The Delhi Witch Trials

Tied down with weights and thrown into a river. If you float, you’re a witch. Sound familiar? The same social phenomenon that was popularized in Medieval European history was also occurring in early Medieval India.

In 1334 AD, a tiger was terrorizing local folk in the town of Barwan (modern: Narwar, Gwalior, India near Lake Barwa Sagar). Nobody was safe. The beast was prowling into the gated town mysteriously every night and silently dragging its victims into the town square, killing them but not eating them. Witnesses attested to seeing a tiger prowling the town at night, despite the walls they had put up. The local region was also the home of a large tiger population, after all. Others saw only the shadow of the feral feline, but hunting parties were never able to catch the beast, nor even find a single track of its paws in the ground. Nevertheless, the victims would be found the next day lying dead in the center of town. Curiously, their bodies were left wholly intact but with all the blood drained from their bodies. Rumors abounded that this was no tiger, but a “jugi” (yogi) shapeshifter disguising himself as one and drinking the victims’ blood.

Yogis ate and drank very little, fasting most of their lives. Some of them live in covered holes in the ground for months on end. They could see beyond the horizons of the physical realm and tell what was going on in far off lands as if staring into a crystal ball. And they were able to perform feats of magic like levitation and telekinesis–lifting cups in mid-air and filling them with wine by magic, for example.

Some of these oddities were witnessed by the famed Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta, on a few occasions and each time they made him faint due to his propensity for heart palpitations and the shock of witnessing such wizardry.

Some yogis purportedly possessed the ability to kill a man by merely making eye contact with him. Female yogis, called “kaftars” (which translated into Persian means “hyenas”), could steal the heart of man with invisible magic, killing them without a single touch.

In fact, when Ibn Battuta was acting as the mayor of a village outside of Delhi around 1334 AD, the villagers brought to him an alleged kaftar. They said that she had been standing beside a young boy when the lad simply fell dead beside her. They examined the boy’s body afterward and discovered his heart was missing from his body. Ibn Battuta, not knowing how to handle this case, brought it to the attention of one of his sultan’s lieutenants who ordered a witch trial. The trial was not called a “witch trial” per se, but it was eerily identical to the medieval European and later American Salem witch trials.

It went as so: the people filled up four jugs full of water and tied them to each of the woman’s limbs so to weigh her down. Then, she was thrown into the Jun River (modern: Yamuna River). If she sank, then she would be deemed a normal human being. If she floated however, then she was considered a kaftar, or witch. This particular kaftar indeed floated in the river despite being weighed down with those jugs of water, so they burned her at the stake and everybody in town rubbed themselves with her ashes because, they said, that would protect you from another kaftar’s witchery for a year.

So it went that in 14th century India, just the same as in 15th century Europe and in 17th century America, humans were behaving in the same outlandish ways. It goes to show that we can all be hysterical fools, no matter when or where we are from.

mullica / CC BY (
mullica / CC BY (

Source: Ibn, Batuta, and Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador, 2002.

Categories: Mythology

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