Once again I am astounded at how much ghostlore from foreign shores has been lost over the years. Whilst I am familiar with the Indian bhoot, I am completely ignorant of the boocheekara – an apparition – and a term which frequents the following article from an 1883 edition of ‘The Graphic’. The piece tells us much about the haunting of Indian bungalows by boocheekara et al and what fine distant cousins of the British ghost they are! (Note: Due to the poor quality of the original newspaper scan, I have hand-typed the article and must apologise for any typos that have crept in.)
From The Graphic, 1883
The haunted bungalows of India
The notion of Indian houses being haunted is, on first thought, rather ridiculous. Nevertheless, there is scarcely a station in Hindustan which has not its haunted bungalow, or, at the very least, some old house in which the demon of pestilence has taken up his abode. This goes to show that houses need not be of any great age to suit a ghostly occupant, for there are few houses of any great antiquity in India; but it must be confessed that, when a ghost once selects a bungalow for his castle, it is the very mischief to get him out of it, even with the aid of priest, book, and candle. Nor is this self-determination the only peculiarity of Indian ghosts. They appear to the appalled beholders by sunlight as well as by night, and are apparently indifferent to the time of day whenever it suits them to revisit the earth. A curious and very well authenticated instance of this disregard of the hour is that of the ‘afternoon ghost’, which punctually appears at sunset in a certain house in Madras.
On the Poonamalee Road in that town there is an old tumble-down sort of bungalow, in which no one cares to dwell because of an apparition which is credibly said to appear there of an evening as regularly as clockwork. Military men, clergymen, and others, have testified to the fact of this singular apparition’s appearance; and the story is so well known in Madras, and has been so often discussed, that it may perhaps be set down as one of the best authenticated ghost stories on record.
The phenomenon is this: At sunset, and before darkness has set in — there is little or no twilight in India — the figure of a native woman, apparently an Ayah, is seen to glide through one of the rooms, and to vanish as mysteriously as it came. So many persons have seen this misty form during a brief occupation of the house in question, that it would be absurd to say there is nothing credible in it. But the mystery has never been solved, and the haunted bungalow, half-hidden in the deep gloom and shade of a sombre mango grove, is untenanted unless by curious people desirous of making the acquaintance of the mysterious Ayah. The late Lord Lytton might have found a mine of the marvellous in that old Madras bungalow, and he probably would have greatly relished a tete-à-tete with the ghost; because, if tradition speaks truth, there was a great tragedy committed in that house in former days, and the ghostly Ayah is assumed to have been a horrified witness of the transaction. At all events, she makes no secret of her presence now. She does not wait until the witching hour of night to fulfil her mission, whatever it is. She appears at sunset, and just at the time when ladies are enjoying their afternoon tea, heedless of what is going on in the next world in view of the greater importance of the affairs of the one that we live in. The absence of stage trick, of any possible mechanism, and the time of day, all tend to make this mysterious Ayah a peculiarly interesting apparition. Moreover, she must be of great age, because she is remembered as being always in the same house by the oldest inhabitant, and even before his time, he will tell us — in the time of that oldest inhabitant’s father, The unbelieving, of course, wilt invest theories to account for the marvellous. Thus, it has been said that the apparition is due to an optical delusion cleverly devised by persons — perhaps a nest of gamblers — in order to keep the house empty for their own purposes. But there is nothing whatever to warrant that conclusion. So the mysterious Ayah of the Poonamalee Road, Madras, whose fashion of dress never alters as the ages go by, retains as much a mystery an ever, but can be interviewed by anyone who likes to rent the bungalow she affects for the very short period he is likely to remain there in her company.
The above apparition may be said to be a neutral kind of ghost; but there are evil and beneficent spirits in India as well. There is a well-known haunted house in one of the stations of the North of India, where the “house ghost,” if we may so call him, evinces malicious and malignant idiosyncrasies. It is this wretched spirit’s mundane amusement to try to upset the charpoy, or bed, on which the bewildered tenant seeks repose; and so persistent are his efforts in this unworthy direction, that they have been compared to shocks of earthquake, and to the explosions of subterraneous mines. People laugh; but no one particularly cares to steep twice in that haunted bungalow. When someone more inquisitive than the rest passes a night — or, more probably, only a portion of a night — in that house, it is generally remarked that for some time afterwards he has the appearance of a man who has been travelling night and day for three weeks, and without towels, soap, or hair-brushes.
