The Visha Kanya (Sanskrit विष कन्या; English: Poison girl) were young women reportedly used as assassins, often against powerful enemies, during the times of the Ancient India. Their blood and bodily fluids were purportedly poisonous to other humans, as was mentioned in the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, Arthashastra, written by Chanakya, an adviser and a prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (c. 340–293 BCE).
However, in time, "poison damsel" passed into folklore, became an archetype explored by many writers, resulting in a popular literary character that appears in many works, including classical Sanskrit texts such as Sukasaptati.
The Poison Damsel (Sanskrit Viṣakanyā) is a literary figure that appears in Sanskrit literature as a type of assassin used by kings to destroy enemies. The story goes that young girls were raised on a carefully crafted diet of poison and antidote from a very young age, a practice referred to as mithridatism. Although many would not survive, those that did were immune to other poisons and their body fluids would be poisonous to others; sexual contact would thus be lethal to other humans. There also exists a myth that says a Visha Kanya can cause instant death with just a touch.
According to Kaushik Roy, Visha Kanyas would kill their targets by seducing them and giving them poisoned alcohol.
Contemporary treatments of the theme
Visha Kanya has been a popular theme in Indian literature and folklore, and apart from appearing in classical Sanskrit texts, it has appeared repeatedly in various works like Vishkanya by Shivani and Ek Aur Vish Kanya? by Om Prakash Sharma, who use Visha Kanya as an archetype in their stories—a beautiful girl who kills when she comes too close. More recently, the archetype has taken a new hue in the HIV/AIDS era, for example in Vishkanya, a 2007 novel, based on the AIDS epidemic in society. Vishakanyas have also been depicted as important characters in the book Chanakya's Chant. In 2009, Vibha Rahi, a lower caste woman has written an autobiography 'Vishkanya: Untold Secrets' in Marathi, in which she portrays how upper caste women make intimate relationships with lower caste people of high profile and destroy their families and social relationships.
Over the years, many Hindi films have been made on the subject. The first film, Visha Kanya, was made in 1943, starring Leela Mishra, and more recently, Vishkanya (1991), starring Pooja Bedi in the lead role. Vishkanya Ek Anokhi Prem Kahani is a soap opera TV series which aired on Zee TV; it starred Aishwarya Khare as Aparajita Ghosh, a Visha Kanya, in the main role.
In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight the author Nabokov treats his affair with Irina Guadanini through allusions to the myth of the poison damsel. In the 2015 novel, The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett, the main character fights a group of Visha Kanya. The trope also appears in a set of Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories.
- Roy, Kaushik (2004-01-01). India's Historic Battles: From Alexander the Great to Kargil. Orient Blackswan. p. 24. ISBN 9788178241098.
- Radhey Shyam Chaurasia (1 January 2002). History of ancient India: earliest times to 1000 A.D. Atlantic Publishers & Dist. p. 100. ISBN 978-81-269-0027-5. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
- B.K. Chaturvedi (2004). Kalki Purana. Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd. p. 74. ISBN 978-81-288-0588-2. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
- Erotic Indian tales from the Sanskrit classic Suksaptati, by G.L. Mathur. Hind Pocket Books, 1971. Page 26–27
- Norman Mosley Penzer; Somadeva Bhatta (November 1980). Poison-damsels: Folklore of the World. Ayer Publishing. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-405-13336-7. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
- Molu Ram Thakur (1997). Myths, rituals, and beliefs in Himachal Pradesh. Indus Publishing. p. 17. ISBN 978-81-7387-071-2. Retrieved 20 June 2011.
- Rahi, Vibha (2009). Vishkanya: Untold Secrets. Pune: Karuvaki Prakashan.
- Vish Kanya (1943) IMDB.
- Vishkanya (1991) IMDB.
- The Vish-Kanya or Poison Damsel of Ancient India, Illustrated by the story of Susan Ramashgar. Folklore Society, Britain, 1927.
- Poison-damsels: Folklore of the world, by Norman Mosley Penzer, Somadeva Bhatt. Ayer Publishing, 1980. ISBN 0-405-13336-7. Excerpts
- Vishkanya: True stories of famous women spies of the world in story form. by Yashvant Mehta. Publisher: Gurjar, 1996.
- Vishkanya, by Esa Mehta. Rajasthani Granthagar, 2007.