ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY turn the spotlight on some of India’s most haunted spots that hold dread and intrigue
In a country steeped in myth, legend and superstition where people believe in gods, demons and ghosts, it is easy to discover mysterious places where the normal and the paranormal worlds collide. The ubiquitous lady in white with tinkling anklets, spirits hanging upside down from old trees, phantoms with inverted feet, white waifs wafting around corridors and buildings, avenging apparitions, highway spirits hitchhiking or asking for directions are a recurrent theme in almost all ghost stories in India. However, there are some destinations where such stories are kept alive, often underscored by historical incidents, unnatural or accidental deaths, murder or curse.
The cobbled pathway and ruined fort walls leading to a cluster of temples, ruins and a magnificent hill fort looming overhead set against cheery sunny skies, could be mistaken for a lovely medieval European village unceremoniously discarded by time. However, the guide warned us that the place where we stood turned into the hub of demonic spirits that took on a mood so dreadful by night, that even birds abandoned it in fright.
We were at Bhangarh, better known as “Bhooton ka Bhangarh” literally a ghost town near Sariska in Alwar district, regarded as one of the most haunted historic sites in India. Visitors are disallowed from hanging around between dusk and dawn as several paranormal activities and incidents have taken place, making this the only “legally haunted” site recognized by the Government of India.
The township was established in 1573 as the residence and capital of Madho Singh, the second son of the Kachwaha Rajput ruler of Amber, Bhagwant Das, and the younger brother of Emperor Akbar’s general, Madho Singh I. Madho Singh’s son Chhatra Singh took over as the next ruler but following his death in 1630, Bhangarh fell to ruin. Only four storeys of the seven-storied palace remain.
The grim tale that shrouds Bhangarh revolves around Ratnavati, the beautiful daughter of Chhatra Singh and stepsister of Ajab Singh, founder of Ajabgarh. Besotted by her beauty, princes deluged her with marriage proposals. However, an evil tantric called Singhia was secretly in love with her. Knowing he couldn’t win her favour or marry her, he uses his expertise in black magic. As a palace maid buys perfume for the princess in the market, Singhia deviously puts a spell on it to enchant the princess and make her yield to him. The princess, herself well versed in tantric practice, sees through his plot and throws the vial to the ground. A boulder mysteriously appears, rolls down and crushes the tantric. In his dying breath, he curses that death and ruin will befall Bhangarh and its inhabitants.
The following year, a battle between the forces of Bhangarh and Ajabgarh, leads to the death of Ratnavati and most of the army. A small dwelling on a hill called Tantric ki chhatri testifies to this tale. Locals believe that ghosts still haunt the place with several claims of apparitions seen around the tombs and chhatris (pavilions) and unearthly screams ringing through the hills. Those who have tried to debunk Bhangarh’s haunted legacy haven’t met a great end.
In western Rajasthan, the abandoned village of Kuldhara, at the base of the 14th century Khaba Fort is another well-known haunted locale. Viewed from the fort steps, it is hard to fathom that the rubble of stones and broken walls below was one of the 84 Paliwal villages, forsaken overnight some 300 years ago. Locals believe that the lusty advances of an evil dewan called Salim Singh towards the Paliwal chieftain’s daughter triggered the mass exodus. In its heyday, Kuldhara was studded with hundreds of homes, temples, chhatris (pavilions), courts and manmade lakes. We halted at the Shiv mandir at the village centre. Niches bearing unusual images of Durga and Shiva, clutching a severed head with a dog licking its blood, surrounded the empty sanctum.
As we returned to the same site at night on Suryagarh hotel’s specially curated Chudail Trail, all things that seemed harmless by day, turned into imagined objects of doom in the dark as our guide whispered the fearful tales. Our headlights across the scrub vegetation and gravestones in the Kuldhara cemetery cast spooky shadows. It was as if time could not obliterate history – oral traditions ensured that the desert remembers everything.
We groped in a dank basement of an abandoned home where the chieftain’s daughter was supposedly buried alive and peered down wells where Salim Singh’s other victims had been drowned. Around the powerful Muhar Mahadev shrine, we noticed small lingas and nandis stacked in different spots where locals had encountered ghosts. Owing to the palpable presence of spirits, no one wished to resettle in the accursed village.
India is full of ghost stories of people who met a grisly or untimely death. The Shaniwarwada Fort in Pune is allegedly haunted by its murdered Peshwa teen Prince Narayan, while the Feroze Shah Kotla fort in Delhi is a hive of ghosts! Apparently, they have a fondness for sweets and people make offerings to appease them. Tales abound about the jinns of Jamali-Kamali Masjid near the Qutb Minar. According to Islamic legends, jinns possess supernatural powers to cross different worlds and often dwell in abandoned places. Sightings of apparitions, lights and animal growls emanating from within besides incidents of people being slapped by invisible forces add to the mystique of the historic Sufi shrine.