As to the malignant spirit, he is never seen at all; but his diabolical efforts to destroy or upset the local upholstery are very well known to the inhabitants of the place. A Mussulman was once killed in that particular bungalow but whether, owing to his misfortune on earth, he has anything to do with these phenomena is open to question. Another species of malignant Spirit which becomes most intimately associated with an Indian house is a disease. There are houses in Indian towns and Stations of which the citizens say it is as much as any man’s life is worth to enter them. Sometimes this description of haunted house has a terrible reputation for cholera. A, X, Y, B, and Z all died in the house, and all died of cholera. C, who was superior to superstition, went into the house Just to show the absurdity of believing in such rot, and speedily lost his wife and three children. A bungalow of that character obtains a sinister reputation which its outside or inside appearance does not belie. The mud walls crumble away, and great cracks, big enough for ghosts to peep through, become visible behind the torn and mildewed wall-paper. The landlord leaves off painting the doors and the Venetian blinds. What do ghosts want with paint — at least the male ones? The wheel-marks of the last hearse are to be seen on the gravel, so deserted of visitors are the premises; and for a dismal spirit, for one inclined to morbid imaginings upon a past existence, not George Robins himself could have hit upon a more suitable place of residence for such a ghost than one of these disease dens of an Indian station.
There are other houses so intimately connected with fever as to be called by their peculiar type of the disease, as Typhoid Hall, Ague Villa, and so on. The local spirit is not so hard to unearth here. It is sometimes found that bad drainage, or rotten foundations, is the real ghost after all; but it cannot be denied that the mortality in some Indian bungalows of an unlucky reputation is unaccountable, for there seems to be no earthly reason for it.
It is a relief to turn from the vagaries of the evil spirits to the beneficence of the good. In England one seldom hears of a good ghost, or of a ghost who puts himself out of his way to oblige any one; but, in India, ghosts of this cheerful temperament are quite common. Sometimes they assume the appearance of Europeans, and sometimes, which is much more extraordinary, if they have any choice in the matter, that of natives. These ghosts have done the living no end of good. The warnings, the “tips,” and the other information they have imparted to persons in the flesh have been endless, and would do credit to the prophet of a sporting paper.
As an example of the beneficence of this first-chum spirit, a well-authenticated story is told of a man and his wife occupying a certain haunted bungalow. They were on the eve of sailing for Europe, and were in actual negotiation for a passage by a particular ship, when at night they were intensely astonished by seeing, by the bright moonlight in the garden, a white figure with one arm rained in a warning attitude. Being persons with great faith, if not confidence in ghosts, they postponed their departure, and were fortified in their credulity for ever afterwards by learning that the ship in which they proposed sailing had foundered in a cyclone on the very day on which she was advertised to leave India, and on the same date that the mysterious apparition appeared to them. Now and then a beneficent spirit enriches those he takes under his protection. There was an Indian officer of the old times who wedded into a native family of distinction that possessed a ghost or banshee of its own. The grandson of that officer being in India, and in great pecuniary distress at the lime, was surprised one night by the apparition of a Mahratta warrior, clad in chain-mail armour, which shone with intense brilliance in the moonlight. The apparition beckoned him to follow, and led the way to an old tomb in a Mahomedan graveyard, where it left him. Something impelled the young man to dig, and he was rewarded by finding more than five lakhs in gold mohurs and star pagodas.
More often, unfortunately, this description of spirit heads the mortals who trust in it a fruitless dance. Some natives believe the Will-o-the-Wisp — often seen in the paddy fields — to be the incarnation of this most vexatious and abortive phenomenon. The natives, indeed, are whales at swallowing every kind of spirit, whether of this world or the other. There is a white spirit in the shape of a large bird, much given to haunt thick groves and old compounds, which to see, in their estimation, is to die. Every native who has observed this ominous fowl by sight, or two crows kissing by day, has invariably joined the majority and it is likely enough, since natives can die of the smallest provocation, that the sight of the midnight white bird has actually killed some of them. It was our own good or evil fortune to see this terrible bird once; and, to an unexcited imagination, the creature bore a very strong resemblance to a large cream-coloured owl.
Bright moonlight and deep-black mango groves play strange tricks with the imagination, however, and it is easy enough to see ghosts under a certain combination of the two. So common, indeed, are ghosts in native estimation, that the term boocheekara — which means an apparition — is far more frequent in the mouths of Indians than the word ghost is with us. We know that we must go to old castles and churchyards for ghosts ; but it is impossible to say where or when a boocheekara in India will not turn up. He is here, there, and everywhere; but has a preference for old bungalows where Sahibs have died, and for localities where the Thugs have been at work in the old days. And it is not only natives that believe in the boocheekara and all his works. There are Europeans in India who have seen ghosts, and have been so painfully impressed with what they have seen as to dislike and avoid all allusions to the matter. And this is a remarkable fact, considering how ill-adapted lndia seems to be to ghosts and ghost stories. Ghosts do not appear to agree well with a thermometer at 98 deg.; with kaskos, tatties, punkahs, and tents. Nevertheless, they have easily adapted themselves to such unlikely surroundings, by all accounts, for there is an almost incredible story of one haunted bungalow in which the ghost, or beneficent one, actually pulled the punkah. He would have been an invaluable spirit, this one; only that, unluckily, he did not pull it well. The punkah moved at uncertain seasons by spasmodic jerks, and, of course, by invisible agency. Whether the ghost in question was a defunct punkah coolie, who imagined himself more than three parts asleep, or whether Indian spirits find distraction in a congenial amusement in the pulling of cooling punkahs, it is impossible to say, for this is also among the many mysteries of haunted bungalows.