Ghosts are an important part of the folklore, and form an integral part of the socio-cultural beliefs of the people living in the geographical and ethno-linguistic region of Bengal. It is believed that the spirits of those who cannot find peace in the afterlife or die unnatural deaths remain on Earth. The common word for ghosts in Bengali is bhoot (Bengali: ভূত).
ভূত চতুর্দশী or Bhoot Chaturdashi (‘bhoot’ means ‘ghost’ and ‘chaturdashi’ is the fourteenth night of the moon’s cycle) is a kind of Indian Halloween, which is observed by Bengali Hindu community on the fourteenth day of Krishna Paksha i.e. during the waning period of the moon, and it happens before the new moon night — the night of Kali Puja or Diwali. Paksha refers to a fortnight or a lunar phase in a month of the Hindu lunar calendar.
It is said that on this night the evil spiritual powers are seemingly heightened on this night. In order to keep the evil spirits at bay, Bengalis ritualistically observe Bhoot Chaturdashi every year.
Folklore says that the spirits of ancestors come back to the household on this night and these diyas help them find their loving homes. It’s believed that our ancestors are at a proximity to us and bless us on this day. It’s a way to pay homage to choddo purush — fourteen ancestors, seven from each side of the family — requesting them to save everyone from evil spirit and ghosts. This is very typical of a lot of Hindu celebrations where we think of the departed and pray for them before we move on to the ceremonies of the current like nandimukh.
Another popular belief is that Chamunda (a fearsome aspect of Kali) along with fourteen other ghostly forms ward off the evil spirits from the house as fourteen earthen-lamps are lit at different entrances and dark corners of the rooms.
There is also a belief, especially in rural Bengal, that tantriks were known to kidnap children the night before Kali Puja and sacrifice them the next day to gain dark magic powers. So, Bhoot Chaturdashi is also often believed to be a custom to keep the children safe by keeping them busy at home with leafy green food and other rituals.
On this day Bengali families light fourteen earthen oil lamps (prodeep) around their houses at the juncture of dusk and night. Choddo Prodeep (চোদ্দ প্রদীপ) we call it. Choddo is fourteen in Bengali. On the entrance of each room a diya is placed. This is done to ward off evil spirits as well as prevent them from entering the house.
Some families make lamps from the mud from their garden and lit them up at night, some use store-bought diyas and some light candles. As kids, we used to roll cotton wicks in the palm of our hand and light fourteen earthen lamps, which had been washed and dried in the sun all morning and were waiting ready, filled to the brim with golden Mustard oil.
After the lamps were lit, came the next step, the most interesting one in this process. There would be one placed near the Tulsi (Holy Basil) plant, one on the outside window sill of the bathroom, and then the rest by the doorstep of each rooms. This day was all about darkness and flickering clay lamps unlike the day of Diwali, the next day, when rows of slender wax candles would be stuck around the front verandah and lighted up to dispel any essence of darkness.
Bengali customs are more about the food. This too is no exception. It is customary to consume a dish of fourteen types of leafy vegetable — Choddo Shaak (চোদ্দ শাক) we call it — during Bhoot Chaturdashi. Many Bengalis have a tradition to cook and eat fourteen different kinds of leafy vegetable on this day cooked together. Shaak is leafy herbs. It’s the time when we get many new crop of vegetables. Before being cooked, the fourteen greens are soaked in water and that water is sprinkled across the household. For chodda shaak, the greens can be any fourteen and there isn’t any specific method of cooking. Generally, it includes
- palong shaak (spinach),
- laal shaak (red amaranth),
- kolmi shaak (water spinach),
- sorshe shaak (mustard greens),
- mulo shaak (radish green),
- pui shaak (Malabar spinach),
- methi shaak (fenugreek greens),
- paat shaak (young jute greens),
- ol kopi shaak (turnips greens),
- chhola shaak (chickpeas greens),
- hingcha (helancha) shaak (Enhydra Fluctuans),
- lau shaak (bottle gourd green),
- kumro shaak (pumpkin green), and
- kochur shaak (taro greens).
As per Charaka Samhita, a Sanskrit text on Ayurveda, written before 2nd century CE: On the onset of autumn the sudden change of weather brought about by the heat warmifies our heat-starved cold body due to lack of sunlight during the monsoon and thus engaging the pitta imbalance, which may cause various infectious diseases and these herbs have the potential in them to keep such diseases at bay. This ritual of choddo shaak is believed to have its origin from this Ayurveda advice.
Bhoot Chaturdashi might not be as famous as Halloween — without the “trick or treat” prank — yet it holds a very special place in the hearts of Bengalis and it is observed with great faith to this day.
Happy Bhoot Chaturdashi! 👻 May no one haunt you tonight. 😀