Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

Haunted Villages

On the 16th[1] we came on nine miles to Amabāi, the frontier village of the Jhānsī territory, bordering upon Datiyā,[2] where I had to receive the farewell visits of many members of the Jhānsī parties, who came on to have a quiet opportunity to assure me that, whatever may be the final order of the Supreme Government, they will do their best for the good of the people and the state; for I have always considered Jhānsī among the native states of Bundēlkhand as a kind of oasis in the desert, the only one in which a man can accumulate property with the confidence of being permitted by its rulers freely to display and enjoy it.


I had also to receive the visit of messengers from the Rājā of Datiyā, at whose capital we were to encamp the next day, and, finally, to take leave of my amiable little friend the Sarīmant, who here left me on his return to Sāgar, with a heavy heart I really believe.


We talked of the common belief among the agricultural classes of villages being haunted by the spirits of ancient proprietors whom it was thought necessary to propitiate. 'He knew', he said, 'many instances where these spirits were so very froward that the present heads of villages which they haunted, and the members of their little communities, found it almost impossible to keep them in good humour; and their cattle and children were, in consequence, always liable to serious accidents of one kind or another.


Sometimes they were bitten by snakes, sometimes became possessed by devils, and, at others, were thrown down and beaten most unmercifully. Any person who falls down in an epileptic fit is supposed to be thrown down by a ghost, or possessed by a devil.[3] They feel little of our mysterious dread of ghosts; a sound drubbing is what they dread from them, and he who hurts himself in one of the fits is considered to have got it.


'As for himself, whenever he found any one of the villages upon his estate haunted by the spirit of an old "patēl" (village proprietor), he always made a point of giving him a neat little shrine, and having it well endowed and attended, to keep him in good humour; this he thought was a duty that every landlord owed to his tenants.' Rāmchand, the pundit, said that 'villages which had been held by old Gond (mountaineer) proprietors were more liable than any other to those kinds of visitations; that it was easy to say what village was and was not haunted, but often exceedingly difficult to discover to whom the ghost belonged.


'This once discovered, his nearest surviving relation was, of course, expected to take steps to put him to rest; but', said he, 'it is wrong to suppose that the ghost of an old proprietor must be always doing mischief—he is often the best friend of the cultivators, and of the present proprietor too, if he treats him with proper respect; for he will not allow the people of any other village to encroach upon their boundaries with impunity, and they will be saved all the expense and annoyance of a reference to the "adālat" (judicial tribunals) for the settlement of boundary disputes. It will not cost much to conciliate these spirits, and the money is generally well laid out.'


Several anecdotes were told me in illustration; and all that I could urge against the probability or possibility of such Visitation appeared to them very inconclusive and unsatisfactory. They mentioned the case of the family of village proprietors in the Sāgar district, who had for several generations, at every new settlement, insisted upon having the name of the spirit of the old proprietor inserted in the lease instead of their own, and thereby secured his good graces on all occasions.


Mr. Fraser had before mentioned this case to me. In August, 1834, while engaged in the settlement of the land revenue of the Sāgar district for twenty years, he was about to deliver the lease of the estate made out in due form to the head of the family, a very honest and respectable old gentleman, when he asked him respectfully in whose name it had been made out.


'In yours, to be sure; have you not renewed your lease for twenty years?' The old man, in a state of great alarm, begged him to have it altered immediately, or he and his family would all be destroyed—that the spirit of the ancient proprietor presided over the village community and its interests, and that all affairs of importance were transacted is his name.


'He is', said the old man, 'a very jealous spirit, and will not admit of any living man being considered for a moment as a proprietor or joint proprietor of the estate. It has been held by me and my ancestors immediately under Government for many generations; but the lease deeds have always been made out in his name, and ours have been inserted merely as his managers or bailiffs—were this good old rule, under which we have so long prospered, to be now infringed, we should all perish under his anger.'


Mr. Fraser found, upon inquiring, that this had really been the case; and, to relieve the old man and his family from their fears, he had the papers made out afresh, and the ghost inserted as the proprietor. The modes of flattering and propitiating these beings, natural and supernatural, who are supposed to have the power to do mischief, are endless.[4]


While I was in charge of the district of Narsinghpur, in the valley of the Nerbudda, in 1823, a cultivator of the village of Bēdū, about twelve miles distant from my court, was one day engaged in the cultivation of his field on the border of the village of Barkharā, which was supposed to be haunted by the spirit of an old proprietor, whose temper was so froward and violent that the lands could hardly be let for anything, for hardly any man would venture to cultivate them lest he might unintentionally incur his ghostship's displeasure.


The poor cultivator, after begging his pardon in secret, ventured to drive his plough a few yards beyond the proper line of his boundary, and thus add half an acre of Barkharā to his own little tenement, which was situated in Bēdū. That very night his only son was bitten by a snake, and his two bullocks were seized with the murrain.


In terror he went of to the village temple, confessed his sin, and vowed, not only to restore the half-acre of land to the village of Barkharā, but to build a very handsome shrine upon the spot as a perpetual sign of his repentance. The boy and the bullocks all three recovered, and the shrine was built; and is, I believe, still to be seen as the boundary mark.


The fact was that the village stood upon an elevated piece of ground rising out of a moist plain, and a colony of snakes had taken up their abode in it. The bites of these snakes had on many occasions proved fatal, and such accidents were all attributed to the anger of a spirit which was supposed to haunt the village.


At one time, under the former government, no one would take a lease of the village on any terms, and it had become almost entirely deserted, though the soil was the finest in the whole district. With a view to remove the whole prejudices of the people, the governor, Goroba Pundit, took the lease himself at the rent of one thousand rupees a year; and, in the month of June, went from his residence, twelve miles, with ten of his own ploughs to superintend the commencement of so perilous an undertaking.


