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Epics for children: The vampire stories

Vikram promises a tantric (sorcerer) that he will capture a Betaal (vampire spirit), who hangs from a tree in a cremation ground.

The Stories of Vikram and Betaal, also called Betaal Pachisi in Hindi and Betal Panchvinshati in Sanskrit, are a collection of 25 stories that feature the two titular characters. It is not known who created them. The oldest version known is in the 12th book of Katha Sarit Sagara or Ocean of the Stream of Stories, written in the 11th century by Kashmiri writer Somadeva. These were based on older materials that are no longer available. The stories have been popular in India for centuries and can be found in most Indian languages. In modern times, they have been made into movies, TV series, books and comics.

The story features a brave legendary ruler called Vikramaditya. Vikram promises a tantric (sorcerer) that he will capture a Betaal (vampire spirit), who hangs from a tree in a cremation ground. Vikram crosses dark and scary forests, enters a spooky cremation ground and climbs a gnarled tree to subdue a feisty Betaal. He then starts the journey with the Betaal on his shoulder. Betaal might be in a grey zone between life and death but he loves entertainment. He tells a story to pass the time. Betaal puts a condition before Vikram that if he spoke anything at all, Betaal would fly back to the tree. Though the setting in which the stories are narrated belongs firmly to the horror genre, the stories are simple tales of royal personages or commoners in everyday situations. After completing each story, Betaal puts a question to Vikram which involves some complex moral or ethical dilemma. He states that if Vikram knows the correct answer and still does not reply, his head will break into pieces. Since Vikram is very intelligent, he knows every answer. He is forced to answer, and as per the first condition, Betaal flies back, and Vikram has to begin all over again.

Finally, on the 25th attempt, Vikram is stumped and does not know the answer. He stays quiet and Betaal does not fly back. Betaal shares his back story with Vikram, revealing that the tantric wants to gain Betaal’s power of possessing other bodies. It requires sacrificing a human which will be Vikram. Vikram realises the truth of these words when the tantric asks him to kneel before the goddess. The clever Vikram requests the tantric to show him how to kneel and beheads the tantric when kneeling. The saved Betaal gives a boon to Vikram, who, being kind and just, asks him to cleanse the tantric’s heart and revive him. The Betaal also agrees to come to the king’s aid whenever needed. Pick up the tales if you like fantasy, and love pondering over mind-bending dilemmas.

The New Indian Express