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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Devas and the Asuras

Most of us who are familiar with Eastern religions would associate the word Deva with supernatural beings of light and therefore as 'gods' while the term Asura would be associated with beings of darkness and therefore 'demons'. Apparently this was not always so.

While researching the religion of the Zoroastrians on, imagine how surprised I was to come across this text in a translation of the Avesta:

Ahura Mazda spoke unto Spitama Zarathustra saying:
...The first of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda created, was the Airyana Vaego, by the good river Daitya.
Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created  by his withcraft the serpent in the river and winter, a work of the Daevas.

The Devas are evil? And that was not all, according to the Avesta, the Asuras are the beings of light while the Devas are the beings of darkness. It seemed impossible that two ancient religion had exactly opposite views  on something so fundamental as gods and demons!

The churning of the ocean, Samudra Mantan. Bas-relief sculpture from Ankgkor Wat, Cambodia.
 Image from Wikimedia

Further research showed that both the Avesta (ancient Persia) and the Vedas (ancient India) came from the same Indo-Iranian and an even older Indo-European source. According to a commentary on the Avesta in, Asura meant 'the Lord' and Daeva meant 'the Shining One'. So in the begining, both Asura and Daeva were supernatural beings of light. Apparently, the two religions evolved along separate paths - in the religion of the Avesta, the Daevas were demonised. Among the Hindus, the Devas were the gods and the Asuras became the demons. (Ahura Mazda is also spelt as Asura Mazda and means 'the Lord of High Knowledge'.

But the Rig Veda holds both Devas and Asuras as august beings of light. (The Rig Veda is a collection of ancient vedic Sanscript hymns. It is the oldest of four sacred text of Hinduism known collectively as the Vedas and is thought to be composed between 1700 - 1100 BC). 

In the Rig Veda , the Devas were gods of nature (elemental beings) while the Asuras were gods of social/moral values. Among the original Devas were Indra - god of thunder and lightning, Soma - the sacred potion and the plant, Agni - god of fire, Ushas - the dawns etc. Among the Asuras were Mithra - god of the oath/covenant/contract, Varuna - god of law, Aryaman - god of marriage etc In fact, the original Asuras were also known as the Adityas; seven celestial dieties who were the sons of Adithi. Headed by Varuna and Mitra, they were described as 'bright and pure as streams of water..." Among the Hindus, the Adityas would later be regarded as Devas as well. Varuna, attended by the Nagas, became god of the sky and ruler of the celestial ocean (the Milky Way). In ancient times, there was no air and light pollution and the Milky Way in the clear night sky would have been an awesome spectacle!

The Devas and the Asuras churn the milky ocean for Amrita,
the divine nectar. The living rope around Mount Meru is Vasuki,
 the king of the nagas.
The turtle is Kurma, an incarnation of Vishnu.
In one of the ancient myths, the Devas and Asuras agreed to work together to obtain Amrita, the divine nectar of immortality from the ocean. Using Mount Mandhara/Mount Meru as a churner, the king of the nagas, Vasuki agreed to be the living rope they would use to churn the ocean. The Devas, who pulled the tail end of Vasuki had an easier time compared to the Asuras who pulled the head end. The long-suffering Vasuki  belched out fire and smoke, which singed the Asuras (Vasuki belching fire and smoke indicates that nagas are in fact dragons). The mountain itself was supported on the back of a gaint turtle, Kurma, who was an incarnation of Vishnu himself. The milky ocean threw up fourteen divine treasures, including Lakshmi- goddess of wealth and fortune (she became the consort of Vishnu), Chandra - the moon, Parijata - the flowering tree and last of all, Amrita the nectar of immortality. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the Devas ultimately obtained Amrita while the Asuras were denied this prize.

The Devas pull the tail end (left)
while the Asuras pull
the head end (right) of Vasuki.
In later Hindu texts, the rivalry between the Devas and the Asuras broke into all-out war. They battled for dominion over the three worlds: Svarga, Bhumi and Patala or Heaven, Earth and the Netherworld. Patala is not actually 'hell', in fact it is the watery domain of the nagas (who were also Asuras). In this epic war, the Devas created Devi (who in turn created Kali as mentioned in a previous post - 'The Pontianak, the Vampire...) in order to defeat the mighty Asuras. So who won this War of the Worlds?

