Of ghosts and other matters
Bokshis and churels, Ban Jhakri who kidnaps boys and Lindini Mao who eats them – Himalayan settlements are full of stories of spirits and paranormal experiences. Indranee Ghosh recalls tales of possession and exorcism
‘When the brain fever birds wailed in the silence of the night, we were shushed by our mothers for it was a bad omen for children, who were especial targets of the Lord of the forest. It was not just a ploy to frighten children to sleep. All this was part of our daily life and we believed in them as we did in ourselves.’
In this lay the substance of Unsung Stories of the Darjeeling Hills, a minor research project I embarked upon in 2010, with a handful of post graduate students and a colleague in Darjeeling Government College.
Tea at my apartment with students on cold, dreary evenings brought out their stories, frequently about paranormal experiences and the firm belief they held - regardless of their official religions - in what is called the Third Kingdom. Frankly, I was fascinated and thought it might be fun to do a project on this aspect of hill folk culture.
For our field of research, we chose Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mahanadi, and Takdah and Teesta Valley. There was a reason for this choice: Kalimpong was chiefly settled in by migrants from Tibet, and contained recorded folklore intermixed with Buddhist teaching; the native Lepchas, with a rich literary heritage, extended from Sikkim to the hills that now form part of Bengal. Kurseong and Takdah consisted of migrants from Nepal, who crossed treacherous snow-covered mountain paths and impenetrable forests to find some means of employment in the Darjeeling hills, either as tea garden and cinchona plantation workers, or in serving the British army. Their folklore is purely oral. Our research assistants travelled to remote villages, where the forest was a dominant living presence, interviewed people and recorded their stories, which were then translated and edited.
The stories from Kalimpong revealed the creative imagination of well-settled tribes, who wove stories around the rivers, plants and insects as they enjoyed the bounty of the land. Undivided Sikkim is, in fact, viewed by them as ‘a lost Paradise’. The following Lepcha lore is about how the Teesta got its name.
Mount Tendong stands at 8,675 feet in South Sikkim, a mountain venerated by the Lepchas. The legend goes that the two rivers descending from Mount Tendong - Rangnyoo and Rangeet - were lovers who agreed to meet at the foothills of the Himalayas. Rangeet, the male, was guided by the bird, Tut Fo and Rangnyoo, the female, was guided by the snake, Paril Bo. Tut Fo would stop at several places for food and sometimes flew off course and took a long time to reach the appointed place, Panzaok, meaning a dense forest in Lepcha. Today, it is called by its corrupted name, Peshok, near Teesta Bazar. If one notices the course of the Rangeet one will see that it is marked by several zigzags, while the Rangnyoo follows a straight course. Rangnyoo took no time at all to reach their rendezvous. By the time Rangeet came there Rangnyoo was already waiting, which embarrassed him deeply. Filled with shame he exclaimed, “Thi sa tha?” (“When did you arrive?”). A corruption of this led to the name, Teesta.(As told by Rosy Chamling)
Takdah and Mahanadi offer a different tone:
When the hills of Darjeeling were sparsely populated and the land covered with dense forests life was very different from what it is now. The forest was not only a source of fuel and food but also a sanctuary of faith filled with mystery. People still believe that the forest is guarded by supernatural beings. They come in various guises: as the old woman, Buri Boju, or the short young man in a white robe and beads called Ban Jhakri. Ban Jhakri is a friendly being with magical healing powers who is known to abduct young boys to his forest to teach them the art of healing. Such boys return after a few years as shamans. However, Ban Jhakri has an ill-tempered wife called Lidini Mao, who is evil incarnate. She is constantly on the lookout for the boys brought in by her husband, and if she can find them, she kills them and feasts on their flesh. But Ban Jhakri is clever and knows how to protect his disciples. Once the lessons are over, he returns the boys to the place from where he had taken them. There are also the devis in glittering dresses and jewellery, who look like teenage girls. Some of them carry wicker baskets on their backs. They can be seen near the devisthan, or the shrine of the devis, when they go into the forest to fetch wood or grass.(As told by Deepjoy Katuwal, Takdah and Teesta Valley).
