Suspense 2019, Short Stories - Tanmaya Tapaswini Murmu


Tunia-Bonga: A Folk Story from the Santal World of Odisha

By Tanmaya Tapaswini Murmu


This story is about a Santal belief on the supernatural forces of nature, personified in the ghostly form of a Tunia-Bonga. These Tunia-Bongas are maleficent ‘spirits’ that are worshiped by certain families, especially those who have financial constraints in the Santal community. In the Santal community, divinity is categorized into two parts: (a) “good” Bongas such as Jahera-Era, Gosaen-Era, ManjhiHaram-Bonga, etc and (b) malevolent gods such as Tunia-Bonga. The highest form of worship is for Marang-Buru who is the highest form of god head among the Santal worshippers.


Belief is something that takes a material form even without engaging with it in reality, but by the bewitching words woven by the teller of the story. I am narrating one of the tales that I have heard from my father regarding the story of these supernatural beings who are beyond the comprehension of human ‘realistic setup’. It is one of the rural legends that are located in my imagination even now. I heard this story from my father when I tried to venture into an abandoned house in the village of Kasira in Keonjhar district, where they say a supernatural being was kept under worship.


It is the story Tunia-Bonga (Bonga- spirits), who in the pitch dark with his Bhara (refers to two baskets of gold tied on a long pole carried over the shoulders) goes to people’s khala badi (paddy storage space beside the homes of the farmers) to rob their crops that are ready for harvest. Bongas are both male and female spirits and these are supposed to be the protectors of the families that worship them.


These tiny shadowy figures of Tunia-Bongas can only be seen in the silhouette of the moonlight. They emerge stealthily and take away the grains from paddy storage areas of people’s houses. However, what petrified my father is that the people who worship these Bongas might take me (abduct children) and sacrifice me before this Bonga. For years this supernatural being has been causing nuisance for the family who were its caretaker. It is believed that the worshipper of this kind of malevolent God had to sacrifice to the Bongas all the time with proper rituals for their own survival and well-being. Or else they will cause innumerable problems to the family who worship the Bonga.


When I asked my father, in childish innocence what if we capture him while he is stealing and taking away the Bhara, and beat him so that it can never be able to steal? My father said that it is even more troublesome because the person who takes his Bhara will be endlessly tortured by him until they gave up his belongings. Even if the person would return the Bonga his things, the Bonga would again comeback and take away the paddies to his devotees’ place.


It was said that he was worshipped during the day once in a year or two with strict procedure, secretly away from people’s presence. This practice is apparently being still pursued even in the twenty first century. However, if neglected he will cause troubles for the family that he signed the contract with. Therefore, this Bonga is feared and the family is disgraced from the Santal society.


They are not invited to the community rituals. So they become isolated and welcome only those who are unaware of their doings. My father also said that there is a one such Bonga close to our maternal house. That large field abandoned for years has no buyers even if the nearby plots were sold. Fearing that “HE” will be back again to live in that house if it is rebuilt by someone else. However, HE was chased away by the same person that had been rearing him.


The idea is that Bongas are deeply attached to the possessions that they steal and bring to the worshippers’ place. Therefore, the caretaker of the Bonga bundled all the silver coins that had been under his possession through the Bonga, took them into a faraway place and threw them with the hope that the Bonga may go away with his possessions and may never return.


Today when I am thinking of the story, it seems to have much similarity with the movie of Tumbbad (2018). The story of Tumbbadun folds as follows; when the universe was formed it was thought that the Goddess of Plenty (gold and paddies) was the progenitor of sixteen crores of Gods and Goddess, born from the earth what was supposed to be her womb. Among them Haster, was her first child that she favored the most.


Since Goddess of Plenty showered a lot of attention on Haster, he became arrogant and took all the things, such as gold and paddy for granted. He took away all the gold from his mother first and left the paddy for other gods and goddesses. However, when he realized the significance of the paddy, he started to covet for the paddy crops.


This was when the other gods and goddess attacked him and tried to kill him. The attack tore Haster and left no traces of him. However, Goddess plenty took pity on him and collected the traces of Haster and buried it deep inside her womb, on the condition that no one will ever worship or mention his name as a God. After that he went to his eternal slumber inside the mother’s womb.


However, some Brahmins of the village Tumbaad rediscovered the traces of Haster in a piece of land and they realized the magical potential of this ‘god’ to give boons of gold. The never ending greed of these human beings led them to build a temple for Haster, and they worshipped. This protagonist was a greedy person, who approached the fallen God Haster by invoking him in some kind of dreadful looking creature.


However, after being intoxicated with the endless provision of gold of Haster for years, the protagonist and his son thought of killing the last trace of Haster and stealing the gold from him, which led to even their ultimate downfall. At the end of the movie it was seen that the protagonist was set ablaze by his own son. The Tunia Bongas are also worshipped for favor and more paddy by their caretakers. However, just like Haster in the movie, they can also turn into destructive forces for the very families that were taking care of them.


I am not sure whether the Bonga’s existence is derived from Hindu mythology or are they just some kind of a scary, chilling sensation of natural phenomena. The fact is that they were nature’s children and all this destruction of crops is associated with nature’s doing. The symbolism of the story is that these Bongas seem to be like nature’s agents who leave the chaff for the farmer while they take away the ‘good grains’. The Santal belief gives them the shape of a supernatural being who steals crops from one person’s house in order to fill the treasure chest of their devotees. In both ways there is an attempt to make sense by the Santal farmer about where does their crop disappear. These are phenomena that cannot be explained with science, but only through belief until time proves or disproves it.


Note: This story was written at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar under the supervision of Dr. Arnapurna Rath, from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Gandhinagar.


Tanmaya Tapaswini Murmu is a visiting student at IIT Gandhinagar. She recently completed her Post graduation in Cultural Studies at the Utkal University of Culture, Odisha. Tanmaya is interested in Santal stories of Odisha. She is preparing for her doctoral research on Santals of Odisha.


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