The Vishkanyas: India’s Poisonous Female Assassins

We take a fascinating look at the Vishkanyas, the “poison damsels” who were used as alluring assassins for Indian kings and leaders.

Particularly sex, proved fatal to men

Few characters in the maze of folklore and historic mythology inspire as much curiosity as the Vishkanyas.

Millennia researchers and storytellers have been captivated by these mysterious, mythical, and mysterious entities.

The term “visha kanya” meaning “poison maiden”, paints a vivid picture of these intriguing figures, whose very existence blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.

Legend has it that from the moment of their birth, Vishkanya (also spelled Vishakanya) girls were subjected to a crumb of poison, gradually rendering them immune to its lethal effects.

By the time they reached adolescence, they were not only deadly but also very attractive, wielding their toxic allure as weapons in the service of kings and rulers.

However, were these women part of folklore or ingrained secrets in Indian society?

We set out on a quest to discover their mysteries.

Peeling back the layers of misinformation and misunderstanding that shroud these fascinating people, the Vishkanyas pull us into a realm where fact and myth mix.


The Vishkanyas: India's Poisonous Female Assassins

The true origins of the Vishkanyas are shrouded in debate and speculation.

Some believe them to be the rejected offspring of Ravithra (goddess of snakes), while others suggest they are the stolen children of a forgotten ancestor.

As mentioned, it is believed that ancient Indian kings would give their newborn daughters one little drop of snake venom on the second day of their lives.

The girls were gradually fed various poisons throughout their early years to immunise them.

By the time these females hit adolescence, they were fully poisonous and primed to be utilised as lethal human weapons.

This, mixed with their beauty, meant monarch, rulers, kings, conquerors may use these alluring killers against their enemies. 

The sufferer would die if they had sex, kissed, or touched her perspiration.

Some poeple also believe that these star-crossed girls were chosen by kings if their horoscope (Jyotish) promised widowhood. Even a specific cast was established for them.

Vishkanyan names frequently feature short vowel sounds in the middle, accompanied by numerous fricative consonants best articulated with a forked tongue.

These names are commonly derived from significant events in Vishkanyan history or from aspects associated with the child’s maternal lineage.

During pivotal life junctures, Vishkanyas often opt for new names, sometimes doing so repeatedly.

Each name symbolises a vital chapter in the individual’s narrative – reflecting both their past and their evolution.

Some sample names include:

  • Ashath
  • Casuthis of Guiding Hands
  • Izith
  • Othasee
  • Riddle of Esaviz
  • Salthazar

Regardless of their origins, one thing remains clear: the Vishkanyas are survivors.

Throughout history, they have faced subjugation and ostracism due to fear of their deadly abilities.

Yet, they have endured these narratives with it being reported that they formed their own communities for safety and to preserve their heritage. 

Physical Description and Community

The Vishkanyas: India's Poisonous Female Assassins

The Vishkanyas bear human-like appearances but possess ophidian features such as forked tongues and serpent-like eyes.

Women were thought to possess several distinguishing features that set them apart from humans.

Initially, their skin is adorned with fine scales so intricately woven that, from a distance greater than a few feet, they appear akin to ordinary skin.

While these scales typically bear a uniform hue, certain Vishkanyas exhibit intricate patterns, such as elegant stripes or swirling motifs.

Furthermore, their eyes lack pupils but boast enhanced vision in low-light conditions compared to the average human.

As previously stated, these assassins formed tight-knit communities, with wisdom-bearing women at the helm, guiding their people.

50 to 100 individuals would integrate discreetly into broader societies while maintaining their unique cultural identity.

Vishkanyas often embraced polyamorous relationships, giving birth to multiple offspring who inherit maternally.

Children had the freedom to pursue various occupations within the community, with many opting for artistic or craft-based endeavours.

Certain roles within the community carried the weight of preserving cultural and historical records, ensuring that important traditions were passed down through generations.

Traditionally, culturally inclined Vishkanyas convened in clandestine gatherings to exchange stories, knowledge, and resources.

Settlements were established wherever their communities deemed fit, typically near or within larger urban centres.

In mythology, those who migrated to Jalmeray (a large kingdom island) often resided in Niswan (Jalmeray’s capital), where the community gradually embraced openness.

Alternatively, certain Vishkanyas opted for forested or coastal regions on the island to establish their envisioned societies.

Beyond Jalmeray, Vishkanyas were scarce.

Limited intercommunity communication restricts knowledge of their whereabouts beyond these regions.

Nevertheless, Vishkanyas may have journeyed anywhere seeking opportunities to utilise their martial skills or artistic talents.

Despite their welcoming demeanour towards outsiders, Vishkanyas faced mischaracterisation.

Due to historical tales, they were perceived as inherently malicious, leading to a strong sense of ethnic identity and a tendency to maintain separation from perceived “outsiders”.

While most Vishkanyas extended hospitality to visitors from other ancestries, integrating such individuals into their communities often sparked debate and caution.

Adventures & Powers

The Vishkanyas: India's Poisonous Female Assassins

Primarily focused on preserving their communities, Vishkanyas typically adopt neutral alignments.

Those who engage in solitary journeys to share their heritage or explore the world may exhibit neutral or chaotic good tendencies. 

Beliefs among Vishkanyan groups vary, with some adhering to traditional Vishkanyan faiths while others worship Vudrani deities like Likha or Ashukharma.

Outside Vudra, some groups may embrace local deities associated with freedom or the arts, such as Arazni, Cayden Cailean, or Shelyn.

