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HALLOWEEN SPECIAL

O, dreaded one, come tomorrow

Varsha Venugopal | Updated on October 30, 2020 Published on October 30, 2020

Eyes peeled Guardian deities are propitiated to ward off dangers of the worldly and otherworldly kind   -  shriya mohan

South Indian ghosts know they have pliant believers who enjoy being spooked even as they appeal to higher powers to blunt their mischief

* Ghostly folklore from South India come in varying degrees of creepiness, but they each have delightful elements which make them a pleasure to explore.

* Another terrifying entity from South India that one is highly advised to avoid is the Brahma Rakshasa. Hungry creatures, they wander about looking for victims to devour. They’re traditionally kept at bay with a prayer to Lord Siva.

If you holiday down South, deep in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, you may notice a curious custom. You may see houses with a message painted on their doors or walls — Naale ba in Kannada or Indru poi naalai vaa in Tamil. It means ‘Come tomorrow’, and it is directed at spooky visitors who, according to folklore, are polite enough not to intrude when requested to come back later. Of course, tomorrow never comes and so the danger is kept at bay, no harm done to anyone.

I love this legend. While it earnestly warns one of the eerie peril at hand, it also offers a simple way to avoid it, easy as pie. Ghostly folklore from South India come in varying degrees of creepiness, but they each have delightful elements which make them a pleasure to explore.

Like the ‘muni’ that is said to haunt lonely places in rural Tamil Nadu, usually at noon as opposed to the classic midnight hour that denotes terror. The muni doesn’t seem to be particularly sinister; it simply likes to be left alone. People, especially women and children, are advised to be careful lest they get slapped crossing paths with an irate muni. Oddly, it is said to react quite strongly and adversely to non-vegetarian dishes. So, if you’ve packed chicken biryani for lunch, you’re urged to carry along an iron rod to fend off the spirit.

We also have the sinister kaateri, a vampire that eats the flesh and drinks the blood of its victims; the enchantingly beautiful Mohini, who entices young men to their death; and the cannibalistic kuralai-pei, ghosts who live in palm trees. Then there’s our very own legend of the will-o’-the-wisp — the kolli vai pei. Found in marshy lands, it is said to be a flesh-eating demon with terrible red eyes, best avoided.

Tamil Nadu also has the unusual legend of the kaathu karuppu or ghostly wind. It is said to ruin everything that it touches and, indeed, many inexplicable changes are attributed to its touch even today, from personality changes in young women to failing crops or insect infestations.

Another personal favourite is the kuttichathan (‘little demon’), a prankster imp famous in Kerala. Traditionally taking the form of a young boy, the kuttichathan delights in playing harmless tricks on the subject of his attention. He might cause stones to rain down on someone, frighteningly, but not one will actually fall on the victim; he may slip thorns into bedding or turn water unpleasantly sour. The kuttichathan is known to help one in return for a simple offering of food — indeed, it is said that thieves stay away from houses guarded by these tiny demons.

India’s first 3-D film is a charming Malayalam movie featuring this mischievous entity. In My Dear Kuttichathan (1984), a group of children make friends with a kuttichathan who is on the run from an evil magician. The song Aalipazhamperukkan carries a delightful sequence in which the demon helps his new friends walk on the walls.

The kuttichathan is portrayed as a friendly creature who means no harm, as opposed to the villainous magician, who seeks to enslave him for his nefarious ends. It’s a rather familiar theme for children who have grown up reading fairy tales, like the King Vikramaditya stories that were serialised in the much-loved children’s magazine Chandamama. In these tales, the brave king sets off to capture a vetaal (a wise spirit) on a holy man’s request. The crafty vetaal, much like Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights, narrates a tale every time it gets caught, making its escape as the king ponders upon the ending. In the end, it is the obliging vetaal who reveals the truth about the holy man’s evil intentions and helps the king defeat him.

