Trick or treat? This Halloween, why not go as one our charming desi spooks
Some are scary, some are helpful and some are just downright cute. A look at the big fat Indian ghost family.
They live near water and ask for fish, roam around fields in peak summer afternoons, seduce lost men and may also protect you from evil. The Indian ghost family is a huge one with no official count.
“It is believed that every community, tribe and sub-community has its own ghosts. And in some traditions it is believed that for every deity, of the tens of thousands worshipped, there is a corresponding ghost, so it’s a thin line between the ghosts, sometimes, and just a deity prone to anger,” says author and researcher Riksundar Banerjee, whose PhD was on ghosts and their evolution in literature.
Social practices, historical events and even geography have an effect on the kind of ghost a community believes in. “In the Gangetic plain there are British indigo tax collector ghosts and old White ghosts from the colonial era,” he says.
There are a lot of women too, and they form the spectral majority in cinema, determined to haunt the earth because of the injustice they suffered. “A lot of female ghosts are said to be seeking revenge — for being jilted in love or abused or treated badly during their lives. What was difficult to articulate for living women became easier to communicate through tales of women ghosts,” Banerjee says.
Geography plays a part too. In the Sunderban delta, you can expect to run into ghosts of people mauled by tigers; in the arid Rann of Kutch, ghosts take the form of dazzling light (what else would your nightmare be in a desert state).
There are fun and friendly ghosts like Naseeruddin Shah’s character Marco in Chamatkar (1992); powerful and benevolent ones like in Satyajit Ray’s classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969); and even stupid ones that try to be scary but are just unintentionally funny instead, as in cult horror films like Purani Haveli (1989) and other such works by the Ramsay brothers.
THE BIG FAT INDIAN GHOST FAMILY
* Brahmadaitya is the ghost of unmarried Brahmin men. He wears a dhoti and the sacred thread across a bare torso. Believed to live in Bengal’s quince trees, he is sometimes also known to help people by saving them from other ghosts.
* Ratha Kateri is a vampire-like ghost from Tamil Nadu that roams around at midnight. Muni is a corresponding ghost from Tamil Nadu that is usually seen at noon. They wander about in desolate farms and children are warned not to go wandering themselves, or they’re sure to run into a Muni. They don’t do much harm; if you meet their sight, they might slap you hard, but then they just keep walking. And if you’re carrying meat or fish and not carrying an iron rod, then Muni will slap you anyway.
* Cherepi lives by the Godavari river. Women who commit suicide, die as mistresses or die in childbirth are believed to become cherepis. They ride tigers on full-moon nights, open locked doors and suck the blood from the most powerful man of the house — through the man’s toes.
* Mechho bhoot are ghosts who love fish. They are most frequently seen (wouldn’t you know it) in rural West Bengal and Bangladesh. They live near water bodies and if someone returns is carrying fish and heading home after sunset, they can hear these ghosts asking, please, if they can have some fish too.
* There are of course the djinns (who travelled here from the Middle-East and then became intrinsic to Indian culture and to certain ruins in Old Delhi). Generally benevolent; prone to impatience; don’t like their abodes being disturbed.
* And there are the chudails, the generic group of women ghosts. It is believed in large parts of northern and central India that when a woman dies unnaturally, she becomes a chudail. She then prowls the neighbourhood looking for families where other youngsters are being mistreated. They then attack the male members of that family and suck all their blood as punishment.
* Cheer batti is a ghost of light found in the Rann of Kutch and part of local folklore for centuries. These strange lights arise out of nowhere and are said to follow people around and sometimes mislead them until they’re hopelessly lost.
* The yakshi is common in rural Kerala. A beautiful female spirit in white robes, trailing the scent of jasmine, said to lure lost people to palm trees before killing them. The beautiful images of yakshi are also found on temple walls.
* Begho Bhoot are ghosts of people killed by tigers in the Sundarbans. The people of the delta believe these ghosts sometimes imitate tigers to scare people and sometimes lead people to tigers too.