An encyclopedia of India's ghosts, demons and monsters, Blaft's latest goes beyond scary stories and macabre myths
'We're hardwired to tell ghost stories,' says Rakesh Khanna of Blaft Publications, who has co-authored the encyclopedia.
Ghosts, demons and myths are as old as civilisation in India. Belief and superstition drive most of these stories that are also symbolic of how we, as a people, understand mythology and spirituality. Co-founder of Blaft and co-author of the book Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India, Rakesh Khanna discussed writing a book that was as hard to research as it seemed infinite in scope and its social and spiritual implications.
Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India is described as "an encyclopedia of evil entities and folkloric fiends from across the country, from Ladakh to Kerala, Lakshadweep to Nagaland, Naraka to Tuchenkwaka" and features illustrations by Appupen, Priya Kuriyan and Samita Chatterjee, among others. It also includes poetry by Joseph Furtado and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. J Furcifer Bhairav ao-authors the book with Khanna.
This book immediately sounds like lots and lots of research. For a country that is poor even in its archiving of history of the living, where and how does one even begin with ghosts? What were your greatest challenges?
I think the greatest challenge was forcing ourselves to stop. We kept finding out about new legends and new cryptids and new ghostly characters that just had to be included.
There are a lot of books from the British period that catalogue ghosts and demons — some by foreigners, like Edgar Thurston's Castes and Tribes of Southern India, and others by Indians, like Benudhar Rajkhowa's Assamese Demonology. We used those lists as a baseline, and then went to more recent anthropological research. We looked at pulp fiction and movies, and then at sites like YouTube and Quora and Facebook where you have all kinds of citizen folklorists posting the stories their grandmothers told them. We also bugged people we met at book events — I must have pestered hundreds of people who bought Blaft books at Comic Con for their favourite ghost story from their native place.
Oral histories account for a large part of the many fiends that, as you say, populate Indian culture. What part has religion played in the survival of these narratives (granted that it is in most cases also the author)? Is it as simple saying, rationale would wipe them out?
Oh, I don't think there's much of a line between religion and oral history or folklore, they're all mixed up together. Just because some of the stories have been codified and written down and printed, and people call them sacred texts or mythology, doesn't make them very qualitatively different from oral legends of local demons and ghosts.
Humans will always tell ghost stories. We're hard-wired. Even if some huge rationalist movement happens and everybody becomes an atheist, we'll still produce monster movies and horror fiction.
Were there ghosts or characters here that you wished you could get more information on and research further, but for a lack of sources? If so which ones?
Oh, lots. The folklore from the Andaman Islands, for one — a lot of that mythology has probably died out, but we included whatever we could find of the demons of Pucikwar and Onge folklore, and it's super amazing. Onge cosmology has 13 planes of existence, with humans living in the middle one, and different sorts of ghostly beings populating each plane. Sometimes some of them visit the human plane and try to eat us.
Another entity I find really interesting is Swkal. That's the Kokborok word, from Tripura. It's a sort of demonic force that possesses people, and once they're possessed they become a Swkaljwk. The Swkaljwk (it's usually a she) casts evil curses on people with her eyes. She usually manages to go undetected, but sometimes her limbs and neck get all disjointed, so they can all rotate 360 degrees, and she starts crawling around like a crazy spider. The Garos of Meghalaya call a similar demon Skal, and the Dimasa call it Sakainjeek. The Garo version can turn herself into a giant demonic firefly with a long tongue, and it has contagious saliva that can turn other people into Skals. There's a common thread through all of these that the Swkal — the force itself, not the possessed humans — is a set of seven sisters. There's a goddess called Swkalmwtai who is sort of a tutelary deity to these Swkal, and who is again sometimes referred to as being sevenfold in nature. She's also associated with the highest mountains of the Himalayas. There's not a lot written about these legends, at least not much that we managed to find in English, and I'd love to read more.
What fraction of this imagination/belief, while you were putting together this book seemed like the work of men? A lot of ghost stories I heard growing up, were a version of the churail (now an insult), for example. Is there a common thread across languages in this context?
Well, there's definitely a degree of misogyny in the witch legends. In the real world, women are more often victims of witch hunts and witch murders — although men are sometimes targeted too. That said, I think it's roughly 50-50 in terms of the gender of the demons, and also (I imagine, though I can't be sure) in the gender of the storytellers that have kept these tales alive.
How do you see these stories translating across cultural and language borders. Is there for example, something more common in the Hindi belt, or something peculiar about the stories of the east?
Well, for example, your standard Hindi-heartland style bhoot is well known over most of the country, but they change a little bit with geography. Like the Telugu Deyyam is more or less like a bhoot, but while a bhoot can stretch its arms really far, the Deyyam tends to do that with its tongue.
A lot of the spirits and demons of the Hindi belt are familiar from Hindu stories — they are the nagas and rakshasas and asuras of the epics and puranas, of Doordarshan and Amar Chitra Katha comics. Our book mentions those, but we don't spend a lot of time on them - their stories are usually the stories of the gods who defeated them, and we didn't want to make a book on Hindu mythology.
As for North East India, we love how almost every state and tribe has a legend of a gigantic monster that demands regular human sacrifice and is eventually defeated by a hero wielding a magic weapon. For the Khasis it's U Thlen, the bloodthirsty dragon; for the Garos it's Wakmanggochi Aragondi, the seven-headed boar demon; for the Lepchas it's Laso Mung Pano, the shapeshifting king of the Mung; in Manipur it's Paubi Lai, the serpent demon of Loktak Lake. Most of these monsters are said to have created the hills and valleys when they were thrashing around in their death throes.
The scope of the book is vast, ranging from Ashwatthama to Monkey Man, the ancient to the modern. What does this incredibly vast timeline of myths, their survival especially say of our social fabric and our understanding of the spiritual?
Like I said, we're hard-wired to tell horror stories. We've probably been doing it since before we were properly human, before we had anything like a proper language. We all remember the thrill of the scary stories that freaked us out when we were young, and those of us who have children usually pass those stories on.
It would be hard to pick one, because a lot of these stories are intriguing. But what was the one lesser-known tale that really spooked you or piqued your interest and why?
Okay, I'll pick one, the Bhoota Vahana Yantra, or "spirit movement machines", which were said to have guarded the relics of the Buddha in Pataliputra. This story dates from around the 11th century or earlier. It first shows up in a book written by a Burmese fellow named Saddhammaghosa, but it's about flying drone assassin ghost-robots built with stolen Roman engineering technology that were installed in a stupa in what's now Bihar. They were eventually defeated by Ashoka the Great. This story completely blew my mind.