My friends from Kerala have often regaled me with tales of Yakshis. The stories typically proceed like this:
A lonely traveller, walking at night in the narrow roads that separate the rich rice fields of Kerala, is enchanted by the heady scent of jasmine flowers and is drawn to a palm tree under which he finds a ravishingly beautiful woman who looks scared and requests the traveller if she can walk with him to her house. It is dark, and she is afraid. Naturally the lonely traveller, spellbound by the fragrance and her beauty, and bound by the code of chivalry agrees. After they walk some distance, and she has enchanted him with her melodious voice and her wit, she offers him some betel leaves. ‘I will make pan with areca nuts and spices, if you have some lime on you.’ The traveller will know that this is no simple request and is in fact a local code where a woman expresses her desire to be intimate with a man. As soon as he offers the lime, a house appears: an impressive house that clearly belongs to nobility. ‘Would you like to come in?’ she would ask gently and the smitten man would follow her inside. But as soon as the door would shut, the lady would turn into a fierce monster with fangs and claws — a yakshi! The next day, under a palm tree, people would find the remains of the traveller, some hair, and his betel stained teeth.
The only thing that keeps a yakshi away is iron and so travellers were advised to offer the yakshi lime on the tip of an iron pen used to write on palm leaves. There were occult specialists or mantra-vadis who knew how to catch a yakshi and pin her to the Strychnine tree using iron nails.
Many say that yakshi may have been the ghost of a woman who died of heartbreak and so stayed trapped in the land of the living seducing young men, taking revenge against all men, for what one man did to her.
What about women? What must they be scared of? A yaksha? No, say my Malayalee friends. A Gandharva! A charming seducer with a melodious voice, who can drive women mad that has even led to the creation of a superstition advising women never to sleep without undergarments.
The way Yakshi and Gandharva are seen in Kerala is very different from the way they are typically presented in Puranic, Buddhist and Jain lore, where Yakshi is a tree-nymph, different from Apsaras who are river-nymphs. They were buxom beauties visualised in paintings as clinging to the branch of a tree, their drunken laughter making the trees burst into flower and fruit. And Gandharvas were celestial musicians who entertained the gods. They were harmless fairies, at best irritation to uptight celibate monks. Only in Kerala, they transform info fierce monsters: the succubus who sexually charms and destroys men, and the incubus who sexually charms and destroys women. These stories reveal an anxiety about sex with strangers: a traditional warning for boys and girls resonating even in modern B-grade horror movies where young people, out for picnic and some juvenile sexual thrills are attacked by angry monsters with masks and chainsaws.
Significantly, a yakshi in Kerala can also transform into a goddess, admired and adored by many. Her beautiful and fierce images are found on temple walls as she finds peace in the presence of a divine being, as in case of the famous reclining Padmanabha-swami (Vishnu) of Thiruvananthapuram, who understands the yakshi in his temple without judgment.