Courtesy of Rakesh Khanna/Illustration by Appupen
Halloween parties have become quite popular these days in many parts of India, though there’s no real tradition of trick or treat. But that’s not for want of ghosts.
Rakesh Khanna found this out while researching what might be the first-ever illustrated A-Z guide to the “Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India.” The book, co-edited with J. Furcifer Bhairav, has 322 entries, Khanna said, but with subcategories, there are probably about 700 ghosts, monsters and demons in there.
Courtesy of Rakesh Khanna/Illustration by Appupen
The book begins with the Aavi of South India, which represents the sigh that leaves the body at the moment of death — and lingers on as a ghost. It ends with the Zunhindawt from Mizoram, in northeastern India, who has the disgusting habit of drinking from puddles of other people’s urine.
And readers keep sending in new ghosts and monsters, so a second edition might well be ghostlier.
Khanna, who grew up in California and now lives in Chennai, India, is the founder of an indie publication house called Blaft that specializes in translating and publishing pulp fiction. It was while putting together an anthology of Tamil pulp fiction that Khanna noticed different kinds of demons in local folktales, demons that were very specific to the area. He said he was reminded of “the role-playing games in the monster manuals like ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’” that he remembers from childhood.
Western ghosts, he realized, are very different creatures from their Indian counterparts.
For one, ghosts from the West tend to “wispy, transparent things that float around in the dark. They don’t really interact with matter that much.”
On the other hand, you can touch and feel many Indian ghosts. They pick things up. They even work — sometimes doing the work of 10 men, Khanna said.
His ghost encyclopedia, for example, includes the Deyyam, which can extend its “glistening, prehensile pink muscle into another room to adjust the volume on a radio, or to turn off the gas burner of a stove,” Khanna wrote.
One can even get down and dirty with some of these ghosts. The Barambha, a tall, handsome white ghost from the Worli tribe of western India, can make love to a woman even while she’s lying next to her husband. Worli legend ascribes children with albinism to the Barambha.
Courtesy of Rakesh Khanna/Illusration by Appupen.
The other thing that distinguishes Indian ghosts from the Caspers and Moaning Myrtles of the West is the sheer regional diversity. Ghosts from the chilly mountains of Kashmir wear fur caps; mechhobhoots from Bengal, a land of rivers, love fish, while the islands of the Indian Ocean are the romping grounds of the Faru Fureta, the reef monster that smells of “stinky, old sponges and corals and eats people and has crystal daggers for teeth.”
Centuries of sea trade and migration meant Indian ghosts have spread to parts of Southeast Asia. The beautiful Mohini Pey of Tamil Nadu in southern India smells of jasmine flowers but sucks the life out of anyone she bewitches. Now, she appears across the oceans, Khanna said, and “you have Mohini Peys in Singapore, and Tamil ghosts have appeared recently in the folklore of Malaysia and Singapore.”
He points to witches with detachable heads like the Than-Thin Daini of northeastern India, which appears to be quite similar to the Krasue of Thailand and the Ap of Cambodia.
The Ghost A-Z also reflects disquieting social truths such as witch hunts, that go way back. The Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, who lived in Delhi from 1334 to 1341, witnessed the trial of a woman accused of cannibalizing a boy. She was pushed into the river with jars tied to her limbs. When she floated, it was ruled that she was a witch and she was burned to death. Khanna said it was probably not uncommon to brand an older woman as a witch as a way to seize her property. Not too surprisingly, many ghosts are murdered women, he said, who “take revenge on the people who did them wrong.”
Waves of invaders and migrants have also brought their own ghosts and monsters to India to add to its necro-diversity. There are 2,000-year-old statues of yakshas, supernatural deities leftover from some pre-Hindu animist faith. Muslim rulers brought djinns and ifrits, winged beings who breathe flames.
Courtesy of Rakesh Khanna/Illustration by Shyam
The British brought their white, wispy forlorn ghosts with them. Khanna said there are several famous stories of “Britishers who died here whose spirits linger.”
Like Owen Tomkinson, a soldier who died of cholera in 1906, and still, like a good Englishman, rises from the grave and demands tea and biscuits from people passing by.
Then, there are ultramodern ghosts like Rose, a model employee on the night shift at a call center near Delhi. One day she gathered her things and left the office never to come back. When the employers investigated, they found no Rose at the address she had given. Later they found out their office was built on top of a cemetery where Rose had been buried eight years earlier. But while modernity might have given us a Rose or two, in general, it’s not a good time for ghosts, Khanna said.
“A lot of people say that electric lights have driven them away.”
But with 700 ghosts and monsters, there’s still plenty roaming around India. And Khanna’s Halloween costume choices at least are a lot richer. But he said he’ll probably keep it simple.
“I might just go with being a yeti,” he laughed. “Get a big, hairy costume and some stilts.”
Even there, he's spoiled for choice. According to “Ghosts Monsters and Demons of India,” there are about half a dozen kinds of yetis, big and small, to choose from.