The yakshi who ended a war and other stories
B Prasad’s Yakshikathakal aims to change the popular perception of the mythical beings that populate our films, folklore and literatureby Anasuya Menon
In Kerala, the yakshi haunts our collective imagination. These mythical beings of extraordinary beauty, have been represented in films, folkore and literature time and again, with hair as black as midnight and always robed in white, the colour of moonlight.
The stories we have heard of yakshis are those that send shivers down the spine. As legend goes, these yakshis, Kerala’s version of vampires, charm people, mostly men, with their ethereal beauty, before drinking their life blood.
They are, however, very misunderstood, says B Prasad, who has authored a collection of stories, Yakshikathakal, for children. An editor at the Kerala State Institute of Children’s Literature, based in Thiruvananthapuram, he spent a year putting the book together. He says, “We have only heard of them as blood-thirsty beings, who spread fear. But the term yakshi originally could have evolved from the term devi (goddess),” he adds. “Yakshis from folklore are actually women who lived extraordinary lives. They were honest, brave and honourable. From these stories, one can guess that women in those times were respected in society. Women who led exemplary lives were believed to have got another life after their deaths, and they were worshipped in temples.”
Thiruvananthapuram and the southern region of Kerala on the whole, have temples where yakshis have been consecrated. “Though we have all seen them, we hardly know their stories,” says Prasad.
Prasad’s stories have been culled from villadichanpaattu, a musical art form that is common in the Ammankovils (Devi temples) of southern Travancore. The songs in turn have their roots in the thekkanpaattu, an oral musical tradition that captured the life and times of erstwhile Nanchinadu (present Kanyakumari district) and surrounding regions.
Prasad, who belongs to the Vaniya community, which traditionally performs villadichanpattu, was fascinated by the mention of yakshis in some of the songs. He picked up threads that led him to libraries and studies on thekkanpaattu. While research and records on this mostly oral tradition is still scarce, Prasad did find five yakshis whose stories he has compiled in the collection.
The collection, which includes five books, are on Neeli, Ponnirathal, Purushadevi, Chembakavalli and Vadukachiyamma. These women were heroes in their own right, says Prasad. Purushadevi, for instance, was the daughter of the queen of Pennarasunadu, a kingdom ruled by women. When the time came for her to have a baby, the kingdom waited eagerly for the heir to the throne. Soon, Purushadevi became pregnant and her mother orders for a fort to be built around the palace, for protection. This angered the neighbouring king, who waged a war against Pennarasunadu.
In the story, though the women fight valiantly, the neighbouring kingdom joins forces with another kingdom, resulting in a fierce and bloody war. When she learns that it is a losing battle, Purushadevi takes her unborn child after cutting open her belly and throws it at her opponents. This act stuns her enemies and the kings burn in a sense of shame and remorse. They kill themselves on the battlefield.
The stories are essentially sad, speaking of pain, injustice and death. “The songs from which they have been derived are detailed. It was extremely challenging to adapt them for a children’s book. But these stories, I felt, offer a glimpse into the rich and ancient socio-cultural fabric of the past. We had a very colourful oral story-telling history. I have tried to tell the stories simply, glossing over the gruesome details.”
Written in plain sing-song prose, and illustrated brightly, the book is meant for children, though adults would also enjoy the narration and presentation. Prasad chose different illustrators to bring life to his characters. While Manoj Mathasseril, one of the artists, has used the traditional Kerala mural style to bring Chembakavalli and Purushadevi to life, Gopu Pattithara brings the lovely Ponnirathal to life in his distinctive style. K P Muraleedharan’s Neeli and Santhosh Veliyannoor’s Vadukachiyamma are equally attractive, drawing the readers to them at one glance.
“Since these are stories that combine myth and history, there is an element of fantasy in them. Though I’ve used the Kerala mural style, minor deviations had to be made to suit the setting and timeline of the stories,” says Manoj. “I read the stories and developed my drawings accordingly.”
The yakshi meanwhile, would live on, a little more colourful perhaps, in our imagination.
Published by Bluepea Publications, the books are on sale at Krithi International Literature and Knowledge Festival .