Ghosts are an important part of folklore, and form an integral part of the socio-cultural beliefs of the people living in the geographical and ethno-linguistic region of Bengal, which today consists of the independent nation of Bangladesh, and the Indian states of West Bengal. Fairy tales, both old and new, often use the concept of ghosts. In modern-day Bengali literature, cinema and also in radio & television media, the references to ghosts are often found. There are also many alleged haunted sites in this region. It is believed that the spirits of those who cannot find peace in the afterlife or die unnatural deaths remain on Earth. The common word for ghosts in Bengali is bhoot or bhut (Bengali: ভূত). This word has an alternative meaning: ‘past’ in Bengali. Also, the word Pret (derived from Sanskrit ‘Preta’) is used in Bengali to mean ghost. In Bengal, ghosts are believed to be the spirit after death of an unsatisfied human being or a soul of a person who dies in unnatural or abnormal circumstances (like murder, suicide or accident). Even it is believed that other animals and creatures can also be turned into ghost after their death.
The Bengali Hindu community celebrates Bhoot Chaturdashi, which normally occurs on the 14th day of Krishna Paksha (waning phase of moon) at the night before Kali Puja / Dipaboli festival. On this night, Bengalis light 14 earthen-lamps (choddo prodip) at their homes to appease the spirits of their past 14 generations of ancestors. It is believed that in the night before Kali Puja, the spirits of these ancestors descend upon earth, and these lamps help them find their loving homes. Another popular belief is that Chamunda (a fearsome aspect of Kali) along with 14 other ghostly forms ward off the evil spirits from the house as 14 earthen-lamps are lit at different entrances and dark corners of the rooms. Also, it is customary to consume a dish of 14 types of leafy vegetable (choddo shaak) during Bhoot Chaturdashi, so that evil spirits cannot possess the body.
Types of ghosts and other supernatural entities
There are many kinds of ghosts and similar supernatural entities that frequently come up in Bengali culture, its folklores and form an important part in Bengali peoples’ socio-cultural beliefs and superstitions. Few of such supernatural entities are mentioned here:
- Petni/Shakchunni: Petni are basically female ghosts who died unmarried or have some unsatisfied desires. The word Petni originated from the Sanskrit word Pretni (feminine gender of Preta). The word Shakchunni comes from the Sanksrit word Shankhachurni. It is a ghost of a married woman who usually wears a special kind of traditional bangles made of shell (called ‘Shankha’ in Bengali) in their hands, which is a sign of married woman in Bengal.
- Damori: Tantric practices and black magic have been very popular in rural Bengal in the past for many centuries. Some rural people from Bengal, obsessed with the occult, used to travel to Kamrup-Kamakhya in Assam in order to learn Tantric ways and black magic. Many Sadhu (Ascetic Yogis), Tantric, Aghori, Kapalik and Kabiraj devoted their lives in pursuit of occult practices. Such people are said to have the power to invoke lower-level demonic/ ghostly entities such as Hakini, Shakhini (same as Shakchunni) and Dakini. Tantriks use these demonic spirits for soothsaying purposes, and also for causing harm to people. When superstitious rural people wanted to cause harm to an enemy, they went to the Tantriks to seek their help. A common practice was called “Baan Mara”, a ritual by which the Tantriks used demonic forces to kill a person. In such cases, the victim is said to die by vomiting blood up their throat. The two most higher-level tantric mantra are Kularnob and Moha Damor. A tantrik mantra called Bhoot Damor (a lower-level branch of Moha Damor) works with different demi-goddesses called Jogini, Jokkhini, Kinnori, Apshori, Bhutini, etc. Altogether these bunch of supernatural entities are called Damori. In Tantrik philosophy, it is believed If someone can engulf himself into ascetic pursuit and worship through Bhoot Damor, the invoked Damori will appear to that person, will associate with him, and becomes somewhat under his control. These beings are neither human nor incorporeal, but somewhere in-between. They are from some unseen realm, and can materialise in our perceived physical dimension. Their concept is similar to the western concept of Fairies or Elves; or the Islamic/Persian concept of Pori / Pari.
- Besho Bhoot: The word Besho comes from the word Baash which means ‘Bamboo’ in Bengali. Besho Bhoot are ghosts that live in bamboo gardens. People from rural Bengal believe that harmful ghosts live in bamboo gardens, and one should not walk pass these areas after dusk. It is said that when a bamboo leans or lays in the ground, no one should cross over it and should go around it. This is because when someone makes an attempt to cross the bamboo, the bamboo is pulled back straight up by an unseen force, and the person can die as a result. It is also reported that a gusty wind blows inside the bamboo garden while the weather is calm on the outside.
- Penchapechi: An unusual form of ghost. The Penchapechi take the form of an owl and haunt in the forests of Bengal. It follows helpless travelers through the woods until they are completely alone, and then it strikes. Unlike other ghosts, the Penchapechi actually consumes its victims, feeding on their body in an almost vampiric way.
