Ghosts in Bengali culture
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Ghosts are an important part of folklore in Bengal. Fairy tales, both old and new often use the concept of ghosts. In modern day Bengali literature as well, references to ghosts may be often found. 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 (Sanskrit) 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.
Usually after the death there are some Hindu rituals that are used to follow in Bengal which ends with a holy food offerings (called ‘Pindodaan’) to the spirit of the dead person. This final ritual is done at Pret Pahar (Mountain of Spirits) in Gaya, Bihar. It is believed that if this final ritual remains incomplete the spirit cannot leave this mortal world for heaven and haunts their relatives to complete it.
Types of ghosts
There are many kinds of ghost believed in Bengali culture. Few are referred here:
- Pretni: Pretni are basically female ghosts who have some unsatisfied desires such as dying unmarried. This word originated from the Sanskrit word Pretini (feminine gender of Preta). They can take any appearance even as male. It is a ghost of usually those who committed crimes in life and are cursed to walk the Earth as ghosts. The Petni can be very vicious, and apparently can appear to be almost completely human until they attack. The only distinguishing characteristic of the ghost is the feet – the feet of Petni are backwards.
- Shankhchunni: The word "Shankhchunni" comes from the Sanksrit word Shankhachurni. It is a ghost of a married woman who usually wears a special kind of bangles made of Shell (called ‘Shankha’ in Bengali) in their hands which is a sign of married woman in Bengal. Shankhchunni usually haunts the rich married women so that they can enjoy a married life and can satisfy all their desires just like a married woman. People say that they live in mango trees.
- Chorachunni: thief ghost, very mischievous and usually the souls of dead thieves.
- Penchapechi: An unusual form of ghost. The Penchapechi take the form of owls and hunt in the forests of Bengal. It follows hapless 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. Sometimes they steal fish from kitchens in village households or from the boats of fishermen.
- Maal: This is a mermaid like creature which dwells in the rivers and lakes of Bangladesh. It drags unsuspecting people into the water, drowning them.
- Nishi: One of the most cruel of ghosts, the Nishi lures its victim to a secluded area by calling to the person with the voice of a loved one. The Nishi only strike at night, and their victims are never seen again, so it is unknown what happens to them. They may become Nishi themselves. According to folklore, the Nishi cannot call out more than twice, and so no one should answer a voice at night until it has called three times.
- Mamdo bhut: Ghosts of Muslims
- Gechho Bhoot: It is a kind of ghosts lives in trees. The word "Gechho" comes from "Gaachh" which means tree in Bengali language.
- Bramhadaitya: These are one of the most popular and less harmful categories of ghosts in Bengal. It is 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 and movies.
- Aleya: Marsh gas apparitions that confuse fishermen, make them lose their bearings and eventually drown
- Begho Bhoot: This is a ghost of those person who are killed or eaten by the tigers in jungle. Mainly in Sundarban area (in West Bengal, India) which is a Royal Bengal Tiger Sanctuary, the villagers believe in this kind of ghost. These ghosts use to frighten persons who entered the jungle in search of honey or woods and try to put them in front of tigers. Sometimes they do the mimicry of tigers to terrify the villagers.
- Skondhokata or Kondhokata: It is a headless ghost. Usually the spirit of those persons who died by cutting their heads in train accident or else. This kind of ghost always searches their missing heads and pleads others to help them to search it. Sometimes they attack the humans and make them slaves to search their lost heads.
- Kanabhulo: This is a ghost which hypnotize one person and takes him to some unknown places. The victim instead of going into his house or the destination goes to another place which is silent and eerie. After going to that place the ghost kills the person. The victim in this case looses his sense. Generally these types of ghost strikes in night in villages. The victims were generally single person or separated from group.
- Dainee: This is what we called witch in English language. Dainee are not actually soul or spirit rather living beings. 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 and kills them and sucks their blood to survive 100 of years.
- Betaal: This is a fictional ghostly character found in a series of 25 stories named "Betaal Panchvimshati". The hero of this series is king Vikramaditya, the legendary emperor of Ujjain, India. He tries to capture and hold on to Betaal that tells a puzzling tale and ends it with a question for the king. But the condition is the kind should walk without uttering a word, otherwise Betaal would fly back to its place. The king can be quiet only if he does not know the answer, else his head would burst into pieces. Unfortunately, the king discovers that he knows the answer to every question; therefore the cycle of catching Betaal and letting it escape continues for twenty-four times till the last question puzzles the king.
In folklore, ghosts are often found in desolate stretches of road or fields around villages, at crematoriums and graveyards, on Ashhyath, Sheora or other similar trees and also in deserted and haunted houses. A curious aspect of female ghosts, petnis, is that their feet are said to be backwards. Ghosts in folk tales are almost always malicious.