Initially, it was the Gods of Civilisation, the Asuras. For over a millenium, the Avesta was the supreme religion in the world. The preisthood of the Avesta, known as the Magi (the Three Wise Men from the East of the Nativity), were known and respected throughout the ancient world while Hinduism evolved in relative isolation. However, an examination of popular culture and numerous entries on Wikipedia would indicate that the Gods of Nature, the Devas are the winners of this cosmic struggle at the present moment. Anand Neelakantan takes a more sympathetic look at the Asura in his book, Asura: Tale of the Vanquished. This is a retelling of the Ramayana, from the point of view of the Asura antoganist, Ravana. For those unfamiliar with the original Hindu epic, the Ramayana is the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, who is exiled into the wilderness with his beautiful wife Sita and his faithful brother, Lakhsmana. While Rama is out hunting with his brother one day, Sita is abducted by Ravana, the ruler of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Rama and Lakhsmana set out to rescue Sita, with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god. Neelakantan tells the story from the point to view of the people of Lanka.

RAVANA, performed by the Petronas Philharmonic Theatre

However as my interest is in plants, the question arises, what is Soma - the sacred potion and the plant? Soma was a ritual drink of great importance in Vedic culture and was frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda. Soma was not only offered to the Devas in ritual sacrifice but also consumed by the priests themselves. It is known as Haoma among the Persians and was also used in rituals in the Avestan/ Zoroastrian tradition. The plant was described as having long stalks and as being yellow in colour. The juice of the plant was extracted by pounding the stalks with stone mortar and pistil and straining the juice with a cloth.
Unfortunately the exact identity of the plant, Soma is derived from, is lost in the mist of time! How can this happen to this most  important sacrificial offering in Vedic rituals? In fact, Hindu priests offer prayers apologising to the gods for their inability to offer Soma in their rituals now. In South India, Somalatha, a substitute derived from the plant Sarcostemma acidum, is offered as a substitute during Somayajna.

Some experts think that Soma could have been made from hallucigenic mushrooms/ or even cannabis/marijuana type of plants. However, the physical description of the Soma plant does not match mushrooms or cannabis. Hallucinogens are also unlikely as a priest needs to concentrate during ritauls - a mistake in the recitation of vedic hymns to invoke the gods would result in failure. Recent opinion seem to favour a species of Ephedra, most probably Ephedra sinica, mainly because the Zoroastrians still use this plant. Ephedra sinica, known as Ma Huang in Chinese, has been used in traditional Chinses medicine for centuries. Ma Huang is a decongestion i.e. it improves breathing and elevates symptoms of asthma and bronchitis (very useful for Hindu priests since smoke inhalation is an occupational hazard); it also improves concentration, increases blood pressure and reduces hunger and fatigue. Exactly what a priest needs during long exhausting rituals which involves the recitation of hundreds of hymns!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Saya and Diva

Saya and Hadji - the two protagonists of Blood+
Blood+ probably ranks as one of the best stories ever written in the vampire genre. Produced by Production I.G and ANIPLEX, and directed by Junichi Fujisaku, the anime series is based on a  movie called Blood - The Last Vampire which was released in 2000. The TV series is actually much more interesting than the movie and more thought provoking. And of course there are the amazing theme songs - who could forget the hauntingly beautiful  Season's Call by Hyde? (Hyde is the lead singer/songwriter for Japanese rock group, L'Arc en Ciel. His real name is Hideto Takarai). If you have never heard it before, click below.

The expanded version of the song by l'Arc en Ciel:

Blood+ is the story of Saya Otonashi, a girl with a dark secret, who slowly discovers that she has superhuman abilities. Saya's discovery that she is actually a vampire, whose blood is lethal to monsters called chiropterans, comes as a devastating shock to her. Saya has bonded with her adoptive human family (who gave her the name of Otonashi) and friends and has always regarded herself as nothing more or less than an ordinary young girl growing up on the sunny island of Okinawa. Saya eventually comes to accept her true nature and armed with a specially adapted samurai sword (katana), she uses her power to ruthlessly destroy chiropterans. She is assisted in her mission by Hadji - a cello playing vampire who is both her faithful guardian, friend and servant. Initially, Saya has no memory of Hadji even though he claims to know her in past incarnations. However, Hadji never strayed far from Saya and secretly carried her weapon with him; carefully hidden in his cello case. One of the most fascinating part of the series is Saya's discovery of her own past.

Kai, Riku and Saya enjoy their carefree childhood in Okinawa

Hadji reveals Saya's katana and his own dagger.

In a series of flashbacks, it appears that Saya was actually one of twin sisters. An extremely wealthy archeologist/naturalist called Joel Goldschmidt discovers the mummified remains of a giant bat-like creature which he calls a chiropteran (after the Order Chiroptera, which includes all bats) in Iceland in 1833. He brings the mummy back to his mansion in Bordeaux, France. After dissecting the mummy, he finds that the creature was carrying two cocoons inside its body. His assistant and perhaps younger half-brother (?) Amshel attempts to cut open the cocoons but accidently cuts himself instead. The drops of blood which fell on the two cocoons brought them to life, causing noticeble heart-beats beneath the cocoons. Joel and Amshel were astonished to discover that each cacoon contained a perfect baby girl - one with fiery red-brown eyes and one with icy blue eyes.

