There are numerous ghosts in the Bengali culture, many sharing common characteristics, making them difficult to differentiate. All Bengali ghosts, or bhut, tend to appear on abandoned roads or lonely fields, or sometimes in empty forests. They all have a taste for fresh fish and can be lured by the scent of fish to attack travelers. They are almost always malicious.
Since there are many overlapping traits, we will examine only four bhut: the Petni, the Penchapechi, the Nishi, and the Skondhokata.
Petni are the ghosts of women, usually those who committed crimes in life and are cursed to walk the Earth as ghosts. The Petni can be very vicious, and apparently can appear to be almost completely human until they attack. The only distinguishing characteristic of the ghost is the feet – the feet of Petni are backwards.
An unusual form of ghost, the Penchapechi take the form of owls and hunt in the Bengali forests. The ghost follows hapless travelers through the woods until they are completely alone before it strikes. Unlike other ghosts, the Penchapechi actually consumes its victims, feeding on their body in an almost vampiric way.
One of the cruelest of ghosts, the Nishi lures its victim to a secluded area by calling to the person with the voice of a loved one. The Nishi only strike at night, and their victims are never seen again, so it is unknown what happens to them. They may become Nishi themselves. According to folklore, the Nishi cannot call out more than twice, and so no one should answer a voice at night until it has called three times.
The concept of headless ghosts is not uncommon in the Western world. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is widely known and has been made into a number of movies. Headless motorcyclists are a well documented recurring theme with Western ghosts. But the Bengali version, the Skondhokata, is a bit different. These are the angry ghosts of train wreck victims who have lost their heads.
Where most Western folklore of headless ghosts has the ghost in search of their lost head, the Skondhokata is simply angry and will strike out at anyone who disturbs them. Since they haunt the place of their death, they are often disturbed by trains passing by. This leads to most accounts of the Skondhokata being from train passengers, who either see the headless ghosts outside the train or worse, inside the train.
One story involves a passenger reading a newspaper who looked up to see a headless body sitting in the seat across from him just as the train entered a tunnel. The man felt the icy touch of the creature in the few seconds of absolute darkness, but as the train rocketed back out into the daylight, the ghost was gone.