The streams in the forests are places where gods and spirits roam. They belong to the gods, as do crops such as millet, ginger, chilli, cardamom and turmeric, which men are forbidden to grow. These things belong to the Ouvali and Oudhouli gods, spirits who reign in the hills and the plains. Men, however, did not heed their words and made the spirits angry until they came to a compromise where it was decided that if men grew the forbidden crops, they would always make an offering to the divine first.
The gods are known by different names, Subba Subbani, Panther Pantherni, Buri Boju and the subordinate spirits, Shikari (hunters) who patrol the area and protect the subjects. Trespassers are hunted down with bow and arrow. Their chief wades in the stream, walks the ground and flies seated on a bird. He plays with the flowers and feeds on the fruit. The homeless spirits are also sheltered in his kingdom. If rules are broken and the stability is disturbed, the trespasser is punished severely.
(As told by Karun Pradhan, Mahanadi).
Once the stories of actual paranormal experiences related to these spirits were put in writing they formed a pattern, which led to a method of reading. Take for instance, stories of hunting; and of possession and exorcism.
There is no story of a successful hunt: In Mahanadi, Tek couldn’t bring himself to shoot a deer because it suddenly changed into a handsome young man; pheasant hunting also became impossible because the bird changed into another being once targeted, and something pushed the hunters out of the forest; Chandrabir and Saila found a beautiful boy with flowing hair in the snare they had laid for porcupine, which was enough to stop them from further attempts. When Birkhey, in Takdah, ignored the warning and shot the deer he was aiming at, his little son, who hero-worshipped him, died of a sudden pain in his heart far away in his village.
Yet, Birkhey’s gun had belonged to his father and his grandfather before that and they had hunted in the same forest without untoward incident. Circumstances, however, were different then: hunting was necessary for sustenance. By Birkhey’s time hunting had become a sport and the forest ran the danger of being depleted of life. Further, the silence and serenity of the forest needed preservation, too, and demanded respect: when children on their way back from school filled the forest path with loud shouts of hilarity stones and rocks hurtled down towards them from nowhere. No one was hurt but it was enough to make them tone down their voices after that. There could be a rational explanation for the hurtling rocks but what is important here is the lesson.
The stories of possession and exorcism involve female spirits, most of them powerful or monstrous, but for the Bokshi and the Churel, who are the saddest. The Bokshi is a changeling, perhaps a neighbour’s wife, or a housewife in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. At night she changes into a large bird or a black cat and ventures out ‘looking for prey’. This might sound like a housewife’s dream but she is feared, being ‘capable of evil’ though it is unclear of what kind: in one story she becomes a vulture, in others, a cat who raids the milk man’s store. She is caught easily, too, with a wicker basket and her identity exposed in the morning, to her shame.
The Churel is ‘the spirit of a young girl who dies before she has fulfilled her desires’. In life she may have suffered injustice; in death she takes revenge. Bedumaya, pregnant, abandoned, ostracised, drowns herself, and thereafter sits on a rock in the forest to entice the lone traveller, and ‘possesses’ young girls in her village, who go berserk at a certain hour of the evening. The unnamed Churel, with whom Deepjoy’s uncle from Takdah fell in love and was wasting away, haunted a public toilet in Darjeeling.
The social context of such stories is hard to ignore, particularly that of women within a closed community. ‘Possession’ seems often a manifestation of rebellion and frustration. The shaman ‘cures’ these ills with methods sometimes extreme but invariably successful in taming the living and banishing the dead. Usually of a lower caste, he does not cross the threshold but he is still above the lowest. The last battle occurs between the lower caste male and the female spirit, and he wins – and preserves patriarchy.
Indranee Ghosh is the author of Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved; Recipes and Reminiscences from India’s Eastern Hills.