The Baital Pachisi, also called Vikram and the Vampire, is an ancient text written in Sanskrit thousands of years ago. It’s perhaps the oldest piece of fiction about a vampire. It was rewritten by the dramatist Bhavabhuti some time in the eighth century.
It’s written as a story within a story. It begins with the tale of King Vikram finding a vetala, or baital, depending on the translation, hanging from a tree. Sounds kind of similar to our vampire image of the bat, doesn’t it? Vikram is egotistical and a macho character, so he immediately tries to capture the vampire. He cuts the branch away and seizes the vampire. He intends to take the vampire to a yogi named Shanti-Shil.
The vampire evades Vikram’s attempts at capturing him. He eventually allows himself to be captured, and merely laughs and offers to tell Vikram a story. This part is pretty awesome. Here’s this creature who is typically viewed as a demonic, terrifying monster, and the tale definitely puts a different perspective on the situation. Here it is the king who happens upon a vampire, who’s just hanging in a tree not hurting anybody, and the king just sets out on this malicious path of destruction against it. The vampire is definitely the bigger person in this situation; reacting to the king with such a magical phrase as, “Let me tell you a story…”
There are conditions, of course. The vampire tells the king that at the end of every story he will pose a question or riddle to the king. If Vikram answers the riddle correctly, then the vampire will return to his tree. If he doesn’t answer correctly, then the vampire will consent to go with Vikram. Here too is an interesting ploy. The vampire is making an offer of going with the king if the king does not answer the riddles correctly. Surely it would be a simple thing for the king to pretend not to know the answers and be able to capture the vampire, right?
Except Vikram knows all of the answers at the end of every story, and he has to answer them. In some versions, if Vikram does not answer even though he knows the correct answer, his head will explode. In other versions, Vikram is too egotistical not to answer a riddle he knows the answer to. So he continues to have to recapture the vampire after every story. There are twenty-five stories in all, and in the last one, the king fails to answer the vampire’s riddle correctly.
However, the vampire, a baital or vetala, is merely possessing the body of a corpse, and can simply leave it. The plot thickens when the vampire tells Vikram about the yogi Shanti-Shil’s plot to kill him. After revealing this, the vampire leaves the body of the corpse it was possessing, and the king confronts Shanti-Shil.
At the end, it would seem the two had formed almost a friendship. The vampire doesn’t appear as an evil villain, but more as a trickster and a storyteller. He ultimately helped Vikram in the end, through his tales, riddles, and finally through saving the king’s life.
It’s inspired modern interpretations, one of the awesome one’s being a show “Vicky and Vetaal” which is featured on Disney India.
It’s a neat story. Who wouldn’t want a vampire storyteller who sleeps in trees for a friend?