- Mechho Bhoot: This is a kind of ghost who likes to eat fish. The word Mechho comes from Machh that means ‘fish’ in Bengali. Mechho Bhoot usually lives near to the village ponds or lakes which are full of fish. These kinds of ghosts urges the late night fishermen or a lone person who carries fish with him to give them their fish by saying in a nasal tone – “Machh Diye Ja” (meaning “give me the fish”). If the person refuses to leave the fish for the Mechho Bhoot, it threatens to harm them. Sometimes they steal fish from kitchens in village households or from the boats of fishermen.
- Mamdo Bhoot: According to the beliefs of Bengali Hindu community, these are believed to be the ghosts of Muslims. Ghosts of such kind are believed to kill people by twisting their necks.
- Gechho Bhoot: It is a kind of ghost that lives in trees. The word Gechho comes from the word Gaachh, which means tree in Bengali.
- Aleya/Atoshi Bhoot: Aleya (or marsh ghost-light) is the name given to an unexplained strange light phenomena occurring over the marshes as observed by Bengalis, especially the fishermen of West Bengal and Bangladesh. This marsh light (Will-o’-the-wisp) often look like a flying, glowing orb of fire. These confuse the fishermen to make them lose their bearings, and may even lead them to drown. Local communities in the region believe that these strange hovering marsh-lights are in fact ghost-lights representing the ghosts of fisherman who died fishing. Sometimes they confuse the fishermen, and sometimes they help them avoid future dangers.
- Begho Bhoot: The word Begho comes from the Bengali word Baagh meaning ‘tiger’. Begho Bhoot are ghosts of the people who were killed or eaten by the tigers in Sundarbans, which is known to be the Royal Bengal Tiger Sanctuary of the Bengal region. The villagers living in the area believe in these kinds of ghosts. These entities are said to frighten people who enters the jungle in search of honey or woods, and try to bring them to face tigers. Sometimes they do the mimicry of tigers to terrify the villagers.
- Skondhokata/Kondhokata: It is a headless ghost. These are believed to be the spirit of those people who died by having their heads cut-off by train accident or by some other way. This kind of ghost always searches their missing heads, and pleads others to help them to find it. Sometimes they attack the humans and make them slaves to search for their lost heads.
- Kanabhulo: This is a ghost which hypnotises a person, and takes him to some unknown location. The victim, instead of going into his destination, goes to another place which is silent and eerie. After that the victim loses his sense. These types of ghosts strike at night. Lone travellers, or a person separated from his group becomes the victim of such ghosts.
- Dainee: Dainee means “Witch”. Dainee is not actually soul or spirit, rather is a living being. Usually in villages of Bengal, old suspicious women who know mumbo-jumbo and other witchcrafts or black magic are considered as Dainee. It is believed that the Dainee kidnaps children, kills them and suck their blood to survive a hundred years.
- Brahmodaittyo: These are one of the most popular kind of ghost in Bengal who are believed to be benevolent. It is believed to be the ghost of holy Brahmin. Usually, they appear wearing a traditional Dhoti (Bengali dress for men) and the holy thread on their body. They are very kind and helpful to human being as depicted in many Bengali stories, folk-lores and movies.
- Boba: This is the Bengali version of the “Old Hag Syndrome” which is believed to be caused by a supernatural entity called “Boba” (meaning “dumb”/unable to speak). Boba attacks a person by strangling him when the person sleeps in a Supine position/ sleep on back. However, the scientific explanation is believed to be Sleep Paralysis. While a person is having sleep paralysis, he hallucinates in his REM sleep while the brain is functioning but the body is asleep. This actually causes the person to completely unable to move or speak, and results in to hallucinate weird entities such as an old hag (a witch-like demonic being). In Bangladesh, the phenomenon is called “Bobaay Dhora” (meaning “Struck by Boba”).
- Sheekol Buri/Jol-Pishach: They are believed to dwell in the rivers, ponds, and lakes. They are called by different names in different localities of Bengal. Young women, who either committed suicide by drowning due to an unhappy marriage (they might have been jilted by their lovers or abused and harassed by their much older husbands), or who were violently drowned against their will (especially after becoming pregnant with unwanted children), must live out their designated time on earth and come back as such beings. Her main purpose is, however, to lure young men and take them into the depths of said waterways where she would entangle their feet with her long hair and submerge them. Their hair is very long and always wet, and their eyes are with out any iris. Like many fairies, they sometimes do take human lovers. Unfortunately, most of such unions end tragically for the human. As is usually the case, they extract a promise from her mortal lover and when such promise is broken, she reveals herself to be the supernatural creature she is, often taking the life of the human in the process. Their general habitat is water bodies even though they roam around the land/wilderness around the water and are also often seen sitting over trees at the dead of night. The concept of such supernatural beings is similar to that of Rusalka from Slavic mythology.
- Nishi: The Nishi (Night Spirit) lures its victim to a secluded area by calling to the person with the voice of a loved one. The Nishi only strikes at night, and once the victim responds to the call of Nishi, s/he becomes hypnotised, follow the voice, and are never seen again. So, it is unknown what happens to them. Some tantrics are said to nurture and conjure the Nishi, in order to use them to harm someone out of spite or revenge. The voice of Nishi (means ‘Night’) is known as “Nishir Daak” (Call of the Night Spirit). Bengali age old superstition suggests that Sleepwalking phenomenon is also caused by Nishi. According to folklore, the Nishi cannot call out more than twice, and so no one should answer a voice at night until being called at least three times.
