I once heard a story. It was not a story that began with ‘once upon a time ….. ‘ holding the promise of good things to come. the way these stories are told, it does not unfold in the timeless world of ‘once upon a time….’ but is usually told as an incident that happened to someone. the story that i refer to is about spirits and people who were believed to have a special relation with them. these spirits were more like ghosts (bhoot or timmu-laimu) and the practice was called bhoot sanaba. From what I understand, the person involved is skilled in dealing with the spirit world and usually appears to be a man. he is believed to have the ability to call them up and command them to do his bidding. He is feared because he is empowered by his connection with these spirits which he can/may yield against anyone he desires.
This story that I heard back in my schooldays, was narrated by one of my teacher. It happened to a friend of his when they were much younger. the grandfather of the young chap was someone who practiced bhoot sanaba. He would call them up at particular points of time when he would be busy engaging with the spirits (which usually remained unseen). It was often in the evenings when after dinner he would inquire if everyone had returned and after ensuring that they had, he would tell them not to come outside. He would then step outside in the compound where he would call up the spirits and carry out his practice or whatever it entailed. Those were the days when electricity was a luxury and there were no streetlights. The rhythm of life was more in tune with nature. The days began early in the morning when the cock crows and people retired early for the night. Concrete walls were a rarity in those days (even in my own childhood, there are not very common). unlike the iron gates of today, it was usually a rickety bamboo gate that stood in front of houses. the kondhong, as it is called, consisted of two vertical poles between which three or four horizontal poles were inserted through holes made on either side of the vertical ones. As a marker of the threshold, this rickety structure was also imbued in certain beliefs.
On that fateful night, the grandson returned home more late than usual. The grandfather confirmed if everyone was inside the house. the family confirmed it, either not realizing the absence of the young man or assumed that he must be back. It was dusk when he walked back home. Like many young boys of his age, he had been out spending time with his friends. Daylight was all but gone when he walked the deserted path whistling with his hands inside the pockets of his pants not particularly paying attention to anything around. he walked following as on auto-track on the path that he was so familiar that he could have walked with eyes shut. He reached the gate, or what he presumed would be the gate, but when he looked up, he saw a shape perched on the bamboo poles with his back towards him which he presumed to be someone seated there. He suddenly wondered if he had taken a wrong turn and reached elsewhere in his absent-mindedness. Confused, he addressed the only other ‘person’ who he could see around, ‘Excuse me, but where am I and whose house is this?’ The shape turned and the young man got the shock of his life. It was dark and ugly and big and shapeless and it was now looking at him. when he glanced inside the compound, he saw many other such shapes and all he could do was scream his head off in the frightened state. That was when the grandfather heard him. The last he heard about it, the grandfather had been fuming because he had been under the impression that everyone was inside the house.
We were fascinated with the story and clamoured for more such tales. He told us another story of encountering such presence which he claims to have seen it himself. All the young boys were playing in the big pond of the locality after playing around. It was around mid-day. The pond ways rather big with lots of plants and trees around. On one side was a bamboo grove from which one pole spread out horizontally towards the pond. As they were playing around in the water, the horizontal began to move up and down as if someone was playing on it. they all assumed it to be one of the young boys and did no bother. Someone happened to catch sight of its reflection on the water and saw something. Our narrator happened to turn then and caught sight of it. it was big and ugly (absolutely frighteningly ugly was how it was described), and it was playing bounce on the pole but there was another one on a nearly pole. All the young boys were immediately out of the water, collected their clothes and ran away.
while these were lighter stories of encounter, ghosts are also believed to be instrumental in wreaking havoc – again, believed to be directed by the command of someone who engages in bhoot sanaba who may send it to seek his own purpose or to cater to his clientele. He is said to interact with them and command them to do his bidding. He calls them up and meets them at a particular time – usually at midday or the evening dusk. These along with the break of dawn are, in the Meitei belief, threshold of time. What he actually does can only be guessed because it remains either out of sight or is invisible. My father tells me about an instance that he and his friends came upon. It was midday and my father and his friends were on their way back from felling trees for the winter when they passed by the house of a man who was believed in engage is the practice. The man was in his compound, he seemed to be rolling and wrestling by himself. It was said that what he was doing was part of bhoot sanaba. He was supposedly wrestling with the spirit and that it was important for him to win. If he wins, he can command the spirit(s) to do his bidding but if he looses then it is not good and he may even loose sanity. No one really knows what happens to him for sure because it is a world known only to him.
These are stories that I had heard long before. The more I think about it, the relation between the human and the ghost(s) who are tied together in the practice sounds far from that of a ‘master who commands’ and the ‘spirit who is commanded’. From the little I have heard, the human counterpart also puts himself at stake competing with the spirit who makes its presence known to him but not necessarily sighted by others. When his strength ebbs, then he runs the risk of being over-powered by the spirits – a risk that could prove detrimental to him. hence, it is said that a person who engages in the practice should make sure to wrap up his practice in an orderly fashion while he is still of strong constitution. If he is overpowered by the spirit or he dies without wrapping up his practice, the spirits may be left uncontrolled and may havoc him, his family or those around.
Sanaba, which in a child’s preoccupation with playing games, i had associated it to something of a play between the man and the spirits he calls on, I now wonder if it has more to do with matao sanaba but on a heightened more intensified and dangerous level. Matao sanaba, as far as i know, is a rather strong bond that connects two people for life. It is not a kinship bond for the two persons are not necessarily connected; it is a bond of friendship but it comes with bonds and obligations that weigh more than other friendships. It is a relationship between equals. the two people involved are bonded for life when they step into a relation of matao sanaba.
The relation between the spirit and the human counterpart, similarly appears to be a lifelong bond until it is formally concluded. But away from the relation as a practice, the ghost seems to represent our own darker self-doubting selves that are not visible to others but very real to ourselves. It remains in the borderlines of our consciousness. It has the potential to be powerful but it can either be defeated or empowered depending on what we feed it. You may believe in its existence but to another it may be seem to be your own concoction. It needs to be attended but it needs to be either harnessed or contained or it could threaten to overwhelm you.
I conclude this post with a pointer from these stories that I once hear about how to tackle ghosts. It says: if you ever meet them, never look them in the eye or look up to them, always look them down. The more you look up at them, they grow both in size and strength but if you look down at them, they decrease both in size and strength. Look down and make them small then step over and crush it under your feet.
I wonder if it referred to ghosts or our own fears.