In Search of Apsaras by Shveta Thakrar

I love faeries. I grew up reading all about them, believing in them, dreaming about them. I collected all the drawings, books, and winged figurines I could, I gobbled up lore like forbidden faerie food, I made wings out of poster board and glitter. I could rattle off bits of trivia like how the use of iron kept away unwanted visitors, that the fey inability to lie didn’t preclude trickery, and that a brownie accepted gifts of food in return for cleaning a house. When things got bad, I told myself I was fey. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that it even occurred to me there might be faeries outside Western Europe–specifically, outside the Victorian take on the Celtic and British traditions.

As a child of South Asian descent, I had my own library of Amar Chitra Katha, comics that highlighted the key points of Indian epics like the Mahabharata, that retold the successes of the Mughal court advisor Birbal, that spoke of armies of talking monkeys and bears. I’d heard all about Shesha Naga and raakshasas, bhoots and apsaras, but during my high school years in a tiny Midwestern American farm town where diversity meant growing soybeans instead of corn, I never made the connection. When I read young adult novels, I didn’t wonder why all the heroines were blond and blue-eyed with skin like cream, so why would I look anywhere else for faeries? The stories of my heritage had no place in the world I lived in; it was easy to forget them, tucked neatly in their own dusty trunk at the back of my mind. I wanted to blend in with the kids around me. I wanted to like the things “Americans” liked. There was no room for anything that made me different, not when I yearned so very, very much to belong.

After I started college, I found more and more people who looked like me, and the questions I’d pushed aside poked me hard in the chest. Where were we in the books I loved? American culture talked about the great Roman and Greek myths, but what about my own? I began exploring my Hindu heritage much more deeply, learning about goddesses and mantras and considering my own identity. During my search for related art, I even managed to find a few Victorian-style faeries with brown skin, and I felt vindicated. There, see? Wasn’t that easy enough?

Then on a trip to the library in 2002, I came across Holly Black’s young adult novel Tithe. I wasn’t impressed at first, because the gritty world and the slippery fey she presented completely contradicted the image of the sweet little flower faerie I’d always held dear. But the novel wouldn’t let me go, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I’d enjoyed its intrigue and plotting and even its folklore. No, especially its folklore–once I got over my initial discomfort, the richness of it drove me to research, research, research. “Browning” Victorianized Celtic faeries just wasn’t enough anymore.

If Celtic faeries were, in fact, much closer to Tithe‘s portrayal of them than I’d believed, what else was I missing? Where were the fey from the rest of the world? Where were the ones in my own cultural backyard, for that matter? What were they like, and why didn’t I see them represented in YA books–or any books at all in the North American market?

Okay, I decided, I’d write the novel I wanted to read, the one that used Indian faeries the way Holly Black had used Western European ones. But with no easy to access to books on Hindu or Buddhist folklore, where was I supposed to start? It wasn’t like being able to walk into a chain bookstore and find shelves and shelves on sprites, pixies, and goblins. There were almost no compendia available, and I didn’t know what I was looking for, anyway. I could search online for “Indian faeries,” but would it really help me expand my vocabulary of Indian folklore terms?

So much of folklore is tied up with family, with oral tradition. It didn’t take long to see a simple Internet search wasn’t going to compensate for not having my grandmother and great-grandmother nearby to pass down the stories. At best, my search engine turned up more of the brown-skinned Victorian faeries. Hoping for more, I approached my mother, who described the pari, a Persian loanword for “faerie” or “angel.” For years, I thought this was the Indian faerie, this tiny borrowed creature, and I even found a Lata Mangeshkar song about one.

Eventually I learned the pari wasn’t native to South Asia, either. Another dead end! I combed through everything I knew until I happened onto a story about nagas, half-snake, half-human creatures. Then it hit me. These were the Indian fey I’d been seeking, the ones I’d known all my life from different tales. Magical, living by rules of their own, tricksy–in short, fey. Had I been unconsciously refusing to acknowledge them by expecting them to fit the mold of Western European faeries? By referring to them as “faeries,” a Western term?

I asked myself what it meant to be fey. Some things spanned all cultures and traditions: the allure of being something both more and less than human; being magical by nature, a creature that transcended mortal limitations; freedom from human rules except by choice; and possibly most tempting of all, the unspoken, glittering promise of something better, something more than this miserable, flesh-bound existence. The fey could be shapeshifters, like nagas and werewolves, half-and-half creatures, slipping between worlds and hiding among us as they pleased. They often possessed unearthly physical beauty, in the case of Seelie court queens and apsaras, or great ugliness, as manifested in vetaals and harpies. Like their appearance, their art was larger than life, exaggerated. Whether a gandharva or an elfin harpist, there was no such thing as average.

