Sunday, January 11, 2009

#6. Poison Arrows and Vishkanyas

Poison Arrows and Vishkanyas

Krishna was sitting under a peepal tree. He was old and tired. Some say he was 120+ at that time, but in any case he must have been in late eighties at that time. He had lost everything. His kingdom was under the sea (Tsunami?), and the womenfolk of his community were snatched away by robbers right under the eyes of Arjun, his dearest friend, as he could not string his bow Gandiv: he had become so feeble in old age. And then his clan in a drunken brawl had been entirely annihilated. He sat with his sole turned up. And this was mistaken by a bahelia (A person who hunts for a living) for a deer or any other small animal, and he shot an arrow. Well, that killed Krishna who had won the battle of Kurukshetra. Why should he have did of a simple arrow shot in a non-vital organ. Well, it is said that it was a poison arrow, and very soon the blood took the lethal poison to different parts of the body, and he could not be saved. One can say that otherwise also Krishna had nothing to look forward to, and the death at that juncture was the most appropriate ending to the great tragedy of Mahabharat .

One has also read in Mahabharat and elsewhere about amogh astras (invincible weapons). In 1500 B.C. what could they be? It was certainly not agnibaan as it was already known. Arrow-head made of some hard metal, sharpened like a razor? Or, what my guess is (yes, it is all a guesswork) that it was poison arrow with venom which did not have an antidote. Lakhman became unconscious when hit by a strange new weapon of Meghnad. It could be a poison whose only antidote was the Sanjivani herb. A natural corollary is that all the weapons which one got with great difficulty from some deity who had developed it were arrows with arrowheads or darts slaked in a venom for which there was no known antidote aailable. It is interesting to note all such prized weapons were arrows, and not mace or sword. It had to be a sharp projectile, capable of covering some distance.

Poison arrows have been used in South America, Africa and Asia. The venom was either animal-derived or plant-derived. In South America, tribals dipped the blowgun darts in the poison made from the skin of three species of Phyllobates, a genus of poison dart frogs. The poison is collected by roasting the frogs over fire.

Plant-derived poisons are generally known as curare. Greeks and Trojans used poison arrows and spears during the Trojan war. Alexander faced poison arrows during his conquests in India, and maybe he died of a festering wound caused by such an arrow (in his thigh, I think). Curare is a generic term for arrow-poisons that contain D-tubocurarine. This is found in the bark of the trees strychnos toxifera, S. guianensis, chondrodendron tometosum or sciadotenia toxifera. This is muscle-relaxant, paralyzing the respiratory system and thus bringing about asphyxiation. In Africa arrow poison is made from Nerium oleander.In the jungle areas of Assam and other north eastern states, Burma and Malaysia poison arrows are widely used and the poison is Antiaris toxicana strychnos and strophathus geneara. Aconite is used by Minaro tribe in Ladakh for hunting Ibex, and also by the Bhutia and Lepchas of Sikkim and Assam.

So as you see, in olden times, even the so-called advanced people like Greeks and Indians used poison arrows. And it was of course very commonly used by various tribes all over.

And now to Vishkanyas. I am afraid I didn’t get enough material on it. Beautiful girls were chosen from very young days to be Vishkanyas. They were given snake venom in small doses from the childhood, which was gradually increased. An adult girl was made to be bitten by venomous snakes, maybe more than once in the day and gradually her body became so venomous that conjugal or salivary contact with her proved fatal to the partner. Somewhere I read that the girls were administered sankhia (which I think is arsenic). But arsenic is not that instantaneous in its effect. Somewhere I also read that the vishkanyas die after once biting the targeted person. It is difficult to believe, because human body should not behave like that of a bee and a snake can bite any number of times. I remember a novel by Acharya Chatursen Shastri in which a Vishkanya was able to kill a number of people in one night of ‘orgy’. But that was fiction. Chanakya is reputed to have used vishkanyas for killing the enemies of Chandragupta. Somebody advised that I would get a lot of material in ‘Chandrakanta Santati’ by Devakinandan Khatri. I got the novel. It is in 6 parts, and needs some patience to go through. If I learn something, I will certainly let you know.

We talked about the snake venom and snake bite, so it is worthwhile knowing about poisonous snakes of India in a few sentences. So far as I remember there are very few poisonous snakes: cobra, king cobra, viper and Krait. They have venom glands and it is injected through their specialized teeth (fangs) in a syringe-like action to the prey or the being defended against. A combination (polyvalent) anti venom is available (or should be available) in the hospitals which acts against almost all the snake venom. According to Daniel, death occurs quickly in cobra and krait poisoning, and delayed in viper bites. But if in the bite any vein is ruptured death may occur within 15 minutes in either case.

People cry hoarse now against biological warfare, battles are waged, kingdoms fall and rulers hanged. But use of poison to kill one’s enemies has been there from pre-historic days. Not that there is any justification for either.

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