The spirits of Assam are very clearly and explicitly defined by both their nature and their area of habitation, in medieval literature as well as in common belief systems even today. For example, the yakh is a spirit that frequents cattle pens, the kandh frequents cremation grounds, the budha-dangariya lives on a banyan tree. The baak usually frequents ponds and other still water bodies, even wells when in its malevolent form though it is believed in some parts that in its benign form it sometimes frequents fields and groves adjoining
When we were in Assam for sightings of the bird suicide mystery in Jatinga and the mani-nag, our Assamese guide sometimes pointed at a misty form near a pond and urged us to move away quickly as it was a baak. Curiously, when we pushed on regardless, the misty form would not disappear but keep retreating till a point where we were reluctant to follow it into thick foliage.
A baak cannot stay in this misty form forever. For its survival, a malevolent baak needs, from time to time, a dead body, usually of a human, which it can enter, occupy and resurrect. When desperate to find a dead body, a baak sometimes frequents river banks. In its malevolent form, a baak can kill a person and take the killed person’s shape. But it often looks for corpses, such as those dumped in or near a water body after a crime or who die due to drowning. Our guide told us the terrifying story of a fellow guide, Pravaal, who was taking a group of five tourists by boat to explore the upper reaches of the mighty Brahmaputra. Their boat capsized in the treacherous whirlpools and rapids for which the river is so well known. Only one tourist and Pravaal survived.
However, Pravaal was a completely different person after he recovered from the ordeal. To some extent, this was understandable since he had experienced a close shave with death. But his swings of mood — jocular and smiling and then suddenly abusive and scowling without any provocation coupled with unexplained disappearances to no one knew where mystified everyone. The mystery was solved when an ojha arrived to perform some rituals for a family living near Pravaal’s home. The ojha ran into Pravaal while asking for directions and sheer mayhem ensued. It was the ojha’s experience of the supernatural that saved him from the malevelont baak that had taken possession of Pravaal’s body when he drowned at the time the boat capsized. But even the skills of the ojha could not prevent the wily baak from escaping.
Children are also easy prey for baaks. In Bihar, there are somewhat similar spirits called pandubbas — the ghosts of people who drowned in ponds, lakes, wells, rivers, etc, but their needs and modus operandi is different. For benign baaks, contact with humans is also a must, and this usually takes the form of playing tricks on humans, usually children, by assuming different forms. People sometimes mistake a baak with pretas — ghosts of men or women who died by violence and whose corpses were disposed off without getting the death rituals done for them by their family or the family was unaware of the death and so they did not perform the rituals at all or only partially. Once in a while, a baak is also confused with a khetar — a spirit which harms children. But a bej or ojha is quickly able to differentiate.
The use of an egg for exorcising and divining purposes is common all over the northeast. And in Assam, the system of drawing lines and circles on the ground and the use of certain powders, leaves, sticks and a bird or animal, either living or dead is usually a part of magical and supernatural activities. This diagramatic system, described as mangal-cowa in medieval Assamese literature, is also used to determine good or evil happenings. To ward off evil spirits or liberate trapped spirits and for other supernatural matters, there are mantras in both Assamese and Sanskrit.
Evicting a baak from a corpse which it has occupied is as difficult as preventing it from killing another human to enter a new body. But it is even more difficult to liberate a baak, especially a malevolent baak and give it moksha. That is because generally, the ‘consciousness levels ’ of baaks have over an inestimatable period duirng which they have remained trapped, become debased and they are intent simply on ‘possessing’ a dead form for survival.
Performing the necessary rituals for those who have died and consigning their bodies to the flames, the earth or whatever other way is preferred is very important, both in the larger context and to prevent evil spirits from taking possession of an unclaimed or undiscovered body. Not too long ago, a taxi driver who had been missing for over a year suddenly turned up at home in Dehradune. His parents were overjoyed but puzzled because he seemed to have changed so much, would hardly talk, was ill-tempered, etc.
They checked with me, I recommended a baba, and after a terrible physical struggle in which the baba was protected by his mantras, the powerful preta that entered the taxi driver was ‘caught’, subdued and ‘buried’. Immediately, an unbearable stench arose from the taxi driver, who had been killed near a canal over a year ago by an unknown person or persons, apparently for his vehicle, and his body dumped in the bushes near the canal. The decomposed body of the taxi driver was cremated under directions from the baba, and the taxi driver’s soul got peace. But the canal preta is still awaiting moksha.