Most Indians especially those of a certain generation that grew up in the 1980s and 90s will be familiar with the tales of Vikram and Vetal. Immortalised, in a series on India’s National Broadcaster ‘Doordarshan’ as well as in the iconic comic books Chandamama this was a set of stories from the past, with a strong moral message in each.
The actual history of the Vetala Panchavimshati (in Sanskrit) or Betal Pachisi (in Hindi) is fascinating. The series of 24 stories that are sub parts of a main story quite like the Arabian Nights stem from a distant past. Called Betal Pachisi - literally a reference to the 25 stories around Vetal, were first written in a now lost language Pishachi (Paisaci).
– The stories were first written in a now lost language dubbed Pishachi (Paisaci) by the elite who looked down on the people who spoke it.
The Pishachi language, also referred to in some texts as Bhutabhasha was a dialect of the Prakrit language, and was spoken in parts of central India sometime between 3rd century BCE to 6th century CE . Sadly, not much is known about this language except a few fragments of textual references. Some linguists believe it got merged with a form of the Pali language, while others believe that over centuries, this language evolved into Konkani spoken in the Western Ghats. Historians like VK Rajwade and linguists like Dr IJS Taraporewala have pointed out this connection and believe that terming the language 'Pishachi' or 'language of the Ghosts' was a way of looking down and even denigrating the language.
The most famous text of this language was Brihatkatha (The Big Story) , a text now lost, where the tale of Vikram and Vetal is first mentioned.
The next mention of the story of Vikram Vetal comes in the Kathasaritsagar or the ‘Ocean of the Streams of Stories’ , a famous 11th century CE collection of Indian legends, fairy tales and folk tales, retold in Sanskrit by Somadeva, an 11th century CE Kashmiri scholar. Derived from the now lost Brihatkatha, Vetal Pachisi appears in the 12th volume of the 18 volumes of the Kathasaritsagar.
– Terming the language ‘Pishachi’ or ‘language of the Ghosts’ was a way of looking down and even denigrating the language
The main story of Vikram and Vetal, within which 24 other stories are set, centres around King Vikramaditya of Ujjain (Vikram) who promises a tantric that he will capture Vetal, a spirit or pishacha and bring it to him. In return, the tantric promises to grant Vikram special powers for the prosperity of his kingdom. This is where the plot of sub-stories begin. Each time Vikram tries to capture the Vetal, it narrates a story that ends with a riddle, which Vikram has to answer. In a nutshell, the Vetal eventually proves to be a good spirit, which warns Vikram about how the tantric is trying to plot his death, thus helping Vikram vanquish his real enemy. Eventually the Vetal is released with the promise that he will come to Vikram’s aid whenever he is in need.
So where does this story come from? According to local folk myths Vetals were spirits known to inhabit trees, cremation grounds and even possess people. So potent was the Vetal that often shrines were dedicated to him.
In fact, the Bombay Gazetter mentions how shrines dedicated to Vetal worship were present outside villages in Maharashtra and how villagers worshipped them. Later, Vetal came to be considered the guardian deity of several communities like the Wadars and Mahars.
The legend of the Vetal continues to live on in many villages across India and amazing as it sounds, these spirits are both feared and venerated even today.