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Rakshasa temple guardians at the Lakshmi Temple in Thailand
Rakshasas are a race of powerful, warrior-magician demi-gods or demons in the Hindu tradition who can be either protective or predatory upon humanity. In the Vedic tradition they are depicted as man-eaters, and in other sacred scriptures and folk religions of India they are said to be shape-shifters who can assume animal forms or appear as beautiful women. They are said to live in forests or cemeteries, suck the milk from cows, and drink human blood out of cups made from the skulls of their enemies.

As with the Djinns of Islamic tradition, there are good as well as evil Rakshasas. Because they have supernatural powers and are also brave fighters, they may ally themselves with human beings, Devas, or Asuras. Their name implies their ability to defend those whom they serve, for the Sanskrit root of their name, Rakh, means "Protector" or "Preserver." In some ancient Indian tales, it is noted that Rakshasas can intermarry with humans and Devas. For example, in the Ramayana, which tells of the battle fought between the god Rama and Ravanna, the immortal king of Lanka, it is said that one of Ravanna's brothers, Kumbhakarna, was a Rakshasa, and that many Rakhshasas served in Ravanna's army. Another famous Rakshasa was Hidimba, a malevolent cannibal who attempted to kill Bhima, one of the five heroic Pandava brothers whose story is told in the Mahabharata. Hidimba's sister, the Rakshasa Hdimbi, warned Bhima of the danger, and as a result, Bhima killed Hidimba and married Hidimbi, who gave birth to their child, the bald-headed Rakshasa Ghatotkacha, who loyally served the Pandava cause.

Rakshasas are generally depicted as large, frightening human beings with long canine fangs, sharp claws, prominent eyes, and pointed ears which lay flat against the sides of their heads. Although they are demons, they may be called upon for protection from enemies and from harm. Their images often appear in temples and at doorways, to ward off evil. The word Raksha or "Protector" is also associated with the annual folkloric North Indian holiday of Raksha Bandhan, during which sisters tie a protective red string, the Rakhi, around the wrists of their brothers as a talisman to shield them from harm for the coming year. In modern times, this custom has spread throughout India and the Hindu diaspora and those who do not have sisters or brothers may perform the ceremony with a chosen friend.


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