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Meet Dracula’s Indian ancestor Vetala

English actor Christopher Lee popularised the image of the fanged vampire with his Count Dracula roles in a series of British horror productions from the 50s to the 70s.

English actor Christopher Lee popularised the image of the fanged vampire with his Count Dracula roles in a series of British horror productions from the 50s to the 70s.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

We might or might not have invented plastic surgery or the aeroplane, but we surely came up with Dracula first

The vampire — that undead creature of the night, half-human, half-bat, thriving on blood — every culture has one in its lore. And this explains the universal appeal of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But India has a particular connection with the Count from the Gothic horror tale of 1897.

Stoker’s family had served in India and he became fascinated with Indian occult — he was a product of his time; India to him was the exotic land of sinister magic. He knew Sir Richard Burton, the renowned Indologist, who translated the Sanskrit collection of stories, Baital Pachisi, that featured Vetala the vampire, and on which was based the popular TV series of the 80s, Vikram Aur Betaal. Burton often spoke of how he had discussed Hindu myths with Stoker, and Stoker studied Baital Pachisi thoroughly before writing Dracula.

Likewise, in Lee Siegel’s City of Dreadful Night, a storyteller named Brahm Kathuwala (a nod to Bram Stoker. His English teacher even lovingly addresses him as Bram Stokerji.) discusses the macabre in Sanskrit literature. Brahm uses horror stories as a method of exorcism.

On the one hand, Sigel pays wonderful homage to the tradition of preserving stories; on the other he acknowledges Stoker as the storyteller who made Vetala a global phenomenon, proof of the lasting power of stories to transgress geographical borders. The villain of the book is Betul Rajo or Vetala Raja, who has returned from London to India, his real home.

In Hammer Film Production’s unmade film from the 1930s, Dracula in India, a classic example of Orientalism, the vampire lives in the dungeons of a palace in the fictitious land of Mahabad, a land where temples have erotic sculptures and where a Jagannath festival is celebrated.

Sex and savagery

Dracula’s lust for an Indian dancer named Lakshmi is the central theme of the story. She is his first victim, but is later sacrificed by the queen of Mahabad, who runs her own demonic cult of sex and savagery.

The theme is overwhelmingly sexual: there is erotic dancing, ritual sex, and the Indian women are completely objectified. The story ends with a group of women turning into vampires and, interestingly, they are all British.

Sanskrit literature has indeed been a major source of inspiration for the horror genre around the world, and in the imagination of Dracula in particular, but what is less known is how Dracula shaped some spectacular villains of Hindi comics. The Indianised Dracula was a curious and unique hybrid, a glorious shot at creative visualisation that made for rather effective storytelling.

Since Baital Pachisi existed before Stoker’s Dracula, it is interesting to see how exactly Vetala was depicted. In Baital Pachisi, Vetala was a distinctly cadaverous creature.

Burton’s translation describes him thus: ‘Its eyes, which were wide open, were of a greenish-brown, and never twinkled; its hair also was brown, and brown was its face — three several shades which, notwithstanding, approached one another in an unpleasant way, as in an over-dried cocoa-nut. Its body was thin and ribbed like a skeleton or a bamboo framework, and as it held on to a bough, like a flying fox, by the toe-tips, its drawn muscles stood out as if they were ropes of coir. Blood it appeared to have none, or there would have been a decided determination of that curious juice to the head; and as the Raja handled its skin, it felt icy cold and clammy as might a snake. The only sign of life was the whisking of a ragged little tail much resembling a goat’s.’

The book contains illustrations by Ernest Griest, who depicted Vetala as half-human, half-bat, hanging on a tree with a long tail. In short, he is nothing like Dracula. Vetala is not interested in turning others into vampires or enslaving people. He is an evil spirit who could take many forms, whether bat or mendicant. He often enters dead bodies and uses them to latch on to people to suck their blood. He doesn’t stay; once he is done feeding, he leaves the body.

Vikram-Vetala illustrations and Vampire-inspired Indian comic covers

Vikram-Vetala illustrations and Vampire-inspired Indian comic covers   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Easily the most dramatic part of the book is the first meeting between King Vikramaditya (Vikram) and Vetala — deep in the woods, with cremation grounds, a heavy downpour, and streaks of lightning. There are tigers roaring, elephants trumpeting, foxes and jackals devouring corpses, and bears eating the livers of children.

Then, there is a detailed description of the different types of ghosts: The spirits of those that had been foully slain wandered about with gashed limbs; and skeletons, whose mouldy bones were held together by bits of blackened sinew, followed them as the murderer does his victim in. Malignant witches with shriveled skins, horrid eyes and distorted forms, crawled and crouched over the earth; whilst spectres and goblins now stood motionless, and tall as lofty palm trees; then, as if in fits, leaped, danced, and tumbled before their evocator.”

