Visha Kanya, literally meaning “poison maiden,” comes from a disputed and disgraceful (if true) practice in which ancient Indian Kings trained girls to become assassins from an early age and gradually fed them many different types of poisons to make them immune to their lethal effects. By the time they reached puberty, these girls would have been thoroughly toxic and ready to be used as deadly human weapons.
Even a touch can kill. However, no one can say for certain where truth ends and myth begins about the historicity of these venomous assassins and the superhuman-like aura surrounding them.
The king who had ordered the specific process could then use the assassins against his most powerful enemies. One legend actually holds that Aristotle warned Alexander the Great about the dangers of such “venomous virgins” before the famous Greek King launched his Indian campaign. Another Indian legend even suggests that Alexander the Great died as a result of embracing a Visha Kanya that was given to him as a trophy by the defeated King Porus. The question, however, remains: What is true and what is myth regarding the poisonous assassins known as Visha Kanyas?
Historical Figures or Exaggerated Legends?
The Visha Kanyas are first mentioned in the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, Arthashastra, written by Chanakya, an adviser and a prime minister to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (340–293 BC). We also learn about the “Poison Damsel” (Sanskrit Viṣakanyā), a figure that appears in Sanskrit literature as a type of assassin used by kings to kill their enemies.
According to these stories, young girls were raised on a carefully crafted diet of poison and antidote from an early age, a technique known as mithridatism. According to the stories, many of these girls would die during “training”, but those who managed to become immune to the various toxins would become human weapons as their bodily fluids became extremely poisonous to others. As you can easily guess, any contact, especially sexual contact, was fatal to the men who had the bad luck to sleep with them.
According to Kaushik Roy, Visha Kanyas would usually approach their targets by seducing them and giving them poisoned alcohol. They would usually drink from the poisonous cup to gain the trust of their victim and when the unsuspecting victim would drink from the same cup, he would ingest a double dose of poison into his system.
Other Sanskrit sources mention that a Visha Kanya was sent by Nanda’s minister Amatyarakshasa to kill Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya diverted them to kill Parvatak. Of course, the problem with all of these stories is they are fiction and no historical sources verify any of them. They lack verification from other historical sources.
However, in time, “poison damsel” passed into folklore, became an archetype explored by many writers, resulting in a popular literary character that appears in many works, including classical Sanskrit texts such as Sukasaptati.