On reaching the middle of the village, situated on the top of the little hill, he alighted from his horse, sat down upon a carpet that had been spread for him under a large and beautiful banyan-tree, and began to refresh himself with a pipe before going to work in the fields. As he quaffed his hookah, and railed at the follies of the men, 'whose absurd superstitions had made them desert so beautiful a village with so noble a tree in its centre', his eyes fell upon an enormous black snake, which had coiled round one of its branches immediately over his head, and seemed as if resolved at once to pounce down and punish him for his blasphemy.


He gave his pipe to his attendant, mounted his horse, from which the saddle had not yet been taken, and never pulled rein till he got home. Nothing could ever induce him to visit this village again, though he was afterwards employed under me as a native collector; and he has often told me that he verily believed this was the spirit of the old landlord that he had unhappily neglected to propitiate before taking possession.


My predecessor in the civil charge of that district, the late Mr. Lindsay of the Bengal Civil Service, again tried to remove the prejudices of the people against the occupation and cultivation of this fine village. It had never been measured, and all the revenue officers, backed by all the farmers and cultivators of the neighbourhood, declared that the spirit of the old proprietor would never allow it to be so.


Mr. Lindsay was a good geometrician, and had long been in the habit of superintending his revenue surveys himself, and on this occasion be thought himself particularly called upon to do so. A new measuring cord was made for the occasion, and, with fear and trembling, all his officers attended him to the first field; but in measuring it the rope, by some accident, broke.


Poor Lindsay was that morning taken ill and obliged to return to Narsinghpur, where he died soon after from fever. No man was ever more beloved by all classes of the people of his district than he was; and I believe there was not one person among them who did not believe him to have fallen a victim to the resentment of the spirit of the old proprietor. When I went to the village some years afterwards, the people in the neighbourhood all declared to me that they saw the cord with which he was measuring fly into a thousand pieces the moment the men attempted to straighten it over the first field.[5]


A very respectable old gentleman from the Concan, or Malabar coast,[6] told me one day that every man there protects his field of corn and his fruit-tree by dedicating it to one or other of the spirits which there abound, or confiding it to his guardianship. He sticks up something in the field, or ties on something to the tree, in the name of the said spirit, who from that moment feels himself responsible for its safe keeping. If any one, without permission from the proprietor, presumes to take either an ear of corn from the field, or fruit from the tree, he is sure to be killed outright, or made extremely ill.


'No other protection is required', said the old gentleman, 'for our fields and fruit-trees in that direction, though whole armies should have to march through them.'


I once saw a man come to the proprietor of a jack-tree,[7] embrace his feet, and in the most piteous manner implore his protection. He asked what was the matter.


'I took', said the man, 'a jack from your tree yonder three days ago, as I passed at night; and I have been suffering dreadful agony in my stomach ever since. The spirit of the tree is upon me, and you only can pacify him.'


The proprietor took up a bit of cow-dung, moistened it, and made a mark with it upon the man's forehead, in the name of the spirit, and put some of it into the knot of hair on the top of his head. He had no sooner done this than the man's pains all left him, and he went off, vowing never again to give similar cause of offence to one of these guardian spirits.


'Men', said my old friend, 'do not die there in the same regulated spirit, with their thoughts directed exclusively towards God, as in other parts; and whether a man's spirit is to haunt the world or not after his death all depends on that.'


Notes:


1. December, 1835.


2. Datiyā (Datia, Dutteeah) is a small state, with an area of about 911 square miles, and a cash revenue of about four lākhs of rupees. On the east it touches the Jhānsī district, but in all other directions it is enclosed by the territories of Sindhia, the Maharaja of Gwālior. The principality was separated from Orchhā by a family partition in the seventeenth century. The first treaty between the Rājā and the British Government was concluded on the 15th March, 1804.


3. The belief that epileptic patients are possessed by devils is, of course, in no wise peculiar to India. It is almost universal. Professor Lombroso discusses the belief in diabolical possession in chap. 4 of The Man of Genius (London ed., 1891).


4. 'The educated European of the nineteenth century cannot realize the dread in which the Hindoo stands of devils. They haunt his paths from the cradle to the grave. The Tamil proverb in fact says, "The devil who seizes yon in the cradle, goes with you to the funeral pile".' The fear and worship of ghosts, demons, and devils are universal throughout India, and the rites practised are often comical.


The ghost of a bibulous European official with a hot temper, who died at Muzaffarnagar, in the United Provinces, many years ago, was propitiated by offerings of beer and whisky at 'his tomb. Much information on the subject is collected in the articles 'Demon', 'Devils', 'Dehwār', and 'Deified Warriors' in Balfour, Cyclopaedia of India (3rd ed.). Almost every number of Mr. Crooke's periodical North Indian Notes and Queries (Allahabad: Pioneer Press; London: A. Constable & Co., 5 vols., from 1891-2 to 1895-6) gave fresh instances of the oddities of demon-worship.


5. The officials of the native Governments were content to use either a rope or a bamboo for field measurements, and these primitive instruments continued to satisfy the early British officers. For many years past a proper chain has been always employed for revenue surveys.


6. 'The author uses the term 'Concan' (Konkan) in a wide sense, so as to cover all the territory between the Western Ghāts and the sea, including Malabar in the south. The term is often used in a more restricted sense to mean Bombay and certain other districts, to the north of Malabar.


7. Artocarpus integrifolius. The jack fruit attains an enormous size, and sometimes weighs fifty or sixty pounds. Indians delight in it, but to most Europeans it is extremely offensive.