In contemporary Indian comics, however, the vampire is an odd blend of the Indian Vetala and Stoker’s Dracula. In the popular Diamond Comics series called Lambu Motu, Dracula is depicted as an anthropomorphic creature with flaming, mane-like hair and a tail. Later, the same image was used in their Vikram-Betal series.

Manoj Comics published a series called Ram Rahim, involving two young gumshoes who were frequently caught up in supernatural mysteries. Dracula featured in several adventures as the villain. In the book Dracula Delhi Mein, the vampire, dressed in Indian clothing, attacks Delhi.

Vikram-Vetala illustrations and vampire-inspired Indian comic book covers.

Vikram-Vetala illustrations and vampire-inspired Indian comic book covers.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Collateral damage

There is a gory pursuit between our heroes and the villain, and it takes them to several important historical monuments in Delhi. The book also has an unusually large number of violent deaths as collateral damage. The cover of the book shows Mehrauli and Qutab Minar in the background, the two heroes, and a flying monster, Dracula’s preferred form in this story.

In Dracula ka Humla (The Attack of Dracula), published by Raj Comics, featuring Super Commando Dhruv, Dracula is buried in a castle in Romania and, once resurrected, he can travel using graveyards as portals. The bad guy who revives him, Nagpasha, wants his help in destroying India. Dracula, in this story, is aided by Frankenstein, who he has enslaved.

Hindi comics see Dracula as an evil spirit who can take any form. He infects others with his bite and turns them into vampires. He also uses dead bodies or manifests as a monster to carry out his vampirism.

In Manoj Comics’ Bhoot Mahal (Ghost Mansion), a mad scientist manages to imbue Dracula’s spirit into a dead baby, which in turn takes the form of a green, deformed, spiked mutant-monster who likes the blood of other children. Soon, he starts stealing children and guzzling their blood. The success of this comic led to its sequel called Dracula Balak, also published in English as Child Dracula, where the villain has an army of skeletons. Fortunately, Ram and Rahim, who are also referred to here as Double Agent 001/2 because they are adolescents, thwart his ambition to massacre children. However, they don’t manage to kill Dracula; he is only defeated and the mad scientist is killed.

Vikram-Vetala illustrations and vampire-inspired Indian comic book covers.

Vikram-Vetala illustrations and vampire-inspired Indian comic book covers.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Dracula possesses the bodies of friends and relatives of superheroes in Hindi comics. This happens mostly in stories with multiple superheroes. The mission becomes personal when someone close to them is possessed and they join forces to rescue them from Dracula’s clutches.

He will be back

The Hindi comic-verse constantly reminds us of Dracula’s indestructibility. It even assures the readers, “Dracula filhal ke liye toh haar gaya tha, magar woh wapas lautega (Dracula may have lost for the time-being, but he will definitely come back).” Dracula ka Pretjaal (Dracula’s Evil Net) is at its core a patriotic story. Dracula has been thrown into space and peace has returned on Earth. A spaceship rescues him, and Dracula returns to Earth. He then captures Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, who are rescued by Indian superheroes.

The Indian team includes all the heroes from Manoj Comics, namely Crookbond, Hawaldar Bahadur, Toofan, Indra, Trikaldev, Bhootnath and, of course, Ram and Rahim. Ram has to become a shape-shifter, and take the form of a snake to defeat Dracula.

Yet, at the end of the story, Dracula cracks open the earth and escapes. The entire global collaboration of superheroes fails to kill him.

In Diamond Comics’ Khooni Dracula (Murderous Dracula) series, the vampire is the evil spirit of a murdered blackmailer. He called himself Brown Dracula when he was alive. He is ambitious, has plans for world domination.

In one story, the entire action takes place in the astral plane, where the heroes, Lambu and Motu, use their spirit forms to transmigrate through parallel universes, using ‘spirit-scanning’ goggles. Dracula, of course, is never killed; he merely goes through dormant phases, only to rise again as a more powerful vampire.

The appeal of vampirism will never end, and Vetala Raja will keep returning in different forms, in different parts of the world. He may travel the world, but we have established one thing; he is Indian. Whether green ghoul or mutant child, he is Hindustani at heart.

Aditi Sen is a historian of religion based at Queen’s University, Canada. Alok Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer/ director. His documentary Chitrakatha traces the history of Indian comic books.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 1:20:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/meet-draculas-indian-ancestor-vetala/article22479854.ece

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