- Gudro Bonga: Even though these as worshipped as demigods by the Santhal community (an indigenous tribe in Bengal), many Santhal families are said to nurture and look after these small dwarf-like (2–3 feet tall) creatures who look like small children. The word Gudro means ‘small’ and Bonga means ‘demigod’ in Santhal language. Santhals believe that these beings are keepers of hidden treasures on earth and can make them rich. These beings are believed to steal newborn infants from people’s houses. Gudro Bongas are believed to live in clans. They are similar to the concept of Dwarfs or Goblins.
- Dhan Kudra: Experiences with such of entities are found in the myths of Bengal(specially south Bengal). They usually are short in height. It is a belief that they stay in somebody’s house and they help the house-owner to make money. They are believed to bring luck. They are possibly similar/same beings as Gudro Bonga.
- Rakkhosh: A demonic fierce-looking being with pointed fangs, sharp claw-like fingernails, and superhuman strength. The stories of these creatures feature in the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. A lot of fairy-tale stories in Bengali folklore also speaks of this vicious demonic tribe which feeds on human. Bengali women traditionally put their children to sleep by narrating scary folk-tale stories of the Rakkhosh. The threat punchline by a Rakkhosh in traditional Bengali folk-tales is this couplet: Hau, Mau, Cau,….Manusher Gondho Pau (meaning: “Hau, Mau, Cau (nonsensical rhyming words),….I Smell a Human”).
- Khokkosh: These are dwarf-like malicious and grotesque monster, which is depicted as a smaller version of Rakkhosh. The stories of Khokkosh is frequently found in traditional Bengali fairy-tales and folk-lores.
- Daittyo: They have human appearance, but of prodigious size and extraordinary strength. Same as Giants.
- Pishach/Adomkhor: Pishach are flesh-eating demonic entity who mainly feed from cadavers. They like darkness and traditionally depicted to haunt cremation grounds and graveyards. They have the power to assume different forms at will, and may also become invisible. Sometimes, they possess human beings and alter their thoughts, and the victims are afflicted with a variety of maladies and abnormalities like insanity. The female version of Pishach is called “Pishachini”, which is described to have a hideous and terrible appearance, however she sometimes appears in the devious disguise of a youthful, beautiful maiden to lure young men. She drains their blood, semen, and virility. She dwells and prowls in places associated with death and filth. They are similar to the western concept of ghouls.
- Jokkho/Jokkh: A supernatural warrior-type entity who are the guardians and protectors of hidden treasures/wealth on earth. They are usually considered to be benevolent, and said to bestow fertility and wealth upon their devotees. There is a commonly used Bengali idiom – Jokkher Dhon (literal meaning: Jokkho’s Wealth) which actually implies “protecting a beloved person” or “safeguarding precious wealth”.
- Jinn/Djinn: The Muslim community of Bengal strongly believe that any supernatural/ghostly/demonic/paranormal occurrence, phenomenon and manifestation is the work of Jinn. Jinns can be both benevolent or malevolent. Malevolent Jinns (Demon) can be really evil, and can cause haunting in human residences, empty houses, toilets, lakes, graveyards, morgues, hospitals, and in the wilderness. Some people are also believed to conjure Jinns, and use them to fulfil their evil purposes. When a Jinn is in the vicinity, a person might experience a strange perfume/flowery smell or terrible odour of rotten flesh, or burning odour even though no possible source of those smell/odour can be found. Jinns have no physical body of their own, and are creatures from an unseen dimension/realm. Jinns are shape-shifters, and often take the form of a human or animal (commonly snake, dog, cat, crow, or bull). When Jinn attaches itself to a living person, people call it jinn/demonic possession. Jinns are exorcised by pious people like Imam or Mawlana by reciting chapters from the Quran. Professional village exorcists/ witch-doctors called Kabiraj / Ojha commands/forces the Jinn to leave the possessed person by exorcism rituals which includes the use of talismans/ Ta’wiz/Tabiz, or by conjuring a good Jinn to counteract the forces of the possessing evil Jinn. Jinns have the ability to predict future, can read people’s thoughts, have extraordinary strength and powers; and a person possessed by a Jinn can also demonstrate such abilities. However, Jinns are dimwitted, foolhardy, aggressive, angry and deceives humans with their lies. There are also good and wise jinns who are believed to be pious and save/help human from dangerous/ fatal situations. Jinns are believed to eat raw fish/meat/bones and are fond of traditional Bengali sweets. The sweet salespeople in Bangladesh strongly affirm the idea that Jinns come to the sweet shops at late night in human form to buy sweets. Jinns live in clans, and every clan is headed by a King Jinn. There are several distinct classes of Jinn, such as Marid, Ifreet and Ghul (Ghoul) and Qareen.