
It is a complicated subject actually and many an anthropologist spends time on it. I am told the subject has links to the Kannagi - Pattini cult on one side and the Jainist Buddhist past of Kerala on the other.
At the root of course, is what you rightly point out, the guilt angle.
thanks for visiting and do spend time on some of the many other articles...

Naveenkumar K.U said...

I disagree a bit on the Jain angle. Although feared, "Yakshi prathishtas" are (and were) quite common in Kerala temples (Taliparamba Rajarajeswara temple, Kunnathoor Devi temple etc. are some examples).
The "Mantra Maharnava" enlists 36 methods of Yakshi worship, not to forget the thirty six categories of Yakshis mentioned in the "Uddamareshvara Tantra".
Agreed that the erstwhile Jain temples had Yakshi worships, but these were merely reminiscent of the past (Hindu worships and practices).
However the non-vedic origin of Yakshis may still be a matter of debate (as most of the references on Yakshis are from tantric texts).

Maddy said...

Thanks naveen
A question remains - Is it not so that Jain worship predated bhrahminist worship practices in Kerala?

Naveenkumar K.U said...

Thanks Maddy for your comment (it surely opens up the pandora's box!). Let me try to share some of my thoughts (and I am in no way an expert on any of these subjects) on it:

(a) Jainism arrived in kerala around the 3rd century BC, however tantra worship (agamas or the shatkteya agamas to be precise) existed in kerala even before than (dated back to1000 BC), this can be well confirmed by Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian records (the old spice route guys!).

(b)Tantric worships although thought to be non-vedic in origin has ample mention in the vedic literature (especially the rig veda, thought to be composed around 2000 B.C).

(c) Jainism (and later Buddhism) were evangelical in nature and had ample patronage from Emperors and Kings (a large sect of Kerala was thought to be Jains or Buddhist around the 1st century C.E). The evangelical nature of these religions contributed in the conversions (forced, or may be not) of the people and their worship places. No other place in India had Jain temples (and worship) similar to that found in Kerala, which clearly indicate it was heavily influenced from the pre-existing tantric worships and practices.

(d) Coming back to the question of Brahmanism (which supposedly came to Kerala around 6th C.E); again it has to be stated that brahminism did not establish anything new (the tantric rituals followed by Kerala namboodiris are unique and quite different from the vedic practices followed by Brahmins in other parts of India). In fact they amalgamated with the pre-existing tantric traditions. The best example would be our very own Adi Shankara, he compiled and propounded new commentaries for age old tantric texts (and also vedic and puranic texts), it would also be worthwhile to mention the fact that his world view of religion was not evangelical (a bit different from his counterparts at that time). By 8th C.E Jainism went on a decline in Kerala and many of the “converted temples” got “re-converted”, naturally.

(e) Again I would like to reiterate the fact that, temples in Kerala were not Jain or Buddhist, simply because nowhere else did Jains or Buddhist follow such traditions and worships.

(f) To summarize, tantric traditions of Kerala (which is till followed) has its pre-historic origins (this is again a separate topic and is open to debate), and brahminism did not establish a new set of tradition, they merely gelled into the existing system.

(g) The best examples of the above statement would be the the ritualistic worships like Theyyam (found in north Malabar) and naga worship (found all over Kerala). Both these worship forms are followed by the hindus of Kerala irrespective of their cast orientation.

Unknown said...

I need some notes on the oppression faced by Yakshis will u help me?

Maddy said...

pls mail me, with your questions

Anonymous said...

There are several different species of beings mentioned as living in 7 upper and 7 lower realms like Gandharvas, Yakshas, Kinnaras, Kimpurushas, Rakshasas, Nagas, Suparnas, Vanaras, Vidyadharas, Valakilyas, Pisachas, Rudras, Adityas, Danavas, Maruts, Nivatakavachas, Daityas, Kalakeyas, Vasus etc. Read about an UK mayor who claimed to have a child with a cat-faced alien woman ha ha. Kimpurushas are lion/cat-faced beings ha ha. Nagas living in underwater kingdoms are mentioned like in stories of Uloopoi, Bhima etc. They are like mermaids. Perhaps mermaids were half reptlile rather than fish lol. Howler monkey gods of Mayans are like Vanara's. Twins Hun Batz and Hun Chowen are like Vali and Sugriva. Nivatakavachas are being that wear some kind of suit to live under water.