The red rose represents Saya, the blue rose, Diva
The two brothers decided to make the girls the subject of a monstrous experiment, possibly to test the Nature vs Nurture theory - this was after all the age of Darwinism. I can only suppose that they felt no remorse because they did not regard the two baby girls as truly human (which was partly true as both baby girls needed blood rather than milk to survive). So while the red-eyed twin was named Saya and raised as
The grim gates to the Zoo
Joel Goldschmidt's daughter in his mansion, the unnamed blue-eyed twin was locked up on top of a desolate overgrown tower in a place called the Zoo (reminescent of Rapunzal?). While Saya was lavished with attention and given the best education, including music lessons, that money can buy; the unnamed twin remained locked in the cold tower with no one to care for her even as an infant. Amshel was tasked with providing the unnamed twin with the basic needs required to ensure her survival. Both girls grew up but never seemed to age after reaching adolescence. In 1863, Saya discovered her twin sister in the tower after hearing her singing. She named her Diva because of her beautiful voice and visited her                                                                                                secretly in the tower.

A young Hadji brings flowers for Saya
In 1870, Amshel purchased a 12-year-old boy named Hadji from his parents for a loaf of bread! He was to be Saya's friend and companion. Hadji was allowed to live in Joel's mansion, and one assumes was given the same education as Saya had, in yet another social experiment. Saya eventually accepts him as a true friend (when he gives her some rare blue roses he picked himself from a nearby cliff) and even teaches him to play the cello, although he soon surpasses her. Saya's fascination with the blue rose is perhaps an unconscious longing for her blue-eyed twin. It was a flower that would remain close to her heart, even when she was later to be associated with the red rose, while Diva with the blue.

Saya and Hadji when they were truly young and still living with Joel Goldsmith
While Hadji grew up into a cultured young man, Saya remained a 16-year-old girl, never aging a day. In a fateful day in 1883, Hadji falls from a cliff, while attempting to pick the rare blue rose Saya wanted to give Joel for his 72nd birthday. His injuries are fatal and while he lays dying Saya makes a desperate attempt to save him by feeding him some of her blood. Thus she unwittingly turns him into her chevalier - her first knight. It is implied that she believes that blood is necessary for life as she herself needs to drink blood to live, but it is also possible that she has a long-buried genetic memory that her blood would heal him.
Saya also made another fatal decision on that day - she freed Diva from her cage to allow her to sing for her beloved father, Joel, on his birthday. But Diva exacted her revenge by killing or mortally injuring everyone present - including Joel. She also turned Amshel into her chevalier on the same day. Joel was turned into a chiropteran and Saya was forced to kill him with her own blood to prevent him from turning into a monster. Saya was heartbroken and vowed to kill Diva and all the chiropterans she created.

Hadji tries to protect Saya from the horror. There is a mistake in the picture -
Hadji's right hand should still be undamaged and human at this time in the past.
At least one person survived the massacre - a grandson of Joel Goldschimdt who sets up an organisation called Red Shield with the express purpose of helping Saya to hunt down Diva and her minions. It is entirely possible that Amshel was the architect behind all the events in the life of Saya and Diva, and perhaps Joel was not even aware of the fact the Diva was locked up in the tower. As time passed, Diva created four more chevaliers, including Solomon Goldsmith who was another member of the Goldsmith family.

An analysis of Blood+ indicates that while the two queens, Saya and Diva and their chevaliers could be classified as vampires i.e. vetalas, however the chiropterans created by Diva's chevaliers could not be regarded as such since they become mindless flesh-eating monsters unable to resume their human forms.

One lesson one can take from Blood+ is that while Nature is important, when it comes to sentient beings Nurture is even more so!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Balkan Chronicles: League of Vampires

It's October and Halloween is coming! What better way to celebrate than to sink our teeth into some true vampire legends?

 Further exploration of the vampire theme has revealed several historical personages who might have been true vampires. Not surprisingly, most are of royal/noble blood - but this could be due to the fact that history is all about those who are in power.

The word vampire itself is now acknowledged to be of Slavic origin (Eastern Europe and especially the Balkans). In a land steeped in vampire lore, there was widespread belief that people who died in sin were able to rise from the grave from sunset to sunrise to suck the blood of the living! The word vampire made its way into the English language in the early 18th Century from the Serbian/ Croatian word vampir, thanks to the case of Arnold Paole/Arnaut Pavle, a documented case of supposed vampirism in a village which is part of Serbia now.

