Dayan of Indian Folklore
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The witches! I love witches! All the witches!
Let's dive right into the world of witches in India, to a specific kind of witch called a "dayan"—whose lore primarily comes from Jharkhand and Bihar in India. We're talking pure, unadulterated, uncensored, no-holds-barred, stick-with-you-forever kind of evil here. Lock your doors and pull your curtains because you're about to learn of the truly horrific. If you are easily disturbed, you may want to stop now. This article contains descriptions of real-world violence against women and children.
Spelling & Pronunciation of Dayan
Depending on the original source language, the word has multiple transliterations in the Latin alphabet. Dayan, Daayan, Ḍāin, or Ḍāini.
In Hindi script(known as Devanagari), the word dayan (or daayan) is spelled डायन. You can hear a native Hindi speaker pronounce it right here. Listening to native pronunciation is always the best way to learn how to say a word. If you can't listen to that for any reason, here's a rough approximation of how to say it: Dye-Yin (dye as in hair dye + yin as in Yinyang️)
In Bengali script, the word (dāin or dāini) is spelled ডাইনি. Unfortunately, there isn't a recording on Forvo of the Bengali pronunciation. Here's a rough approximation, though: Dye-knee. You can also listen to a Bengali text-to-speech version on Shabdkosh.
Just keep in mind that the rough approximations and text-to-speech voices will never be the same as an actual native speaker saying the word. However, now you should be able to hear the word in your head as we continue and learn about one of the true horrors of the world.
What Is a Dayan?
Any woman who dies after being treated poorly by her own family or dies during childbirth may return from the dead as a dayan. She returns with long, black fingernails sharp as talons and her feet facing backward. Dayan's hair is usually worn in a single braid (plait) that reaches the ground, and she can control it like another limb. Some say that her hair is the source of her evil power. Perhaps you could even call it a prehensile plait.
Braid vs. Plait
If you're American, you probably call it a "braid," but if you're in the UK, what you call a length of hair made up of interwoven strands might not be so simple.
Soon after returning from the dead, a dayan will come after her immediate family, starting with the youngest male and working her way up until she drains the life and blood from them all. Some stories say that when a dayan drinks the blood of men, they will turn old and grey. Dayan can also take the form of a young, beautiful female who will seduce men, kidnap them, and drain their life via sex (similar to a succubus) until they die.
After tormenting and killing off their immediate family, the dayan are said to hunt and kill off entire villages.
While these may seem like stories from long ago, some of these are very recent. Like in the case of 55-year-old Sarna Devi, from Mukundsila, Rahe, Jharkhand, who in 2012 was accused of being a dayan and blamed for every bad event in her home village Mukundsila. She was assaulted, and her entire family was shunned.
In 2010, there were a series of arrests for ritualistic child sacrifice where witch doctors evidently lured children into homes with candy or toys and then killed them to try to obtain immortality. Around the same time, four women in Assam were chased from their village and murdered for being witches.
Not long ago, in 2016, in the village of Kanjia Marhatola, five women were dragged from their homes and hacked to death by axes on the accusation of witchcraft. Some of the victim's relatives managed to sneak out and alert the police, and when the police arrived, they were attacked and forced to flee.
There are a lot more, though.
"According to the National Crime Bureau records, as many as 1,157 women were branded as witch and killed in Jharkhand between 1991 and 2010. Ranchi leads among other districts with 250 cases of witch-hunting in 10 years, followed by 185 cases in East Singhbhum and 125 in Bokaro. Between January and October 2012, 31 cases of witch-hunting have been reported in the state.
On November 30, Sumi Hansda, 60, was recently beheaded by her neighbour Somai Mardi, who suspected her to be a witch and blamed Hansda for his illness. Similarly, on July 18, an elderly couple was made to eat human excreta and drink urine by panchayat members of a village in Latehar after being charged of practising witchcraft."
— The Times of India
That's a lot of dayan. Either they are much more common than I thought, or something else is happening. Like on July 21, 2019, in the village of Nagar Siskari in the Gumla district, the entire village came together and murdered four "witches."
The police had named 23 in their charge sheet and have arrested 18 so far. "Every single person in that village are responsible for the deaths. Even the kids. Someone beat them with lathi, someone kicked them, other pushed them and hurled abuses. But everyone was involved," said Bishnudev Chaudhary, SHO, Sisai Thana.
