Growing up in Kolkata I was familiar with our motley crew of ghosts – petnis and shankchunnis cackling from the neem tree behind our house, the brohomdoityo perched on the bel tree and the fish-eating mechhobhoot. But until I picked up Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India I had no idea about ghosts and monsters in every nook and cranny of India from Lakshwadeep to Mizoram. In fact, Mizoram seems a particular hotbed – from the unfortunate Chhongchhongpipa, the ghost of a man who died a virgin to the Hmuichukchuriduninu, a gorier version of the witch of Hansel and Gretel, to the rather fetishistic Zunhindawt who sleepwalks and drinks from puddles of urine.
Rakesh Khanna, co-founder of Blaft Publications, famous for its translations of Tamil pulp fiction, has put this book together along with his friend J Furciver Bhairav. After chasing ghosts and monsters across the length and breadth of India’s folklore, he said he has seen some clear “necro diversity hotspots”.
Like Kumaon and the Konkan coast. “Also the North-East for sure – it parallels the biodiversity and the linguistic diversity,” said Khanna. Different languages mean different folklore traditions. More folklore traditions mean more monsters and ghosts and they hop from one tradition to another. Sometimes they even cross oceans. Bewitching jasmine-in-their-hair Tamil succubi Mohini Pey, who rob sleeping young men of their “life force” have expanded operations to Singapore and Malaysia.
“The word pret or preta has become Fureta in the Maldives and Minicoy islands,” said Khanna. “So they have a monster which comes out of the reef called Faru Fureta, which smells like stinky old sea sponges and has teeth like crystal daggers.” Luckily they are easy to fool. If you noisily crunch breadfruit chips near them they think you are eating bones and slink away.
Khanna said he has 322 entries in his ghost A-Z, but with sub-categories the spook count crosses 700 – some of them accompanied by portraits, thanks to graphic artists like Appupen and Samita Chatterjee. Since the publication of the book, readers have sent him new monsters like a yeti from Arunachal and a demon from the Sunderbans.
Many were easy to track down, others were more of a ghost-hunting expedition. “The Bhoot Vahana Yanta story about the robot drones assassins of ancient Pataliputra had us hunting for unpublished dissertations written in French containing translations of some 11th century Burmese Buddhist manuscripts,” said Khanna. The protoplasmic Yam Bhaya Akhoot of Chittorgarh sent them all over the map.
The Gadulia Lohar blacksmiths believe their souls return to Chittorgarh. “One idea is the Yam Bhaya Akhoots is an accretion of their souls. Others connect it with a legend from Mali in West Africa about primordial godlings who got ripped up and scattered or an amphibious alien species from Sirius that crash-landed on earth.”
Apart from being a rolodex of ghosts monsters and demons, the book is also a record of how they have evolved over history. Many monsters come out of traveller’s tales. A now lost book named Indica by Ctesias, written by the court physician of Artaxerxes II, the King of Persia in the fifth century BC, was a treasure trove of fantastic beasts. There was the gigantic white Indus worm, the Crocotta, a man-eating hyena-like monster with a petrifying gaze, and the Manticore, with a deadly scorpion stinger in its tail.
Khanna said creatures like the unicorn might have been embellished versions of real animals like rhinoceroses. Very embellished though. Ctesias’s unicorns had white bodies, crimson heads, deep blue eyes and the horns were white, black and crimson! “But yeah, the first unicorns were from India,” said Khanna. Even if we didn’t invent the internet we’ll always have the unicorn.
In Hindu mythology, the “line between god and demon is a tough one,” said Khanna. Tribal and animist deities could be turned into demons and absorbed into the Hindu pantheon. Some theorise the sadistic goblin-like pisachas were a real tribe, and pisacha was an Aryan “racist pejorative” for them.
“The Brihatkatha, the lost larger work from which Vikram and the Vetal is derived, was supposed to have been written in the language of the demons Paisachi or Bhoot-bhasha,” said Khanna. “But it’s not clear if the language ever existed. A nice little linguistic mystery.” He said their rule of thumb was to include all “ghosts, dead people and the supernatural mythological entities who are primarily malevolent. So if it is worshipped but primarily malevolent we still put it in.”
Worship itself can be tricky to define. “I mean are we going to sacrifice this black rooster so that you (the monster) will stay away from us, or are we sacrificing it for you to do something on our behalf to someone else.”
