The death of 30 children in 40 villages of Pratapgarh, Jaunpur and Sultanpur districts of Uttar Pradesh some years ago had created panic, with nobody too sure about who killed them ~ man or animal. The authorities blamed wolves and hyenas, which the shikarishad been unable to shoot, while the villagers felt that it was either a gang, which collected kidneys for sale or a mania (werewolf) that was behind the killings.

One did not expect the district administration to subscribe to the latter view, though the incidents of the past several weeks were reminiscent of similar happenings earlier in Rajasthan, particularly in Dausa, Sawai Madhopur and Ganganagar.

In the 19th century there was a “vampire panic” in England, with many belated children being supposedly bitten by dead relatives ~ who had (sic) been attacked by a vampire and become vampires themselves. It was this panic which inspired Bram Stoker to write his famous book. “Dracula,” and the coming back to life of a bloodthirsty medieval count. Or was this the only vampire plague. Earlier too, various countries in Europe had suffered such plagues, sometimes resulting in the death of innocent people who were targeted as potential vampires.

The same thing happened in East UP and Rajasthan, where suspects were killed by the villagers. One may not subscribe to their views, but it goes without saying that belief in werewolves is worldwide and not limited to any region or country.

According to Eliphas Levi, a werewolf is the sidereal body of a man, which comes into action as soon as his baser instincts are aroused. Sometimes the real body is asleep while the sidereal body is on the prowl. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde case, pure and simple. Superstition has endowed the werewolf with superhuman powers.

The same man who is timid in the day, sheds his human form at night and becomes a ferocious wolf, but with devilish ingenuity, which the real animal lacks. And it is not only men, who become werewolves, Levi records the case of an old woman, who roamed about the countryside at night in the form of a wolf, preying on children. It is said that a silver bullet can put an end to a werewolf, but it must be fired when it has assumed that form.

How many people, especially those whom age and disease had deformed, suffered in the past because they were suspected to be werewolves is besides the point, though the killing of “witches” in Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh can be an indication.

Superstitious fear, jealousy, sexual exploitation or lure of property are generally among the motives. Any sudden or unexplained calamity, disease, loss of assets or death is reason enough to whip up passions and end the existence of the so-called witch. Those who have heard of Anu Kasai of Sind might perhaps not agree with this. The butcher was affluent at one time, and though he lived in Sehwan ~ which is even more in the interior than Sukkur ~ he had mistresses in distant Karachi.

Anu’s weakness was wine, women and song. After getting drunk he just lost his balance and squandered his hard-earned wealth on the ladies of the night. His wife committed suicide after their only son got drowned, and then there was no stopping Anu Mian. All his wealth gone by 1860 and not enough money to even to buy sheep, he started killing people and selling their cooked flesh.

Anu’s macabre trade came to an end after he murdered a dervish. “The very dish he served to unsuspecting customers started calling for revenge”. Anu Kasai was arrested and entombed in the wall of a fort by the British, like Anarkali is said to had been done away with on Akbar’s command. They still point out the bulge in the fort wall in Sehwan to courious visitors.

CA Kincaird, author of Tales of the Tulsi Plant, relates the story of a Pathan khansama, who would lure visiting English sahibs in the 1880s to a dak bungalow on a hill in Sehwan, the place “where the monsoon dies”, and feast on them. In the evening he used to serve the choicest food but after midnight he would turn into a wolf and seize his guests by the throat before munching them up.

The khansama met his grisly end when he killed the Goan attendant of a sahib after attacking him while the man was asleep in the open and then tried to storm into the room where the English official and his friend had retired on a stiflingly hot night in Sehwan. Closer still, in Bullandshar district of UP, a British officer and his men out hunting in the 19th century, came upon a strange sight.

A creature clambered into a cave like a wolf on all fours. It was smoked out and turned out to be a boy, who had been reared by wolves. The boy walked on all fours and never learnt to speak though he lived up to the age of 32 at the Sikandra Orphanage in Agra and he bore the name of Dina Sanichar or Saturday-the day on which he was rescued.

Another such boy was found in rural Agra and restored to his parents in Jat-ka-Nagla. Named Parusram, he was lifted by wolves while he slept with his mother in the fields one night and had developed a love for raw meat during his captivity in the jungle. He also could not speak. Parusram did not live long after his rescue, said my father, who and other Indian and foreign journalists had gone to the Nagla to do a story on him.

These wolf-children were not wolves, but there was a khansama known as Kammu, who would offer hospitality to wayfarers in an old dilapidated house and at midnight turn into a wolf and devour them. He was also fond of preying on girls, who had just reached the age of puberty. Many such girls and women were said to have been ravished and killed by him. Surprisingly, it was sodomy in all cases and not rape as defined in law.

The incidents were reported from Morena and Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh and Bundi in Rajputana in the 19th century. One of the victims, who escaped, recounted in terror how the man who had been so polite in the day, turned into a wolf at dead of night and attacked her so savagely that she despaired for her life.

But being young and strong she picked up an old sword lying in the room and hit him with all her might, cutting off one of the hands that had become a paw. The werewolf gave a howl of pain and the girl made her escape. The man was later arrested but the magistrate refused to believe that a human being could turn into a wolf. He, therefore, sentenced him to jail on a charge of ravishing a young girl. But after a few months he was killed by fellow prisoners who had noticed that he underwent a complete transformation every night and tried to attack other jail inmates with a view to drinking their blood.

Kammu had his counterpart in Daropa, who lived at a cremation ghat near the Taj Mahal. But he ate only the carcasses of dead girls and was considered more of an “aghori” than a werewolf. Master Qamaruddin, the maternal uncle of noted Urdu writer Ismat Chakhtai, also spent his time on the Yamuna bank near the Taj, but he was a mystic who sometimes swam from Agra to Delhi. His limbs were said to disintegrate every night and so nobody ventured into his room till dawn.

It was he who is believed to have warned a British District Magistrate about an old pandit, who could change form and prey on children he lifted with great cunningness from village homes in Dholpur. The pandit was changing form one night and turning into a wolf when he was shot dead by a police constable. But as soon as he died, the man’s body assumed normal human form again and the constable was suspended on a charge of manslaughter. He was reinstated after witnesses deposed that the dead pandit was, in fact, the werewolf, who had been terrorizing the countryside.

You can make what you like of these incidents but the belief in werewolves is so deeply inspired in some rural areas of Rajasthan that even now girls and young women are not allowed to go and ease themselves in the fields at night lest they be attacked by a werewolf. Two old women carrying lantern and a man armed with a spear always accompany them.

The belief is that a werewolf hates a shining light and the sight of a steel weapon just as much as a silver bullet, which can end its existence once and for all. How many werewolves survive in a fast-changing world can be anybody’s guess, but the fear persists and strangers turning up after dusk at village homes are still promptly shown the door (besides other places) in Bharatpur, according to the late Thakur Devi Singh of Artoni village, near Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra.