India is a continent rich with history and mythology (and spices!). As with any decent pantheon of gods and goddesses, India also has its fair share of monstrous creatures. Many of them are benign and protective spirits. But there are a few Indian fiends you definitely don’t want to meet on a lonely road. terrifying
I was drawn to Indian mythology thanks to a middle grade fantasy book I read with my children, which makes use of many of these creatures (and more!) and which made me realize how much popular culture is missing out on by its unmovable fascination with western culture. Check out The Serpent’s Secret: Book One of Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond for an absolutely fantastic read loved by both my kids and me!
Hanuman is the great monkey general of a monkey army, depicted as a huge ape with a red face who walks upright like a man. He has the magical ability to fly and to change his size at will, but he has been cursed to forget about this unless he is reminded of his magic.
Like Icarus, Hanuman once flew up and tried to seize the sun, mistaking it for a big juicy fruit. The king of the gods, Indra, struck him down with a bold of lightening to the jaw. Like any good trickster figure, Hanuman was not to be dissuaded from his mischief and he continued to cause trouble. A band of powerful sages got together to place the curse upon him.
Even without his powers, though, Hanuman was a brave creature. He commanded his monkey army to aid Rama in his battle against the demon Ravana, king of Lanka. After being reminded of his powers by the king of bears, Hanuman charged into the fray and lit the entire city of Lanka on fire with his tail (which had been set alight). He stole a mountain of the Himalayas full of healing herbs and delivered it to Rama’s wounded army.
Due to his service to Rama (who was an avatar of Vishna), Hanuman is worshiped in temples devoted to Rama or to Hanuman himself. Because monkeys cannot be mistreated in these places they can often be found congregating within and near Hanuman’s temples as real life reminders of his bravery.
Turns out he wasn’t such a bad guy, but a giant monkeys with monkey armies at his command is not a creature to be trifled with.
The mythological Timingila (not to be confused with the word Timingilam which in the Tamil language means “whales”) is a massive sea-creature lurking in the depths of the ocean. Not much is known about the Timingila, but they appear to be a species of enormous shark (like Megalodon) or whale (like Leviatan) which is so large it can swallow whales whole.
I don’t have any cool stories about these guys, probably because anyone who encounters one of the gargantuan shark-beasts is no longer around to tell the tale.
The Nagini of Indian mythology are the females of a race of snake deity called the Naga. Both male and female Naga can shape-shift between human and snake form, most often preferring the shape of a hooded cobra. Nagini are said to be exquisitely beautiful women, and they were considered the ultimate marital catch.
However, the Nagini sometimes act as succubi, seducing and killing men in order to become more powerful. And you definitely don’t want to make these ladies angry. If their lover is murdered, the Nagini are said to be relentlessly in their pursuit of revenge.
The most famous Nagini is Manasā, of Hindu mythology, the goddess of snakes. Manasā is worshiped as a fertility goddess and invoked to protect against snakebites. She may be depicted as a woman covered in snakes or standing on the back of a snake. Her face is often surrounded and shaded by the hoods of seven king cobras at her back.
Manasā remains half-mortal and is bitter than Shiva did not make her a goddess. She is kind to those who worship her and can be very cruel to those who do not. She is often portrayed as being vicious and foul-tempered.
J.K. Rowling borrowed from these myths in order to create Voldemort’s side-kick, Nagini.
Rakshasa are Hindu/Buddhist demons or goblins. Ravan, the demon King of Lanka, is one of the most famous Rakshasa and is the main villain of the Ramayana. Rakshasa can have super strength, change their size, and can shape-shift at will to assume human and animal forms (or any terrifying creature they can dream up.) Of course, the Rākṣasī (females), love to transform into beautiful women. And we all know how that’s going to turn out…
As with all self-respecting demons, the Rakshasa are most powerful at night. The New Moon phase in particular is one to be wary of. These creatures haunt cemeteries and tombs, eating corpse-flesh and sucking cows dry of milk.
Pūtanā, a female demon, tried to kill Krishna when he was a babe by offering him the poisoned milk of her breasts. This didn’t go so well for her, as the infant immortal sucked the life right out of her (breast-feeding mothers around the world know this fear.)
One group of flesh-eating demons wasn’t enough, so the Brahma created the Pishachas, too. These creatures can be found lurking in the shadows of cemeteries and charnel houses, quietly infecting all who pass near them with disease and madness, or devouring the bodies of both the living and the dead. They are drawn to places where violent death has occurred, and have a penchant for the flesh of pregnant women.
Villagers in southern India will often carry a piece of iron or neem leaves in their pocket to ward off these demons if they have to travel any dark roads through the forest at night.
Thankfully the creatures can’t abide sunshine or bright lights, so we don’t have to fear them during the daylight hours. You might want to sleep with a night light from now on.
Honorable Mentions: The Manticore v 1.0
So, I included the Manticore in my list of Persian monsters and it turns out the Persians actually borrowed this particular fiend from India after Pliny the Elder failed to do his due diligence and included the mythical creature in the Naturalis Historia. The Manticore immediately embraced its claim to fame and has been popping up in world literature ever since. I thought I should mention that here in case anyone is wondering why I neglected this truly monstrous, flesh-eating beast.
Giant shark-beasts, snake women, monkey warriors, and flesh-eating demons… what’s not to love (and fear) about the mythological creatures of India. Had you heard of any of these? Which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the others in this series. Come take a peek behind the dream-veil at the stuff nightmares are made of!
So far we have visited Canada, Serbia, the British Isles, Korea, Persia, and Scandinavia. Also, if you have any suggestions for where we should stop next on our terrifying tour of world monsters, I’d love to hear it!