Muslim invasions brought new classes of ghosts – jinns, shaitans and ifrits, along with more localised ones like the Khavee, supposedly the ghosts of Pathan warriors from Afghanistan, or the elf-like Tasrufdars of Kashmir who are very annoyed if the springs they live in get polluted, an early eco-ghost.
In a sign of ghostly cross-pollination there’s the Yach of Kashmir, a bit of a dandy who likes fancy clothes but always wears a cap because he’s balding. Muslims say it’s a white karakul cap and Kashmiri Hindus say it’s red and bejewelled. Some think the Yach is a Kashmiri version of the Yaksha.
In fact, if India had to have a national ghost like a national animal, the Yaksha would make the shortlist, said Khanna. “Some of the first stone sculptures (2,200 years old in Pataliputra and Sanchi) are of Yakshas. They come in Jain mythology, Hindu mythology, Kashmiri Muslim folklore and in the North east.” In the Mahabharata, a Yaksha resurrects the dead Pandava brothers and another swaps genitals with the transgender Shikhandi.
With the arrival of the British, a new class of ghosts emerged. Until then, Indian ghosts were different from their western counterparts. “In the west they tend to be wispy, transparent things that float around in the dark and have a tendency to disappear,” said Khanna. “On the other hand you can touch Indian ghosts, they pick things up and they like to work which is a very strange thing. A lot of folklore has ghosts going to the fields and doing the work of ten people. Or they stretch their long arms around and do work in the kitchen.”
The Telugu Deyyam uses its prehensile tongue to do chores like turning off the gas burner in a different room! With British rule, the ghost landscape got a lot of firinghee bhoots who were particular individuals rather than ghost types like Warren Hastings in his horse-drawn carriage or Owen Tomkinson, a soldier who died of cholera in 1906 and still rises from his grave to demand tea and biscuits.
But were these ghosts and monsters just colourful traveller’s tales and ways to scare children into going to sleep quickly? Khanna said he sometimes wonders whether when we were running away from sabre-toothed cats and cave bears it was useful to keep track of when they were active and how to fool them. “Now with big animals in cages and without too many things to run away from, maybe we invent monsters to take up the space in our brains,” he said.
Ghosts might also have been ways to talk about taboo topics like sex and desire. “Ghost-human sex seems to be fairly common,” said Khanna. The Warli people of Maharashtra have the tall and handsome white Barambha ghost who lives on pipal trees and becomes enamoured of young women. A woman can even make love to an invisible Barambha secretly while lying next to her husband. The Warli thought albinos were the products of Barambha-human sex. The Rantas of Kashmir take muscle boys back to their caves for a romp.
But there were real things at work too. The Anangu of Tamil Nadu is a demoness of hysterical grief, an embodiment of rage at women’s oppression. Pey ghosts of Tamil Nadu are the products of “love failure” – perhaps an inter-caste affair or a same-sex relationship. There are the ghosts of kappiri or African slaves mortared alive into the walls of houses as guardians of gold and treasure when Dutch seized Kochi in 1663.
Khanna found stories of witch hunts dating back to the accounts of Ibn Battuta, about a woman, accused of eating a young boy’s liver, who was pushed into the Yamuna with jars tied to her arms and legs. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when British law and order over the region waned, many Dayaans or witches were killed in Chhota Nagpur. “Often it’s an excuse for a land grab from some old woman,” said Khanna.
Modern times have meant modern ghosts. There’s Rose, the famous call-centre ghost of Gurugram, and the Ifrit who were accused of creating malware programs like the Conficker worm that targeted Microsoft Windows. “Ifrit are supposed to be really good hackers,” said Khanna. But modernity has also meant ghosts are endangered.“A lot of people say electric lights have driven ghosts away,” said Khanna. “People say ghosts don’t come anymore now that everything is lit up.”
But still, beware if you are on a lonely dark highway in Karnataka and a beautiful woman asks you for some betel nut. She might be the Hemmalati and when you give it to her she will pretend to drop it. As you bend down to pick it up, she will pull out her single breast from her blouse and whack you on the head with it. That night you will have fever and vomit blood.
Her cousin Otte Molechi in Kerala, also single-breasted, is equally dangerous. “Rather than just flopping the boob on the person’s head, this version spins around really fast and tries to whack you on the head with it. You have to duck out of the way. If you get hit, you disintegrate. You’re done,” said Khanna.
So even if you learn nothing else from the book remember this – if someone asks you for some betel-nut on a lonely highway, don’t stop.
Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, J Furcifer Bhairav and Rakesh Khanna.