We also see the Serbian connection in the SiFi TV series Sanctuary. The character of Nikola Tesla, played with sardonic flair by Jonathon Young, is a scientific genius with a taste for the finer things in life who is also a centuries-old vampire. In the series, Tesla has a love-hate relationship with the beautiful Helen Magnus, who is also a gifted sceintist (played by a raven-haired Amanda Tapping!). Magnus herself is part vampire - this gives her near immortality, without the need to drink blood and she is quite comfortable to walk in the sunlight too. Magnus and Tesla met in Oxford during the Victorian era, together with a motley crew of interesting characters. Incidently, Nikola Tesla was a real historical personage and he was a scientific genius too. The real Tesla was of Serbian origin but born in Croatia; he is now credited with the invention of alternating current/AC. He was of course, not really a vampire!

1. The Black Queen of Medvedgrad

The name Medvedgrad means 'Bear City'
Medvedgrad is a 13th Century medieval castle town that rises above Zagreb on the slopes of the Medvednica mountains (Bear mountains). I visited Medvedgrad with a friend in early Spring this year and admit to being somewhat underwhelmed. The view from the castle tower is breathtaking enough but the castle-fort has been 'restored' in such a way that most of its dark Medieval ambience and spooky character has been lost.

 Anyway the folklore is more interesting - Medvedgrad is said to be haunted by the Black Queen, a beautiful woman in long black robes who walks the walls and the nearby woods surrounding the ruined castle. An enigmatic and mysterious figure; legend has it that after she was widowed, she only dressed in black, thus earning the name Crna Kraljica  (Black Queen). But the Black Queen also had a black heart and people hated and feared her. According to local folklore, she was not only a witch who practiced alchemy but also a vampire who sucked the blood of young people in Kneginec village. Her other black deeds include having her young lovers thrown out of the castle windows once she grew tired of them! But the Black Queen is most feared for her pet, a giant raven which terrorised the villages near Megvedgrad. She would set her monstrous raven on the poor villagers who angered her and the bird would claw at their faces and peck out their eyes until they fell dead!

 According to a website called Secret Zagreb Walks (, children still play a game called Crna Kraljica - jen, dva, tri (Black Queen - one, two, three). Here a child stands in a circle with her back turned to her friends and quickly recites the above line; while her back is turned her friends try to approach near her and enter the circle. They have to freeze when she turns around because if she sees anyone moving, he/she is out of the game. The child who enters the cicle and touches her without being seen will take her place as the Black Queen!

But is there a real person behind the legend? Most think the Crna Kraljica of Medvedgrad is Barbara Celjska (Barbara of Cilli/Barbara von Cilli/Barbara of Celje). She was the daughter of Herman II, Count of Celje (Celje is located in present-day Slovenia). Barbara married King Sigismund of Luxemburg (he was also king of Croatia and Hungary and later became Holy Roman Emperor)) in 1405 or  1408, when she would have been only 13 or 16 at the later date. All the sources seemed to agree that she was a woman of exceptional beauty, very energetic and ambitious, with a penchant for intrigue. She also founded the Order of the Dragon with King Sigismund; an Order which was established with the express purpose of defending Europe from the Ottoman Empire.

Barbara of Celje was also reputed to have an interest in alchemy and the occult and was even rumoured to drink human blood during communion (perhaps with the Inner Court of the Order of the Dragon?). But Barbara of Celje spent most of her life in Hungary, Slovenia, and the small Croatian town of Krapina (close to the Slovenian border) and could not have spent too much time in Medvedgrad. Was the Black Queen an entirely different person, perhaps?

Some say that Barbara of Celje is the inspiration for Carmilla, the female vampire in the book by Irish author Joseph Sheridan le Fanu. But I don't see any similarity between the charismatic and ambitious Barbara of Cilli as compared to the sappy but blood-thirsty Carmilla.

The story of her brother, Frederic II is more chilling. Legend has it that he murdered his wife, Elizabeth of Francopan in 1422 in order to marry Veronika of Desenice, the daughter of a minor noble from the village of Desenic in Croatia. The couple made their escape to a small village but Count Herman II and his men soon tracked them down. He had Frederic imprisoned in a castle tower (rumored to be either Veliki Tabor or Ojstrica Castle) with no doors or windows, except for a small opening to pass him food and water! Veronika was put on trial for witchcraft as Count Herman believed that she had cast a spell on his son, but she was found not guilty. But the Count had her put to death by drowning (trial by drowning?) and her body was entombed in one of the castle walls of Veliki Tabor. When Frederic II was released after four years, he was said to be broken in both mind and body., and more or less faded out of the picture. His son, Ulric II (by Elizabeth of Francopan), succeeded Count Herman II as Count of Celje. Ulric II turned out to be the last male descendent of the House of Celje, so perhaps the family was cursed by Veronika after all!

