I watched my father’s expression change as I asked him about Bhoot Chaturdashi. I had been asking him a varied questions about Bengali culture since I wrote about forgetting my mother tongue, but this was a little out-there even for me. It didn’t help that Dad’s among the faint-hearted who steer clear anything near the horror genre.
So what exactly is Bhoot Chaturdashi? The more I learnt, the deeper my fascination ran. It turns out that Indians had their very known version of Halloween much before the holiday became fashionable in India, making its way around circles that would jump at the opportunity to throw a theme party. In Bengal’s rich and storied folklore, this night before Kali Puja is dedicated to spirits. And our very own array of homegrown bhoots with their unique personalities and quirks can more than hold their own against the pop culture demons and ghosties from American films.
The when, where and what of Bhoot Chaturdashi
Like Halloween, Bhoot Chaturdashi is the day Bengalis believe that the veil between our world and the afterlife is thin, when ghosts and spirits—specifically their forefathers—roam the earth. There’s no trick-or-treating, Jack-o’-lanterns or get-togethers in monstrous costumes, though. Instead, there are rituals, traditions and a library worth of ghost stories.
Celebrated on the 14th day of Krishna Paksha (the waning phase of the moon) on the eve of Kali Pujo or Diwali (which fall on Saturday, 14 November, in 2020), Bhoot Chaturdashi is the day when Bengalis light 14 earthen lamps at their doors to guide the spirits of 14 generations of their forefathers (Choddo Purush) home and ward off evil spirits. Every dark corner of the house is illuminated. And to keep possession of their bodies by these entities at bay, they eat 14 different kinds of leafy greens (Choddo Shaak) on the day—a much tastier alternative to pumpkin spice latte, I’d say.
Bhoot Chaturdashi is also known as Naraka Chaturdashi. In Hindu mythology, this is the day when the combined forces of Lord Krishna, Satyabhama and Goddess Kali destroyed the powerful demon Narakasura.
Given how integral these spectres are to Bengali folklore, it makes sense that there’s a day commemorating them. In fact, ghosts are known by so many names and characteristics in the region. There’s one, the Mechho Bhoot, that likes to eat fish—a true Bengali at heart. Petnis are female ghosts who died unmarried or with unsatisfied desires. Daittyo appear human-like but are gigantic in comparison and unbelievably strong. Nishis are night spirits that lure victims to a secluded spot by calling out to them with the voice of a loved one. Brahmodaittyo are the kind, generous ghosts of Brahmins. Gechho bhoot are the ghosts that live in trees, and Mamdo bhoot, the spirits of Muslims. All according to legend. Of course.
Now, as I write this with an episode of Supernatural playing in the background, Sam and Dean (the main characters) on the hunt for evil spirits, it’s a wonderfully satisfying feeling to read all about the motley crew of spirits that emerge on Bhoot Chaturdashi. I may have an irrational annoyance towards the American import of Halloween, but its Indian counterpart seems far more intriguing (that may just be my Bengali roots speaking). Dad may just have some ghost stories coming his way…