TEN ARCHETYPAL GHOSTS AND SPIRITS OF THE SUBCONTINENT.
by Gitanjali Das
Wet and cold like fish, baaks are territorial spirits that haunt water bodies, according to Pranavjyoti Deka, author of the Jyoti Bilingual Thesaurus (2007), a compendium of Assamese terms and their descriptions on subjects ranging from punishment to agriculture to ghosts. Baaks are believed to mainly inhabit the region of Lower Assam, in places such as Kokrajhar and Barpeta. These spirits are said to have twisted arms and legs although there are believed to be different variations, like baaks ghorapaks, which according to Deka are headless and have their eyes and mouths on their stomachs. Some people say these baaks look like horses, and have a tendency to create whirlpools. Baaks are obsessed with raw fish, and their sole purpose seems to be catching or pilfering fish from fishermen, which they keep in the net they carry. They also trail fishermen at night, occasionally causing a fright, although they’re mostly harmless, with the exception ofdonts, a type of baak which, says Deka, is aggressive and will kill when displeased. Stealing a baak’s net and burying it under a mustard plant is according to Deka, the only way to control this spirit.
The Bachelor/Bachelorette Ghost
by Kuhu Kochar
“Kunwari/a hi mar jayegi/a” (“You’ll die a bachelor/ette” ) is a disparaging remark that does the rounds in many Indian households. But if an unmarried young man or woman shoulddie, their disgruntled ghost, as the belief goes in certain coastal villages of Karnataka, will stay on in their village, haunting it and ushering in bad luck. Spiritual healers in these villages claim to have seen the spirits of unwed girls catching those of bachelors, and to have heard their loud crying during wedding ceremonies. A wedding between two unmarried ghosts, involving all the traditional ceremonies, and at times even a dowry, is believed “to protect the village from these ghosts,” says Mahesh Yadav, who attended a ghost wedding in the village of Polali in 2010. The union, Yadav explains, allows the spirits to proceed on to the next world as one and they therefore cease to disturb their village.
by G D
In Assam, the curuni bira – curuni meaning “female thief” and bira being the Assamese version of a poltergeist – is a compulsive stealer of things from people’s homes, especially food from kitchens. According to Pranavjyoti Deka, it makes shrill sounds, somewhat similar to the loud meowing of a cat. Some believe that the curuni bira was a story cooked up by womenwho, while preparing a meal for their families, couldn’t help but eat a portion of it and when asked about the missing food, blamed it on a ghost. More commonly talked about a few decades ago, accounts of this spirit’s presence are rare nowadays, however it is said to still visit the homes of joint families. Only an oja, a kind of traditional ghost buster, can expel this pesky ghost with the help of incantations.
by Prathibha Nandakumar
Should one be walking through the forests and fields of Karnataka or Tamil Nadu at night and see a torch bobbing up and down through the trees in the distance, they should run, and never look back, for it could be a kolli devva. A kolli devva (in Kannada, “kolli” means torch, “devva” means ghost) is believed to be the ghost of a man who died an untimely death due to illness, murder or accident, that roams through forests, oscillating between being corporeal or incorporeal, with his burning torch of wood and cloth. This devvaenjoys dancing and even if this suggests it’s harmless, one should avoid crossing paths with it – if it notices you, at best it might just scare you, at worst it may choose to torment or possess you or even cause you to die by coughing blood. Sometimes it can sneak up on a person: if it chances upon someone in need of a match to light a beedi, the devva’s hand will appear out of nowhere to light it, or, if it sees a lone person, it may appear as a man asking for a light. The would-be victim should ignore the request, but if they oblige, then they’ll see the head and face of the “man” start to dissipate once the beedi is lit, and the unfortunate human may be tormented thereafter.
by K K
With macch (fish) being an intrinsic part of Bengali culture and cuisine, it shouldn’t be surprising that fish hasn’t only got a place in gastronomical delights, rituals and ceremonies,but also in the heart of a ghostly creature. The meccho bhut is believed to be a big, burly, arboreal male ghost that loves fish, and not only robs fishermen of their catch but also, much to the horror of Bengalis, enters kitchens and steals fully prepared meals. Believed to dwell around the coastal areas of West Bengal, there are even stories about this spirit asking people to hand over their fish. Refusing, unfortunately, is not an option, for it would lead to the ghost inhabiting your body and cause food poisoning: vomiting is believed to be a way for the spirit to forcefully expel the food you denied him of from your system. The meccho bhut is a greedy spirit and the only ways to keep him at bay and to save a meal are to tie amulets onto one’s own ankles or boats or to soak the fish in curd.
