Humanity’s belief in the concept of a restless soul seeking closure for pain that it endured as a living person goes back to ancient times and continues to be a part of many cultures. According to such urban legends and folklore, restless souls wander the world of the living seeking to have their grievances addressed, and will not pass on until they have found closure.
Over the years, I have heard stories of souls with ‘unfinished business’ in just about every culture I’ve encountered. I have often wondered–is it us humans who are haunted by their absence–or do restless souls truly reside amongst us? Rituals and ceremonies to cleanse areas where restless souls may reside are still commonplace–even in modern cities where people will no longer openly admit to the existence of the ‘paranormal’. In my debut novel, The Little Light, I wrote about how souls that do not receive the proper funeral rites could linger on in between realms with no real place to go.
Every time I discuss this concept, I have a strong sense that we as humans are speaking of inklings and vague nuances of understanding—not verifiable facts. How does a city girl like me even begin to wrap my head around this concept? I have a chat with Azamat from Kyrgyzstan regarding this topic. Azamat now lives in Tokyo–where we first met some five years ago. In this fireside chat, he shares stories from his childhood.
Dipa: Every culture has folklore of spirits who have not crossed over. What are some of the stories from Kyrgyzstan?
Azamat: In my village–and I add as a caveat that this was some 20 years ago–we have a term called aian — a sign. They–the spirits–don’t directly tell you what is happening, but they give you sign that something has gone wrong or something good is coming. And people believe in that. The first thing they do is pray—either reading the Quran, going to the graveyard and praying there or just praying at home.
We have a shamanistic practise as well—where we have a tree—it’s a special tree, I’ve never seen it in my village as it grows in the mountainous areas. In summer time, we used to go to the mountains with yurts. We would go to the sacred springs and do some shamanic rituals. They would cut the branches of a tree called archa. They would cut the branches of that specific tree and then we dry them and every household has branches they keep at home all the time.
Let’s say that person saw a dream with a person or an ancestor. They would burn this branch. This branch would ordinarily smoulder and it would have this smoke. They would use this branch and go around the room. It is a ritual that we do to purify the room and cleanse it from bad spirits. I think people do those things to recover from the contact from these souls.
Dipa: What are they recovering from?
Azamat: For example, if there is a negative or a dangerous sign they received—the living person is disturbed because the ancestors are telling him that something is wrong or that there is something that he or she doesn’t understand. Therefore they do these Islamic or Tengri rituals to recover.
In the village, there have been some times where I’ve seen people go out of their minds. They don’t lose themselves, of course. But sometimes, they are uncontrollably emotional. During these times, we call the emotional state of the person—possessed by the jinn. And that’s a serious situation. In that case, family members praying is not enough. In that situation, you have to call a shaman-like person to do rituals on this person. There are tons of different rituals of which I am unaware. It could even last several days. There are many things to do before this person becomes stabilised.
People are considerate. They don’t think that it’s a mental illness. These temporary emotional states that people get into—instead of scientific explanations, they say they are controlled by jinns. They are of course extreme cases where we know people who are mentally ill—but we care about him. We don’t consider him dangerous. That person is not treated badly.
Dipa: What exactly are the jinn?
Azamat: There are stories I’ve heard whereby people use the same ‘prayers’ in a negative way. They may ask a shaman-like person to bring hair, paper or some object and pray on it and do something on it and then somehow make sure that the disliked person interacts with the object and it gets into the soul of the other person. There is also some belief in hypnosis—if you look in their eyes you will be under their spell. If they do a ‘prayer’, you will lose your mind.
Sometimes I think people who are good-natured can become bad after tampering with the jinn. Some people become alcoholics, or even physically sick because of this curse. Some people even become abusers at home. Some people would just leave their family or something like that. Lots of negative things can happen. Therefore in some households they have these talisman type of things or if this person were to become possessed—a stronger prayer would be needed for an amulet.
Dipa: A stronger prayer? What do you mean?
Azamat: Some people believe there are certain mullahs whose prayers are extremely strong. Maybe that person is talented or knows more about stronger prayers or has a stronger connection with these souls floating around. Those stronger prayers, amulets or talismans they give you—based on the prayers—that should save you from jinn possession.
Dipa: What would make a jinn possession particularly strong?
Azamat: I think that sometimes–say one family cast a spell on another family. There can be a physical impact on healthy people. Villagers don’t have scientific beliefs. They might think some bad soul got in and took over the consciousness of the child. They would go to doctors, but also consult with mullahs. There might be a case where it works, at least temporarily—or it may not work. Of course, parents will have hope—even if it is temporary and get more consultations and prayers.
In my village, there was a man whose prayers were believed to be quite strong. That person was a bit eccentric. I think maybe he died for a moment and then came back. He said he had some kind of connection with the other world which puts him in this in-between world where he has access between this universe and the other one and this gives him knowledge that is not accessible to people living a modern life. He would help people who were struggling as well as souls who were stuck in limbo to transition to the next world.
Dipa: What is the power of prayer? How would that help restless spirits move on?
Azamat: I’m leaning towards believing that it’s the placebo effect. And also maybe it might help if people truly believe in this. The brain is a living thing that changes physically with your thoughts. Which means if they truly believe—it changes the connections in their neutrons, which changes the organ it’s affecting. It saves you from the disturbance from the unknown things. This state of mind is difficult to handle.
Prayer—or some kind of belief system—helps them to calm down and find the answer they are looking for—which normalises their thoughts and in turn their souls.
Dipa: What is a ‘haunted place’? How do places become haunted?
Azamat: It’s common in many places—forests and so on. I think those kinds of places may become haunted—if you take your own life or if the person was killed or died really painfully by torture or something like that. Those places become haunted, I guess.
People who didn’t die naturally—whereby if they did—there would be smoother transition from this world into the next one—meaning the gates are open for you. Committing suicide or being tortured–it’s unnatural and the transition is not smooth and you’re left behind in this world. And the restless spirits may keep a physical manifestation at all costs—either though dreams or they are suffering—so that people in this world may need to pray more or get strong prayers until that soul stops its manifestation in real people’s lives.