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In the Khulasat-ul Tawarikh one comes across a detailed account of the dayans (female goblins) of Thatta, renowned across India for their ferocity. They were particularly fond of chewing the hearts of children, and the author of Khulasat-ul Tawarikh reports having witnessed an event where a dayan tore open a child’s breast and swallowed its heart. But the power of a dayan’s gaze even felled adults, who were rendered unconscious, whereupon the dayan would extract and eat their hearts.

It was said that dayans converted others into their kind by making them share their meal. They also instructed them in magic, in which they were masters. The dayans’ favourite ride was the badger, which has a reputation for digging graves and gnawing human corpses. They brought it in their power with the recitation of spells.

When a dayan was captured, the witch doctors slit open her calves and extracted from it red grains resembling a pomegranate’s seeds. If these grains were administered to someone under a magic spell, the spell was broken.

The author of Khulasat-ul Tawarikh reports that female goblins outnumbered the male goblins in Thatta. The powerful exorcists drained them of their magical powers by branding their temples, filling their eyes with salt, and hanging them upside down for 40 days. Otherwise, the goblins were invincible. They did not drown even when weighed down with heavy stones tied around their neck, and if they were thrown into the fire, the flames would not touch them.

One of the powers of the female goblins was their ability to travel to far-off places, flying, and report hidden events. It is reported in the Chach Nama that when Raja Dahir was killed in Muhammad bin Qasim’s attack on Sindh, there were conflicting reports about his survival. Some of his followers and family believed that he had gone into hiding.

One of them sought a sorceress’ help to ascertain the truth of the matter. The sorceress asked them for a little time to do her investigations, and retired to her abode. After half a day had passed, she returned from Serendip bearing branches of chillies and nutmeg, flower buds, flowers, and fruit. She reported that she had travelled from one end of the world to the other but had not seen any sign or heard any news of Raja Dahir, and had he been alive she would have learnt about it. She had brought along the plants and fruit as signs of her visit to Serendip. However, other accounts suggest that it was a female goblin who had been commissioned to search for Raja Dahir, and she had travelled to the ends of the world on her badger, and that instead of the nutmeg she had brought a walnut as proof of her search.

The Maqabis-ul Majalis quotes Khwaja Ghulam Farid, who attests to the presence of the female goblins, and mentions that they are very much a part of the human world. According to him, a dayan is the female of the human species who performs extraordinary feats with the help of magic, can travel several miles in the flash of an eye, and assumes the shapes of birds and beasts.

In modern times, the accounts of dayans show both restricted activity and limited choice of food. In 1953, an individual named Ghulam Hussain started one evening from a villlage. He was headed for the town of Chakwal. As he rode on his bicycle, he was stopped by a young woman who asked him for a ride to a nearby village. On the way she asked him to stop at a butcher’s shop, from where she bought a few kilos of meat, after which they resumed their journey. When they approached a ruin far from habitation, she asked to get off.

Ghulam Hussain pedalled away but kept wondering why she had chosen to get off there. Curiosity about whether she had made a tryst with someone there, and the voyeuristic instinct to find out, made him return to the ruin to investigate. He took cover behind a bush, from where he saw a hideous old crone dressed in the young woman’s clothing eating, on all fours, the raw meat on the ground, along with some feral cats. Ghulam Hussain could not bear the horrible sight and retraced his steps without delay. He cycled back wildly, ran up a fever during his return journey, and died from it a couple of days later.

Another report relates the case of an oil factory peon named Mehdi, who was returning home after buying some meat at night when he was accosted by three women with loosely flowing hair. They chased him, shouting: “Give us our fair share of the meat! Give us our fair share of the meat!" The peon panicked, threw down all the meat for them to take, and cycled away without a second look.

This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.

To read Musharraf’s previous Lounge columns, click here.

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