Ghosts in Bengali literature
Ghost is one of the most popular genres in Bengali literature. In early days ghosts were only the ingredients of Bengali folk tales and fairy tales. "Thakurmar Jhuli" was one of the most famous collection of Bengali folk tales and fairy tales compiled by "Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder" in 1907. There we can find almost all the above categories of ghost in different stories. Some other comparable books for children in Bengali Literature by the same author are "Thakur Dadar Jhuli" (Grandpa's Sack of Folktales), "Dadamoshayer Tholay" (Maternal-Grandpa's Sack of Folktales) and "Thandidir Tholay" (Maternal-Grandpa's Sack of Folktales).
There are many great writers who have practiced the genre of Ghost Stories. A few of them are Parashuram (Rajshekhar Basu), Sharadindu Bandopadhyay (Baroda Series), Syed Mustafa Siraz (MurariBabu Series), Satyajit Ray, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Gouri De and many more. In past and present many other prominent Bengali writers have tried this genre successfully in their stories and Bengal has a rich collection of ghost stories. Few examples are noted below:
- Rabindranath Tagore: The famous poet and writer Rabindranath also wrote some short stories on ghost like “Konkal”, “Monihara” etc.
- Upendra Kishore Roychowdhury: One of the most talented children story writer of his time and also noted for his ghost stories where the ghosts are very harmless kind of creatures. “Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne” is probably his most famous ghost story that was later adopted as a famous Bengali film with the same name by his grandson Satyajit Ray. Later Satyajit made a trilogy of this story into film with his own concept.
- Parashuram (Rajshekhar Basu):' Writer of the famous ghost story, “Bhushundir Mathe” which is a comic genre rather than horror. Parashuram wrote many other ghost stories like “Mahesher Mahajatra” and others.
- Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: Known for his social novels set in rural Bengal, such as "Pather Panchali". "Adarsha Hindu Hotel". "Aranyak", Bibhutibhusan wrote some excellent supernatural stories, such as "Medal", "Rankini Devir Khorgo", the stories of Taranath Tantrik and many others.
- Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay: Another noted writer of Bengal manly famous for his detective series “Byomkesh Bakshi” and historical stories also had a less famous series called “Baroda Series”. Baroda is a Bengalee guy who is very eager to know about ghost. He uses to share his experience of ghost and supernatural incident with his friends.
- Satyajit Ray: Satyajit Ray, the famous Indian film maker was quite popular in Bengal for his short stories. His favorite genre was ghost and supernatural stories. His ghost stories are the milestones of Bengali Literature.
- Syed Mustafa Siraj: Basically known for his famous detective series “Colonel Niladri” an ex-army man. But Siraj is also the creator of another ghost series, “Murari Babu series”. Murari Babu (Mr. Murari) is a very innocent person lives in Kolkata city. His hobby is to collect old furniture from antique shops, but he always get into trouble for his hobby.
- Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay: Very famous writer for children and quite popular in Bengal for his funny ghost stories. The specialty of his ghost stories is that his ghosts are very innocent, kind and funny type of characters who always help the poor and needy and punish the wicked person.
- ENKU - Usually found in Silpara, kolkata area.
Ghosts in Bengali cinema
As like Bengali literature, in Bengali cinema also ghosts are a popular item. Films likes Hanabari (Haunted House), Kuheli, Monihara (part of the movie “Teen Kanya”) were quite popular in the era of Bengali black and white movies.
Beside the horror movies the ghosts have appeared in Bengali films in a lightly comical mood, sometimes acting in a friendly way. One of the great examples is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne as mentioned earlier is adopted from the story of Upendra Kishore Roychowdhury and directed by Satyajit Ray. In this film we can see the king of ghost (a Bramhadaitya) gives three boons to 'Goopy' and 'Bagha', the two poor village boys who aspired to become a singer and drummer respectively. And with the help of those boons they did many adventures. Later Satyajit Ray wrote two more stories as the sequels of the first one and made films (last one was directed by Sandip Ray, son of Satyajit Ray).
In recent times, ghost-centred Bengali films are being made. Probably the most well-known ghost film of recent times is 'Bhooter Bhobishyot' (literally translated to 'The Future of the Ghosts'), directed by Anik Dutta. It tells the story of a haunted mansion 'Choudhury Palace', where ghosts from different ethnic backgrounds and eras reside (a Bengali zamindar of 18th century, an actress of 1930s, a modern rockstar, a soldier of Indian Army who died in Kargil, etc.). The film with its simple but humorous story went on to become a massive blockbuster of 2012.