On dark nights, before the new moon: The restless dead seek peace. And Puri heals them

Deepta Roy Chakraverti
Deepta Roy ChakravertiJun 02, 2019 | 16:58

On dark nights, before the new moon: The restless dead seek peace. And Puri heals them

Many have spotted a long stream of misty shapes slowly walking in a line towards the sea. Those who know, fear it, but also bow their heads in prayer for it.

The dead walk in our midst.

Some half remembering a sudden end. Some in limbo, flowing in a ceaseless blackness.

Violently killed in a sudden accident. Beaten and battered in a terrible crime. Or perhaps drowned in the frothing waters of the sea at Puri.

On certain nights in the seaside temple town in Odisha, when the sky is dark, and the moon shows not a sliver of light, those who know the legends of the land shut their windows and close their doors tight. On these nights, even a frantic knocking will not persuade them to open their slats and look out.


For on these dark nights, they say, if you look out, a long stream of misty shapes can be seen, slowly walking in a line towards the sea.

Those who have seen it, speak of how it carries with it the smell of damp earth, and a miasma seems to hang in the air as the procession passes. Often, a faint clanging of bell metal can be heard, accompanying this strange line of mist.

Those who know, fear it, but also bow their heads and join their palms in prayer for a moment if they get a hint of the fog, or if they hear a distant chime over the crashing of the sea waves.

The procession is led by Jagannath, the Great One, the only one who can put tormented souls to rest. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For they all know that the one who leads the procession is Jagannath, the Great One, who holds sway over life and death. He is the only one who can put to rest souls in torment, those who cannot find rest. As they clamour and cluster around the Great Power, he draws them to himself, and on these nights of the dark moon, lead them down to the sandy shores of the Bay of Bengal.


I witnessed it once many, many summers ago, when I was staying at a heritage hotel overlooking the sea.

A red gravel driveway led to a whitewashed two-storey building, stretching out on both sides. Dark green slatted windows dotted the walls, and red cement floors gleamed in the bright afternoon sunlight. Air conditioning hadn’t yet taken over Puri hotels and the rooms had large, old-fashioned windows, and wide verandas running along it. As the sun set and darkness crept close, white-clad bearers with dark cummerbunds would make the bed and stretch pristine white mosquito nets across the bedposts. A jug of cold water would be put on the bedside table, and a mosquito coil would be left to burn.

I witnessed it once many summers ago — it left me shaken and unsure. (Source: Reuters)

It drew one into another world. One night as I lay in bed, with the lights off, the sea breeze drifting in and the sound of the waves rumbling in the distance, I was lulled to sleep. It was absolutely dark when I woke up suddenly, hearing faint high-pitched voices, as though chanting, and the tinkling of metal bells. It seemed to rise and fall, almost as if it was right there, and yet not.


Awake now, I pushed aside the mosquito net and went to the window.

A strange sight met my eyes.

A column of something white and smoky was drifting over the sands, in the direction of the sea. In places, where the mist was thinner, I could make out human forms, walking as if in a slow stupor. Sounds were drifting all around the procession as it snaked down through the sands. Snatches of voices, chiming bells, a voice calling out. Random and yet distinct. It disappeared in less than a minute, leaving me, the next morning, very unsure as to whether I had really seen anything at all.

Where restless souls are ferried to the other side... (Picture for representational purposes only) (Source: Reuters)

The poor fishermen and nulias (local lifeguards) who live close to the elements and in little communities by the shore often have strange tales to tell.

They told me one, some years ago, of a foreign tourist, an expert swimmer, who had come to Puri, and had walked into the waters, saying he did not need the local nulias, he could tackle any wave in any sea. How, past the breakers, he had been caught in a sharp current. By the time the nulias went out to him, it was too late. Later, his body was washed ashore some miles away. And then, the next month, at the time of the new moon, one of the nulias who had peered out from his shack, had seen the sahab — the tall, pale form, with cropped blond hair, walking with wooden movements in a procession of mist and shapes, winding down the beach to the dark waters.

While Puri, in Odisha, has this strange legend, far away in another part of the world, similar lore rises from the Hawaiian Island.

The legend of the Huaka'i Pō or the legend of the 'nightmarchers'. On certain nights, in the waxing and waning of the moon, a band of spirits is believed to march in procession from the mountains to the seas, accompanied by the sound of drums and chants.

There are places in the world, where the restless dead can find peace — I believe Puri is one of them.

Last updated: June 02, 2019 | 16:58
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