Of Sahibs and their Khidmatgars: Ghost Tales From The Raj

23/02/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The old dilapidated mansion that you see near the wilderness, it belonged to an Englishman. You can still see him on full-moon nights; he walks around the house. That's why no one goes there after dusk. So many people from the village have seen him.

Ghost stories similar to this are famous all over the country. To quote Ruskin Bond, "India is full of British ghosts - the ghosts of soldiers, adventurers, engineers, magistrates, memsahibs, their children, even their dogs."(Blackwood Magazine, 1976, p456). For example, it is believed that Warren Hastings haunts his residence in Kolkata. The ghost of Major Burton, a British officer killed during the 1857 mutiny, still hangs around the Brij Raj Bhavan Palace hotel in Kota. The British have written numerous stories about ghosts, the most famous ones by Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, BM Crocker, RV Smith to name a few. But I am not here to discuss famous ghost stories; you can always read them in anthologies. I want to talk about a few ghosts that did not make it big. I have always had deep compassion for underdogs, even when the underdogs are not from this world.

Hyderabad, the pen name of Brigadier H.Bullock, wrote several "true" ghost stories. His most famous one revolved around a house in Shimla called Charleville, a beautiful building available at low rent, primarily because a poltergeist haunted it. Several renters complained of a man who walked through the door, threw cold water on the residents and often messed up the dinner service. Finally, a psychic figured out the ghost was that of a British officer who had murdered his wife. Another similar story appears in Lord Halifax's collection of ghost stories about a bungalow in Shimla which was haunted by an old man who had murdered his young wife. One surprising feature of these less known ghost stories is that most of them are based in Shimla, and many of them are about British officers fatally despatching their wives and then themselves haunting the house.

"Native" curses and ghosts always made a great story. The story of Webster, a British engineer who rented a house near Lucknow, is one such tale. The house in question was haunted by a demon that lived on the tree right outside. The demon had to be placated with food every day; otherwise, he would throw stones at the house. Webster after refusing him food for two days realised his folly, decided to share his meal and lived peacefully for a while. However, his friends at the club mocked Webster about his superstition and it affected the poor man. He decided to cut off the tree. He had to hire woodcutters from a distant village, since no one in the vicinity would agree to do it. Needless to say, chopping down the tree had disastrous consequences. The woodcutters, who were two brothers, went mad and killed their beloved younger brother and spent the rest of their lives in prison. As for Webster, he developed a fever and delirium and died muttering, "The tree devil, the tree devil."

Another famous curse story is about a British officer who refused food to a fakir and was cursed with pangs of hunger. Soon enough he hallucinated about maggots and insects in his food, and could only eat after apologising to the fakir, who then lifted his curse, thereby teaching the Englishman a lesson in humility. As is true of all Orientalist tales, these stories are definitely politically problematic, but are undoubtedly gripping.

My personal favourite story is about a hunter who is sent to kill a man-eating tiger. The tiger had sought refuge in a haunted temple in the village, and no one dared to go near it. The story behind the haunting was very interesting. Once upon a time, there was a clash between the temple high priest and the court jester. The jester was framed by the priest, tried and hanged. Before his death, the jester swore to punish every priest who served the temple. After that, every priest who served the temple ended up committing suicide by jumping into a well located in the temple courtyard. The hunter naturally did not believe the villagers, and decided to step inside the temple. Soon he witnessed a grey smoke coming out of the well, and it filled him with an overwhelming desire to jump into the well. As he was about to follow through with his urge, his trance was broken by a snarl from the man-eating tiger that stood at a distance watching him. The tiger soon disappeared and was never seen again by the villagers. The hunter never went back to the village and the incident haunted him for the rest of his life.

So, the next time you are travelling through wilderness on a full moon night, should you hear a voice ordering his servant to bring him his chota haazri, don't get too worried. It may just be a spectre of the Raj.


Hyderabad, "The Most Haunted House in Simla" in Journal of United Service Institute. London, 1937 (207-212)

Lord Halifax's Ghost Book: A Collection of True Stories by Charles Lindley, Viscount Halifax, Foreword by Earl of Halifax, London, Geoffrey Bles Ltd. 1936 (225-226)

Private papers of KRN Swamy from the British Library. Ref: IOR: MSS EUR 370 1357

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