2. Count Vlad Dracula

I'm sure by now that everyone knows that the book Dracula, by Irish author Bram Stoker, published in 1897 was based on the historical personage known as Count Vlad III, prince of Wallachia (present-day Transylvania in Rumania). However, Bram Stoker did not create the vampire genre; this has been credited to John Polidori, whose novella, The Vampyre, was published in 1819. In his book, Polidori created the archetypical vampire persona in the form of Lord Ruthven - handsome, alluring, charismatic and predatory.

However, Bram Stoker's Dracula defined the genre and made it wildly popular. Dracula is much more powerful than either Lord Ruthven or Carmilla, two predators who depended more on their wiles and charms rather than raw power to subdue their victims. They were also in many ways, subjected to the constraints of the society they lived in. Dracula broke these boundaries and was the personification of evil.

Castle Peonari was the actual 'home' of Count Vlad Dracula.
Vlad III was born in 1431, and is therefore about 40 years younger than Barbara of Celje. What is interesting however, is that his father, Count Vlad II, was admitted into the Inner Court of the Order of the Dragon by King Sigismund and Barbara of Cilli to swear allegiance to defend Europe against the Ottoman Empire. Count Vlad II decided to take the name Dracul, which means 'dragon' for the great honour bestowed on his family. In any case, Count Vlad II did not keep his oath to the Order of the Dragon - when his land was seized by a Hungarian warlord, he turned to the Ottomans for help. He even allowed his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu 'the Fair' to become hostages in exchange for Ottoman help in securing the throne of Wallachia from the Hungarians. The handsome Radu soon became a favourite of Mehmet II. He converted to Islam, was allowed into the Imperial court and honoured with the title of Bey. As young captives, Radu and Vlad III learnt to fight, ride a horse and speak Turkish. Both also acquired an insider's knowledge of the Ottoman Court. But Vlad III hated his brother and the Ottomans and probably felt betrayed by his father; although being held hostage may have saved him from his father's enemies.

When his father and older brother were asssinated by the Boyar (high nobility), probably John Hunyadi (legend has it that he was the illegitimate son of King Sigismund), Vlad III became prince of Wallachia. He proved to be even more ruthless than his father and attacked the Boyar who were constantly trying to seize power. Once his position was secured, Vlad III turned against the Ottomans although they helped to put him on the throne. His enemies started calling him 'Vlad Tepis' or 'Vlad the Impaler'. Vlad Tepis had no compunction about killing and literaly drank the blood of his enemies.  He also called himself Count Vlad Dracula. However, among the common people of Transylvania the word 'dracul' also referred to the devil; in any case dragons were generally perceived to be evil.

Vlad III was so successful that Mehmet II sent Radu Bey to attack him with a huge army of professional soldiers. Radu eventually laid seige to Castle Peonari - it is said that Vlad's wife threw herself from the castle tower into the river below rather than fall captive to the Turks. It was Radu's turn to became  prince of Wallachia.

Hunyadi Castle is located in Transylvania.
Matthias Corvinus was born here.

Vlad III fled to seek assistance from Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary and Croatia (also known as Matthias Hunyadi, the younger son of John Hunyadi). Unfortunately, he was imprisoned by King Matthias, probably in Hunyadi Castle. The name 'Corvinus' is familiar because in the Underworld series of films, the progeniter of both the vampire and lycan races is a 5th Century Hungarian nobleman called Alexander Corvinus. In fact, in the series, the virus which created the two races is known as the Corvinus strain.

Vlad III was eventually released when King Matthias realised that Radu Bey intended to conquer Hungary as well. Vlad III regained the throne of  Wallachia after Radu was assasinated but he ruled only for a few months before he was assasinated himself by his enemies. His head was taken to the Ottoman Court as a prize.

4. Sava Savanovic
Sava Savanovic, who lived in the early 1700s,  is said to be the most notorious vampire from Serbian folklore. According to legend, Sava Savanovic lived in a watermill on the Rogacica River, located in the remote forests of western Serbia. This monster would attack and drink the blood of  unsuspecting peasants who came to grind their grains at his watermill. Local people believe that he still inhabited the watermill until recent times.

The watermill was bought by the Jogodic family who were too fearful to use it as a mill. However, it was not a loss, because the awtermill proved to be a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, they did not repair the mill either for fear of provoking the sleeping vampire. When the disused watermill collapsed in September 2012, there was widespread fear among the people of the nearby village of Zorazje that the vampire Sava Savanovic is looking for a new home!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Pontianak, the Vampire and... the Sundal Tree

I admit to a long-standing fascination with vampire lore, which first started from childhood stories and movies about the pontianak. Back then, nothing could be more terrifying than a pontianak; but now, they seem to be sad creatures. According to old Malay folklore, women who die during childbirth were thought to turn into pontianaks if the proper rites and rituals were not observed. The modern variant of the pontianak folklore however maintains that they are the vengeful spirits of women who have been spurned in love and have taken their own life or women who have been murdered by their spurned lovers.

