Ghost stories find fertile ground in Indian city of Calcutta

Reportsof haunted buildings and ghoul sightings abound in a city with many old colonial-era structures and a rich literary tradition

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 2:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 6:07pm


Rumours swept Calcutta this year that a runaway boy spent the night beside a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy in the Indian Museum, a building with a reputation for being haunted.

The local media wrote it up, and a crowd, including some worried that the youngster had been possessed by ghosts, mobbed India's oldest museum demanding better security.

With passions running high, West Bengal state authorities investigated. "We checked all the closed-circuit TV cameras, gave them to the police," said museum geologist Tanuja Ghosh. "Sure, sometimes night guards hear something, some creaking, it's an old building. But this business about a small boy, it was false information."

Everyone loves a good ghost story, but Calcutta, the former capital of British India, is particularly fertile ground for the creepy, eerie and supernatural. Magazines publish lists of haunted buildings. Planchettes, also known as seances, have a long history, enjoyed by the likes of beloved native son, poet and 1913 Nobel literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The ghost belief is stronger [in Calcutta] than almost anywhere else in India

"The ghost belief is stronger here than almost anywhere else in India," said Soumen Kotal, co-founder of the Calcutta-based Paranormal Research Society of India, which investigates ghost claims. "The city is very old, and traditions come with that."

Bengalis have at least 15 words for ghosts based on the spirit's caste, marital status, behaviour and the fate suffered in the pre-paranormal past. Some look like forest owls, others enjoy eating fish or stealing from you. Still others lure you to your death by feigning the voice of your lover, have backward-facing feet or drift past without heads.

"I'd want a rich, handsome ghost," said Aditi Basu Roy, a reporter with the Bengali-language Sangbad Pratidin newspaper and an avid believer. "These headless ghosts are no good, although maybe they can use sign language."

Her colleague in the windowless newsroom, reporter Debdutta Gupta, estimates that 70 per cent of Bengalis believe in ghosts. The city's spirits like to stay in one place, he said, such as old buildings or trees. "Most don't travel," Gupta opined, "although a few take the train, mostly third-class."

Residents offer various theories on why the city seems so haunted. Some cite the many decrepit buildings of this once-glorious capital of the British Raj. Others chalk it up to a large number of famines, disease and unnatural deaths in the region.

Rationalists say it's a reflection of West Bengal state's literary traditions and love of storytelling.

"Ghost myths are so prevalent because everyone told us as kids that ghosts would come if we didn't eat our food," said Harish Ramchandani, steward at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club.

"The only ghost walking around these parts is Johnnie Walker," quipped general manager Robin Corner over lunch at the club's posh dining room.

For India's majority Hindu community, which believes in reincarnation, ghosts are seen as unfortunate souls caught between lives because of a sin committed by or against them. The Garuda Purana manuscript, believed written between 3000BC and 1500BC, lists 17 types of ghosts and how they became so, including the notion that many choose to lurk where "falsehood and ignominy" exist.

Adding to the Indian Museum's infamous reputation are tales of marching-boot sounds at night attributed to the restless spirits of Indian freedom fighters detained in the administration building by the British in the early 20th century.

"People spend a lot of money to get rid of ghosts so they don't come again," said Chaitali Roy Chowdhury, the museum's zoologist. "India is backwards, it's all rubbish. I don't believe in ghosts, although I do believe in unfulfilled spirits."

Joining the Indian Museum on the city's haunted-house list are several British Empire-era buildings whose distressed former occupants are said to hold eerie classical concerts, ride diaphanous coaches and attend ethereal dinner parties.

Some say the 236-year-old Writers' Building is haunted by unhappy writers who died young. Then there's a famous old peepul tree, whose branches Bengali ghosts are said to enjoy lounging in.

Also on the list is Rabindra Sarovar metro station, also known as "Suicide Paradise", where it is claimed spirits can be seen riding the last train. About 75 per cent of those who take their own lives in the subway system reportedly do so in this station.