Not all assassins were male. The name ‘Visha Kanya’ comes from the Sanskrit for ‘poison girl’ or ‘poison damsel’ – a literal description of the role of the Visha Kanya who were female assassins who killed with poison. The group began between 340 and 293 BC when they were set up by the first Indian Maurya Emperor, Chandragupta. Their utilization by the state was recorded in the Arthashastra, a manual of statecraft written by Chanakya, the prime minister of the emperor.
The Arthashastra recommended that the Emperor needed to maintain a network of agents to monitor and manipulate his enemies. Assassination was a form of covert war, and to that end, the King needed to retain operatives who could deal with specific targets. These agents were not just men. They also included women.
“To undermine a ruling oligarchy, make chiefs of the [enemy’s] ruling council infatuated with women possessed of great beauty and youth, ” advised Chanakya, “ When passion is roused in them, they should start quarrels by creating belief (about their love) in one and by going to another.” (Arthashastra 11.1). This is where the Vishakanya came in. However, although noted for their beauty, they were not just deployed to cause fights between love rivals; they killed their potential lovers.
The training of a Vishakanya began as a child. After recruitment, each girl was fed a modulated diet of poison. This practice, known as Mithridatism was designed to render the future assassin immune to the poison they would use on their targets. This meant the Vishakanya could administer poison directly, perhaps even tasting it themselves to divert suspicion before – and after – the kill.
Many girls did not survive the training, as they could not withstand preparatory dosage. Those that did were sent out in their King’s service in the guise of courtesans. So legendary was the skill of the Vishakanya, it was believed their bodily fluids were naturally poisonous so that even a kiss from them was death. In all probability, the girl’s administered the poison in other ways, using alcohol or food as a carrier. This way, they could share the tainted feasts with their targets, safe because of their immunity.