I vaguely remember that one of these funerary rites involved keeping an overnight wake to make sure that no cats (especially black ones) came anywhere near the body to awaken the spirit! The worst thing that could happen is for a cat to jump over the body as that will cause it to raise and walk among the living as one of the undead (in cultures as far-flung as Ancient Egypt and Thailand and also the Slavic countries, cats are thought to carry the spirit of the dead).
Available at
Not surprisingly, pontianaks are attracted to houses where a woman is about to give birth. They apparently feed on the blood and after-birth. To thwart the pontianak, it was common practice in the past to scatter thorns, nails and anything sharp on the ground below the houses (in the past, wooden houses were built above the ground on stilts). The modern-day pontianak however, prey mostly on men - as they seek out those who wronged them in life!

Another point to note is that pontianaks are said to be attracted to the sundal tree; a tree which bears white, heavily-scented night-blooming flowers. Pontianaks are thought to roost or seek shelter on sundal trees while waiting for a victim to pass by! Interestingly enough, the word sundal also refers to a woman of easy virtue. But what is a sundal tree? I'm asking this question because the sundal tree plays a role in my book, The Jugra Chronicles : Miyah and the Forest Demon.  Check out the review by Brigitte Rozario:
After an extensive internet search (and several false leads), it seems that the sundal could be one of the following trees:

the Frangipani/Champa/Bunga Kemboja
the frangipani (Plumeria sp), also known as champa in Laos and India, and bunga kemboja in Malaysia. This seems to be the ideal candidate as the frangipani is thought to be haunted by ghosts and demons in local folklore and often planted in cemetaries. But it is also known as the Temple Tree in Sri Lanka and often planted around Buddhist and Hindu temples. But the spanner in the works is that the Plumeria supposed to have originated in the New World! Apart from that, it has large sparse leaves - hardly a place for a creature of the night to hide. We had a large frangapani tree growing in the front yard of the house when we were living in Federal Hill, Kuala Lumpur but I never felt any supernatural energy from the plant!

Night Jessamine/Sundal tree?

The next candidate is the night jessamine (Cestrum nocturnum) also known as the Queen of the Night. The night jessamine seemed to have all the right attributes - a tree bearing large quantities of small white flowers which produce an overwhelming sickly sweet frangrance at night. But then again, it turns out to be a New World plant. Also the night jessamine is more of a large bush than a tree.

The third candidate is the parijata or harsingar; other names for this flower are coral jasmine and night flowering jasmine. Nyctanthes arbor-tristis is also known as the sad tree or the tree of sorrow as its flowers are shed like tears, at the first light of dawn. The parijat is the only flower which can be picked from the ground to be given as offerings at temples; all other flowers have to be hand-picked from the plant. The parijat is also the state flower of Bengal. But the parijata is pure and unlikely to be the sundal tree

The fragrant tanjung blossoms are thought to be the tears of a faerie

Another flowering tree of note which is found throughout tropical Asia and Southeast Asia is Mimusops elengi. Known as the tanjung tree in Malaysia/Singapore and bakul/vakul tree in India. The tanjung flower or bunga tanjung appears frequently in Malay folklore, sometimes to represent a lost lover. There is an enchanting folktale about the tanjung flower, which like the parijat, is sweet-scented, blooms at night and is shed at the first light of dawn. According to the folktale, the flowers are actually the tears of a faerie, who was stranded in the forest because she was unable to find her magic selendang (a long scarf) which allowed her to return home. Similar folklore of stranded faeries (usually because someone has hidden her magic cloak) appears in many Asian cultures, from India to Japan. There is a re-telling of the Tanjung Blossom Faerie in my book, Timeless Tales of Malaysia. But the tanjung or vakul is the exact opposite of the sundal in folklore. It is considered as sacred by the Hindus and its frangrant 'flowers of paradise' are offered to both Vishnu and Siva as offerings. The flowers are also said to chase away evil spirits, unlike the sundal which is supposed to attract ghostly spirits!