On the night of July 21, after days of contemplating why there were recurrent deaths in the village, the villagers gathered along with the Ojha, the common name for a 'black magician'. Everyone was present. The Ojha pointed finger at four elderly in the village and said they were responsible for the deaths.
— 'Not Naxals, This is Dayan Zone': Inside a Jharkhand Village That Came Together to Kill Four' Witches'
A Convenient Excuse for Sexism & Persecution of Women
Turns out, after a bit of research, I found there is something that's happening and has been for a very long time—accusations of witchcraft as a means to persecute women. Sadly, this isn't new and certainly isn't isolated to only this part of the world, like in rural China, where accusations of witchcraft are used to steal land, money, or other resources. Don't just take my word for it, though. But you probably should take the word of people who have studied this far more than I have and listen to what women who have suffered accusations of witchcraft have to say about it.
In the pretext of 'Witch-hunting', people kill or rape innocent women to acquire their property. It is also used as a tool for vengeance and to target others in local politics. Though practised secretly nowadays, sometimes the entire village conspires against a household, usually of the Dalit or tribal family — a numerically weaker section in the village. Also, single women, widows, and aged people — the most vulnerable people of the society are chosen for witchcraft and are targeted to capture their land and property.
— Why women are branded as 'dayans'?
As if the coronavirus induced quarantine wasn't bad enough, rural India and social media is giving it a push in another direction. The word 'quarantine' is now being twisted into कोरोना डाईन. Due to its phonetic similarity, people in India have largely started referring to the infection as 'dayan' (witch). In rural India, the word 'dayan' is colloquially used to refer to a problem, and now so is the Covid-19 infection being called so.
This is hugely problematic because the term 'dayan' or 'chudail' (witch) is an inherently sexist term. Women are targets of hostility and branded as witches. They are demonized, ostracized, lynched and even killed due to the superstition and illiteracy and accused of practicing 'black magic' and harming men and children. Usually they are either childless but wealthy single women or widows, or have dared to go against established social norms in some way. The 'witch hunt' therefore, is patriarchy's way of punishing a woman for exercising her agency.
— Sexism in the time of Corona: How the "Corona Dayan" took over social media
Most at risk are those who are low-caste or own land that others covet
— Witches are still hunted in India—and blinded and beaten and killed
...the myth of the 'Daayan', the desi and monstrous version of the witch has remained popular in Indian horror films. Recent retellings o the witch's tale have seen writers and directors experiment with themes of sexual violence and patriarchy to subvert the horror plots creating 'daayans' out of victims of patriarchy.
But the witch's influence in Indian films and literature goes further back than just fiction or folk tales. In India, witchcraft is deeply rooted in Vedic Hindu religion. Witchcraft - or tantra Sadhna, is a pre-Vedic tradition part of the Tantra sect of Hinduism. Its followers, called Tantriks and Tantrikas, as often associated with witchcraft. While the men have been termed 'sadhu' or ascetic, however, women have often been dubbed as 'witches'.
— Women's Solidarity Through Witchcraft
In a shocking incident of superstitiousness, an elderly woman in Sarkaghat area of Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh, was allegedly persecuted mercilessly for religious reasons by mob in a village. Initial reports suggested that she is aged between 70 -80 years. Villagers allegedly also recorded this act on their phones. The video is now going viral on social media. Furious over such insensitivity towards a helpless old woman, people demanded stern action against all culprits.
In the video, an elderly woman can be seen with her face blackened, and a shoe garland around her neck. She is being forced to run in front of the rath (chariot) of the deity. Villagers are playing traditional instruments and chanting the name of the deity. In their local dialect, villagers are calling her a tantric and cursing and abusing her. She is alleged of worshiping 'Mashaan'. The lady is pleading for mercy and asking for water.
In her village, there is a temple of a deity. There is no permanent priest in the temple for the past couple of years. Taking advantage of it, some people have been acting as agents of the deity. These people branded this elderly woman as a 'Dayan' and instigated the villagers, reports said.
First, her house was ransacked recently. Later, she was again targeted, exposed to ill-treatment and humiliation publicly.
The reports said that earlier this woman had made a complaint to the panchayat regarding some people branding her as Dayan and harassing her. However, she was threatened with dire consequences in the name of the deity and made to withdraw her complaint.
