The Bonga’s Cave

A Santhal Pargana Tale

translated by Cecil Henry Bompas

There was once a young bonga who dwelt in a cave in the side of a hill in the jungle; and every day he placed on a flat stone outside, a pot of oil and a comb and a looking glass and some lamp black or vermilion; any woman who went to the jungle could see these things lying there; but they were never visible to a man. After a time the girls who went to the jungle began to use the comb and looking glass and to dress and oil their hair there; it became a regular custom for them to go first to the flat stone before collecting their firewood or leaves.

One day five girls went together to the jungle and after they had combed and dressed their hair it happened that one got left behind; and seeing her alone the bonga came out of the cave and creeping up quietly from behind threw his arms round her; and although she shouted to her friends for help he dragged her inside the cave. Her companions were just in time to see her disappear; and they begged and prayed the bonga to let the girl go for once; but the bonga answered from within that he would never let her go but was going to keep her as his wife; and he drew a stone door over the mouth of the cave. News of the misfortune was sent to the girl’s parents and they came hastening to the place; and her mother began to sing:

“My daughter, you rubbed your hair with oil from a pot:

My daughter, you combed your hair with a comb with one row of teeth;

Come hither to me, my daughter.”

And the girl sang from within the cave:

“Mother, he has shut me in with a stone

With a stone door he has shut me in, mother

Mother, you must go back home.”

Then her father sang the same song and got the same answer; so they all went home. Then the girl’s father’s younger brother and his wife came and sang the song and received the same answer and then her mother’s brother and father’s sister came and then all her relations, but all in vain. Last of all came her brother riding on a horse and when he heard his sister’s answer he turned his horse round and made it prance and kick until it kicked open the stone door of the cave; but this was of no avail for inside were inner doors which he could not open; so he also had to go home and leave his sister with the bonga.

The girl was not unhappy as the wife of the bonga and after a time she proposed to him they should go and pay a visit to her parents. So the next day they took some cakes and dried rice and set off; they were welcomed right warmly and pressed to stay the night. In the course of the afternoon the girl’s mother chanced to look at the provisions which they had brought with them; and was surprised to see that in place of cakes was dried cowdung and instead of rice, leaves of the meral tree. The mother called her daughter in to look but the girl could give no explanation; all she knew was that she had put up cakes and dried rice at starting. Her father told them all to keep quiet about the matter lest there should be any unpleasantness and the bonga decline to come and visit them again.

Now the girl’s brother had become great friends with his bonga brother-in-law and it was only natural that when the bonga and his wife set off home the next morning he should offer to accompany them part of the way. Off they started, the girl in front, then the bonga and then her brother; now the brother had hidden an axe under his cloth and as they were passing through some jungle he suddenly attacked the bonga from behind and cut off his head. Then he called to his sister that he had killed the bonga and bade her come back with him; so the two turned back and as they looked round this saw that the bonga’s head was coming rolling after them. At this they started to run and ran as hard as they could until they got to the house and all the way the head came rolling after until it rolled right into the house. There was a fire burning on the hearth and they plucked up courage to take the head and throw it into the fire where it was burnt to ashes. That was the end of the bonga but eight or nine days later the girl’s head began to ache and in spite of all medicines they applied it got worse and worse until in a short time she died. Then they knew that the bonga had taken her away and had not given her up.

(Bongas, i.e. the spirits which the Santals believe to exist everywhere, and to take an active part in human affairs. Bongas frequently assume the form of young men and women and form connections with human beings of the opposite sex.)