Additionally, Vishkanyas may heed the call of adventure for various purposes:

  • To generate income for their community
  • To nurture self-expression and personal fulfilment
  • To disseminate knowledge and awareness of Vishkanyan culture
  • To gather tales of diverse cultures
  • To explore the world beyond their immediate circle

These ways of life depict these women as conforming and self-sufficient, without having to rely on murder or killing others for glory.

However, whilst such claims lack sufficient evidence, it is generally noted that those who have encountered Vishkanyas found it true that their blood and saliva possessed venomous properties.

Many Vishkanya warriors possessed the skill to rapidly coat their weapons with these fluids, enhancing their lethality.

Consequently, Vishkanyas naturally exhibited resistance to poisons.

Personality-wise, Vishkanyas were often perceived as graceful and subtly captivating by most individuals.

They tended to demonstrate heightened perceptiveness compared to the average person. Although, they were also known for occasionally displaying irrational tendencies.

Additionally, Vishkanyas had a distinct language, which shares the name “Vishkanya”.

Modern scholars suggest that the operational methods of the femme fatales diverged from their depiction in ancient texts.

Also, Vishakanyas employed seduction tactics to ensnare powerful men, often sharing a poisoned beverage with them (like wine).

The assassin would cautiously sample the drink first, cultivating the man’s trust.

Trained from infancy to resist poisons, the woman remained unaffected by the toxic brew.

However, when the nobles imbibed from the same vessel, they met a gruesome demise.

While they might not have possessed lethal touch abilities, they were adept at orchestrating successful assassinations.

In Sanskrit literature, it is recounted that Amatyarakshasa, the prime minister of Dhana Nanda, enlisted a Vishakanya to eliminate Chandragupta Maurya. 

Legends and Reality: The Truth Behind the Myth

The Vishkanyas: India's Poisonous Female Assassins

The legends of the Vishkanyas, though captivating, are often embellished with elements of fantasy.

While it is true that they possessed venomous capabilities, their methods of assassination were likely more subtle and strategic than the tales suggest.

One may argue that these women were folklore, but there are recounts of the Vishkanyas throughout history. 

In the pseudo-Aristotelian work, Secretum Secretorum (The Secrets of Secrets), it is written that Aristotle cautioned Alexander the Great about the dangers of extravagant gifts from Indian monarchs.

In a Hebrew rendition of this work, likely predating others, Aristotle expresses concern about the astute political strategists of India.

A French variant of the book recounts an incident where Socrates and Aristotle instruct two slaves to kiss the maiden, resulting in both slaves dropping dead instantly.

Other versions portray her lethality through a bite, sexual contact, or even just a chilling stare.

Guillem de Cervera, a 13th-century Spanish author, asserts that Aristotle saved Alexander’s life by employing astrological techniques (Jyotish) to identify a poison maiden and prevent the assassination attempt.

While the translators attributed the works to Aristotle, there exists no concrete evidence to support the notion that Aristotle indeed corresponded with Alexander via letters.

Consequently, the belief that Aristotle employed astrology to safeguard Alexander’s life seems dubious.

It’s plausible that this narrative is a Greek interpretation of an older Indian legend.

However, the inclusion of Vishkanyas provides an intriguing hint.

Regardless of the authorship of these texts, it indicates that the Greeks and Romans were familiar with the tales of venomous female assassins originating from India.

The Vishakanyas find their earliest mention in Arthashastra, authored by Chanakya, an advisor and prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (340–293 BC).

In Sanskrit literature, they are depicted as the “Poison Damsel”. As emphasised by The Mysterious India in 2017:

“Young girls were raised on a carefully crafted diet of poison and antidote from an early age, a technique known as mithridatism.

“According to the stories, many of these girls would die during “training”.

“But those who managed to become immune to the various toxins would become human weapons as their bodily fluids became extremely poisonous to others.”

Any form of contact, particularly sex, proved fatal to men who chanced upon them.

According to Kaushik Roy’s 2004 book, India’s Historic Battles, Vishakanyas typically gained access to their targets by seducing them.

Despite lacking historical corroboration, the concept of the “poison damsel” transitioned into folklore, evolving into an archetype explored by numerous writers.

This character archetype is prevalent in various literary works, including classical Sanskrit texts such as Sukasaptati.

However, these women have also been depicted in popular culture. 

Over the years, numerous Hindi films have tackled this theme.

The first movie, Vish Kanya, starring Leela Mishra, came out in 1943. Pooja Bedi starred and was the lead in Vishkanya, which came out in 1991.

Zed TV also aired the TV soap opera Vishkanya Ek Anokhi Prem Kahani, in which Aishwarya Khare played the Vishakanya, Aparajita Ghosh.

Similarly, Beeshkanya by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay delves into the topic of a girl who is thought to be a Vishkanya who is taken to Magadha to kill members of the Shaishunaga dynasty.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the affair between the author and Irina Guadanini is allegorically depicted through references to the poison damsel myth.

Similarly, Ayize Jama-Everett’s 2015 novel, The Entropy of Bones, features the protagonist battling a group of Vishakanya.

The trope also finds its way into several stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The legacy of the Vishkanyas extends beyond history and folklore, permeating through literature, culture, and media.

The Vishkanyas are a complex fabric of myth and reality.

Their mysterious allure has captured the imaginations of writers and artists throughout the ages, inspiring tales of intrigue and danger.

Whether rooted in reality or embellished by myth, the legend of the Vishkanyas continues to leave a legacy as enduring as the venom that courses through their veins.

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

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