— Elderly Woman in Himachal's Mandi Branded 'Dayan' (Witch), Persecuted Mercilessly by Villagers
BHILWARA, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gulabi Kumawat was an elderly widow living in a modest home in India's Rajasthan state, until the day she was branded a witch by fellow villagers and her life went catastrophically wrong.
Beaten. Buried. She was set alight and left for dead.
— Witches beaten, buried, burned for land in princely Indian state
Well, there you have it.
The true horrors of the dayan.
Here are a few more links to read up and watch to learn more about the battle some women are facing in parts of rural India.
- What It's Like Being Declared a Witch in Modern India on VICE Asia's YouTube Channel (~21-minute video)
- Witchcraft: India's Deadly Superstition | The New York Times YouTube Channel (~5-minute video)
- Smithsonian Magazine's article: Women Shut Down Deadly Witch Hunts in India (Yes, That Still Happens). In some parts of rural India, the practice of witch hunts is still in vogue, but local women aim to stop it.
- CJP Impact: Churki Hansda goes from being called "Dayan" to "Di" article: "People are amazed that Churki Hansda, a Covid Warrior known for rushing oxygen concentrators, cylinders and medicines to the most deprived homes, herself had to struggle to survive a life of hardship. Many were shocked to find out how she and her family were once forced to leave their home in Gopalnagar village of Kasba panchayat in Parui in Birbhum district. They were accused of 'witchcraft' by the villagers, and were attacked with sticks and stones."
- Witch Hunts Today: Abuse of Women, Superstition and Murder Collide in India on Scientific American
That last link on Scientific American mentions an organization called ANANDI, whose mission is to "Advance rights of women who belong to poor rural vulnerable, marginalized communities." You can learn more about ANANDI on their website.
As far as witches go, I'd be among the last to say that malevolent supernatural forces don't exist—after all, I do write horror fiction. I write researched-based nonfiction about fringe supernatural topics. Still, accusations against people should be looked at with a critical eye toward evidence instead of hysteria, especially when there are personal and/or financial gains to be made by accusing someone of being a witch.
Witches have had a complicated history in folklore throughout the ages. The idea of an evil witch can make for a great story, but any portrayal in a negative light also comes carrying the horrific and tragic past. At times and in certain cultures, women have been revered or feared, praised or persecuted, even without magic. And then you add the idea of their control of the supernatural into the mix—nearly every time I know of has been an incredibly dark period for women. This whiplash of society's treatment of women has often resulted in women bearing the brunt of the blame for all sorts of things, both real and imagined. I know witches are real, as some of my friends self-identify as witches, but as far as dayan go, perhaps some of the stories are true, but we should always look to where the evidence and facts point us: authentic acts of evil.
More About India, Jharkhand, & Bihar
As of 2022, about 1.4 billion people are living in India, and that number is quickly growing each year. As a percentage of the overall population, very few people make false accusations against their family or neighbors as a convenient excuse to commit heinous crimes. So, it's not all evil, and to prove it, here are a few unique and interesting things about India.
- Chess can be traced back to a 1,500-year-old game called chaturanga from India. Same thing with the game "snakes and ladders."
- India is home to the wettest inhabited place on earth, Meghalaya, which receives over 470 inches (11.9 meters) of rain each year.
- Varanasi is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, going back at least 2,500 years.
- India invented shampoo.
- Perhaps you've heard of Freddie Mercury, but did you know he was born as "Farrokh Bulsara" to Parsi-Indian parents?
- During World War II, over 2.5 million Indians volunteered to fight with the British Empire—making it the largest volunteer army in world history.
- Jharkhand means "forest land," and you can see why right here.
- Bihar has no reason to be jealous of the photo above.
Relevant & Related
- There's a paranormal romance drama TV series called Daayan.
- Ek Thi Daayan is a supernatural thriller film from 2013. Film trailer with English subtitles here.
- A ~5-minute short film on YouTube called DAYAN - The Witch
- Want to read about another supernatural creature from India? Check out my write-up: Nale Ba of Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
- And another one of mine is about a false accusation from history in a different part of the world: Gilles de Rais
- Here's a fun ~4-minute video where the same word is said in Hindi and Bengali: Hindi vs. Bengali | How Similar Are Hindi and Bengali Words? Some of the words sound very similar, while others are entirely different.
- By the way, tikka masala is one of the United Kingdom's national dishes. 🤨 True story. Read more here and here.