by P N
Mohini is an enchanting female devva that preys on men, and is said to inhabit South India, haunting old wells, tamarind and coconut trees, forests and wandering along lonely stretches of road. It is believed that girls or women who commit suicide without having found a romantic partner or experiencing physical pleasure return as this vengeful spirit. In Indian cinema, the Mohini devva is often depicted as having long hair blowing in the wind and floating about in a white sari while singing haunting melodies. These sad-natured ghosts spend most of their time crying but when they see a man they like, they’ll turn on the charm and will allure him with the tinkling of anklets, bangles and by laughing and whispering sweet nothings into his ear. A smell much like incense marks her presence. She can seduce a man with her beauty or by tempting him with food that she prepares by setting her legs on fire and cooking on them. Once the meal’s ready, she’ll extinguish the flames and take the food to him. The only thing a man can do to ward off this evil spirit is to spit three times on the ground or ignore her and never look at her – if he does, he’ll become bewitched. When that happens he’ll start withering away, growing thin and losing interest in life and at night, her strong fragrance will emanate from the room where she stays with him, the walls becoming stained with the betel nut she chews and spits out, until the man dies, spitting blood.
by P N
The naale baa, meaning “come tomorrow” in Kannada, is a female ghost with messy hair and tattered clothing that about 50 years ago was said to frequently knock on people’s front doors asking for alms and anything else s he could get her hands on. Opening the door to this vagrant ghost spelt bad luck, even death, for the people inside that house. It was also believed that she might enter the house and never leave, and just hang around being a nuisance. Shouting out “Naale baa!” was believed to be the only way to get her to go away, although she’d return the day after. To combat this persistence, people started writing “naale baa” on their doors, in charcoal, turmeric or with paint, beneath a drawing of three fingers which symbolises, “mooru naama,” meaning “three lines on the forehead” which is slang for “you get nothing.” It is believed the ghost, fooled by this ruse, was after a while discouraged from returning ever again, and thenaale baa has since slipped out of existence, and no longer bothers anyone anymore.
In the forests of the mountains of Kashmir is believed to lurk a kind of female djinn called a rantas. With long toenails, her feet turned backwards, hair to her knees and breasts drapedover her shoulders, the rantas, an unsightly supernatural creature, is feared because she is said to come at night to steal young men and take them to the hills and turn them into her husbands. Needless to say, the poor men would never be seen again. Shahzada Parveen, 52, who is a resident of Srinagar, says as a child she remembers people being terrified of them whisking away a brother or newly-wed husband. They also have the power to disappear and appear at will. Parveen says when her great grandfather, who was a pir, a Sufi scholar, was sent to spread Islam in a djinn-infested village of south Kashmir, he encountered a harmless, one-legged djinn (who supposedly still lives in that village in a tree), a ten headed monster and a rantas. When the rantas tried to attack him, as a pir he had the power to repel her – her breasts burst into flames and she ran back into the hills. Since the time she was a child, Parveen says it is believed that the rantas has stopped kidnapping young men, although people continue to believe she lives in the mountains.
by K K
The sand ghost, commonly known as ret-ro-pret in Marwari, is the most feared spirit in Rajasthan. People in villages attribute carcasses found in the desert to the work of the ret ropret, as well as the occurrence of mirages. “Till today many villagers in remote Rajasthan believe that shifting dunes, sandstorms and droughts are all because of these ghosts,” says S Krishnan, a former professor of history at the University of Rajasthan. The ret-ro-pret is a shape shifter that gathers sand to take on abstract forms. It camouflages itself in the desert by making its surface mutate into different patterns, such as ripples for instance, to mimic the terrain. The most effective way to evade it is for one to never allow their clothing to blend in with the colour of the sand, because the spirit considers this a sign of submission and will engulf the body. It’s for this reason that Rajasthanis avoid wearing “safari” colours in the desert, and instead choose colourfully patterned fabric for their clothing and bright-coloured trinkets for their camels. Worshipping water and the sun are also believed to be ways to prevent ever encountering the ret-ro-pret.
by Annalisa Merelli
Arguably the most notorious of Kerala’s spirits, the yakshi is believed to be the ghost of a woman who died a violent death. A yakshi is said to float above the ground and thirst for blood, much like a vampire. In ancient times she would be encountered mostly deep within forests, but these days she is believed to lead a more widespread existence. She lives atop tall palm trees and her presence is indicated by the blooming ofpala trees. At night, she takes on the appearance of a gorgeous woman, seduces men and takes them to her tree, which thanks to her powers of illusion looks like an ancient Keralan home. Once a man enters the home – actually reaching the treetop – she kills him to drink his blood. In the morning, pieces of the man’s bones are found scattered around the foot of the tree. The yakshi can’t be fought off, but to keep her at bay one must carry a knife covered in lime, which stops her from getting too close.
Illustration: Reshi Dev