Scenic Shimla hides its eeriness with panache, but a steaming cup of chai with a local could unlock creepy stories dating to the colonial era. The Viceregal Lodge, the former summer home of the Indian Viceroy is allegedly haunted by its erstwhile occupant Lady Curzon, who roams around in the grassy lawns at night or sometimes seen gliding down the majestic teak stairway inside.
Charleville Mansion, a century old castle in Shimla, finds mention in Rudyard Kipling’s “My Own True Ghost Story.” It was the home of British officer Victor Bayley and his wife, who chose it for its low rent and view. But, the Bayleys had unwittingly inherited a resident poltergeist that prompted its previous owner, an army officer, to flee. They lived there for a year but locked the room upstairs where bizarre violent activities were reported by Bayley’s help. The Charleville ghost could seamlessly pass through doors and wreak havoc by breaking mirrors and shattering furniture. Local folks claim that ghostly figures still loiter inside the mansion.
A much-loved retreat during the Raj era, Mussoorie too has its haunted tales. Rumours abound that Lady Garnett-Orme’s ghost haunts the 1902 Savoy Hotel, which has played host to the likes of Queen Mary and Nobel Laureate author Pearl S Buck. People disclose how she walks down the corridors in search of the murderer who poisoned her!
The unresolved murder mystery inspired Agatha Christie to write her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and Ruskin Bond’s In A Crystal Ball – A Mussoorie Mystery (2003). Fern Hill Hotel in Ooty was also declared haunted and shut down after filming crew reported that they heard furniture being moved around upstairs at night. The next morning, to their shock, they discovered that the hotel didn’t have a first floor!
If ghosts like dark places, tunnels would be their favourite haunts. So it would seem with Tunnel 33 along the Shimla-Kalka highway, the hidey-hole of British railway engineer Captain Barog, who committed suicide after being pulled up by his seniors for his tardiness. People claim that Barog still wanders in the tunnel while some have reportedly seen a woman screaming down the rail tracks and vanishing into the tunnel.
Even renowned schools and educational institutions are not spared of otherworldly stories. Rumours are rife about a headless horseman luring young girls with a rose at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Shimla and a headless lad wandering into the woods around Dow Hill Girls’ Boarding School and Victoria Boys’ High School in Darjeeling.
Oddly, ghosts don’t always prefer quiet and remote hill stations or cemeteries. Bustling cities too have their fair share of ghoulish encounters. Beautiful and famous landmarks like Writer’s Building in Kolkata is one such. Some people believe that the ghost of East India Company’s Captain Simpson who was killed by revolutionaries inhabits the building, though Kolkatans also narrate stories of voices and footsteps being heard in the empty building at night.
Following an accident death of 12 labourers during the renovation of the National Library in Kolkata and the strange death of a student there, watchmen get jittery on the nightshift fearing the strange sounds of footsteps and spectres lurking amidst the bookshelves. Several locals insist that the apparition of Lady Metcalfe, wife of former Governor General Lord Metcalfe roams around, breathing down the necks of readers.
The Karkardooma Court in New Delhi has captured CCTV footage of the sinister goings on after work hours, when the court is overrun with invisible spirits. Videos reveal shadowy figures, lights and computers switching on and chairs rolling around of their own accord! The Bombay High Court too, apparently has a ghost in residence that threatens convicts when they enter one of the courtrooms. Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad proves that ghosts even lurk in the make-believe world as eyewitness and film crew have seen spotlights falling off, spotboys being pushed by unseen hands, females having their clothes ripped off or being trapped in rooms.
At first glance, the black sandy beaches of Dumas in Surat may seem a dubious haven for spirits. Yet, local folks recount hearing whispered voices even when the beach is empty. Many tortured souls roam this former burial site, waiting to capture those venturing on foolhardy midnight walks. Many years ago, in faraway Andaman Islands, it was dusk as we drove up to a dark corner on a hillock in Humfreyganj. There was no one in sight and the wind whispered sending the fallen dried leaves spiraling around. The next instant it got chilly and we could swear we heard a cacophony of piercing screams in different tongues. It was getting dark and we felt it wise to leave immediately. Later we learnt that the historic site was witness to one of the worst horrors of war.
The Humfreyganj Massacre of World War II on January 30, 1944 records the coldblooded shooting of 44 Indians, suspected of spying by the occupying Japanese forces. The Balidan Veedi or State Martyr’s Memorial listed the victims, most of whom were members of the Indian Independence League.
Hundreds of innocent lives were also lost to the terror and torture unleashed by the Japanese on locals and forced labour with horrific accounts of them drowning and being bundled and dumped into the sea. It’s been several years since that trip and yet, we get goosebumps thinking about the tormented shrieks we heard. Real or imagined, the ghosts of yesterday live on to tell their stories in ways we’ll never know.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 September, 2019 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.