So where else could I find this phenomenon in Indian folklore? Having exhausted my own resources, I turned to my partner, an academic well versed in ancient Indian texts. He told me about Buddhist dakinis and gave me a scarlet wall hanging featuring one of these protective warrior spirits. Next, after some fumbling for keywords on my part, Wikipedia yielded up vetaals and apsaras. Vetaals hung upside on trees and haunted cremation grounds. Drawings of a vetaal illustrated an English translation of the Vetaal Panchavimshati and showed its backward hands and feet. Apsaras lived in the god Indra’s heavenly realm of Svargalok, and one famous one was painted leaving her lover. From there, I learned gandharvas were the consorts of the apsaras, both of whom lived in the heavenly realm, and the enemies of the nagas, who slithered around on terra firma.

At this point, a scholar friend of mine suggested a book on Indian demonology, which offered wonderful details but had no pictures. That left me still hungry, hungry to see the fey that reflect me, to have a visual feast of them, to be able to surround myself with their stories. The few pictures on the Internet only made my mouth water more. Even the Japanese kitsune or the Russian vodyanoy have become familiar to Westerners, so we have an idea of how they look. It’s so frustrating, to be able to babble about phookas and nixies, but the mention of naginis gets a blank expression followed by, “Oh, Voldemort’s snake thing in Harry Potter!” A pishaach? A yaksha? Forget it. It’s even more irritating when I myself don’t know.

I did see illustrations of Indian mythical creatures in a Dungeons and Dragons compendium of monsters, but unfortunately, D&D appropriated them in a very colonial and disrespectful manner. In fact, I’ve observed that a lot, that “Othering” of anything from the East. It’s disheartening, to say the least–especially when people unfamiliar with the culture assume that D&D is the source material, and its depiction of the fey is how they are. What wouldn’t I give for a full-color, lavishly illustrated, researched bestiary?

After more searching, I managed to assemble a database of information. How accurate any of it is, I couldn’t say. (Of course, details of folklore vary from teller to teller, making “accurate” relative at best.) At last I discovered a book on nagas, dating back to the colonial period, and I read the Vetaal Panchavimshati and the story of the apsara mentioned above. Even with that foundation, the idea that I still don’t know what I don’t know is daunting. Trying to piece that together is like solving a faerie riddle.

It’s common knowledge here in the West that faerie currency is just leaves glamoured to look like dollars, but who knew that burning turmeric held a bhoot at bay? I didn’t. All I could say was that bhoots must have terrible hair, since my mother used to accused me of looking like one after I’d played hard and gotten my hair tangled. Another bit of folk wisdom: to attract a naga, one should build a house of precious metals and jewels and set it near a body of water. Lovely as that is, I can’t take for granted my audience will know it, because even I didn’t. If I want to bring Indian mythology into North American fiction, I can’t fall back on pop cultural knowledge; instead, there’s so much I have to explain.

Our folklore is a reflection of us, of our fears, of our desires. The nagini who holds the cup of divine nectar–we could read her as the symbol of the hope for immortality. The fanged raakshasa who drinks blood? Our own dog-eat-dog capitalistic mentality. Or maybe they’re both just monsters, plain and simple. But either way, we miss out when we limit ourselves as to which stories from what cultures are relevant. It says a lot about how we see the people within our society. Why do we only know some tales? Why not become familiar with all stories and thus with all people?

As I polish the latest draft of the novel with those Indian fey, I’ve still barely scratched the surface of the folklore, my folklore. I’ve named many beings in this essay, but I can’t say I know them well, or even at all. My search has been a scavenger hunt, uncovering one clue at a time while possibly stumbling right past the very thing I seek. I wonder sometimes where the gaps in my knowledge lie, and if I can ever find them. I wonder if what I do know will mean something to someone else, someone who’s waiting for that book with brown characters and brown fey. Someone who’s waiting for more.

I hope it will.

If people let her, Shveta Thakrar would eat books for dinner. Since they won’t, she settles for writing Indian-themed fantasy. Drawing on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her M.A. in German Literature, she likes to explore the magic that is just out of sight as well as that which stands right in front of our faces. Other things that interest her include feminism, cultural and racial notions of beauty, and how language influences how we think. Shveta is currently working on a YA novel featuring Indian fey, bleeding thumbs, and family secrets, all in Philadelphia. Read her blog at

(Image: Nagini by Sarah Jane Harlow, 2010)