In cinema, South India explores horrors across the ghostly spectrum — vengeful ghosts are a favourite theme, with classics such as the Malayalam film Lisa and the Tamil 13 No. Veedu featuring hair-raising tales of revenge from beyond the grave. There are also tales of monsters, of course — inspired by the Hollywood character Chucky, Tamil cinema’s Vaa Arugil Vaa revolves around a woman terrorised by a possessed doll. Naalai Manithan ventures into science-fiction horror, narrating the story of a doctor who accidentally creates a murderous zombie. Contemporary horror cinema tends to veer towards the comic — Yaamirukka Bayamey, Darling and Kanchana are all great examples of the horror-comedy genre.

Haunted: Yaamirukka Bayamey is an example of the contemporary horror-comedy genre that tickles and spooks viewers;

 

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The trend suggests that South Indian audiences love to take a moment to laugh at terror, a theme that can be found in many of its urban legends and stories, too.

For instance, there are quite a few oral stories from Chennai which are deliciously strange and entertaining. Many still remember the Elumichampazham maami or Lemon aunty from Mylapore, who was famous for “conversing with the spirits of rishis” through a lemon held to her ear like a telephone. Aavi Amudha, true to her moniker aavi, meaning ghost, spoke with the spirits of loved ones long gone.

City historian V Sriram recalls another medium who used to practise her eerie profession at Shastri Nagar. As he describes it, she made for a terrifying sight as she whipped her matted hair back and forth and rolled her eyes, ululating loudly as she “went into a trance”. It is said that one could see the most expensive cars of the day parked outside her residence, as everyone flocked to her for help.

My most favourite tale, however, is that of a wicked flying pumpkin. As narrated to me, it is a singularly entertaining urban legend which once provoked people to shut their doors and windows at night, lest the pumpkin flew in. What actually happens if that comes to pass is not clear — what is certain, however, is that a flying pumpkin is not welcome at home. I haven’t been able to find a documented reference to this urban legend, but much like Fox Mulder from the sci-fi TV series TheX-Files, I want to believe.

Probably the best-known urban legend from Chennai is that of De Monte colony, a dilapidated property off TTK Road. It is named after a Portuguese gentleman who met an unhappy end. Today, it is a forlorn, empty place — the buildings stand abandoned and in ruin. Though many scoff at the idea, the area is believed to be haunted, and few venture there to find out the truth. There’s also the Blue Cross Road in Besant Nagar, a small, winding street bounded by school grounds on one side and an animal shelter on the other. Shaded by trees, it is cool and dark at night — but if you believe in the paranormal, it’s best avoided. Here, some claim to see mysterious apparitions and hear strange sounds — a baby or a woman sobbing into the night. When I was a child, my father would take us — my sister, mother and me — on a night drive through this very road.

Roadside spooks: Blue Cross Road, off Chennai’s Besant Nagar, sparks tales of “mysterious apparitions and strange sounds”   -  THE HINDU / R RAVINDRAN

 

In those days, Blue Cross Road didn’t have street lights; the only illumination came from the car’s headlights. Between the darkness and the eerie silence, it was easy enough to believe that the road was haunted by spirits.

Another terrifying entity from South India that one is highly advised to avoid is the Brahma Rakshasa. Hungry creatures, they wander about looking for victims to devour. They’re traditionally kept at bay with a prayer to Lord Siva. The Mahalingeswarar temple at Thiruvidaimarudur, Tamil Nadu, features a Brahma Rakshasa in its story.

The legend goes that a Chola prince finds himself relentlessly chased by a Brahma Rakshasa. The prince runs into the Mahalingeswarar temple, seeking refuge in Lord Siva; meanwhile, the demon waits outside to resume chasing his victim once he comes out. The Lord shows the prince a secret passage out of the temple, saving him from the demon’s clutches. Even today, one can see the Brahma Rakshasa waiting outside the temple in the form of a sculpture — and so, visitors never exit via the entrance and instead follow the prince’s path.

This story perhaps best describes the way in which South India likes its tales of terror: Spine-chilling, no doubt — but also entertaining and sometimes comic, confident that we can overcome even supernatural dangers with faith in the right solution.

Here, those who believe also tend to put their trust in a higher power to protect them. With stories of the supernatural usually inextricably woven with stories of faith, one enjoys the thrill of being frightened without taking home its anxieties.

Could there be a lovelier way to enjoy ghost stories?

Varsha Venugopal is a freelance writer based in Chennai

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Published on October 30, 2020
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