Haunts of horror

Haunts of horror

Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy turn the spotlight on some of India’s most haunted spots that hold dread and intrigue...

Bhangarh, Alwar

In a country steeped in myth, legend and superstition, where people believe in spirits and ghosts, there are many mysterious places where the normal and the paranormal worlds collide. The ubiquitous lady in white with tinkling anklets, spirits hanging upside down from trees, phantoms with inverted feet, waifs wafting around corridors and buildings, avenging apparitions, and highway spirits hitchhiking or asking for directions are a recurrent theme in almost all ghost stories in India. We have encountered several spooky nooks on our travels…

Ghost towns

Bhangarh, near Sariska in Alwar district, is literally a ‘ghost town.’ Infamous as ‘Bhooton ka Bhangarh’, it is one of the most haunted sites in India. A cobbled pathway and crumbling walls lead to a cluster of temples, ruins and a magnificent hill fort looming against cheery sunny skies. However, the guide warns that the place turns into a hub of demonic spirits after dark and even birds abandon it in fright. Visitors aren’t allowed between dusk and dawn as paranormal incidents have occurred here, making it the only “legally haunted” site recognised by the Government of India.

Bhangarh was established in 1573 as the capital of Madho Singh, the second son of Amber’s ruler Bhagwant Das. Madho Singh’s son, Chhatra Singh, succeeded him. But after his death in 1630, Bhangarh fell to ruin. Its grim tale revolves around Chhatra Singh’s beautiful daughter, Ratnavati. Singhia, an evil tantric, was secretly in love with her and tried to possess her through black magic. As a palace maid was buying perfume for the princess, Singhia put a spell on it. Well versed in tantric practice herself, the princess saw through his plot and smashed the vial, which transformed into a boulder that crushed the tantric.

In his dying breath, he cursed that ruin will befall Bhangarh. Next year, in a battle with the neighbouring Ajabgarh, Ratnavati and her army were vanquished and the city fell to ruin. Only four levels of the seven-storied palace remain and a small dwelling on a hill called Tantric ki Chhatri testifies to this tale. Locals believe that apparitions haunt the chhatris (cenotaphs) and unearthly screams ring through the hills.

In Marwar, the abandoned village of Kuldhara near the 14th-century Khaba Fort is another haunted locale. It is unfathomable that the rubble of stones and broken walls seen today was one of 84 villages of Paliwal Brahmins forsaken overnight 300 years ago! Locals say that the lusty advances of an evil diwan Salim Singh towards the Paliwal chieftain’s daughter triggered the mass exodus. In its heyday, Kuldhara was studded with hundreds of homes, temples and lakes.

On Suryagarh’s midnight Chudail Trail, all things harmless by day turned into imagined objects of doom in the dark. Our car’s headlights cast spooky shadows across the scrub vegetation and gravestones of a cemetery. We groped in the dank basement of an abandoned home where the chieftain’s daughter was supposedly buried alive, and peered down wells where Salim Singh’s victims were drowned. Around the Muhar Mahadev shrine, small lingas and nandis were erected where locals had encountered ghosts. Centuries have passed but no one has resettled in the accursed village.

India’s ghost stories feature many who met grisly or untimely deaths (akaal mrityu). Pune’s Shaniwarwada Fort is allegedly haunted by Narayan, its murdered Peshwa teen prince. In Delhi, tales abound about the ghosts of Feroze Shah Kotla (people offer sweets to them) and the jinns of Jamali-Kamali Masjid near Qutub Minar. According to Islamic legend, jinns possess supernatural powers to transcend different worlds and dwell in abandoned places. Stories of strange apparitions, animal growls, and people being slapped by invisible forces add to the mystique of the Sufi shrine.

The abandoned village of Kuldhara
The abandoned village of Kuldhara in Marwar

Spirits of the Raj

Shimla’s Viceregal Lodge is allegedly haunted by its erstwhile occupant Lady Curzon, spotted roaming its grassy lawns at night or gliding down the majestic teak stairway inside. Charleville Mansion 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 unwittingly inherited a resident poltergeist whose violent activities prompted its previous owner, an army officer, to flee. The Charleville ghost could seamlessly pass through doors and wreak havoc by breaking mirrors and shattering furniture. Locals claim that ghostly figures still loiter inside the century-old castle in Shimla.

Tunnel 33, along the Shimla-Kalka highway, is the hidey-hole of British railway engineer Captain Barog. After being pulled up by seniors for tardiness, Barog committed suicide and his spirit still wanders in the tunnel. Renowned educational institutions, too, 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 in the woods around Dow Hill Girls’ Boarding School and Victoria Boys’ High School in Darjeeling.

In Mussoorie, Lady Garnett-Orme’s ghost haunts the 1902 Savoy Hotel, which has played host to 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 unsolved 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. Fern Hill Hotel in Ooty is believed to be haunted as well; a filming crew reported the sound of furniture being moved upstairs at night. The next morning, to their shock, they discovered the hotel didn’t have a first floor! Writer’s Building in Kolkata is allegedly inhabited by the ghost of East India Company’s Captain Simpson, killed by revolutionaries in the building. After the accidental death of a student and 12 labourers during the renovation of the National Library, watchmen reported strange footsteps and spectres lurking amidst the bookshelves. Locals insist that the apparition of Lady Metcalfe, wife of former Governor-General Lord Metcalfe roams around, breathing down the necks of readers.

Urban spectres

Ghosts don’t always prefer remote spots; cities, too, have their share of ghoulish encounters. Karkardooma Court in Delhi has captured CCTV footage of sinister events after work — shadowy figures, lights and computers switching on and chairs rolling around of their own accord! Mumbai High Court apparently has a ghost in residence that threatens convicts as they enter one of the courtrooms. Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad proves that ghosts even lurk in the make-believe world as film crews have seen spotlights falling, spotboys pushed by unseen hands, females having their clothes ripped off or being trapped in rooms. The black sandy Dumas Beach in Surat seems an unlikely spot for spirits, yet locals hear whispered voices on an empty beach. After all, it’s a former burial site!

Years ago, in the faraway Andaman Islands, we drove to a lonely corner on a hillock in Homfreyganj at dusk. Fallen leaves spiralled in a gust of wind and the next instant it turned dark and chilly and we could swear we heard a babble of screams. We left immediately. Later, we learnt that the site was witness to the Homfreyganj Massacre during WWII.

On January 30, 1944, 44 Indians were shot in cold blood by the occupying Japanese forces. Balidan Veedi or State Martyr’s Memorial lists the victims; most were members of the Indian Independence League.

Hundreds of other lives were lost to Japanese torture and forced labour with horrific accounts of dissenters being bundled and dumped at sea. It’s been years since that trip and yet, we get goosebumps thinking about the tormented shrieks. Real or imagined, the ghosts of yesteryears live on to tell their tales…