The Venomous Visha Kanyas Versus the Thugs: Which Would You Prefer Were Real?
Even a touch can kill. The Visha Kanyas were supposedly poisonous young women who operated as executioners in ancient India. Any contact with these toxic ladies would mean death. However, no one can say for certain where truth ends and myth begins about the historicity of these venomous assassins and the superhuman-like aura surrounding them.
Visha Kanya, literally meaning "poison maiden," comes from a disputed and disgraceful (if true) practice in which ancient Indian Kings trained girls to become assassins from an early age and gradually fed them many different types of poisons to make them immune to their lethal effects. By the time they reached puberty, these girls would have been thoroughly toxic and ready to be used as deadly human weapons.
A Visha Kanya as portrayed in the series ‘Vishkanya.’ Source: Youtube Screenshot
The king who had ordered the specific process could then use the assassins against his most powerful enemies. One legend actually holds that Aristotle warned Alexander the Great about the dangers of such "venomous virgins" before the famous Greek King launched his Indian campaign. Another Indian legend even suggests that Alexander the Great died as a result of embracing a Visha Kanya that was given to him as a trophy by the defeated King Porus. The question, however, remains: What is true and what is myth regarding the poisonous assassins known as Visha Kanyas?
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‘Alexander and Porus’ by Charles Le Brun. ( Public Domain ) An Indian legend claims Alexander the Great died from a Visha Kanya’s embrace.
Historical Figures or Exaggerated Legends?
The Visha Kanyas are first mentioned in the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, Arthashastra, written by Chanakya, an adviser and a prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (340–293 BC). We also learn about the “Poison Damsel” (Sanskrit Viṣakanyā), a figure that appears in Sanskrit literature as a type of assassin used by kings to kill their enemies.
According to these stories, 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. As you can easily guess, any contact, especially sexual contact, was fatal to the men who had the bad luck to sleep with them.
A painting in Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra, India depicting an amorous man and woman. ( Public Domain ) Legends say that any contact with a Visha Kanya, especially sexual contact, would be fatal.
According to Kaushik Roy, Visha Kanyas would usually approach their targets by seducing them and giving them poisoned alcohol. They would usually drink from the poisonous cup to gain the trust of their victim and when the unsuspecting victim would drink from the same cup, he would ingest a double dose of poison into his system.
Other Sanskrit sources mention that a Visha Kanya was sent by Nanda's minister Amatyarakshasa to kill Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya diverted them to kill Parvatak. Of course, the problem with all of these stories is they are fiction and no historical sources verify any of them. They lack verification from other historical sources.
A statue depicting Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire in ancient India. (Public Domain ) Legends also suggest a Visha Kanya may have been sent to assassinate this emperor.
Thuggees – The Cult Assassins of India
In comparison to the semi-mythical Visha Kanyas are the “Thuggees” - an organized gang of professional assassins who operated from the 13th to the 19th centuries in India. They were as brutal and real as they get. The Thuggees worked by gaining the trust and joining groups of travelers before surprising them in the night and typically strangling them with a handkerchief or noose, a quick and quiet method, which left no blood and required no special weapons. They would then rob their victim and carefully bury them.
Their crimes involved a high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack. Each member of the gang had a special function: such as luring travelers with charming words, acting as a lookout, or taking the role of the killer.
A group of Thugs strangling a traveler on a highway in India in the early 19th century. ( Public Domain )
According to the Guinness Book of Records, these assassins were responsible for approximately two million deaths, however estimations vary widely since there is no reliable source to confirm when the practice first began.
The first known record of the Thugs as an organized group, as opposed to ordinary thieves, is in Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī's History of Fīrūz Shāh dated to around 1356. Membership to the fraternity of Thuggees was often through hereditary lines, passed down from father to son. Others trained with a guru, similar to an apprenticeship, or tried to align themselves with other Thugs in the hope of being recruited. Sometimes the children of travelers who were killed were groomed to become Thugs themselves, as the presence of children would help allay suspicion.
The Thugs Worshipping Kalee (1850). ( Public Domain )
The Thuggee assassins were eventually suppressed by the British authorities in India in the 1830s, after the implementation of the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts, which stated:
“It is hereby enacted, that whoever shall be proved to have belonged, either before or after the passing of this Act, to any gang of Thugs, either within or without the Territories of the East India Company, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, with hard labor.”
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Thug Behram, regarded as one of the biggest mass murderers. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
A number of strategies were implemented to aid the success of the new laws, including incentives for gang members to turn in their peers and wide dissemination of reports regarding Thuggee behavior to educate and warn travelers and the general population.
Finally, after at least six centuries of wreaking havoc across India, the days of the Thugs came to an end. But today their reputation lives on in their name, now widely used throughout the world to refer to aggressive and violent young criminals. Like the Visha Kanyas, Thuggees have also become famous in literature as well.
Top Image: Painting from the Ajanta Caves, India. Source: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/ CC BY 2.0
Roy, K. (2004) India's Historic Battles: From Alexander the Great to Kargil. Available at: https://books.google.gr/books?id=jpXijlqeRpIC&redir_esc=y
Holloway, A. (2014) Thuggees – The Cult Assassins of India. Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/thuggees-cult-assassins-india-002145
Chaurasia, R. S. (2002) History of Ancient India: Earliest Times to 1000 A. D. Available at: https://books.google.com.ec/books?id=cWmsQQ2smXIC&pg=PA100&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false