My knowledge of Western vampire lore initially came from old Dracula movies played so menancingly well by Christopher Lee. But I admit to watching only one or two of those - there was just too much blood and the plot/story lacked finesse. I think Stephen King wrote a couple of books on vampires but his premise didn't make sense either - what was the point of turning an entire town into vampires if your main source of food happened to be living humans? Talk about eating yourself out of house and home!
It was Anne Rice and the movie that resulted from her book, Interview with a Vampire, who got me well and truly hooked into the genre. Finally, vampire lore that made sense - a small and very secret group who achieved immortality through an ancient bloodline; a vampire king and queen from ancient Egypt (see Queen of the Damned starring the tragic Aaliyah and the gorgeous Stuart Townsend).
However, my favourite vampire movie to date is Van Helsing; Peta Wilson also plays an extraordinary vampire in the role of Minnie Harker (a character from Bram Stoker's book Dracula) in the movie, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But what got my pulse racing was the discovery that Count Dracula, a character created by Bram Stoker in his book Dracula (published in 1897) was actually based on a real person. Vlad Teppes or Vlad the Impaler, from Transylvania (in modern Rumania) whose father took the family name 'Dracul' which means 'dragon'. This information also triggered another memory... Malaysia's very own legend of Raja Bersiong or the Fanged King (for more info on Vlad Dracula and the Fanged King refer to the post on Raja Bersiong).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC 2012), Singapore

On 31 May 2012, I took the express bus to Singapore to attend the Asian Festival of Children's Content. It was a lucky confluence of events that brought me to Singapore -  we were required to fly from Zagreb to KL 'post-haste' in mid-May when I received an email from Tan Vay Fern about the Asian Festival of Children's Content which was only two weeks away! The venue was The Arts House, which was quite close to Chinatown. So I registered online, booked a room at The Inn at Temple Street and got the return bus ticket to Singapore.
In Chinatown - photo courtesy of Tan Vay Fern. We had fatty crabs for dinner at the restaurant in the background!
As I haven't visited Singapore for at least 15 years (we lived in Singapore from 1992 - 1995 and my daughter was born there), I was truly impressed with the changes I saw. It wasn't the ultra-modren architecture or the orderly streets - it was the greenery everywhere and the lack of pollution and congestion. Even modren high-rise buildings had terraces with flowering plants and some had roof gardens or even had climbing plants covering their walls! I had heard about their famous tagline - 'the garden city' - but I didn't think they could turn it into a reality.

Hard to believe, but I met Vay Fern in person for the very first time in Chinatown, Singapore! Although we had collaborated on Eight Treasures of the Dragon, it was entirely via email. I had heard of her before and knew that she was a young and successful illustrator, with at least eight children's books published to date. After a lot of walking along the colourful and busy Temple Street, we decided to have fatty crabs at a nearby restaurant for dinner. I had forgotten how scrumptious fatty crabs could be!

The last two days of the AFCC, which took place at The Arts House was exciting, mainly because I got to meet people I've only known on Facebook. The talks were great too but I noticed that some of the speakers used it as a platform to promote their own books rather than impart information/tips and a few were only recently published. I was also agrieved by the fact that there was no wifi at the venue! But the fact that it was being held at a historic building - the former Parliament  of Singapore -made it quite special.

The AFCC was a great opportunity to network - there were old friends like Dr Gwen Smith, and acquintances like Linda Tan Lingard (from the Yusof Gajah Lingard literary agency) and Daphne Lee (author/columnist/editor at Scholastic Malaysia). And people I met for the first time: Yusof Gajah, celebrated illustrator of children's books and his wife Zakiah; Teoh Choon Ean, the only author I know who actually makes money from writing books (in English); Quek Sue Yian, young and talented author of 'Khailash', a picture-book about a refugee zebra, illustrated by Khairul Azmir Shoib (Sue had a book launch and I bought a signed copy of  Khailash, ); Mohana Gill, award-winning author of  cookbooks,Vegemania and Fruitistic, and the 'Hayley' cook books for children; Naomi Kojima, a well known illustrator from Japan who bought a copy of my book 'Timeless Tales of Malaysia':); illustrator Isabel Roxas, Cecilia de la Campa from Writers House Inc; Sayoni Basu from Harper Collins India; Tarie Sabido, (an FB friend whi didn't recognise me) and a blogger from the Philippines; Salwah Abdul Shukor, a lawyer whose dream job is to write children's books; Denise Tan from Bookaburra (what a brilliant name for a book store); Shobna Janardanan from ASTRO, Rafilda Rahman from the SCBWI Malaysia; and last but not least Norhayati Razali from the Malaysian Book Council.

The highlight for me was the dinner at the penthouse of the National Library -great company, great food and what a view! Will I attend the AFCC again? For sure, especially as they are going to focus on Malaysia in 2013!

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Dragon, the Phoenix and the Qilin - 2

I've been reminded by a couple of friends that my last post was on 15 June 2009! On hindsight, it seems that I got into blogging from the excitement of getting my first book published - Timeless Tales of Malaysia by Marshall Cavendish. Since then, I had the great fortune of having four more books published, this time by MPH Publishing. Three of the books are collections of folktales and legends from Asia (all books are available from :

Eight Treasures of the Dragon is a collection of folktales and legends about dragons or naga from Asia. (for more information on the naga, refer to my post The Dragon, the Phoenix and the Qilin - 1).

The chosen stories reflect the pervasiveness of dragon lore in Asia and its close connection with the element of water and with ruling houses. The book is illustrated by Tan Vay Fern. I had never met her when we collaborated on this book and we only corresponded by email. I looked her up on the Malaysia Author Index webpage and was impressed to find out that she had already had five books published by MPH - all at the same time!

The treasures in this collection include:

From China comes The Dragon Wells of Yanjing, the story of a dragon king and queen whose fates are intertwined with that of the city of Yanjing (ancient Beijing). When their underwater palace in the Great Lake of Yanjing was destroyed (the lake was drained and rivers diverted) to make way for the new city of Dadu by Kublai Khan, the dragon couple set out to destroy the people of Yanjing! The second story from China is The Cave of the Pearl Dragon, an epic tale of a young man's quest for the green water pearl which will save his village from starvation;
from India, Prince Mombathi (The Candlewax Prince) an intriguing tale of a queen's machinations to conceal the identity of her naga child;
from Indonesia, The She-Dragon of the South Seas; the legend of the Dragon Queen of the South Seas and the terrible vengence she exacted on those who wronged her;
from Japan comes Ho-Wori and the Princess of the Sea, the very ancient and haunting love story between the Lord of the Hills and the Princess of the Sea; the second story from Japan is The Acolyte, the Tengu and the Dragon, a story which echoes the ancient anmity between the tengu - a bird-man creature and the dragon/naga;
from Malaysia, The Dragon of Tasik Chini an Orang Asli tale of the origin of Lake Chini,
and from Singapore, Sang Nila Utama a reinterpretation of the celebrated story of Sang Nila Utama.

* Eight Jewels of the Phoenix is a collection of tales which are regarded as cultural icons from the countries they represent. Black & white illustrations by the author. Published in 2009 by MPH Publishing.
-From China comes The Girl with Snow White Hair (also known as Long Hair Girl) about a girl who sarifices herself to save her village;
-from India comes Chandrika and the Festival of Lights - a story about reversal of fortune and how the wisdom and wit of a young woman helped to restore her family's fortune;
-from Japan we have Kaguyahime (from the Taketori Monogatari), the celebrated story of a girl found in a bamboo grove and how she was courted by the Emperor himself;
-from Malaysia comes two stories known to most school children - The Princess of Mount Ledang is a story about a faerie princess who is courted by the Sultan of Malacca and has fascinating similarities to the Japanese Kaguyahime; the second story from Malaysia is Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah (literaly White Onion, Red Onion), which is the story of the Malay Cinderella;
-from the Philippines comes The Fruit of Passion and Repulsion - an amusing and enchanting story of the origin of the durian fruit - a fruit some find irristible and others repulsive;
-from North America (Pacific Northwest) comes the story of The Raven, the trickster who decides to help humanity find light in the Arctic darkness;
-and finally from Thailand comes the story of Manohra - a kinaree or bird-maiden who wins the heart of a handsome young prince but is betrayed by a jealous courtier and almost loses her life in a sacrifice by fire. The story of Manohra is known all over Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand all the way to Malaysia.

*Eight Fortunes of the Qilin is a companion book to the Phoenix book. As the fabled Qilin represents compassion, wisdom and respect for nature and life, these qualities are echoed in the stories. Black & white illustrations by the author. Published in 2009. The stories are:

-Princess Santubong and Princess Sejinjang - a haunting tale from Borneo about two sisters who fell in love with the same man. In my interpretation, one of the sisters, Santubong is a shaman who blessed the rice crops, represented Day while the other sister, Sejinjang, who weaved beautiful cloths, represented Night.

(A beautiful old song recounting the tragic relationship between the two sisters, Santubong and Sejinjang)

-The Jaguar is a legend from Central America about a shape-shifting pair of jaguars and the boy who stole their most precious possesion.
-Little Red Cricket is an engrossing tale from China about how an Emperor's obsession can make something as small as a cricket affect the fortune of a family.
-The Singing Bamboo is another haunting tale about two sisters, but this time from India. This story however is about a sister's devotion to her sibling even after her death.
-Keong Mas is an enchanting tale from the island of Java in Indonesia about a princess who is cursed by a witch and lost in the wilderness.
-The Sister is a chlling tale from Korea, about a sister who seemed to be possessed by an evil spirit and the brother who tried to save her.

(The video features the precociously talented young singer, Song So-Hee, who sings only Arirang - traditional Korean folk songs. This song is MiryangArirang)

-Princess Firefly from the Philippines is about an unfortunate young princess who refuses to marry her suiter.
-The Amber Tea Bowl is tragic story from Vietnam, about the unrequited love of the handsome son of a boatwoman for the highborn daughter of a mandarin.