Thousands of people attend the centuries-old exorcism rites in the remote village of Malajpur. But psychiatrists say many of the ‘possessed’ are really mentally ill. By Justin Huggler
26 January 2005
The village of Malajpur isn’t even on the map. It is a tiny, dirt-poor place at the end of a dusty road, nestled among the hills of Madhya Pradesh. For most of the year, nobody comes to visit – there wouldn’t be any reason to. But once a year, during a full moon at the end of January, tens of thousands of Indians gather here as night falls. They come from hundreds of miles away to the unprepossessing temple at the edge of Malajpur for the ghost fair.
As the evening starts to draw in, you have to press your way into the temple through a surging crowd. You get pushed and dragged from side to side – people could get crushed at any minute. The “temple” consists of a raised marble platform. People are processing around the platform, chanting a mantra. But this a procession of the weird and freakish.
A woman in a blue sari, her hair wild and dishevelled, is holding out her hands in front of her as if she is trying to ward off some invisible enemy. There is a look of terror on her face, and her hands push desperately at the empty air. From time to time she seems to give up and sinks to her knees, weeping. Her husband has to comfort her and urge her on, back into the strange procession.
Another man seems to be trying desperately to escape from something. He is running at full tilt around the platform, yelping horribly at the top of his voice, while several other men try to hold him back.
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These are the “possessed”, and they have come here to be exorcised. The “temple” at Malajpur is not a temple to any particular god. It is a shrine to Guru Maharaj Deoji, a long-dead Hindu holy man who, devotees believe, had the power to exorcise ghosts and evil spirits and has passed it on to his successors, the priests here.
As darkness falls, the faithful crowd climb onto the platform, around the grave of Guru Maharaj Deoji, to hold the full-moon prayers. Then the exorcism begins. The woman in the blue sari – her name is Shubna – stands in front of the grave of the holy man, where the high priest, Chandra Singh, is waiting. She is jerking uncontrollably from side to side now, speaking wild gibberish, a stream of incoherent syllables. The priest leads her forward and pulls her arms down to the marble of the tomb. They seem to get stuck to the stone: she looks as if she is trying to pull them away but cannot.
Then the priest starts to ask her what her name is. He is not speaking to Shubna, the devotees explain, but to the ghost inside her. “All right, all right, I will leave this woman’s body,” Shubna, or the ghost speaking through her, says. “I promise I will not come back and possess anybody else”. But then the ghost appears to become resistant and the priest starts to shout. He pulls Shubna hard by her ear, then he spins her around and hits her hard in the back with a broom handle. You can hear the thud of the broom against her back.
The crowd is pushing restlessly, people trying to get a better view. The air is thick with a foul-smelling incense that stings the back of your throat and makes your eyes water. However sceptical you are, when you’re close enough to see the spittle flying from the terrified “possessed” woman’s mouth as she raves, it is an unnerving experience.
Shubna is “exorcised” and stumbles away, blinking. Next is a man who takes longer to exorcise. The priests whisper that there are two ghosts inside him. After he has been through the same ordeal as Shubna he comes over to talk.
His name is Gyan Singh Thakur, and he is 35. “I had two ghosts inside me,” he says. “One was a man, his name was Shankar. He said he was from my village but I don’t remember anyone of that name. He may have died a long time ago. The other was a woman, I don’t know her name…” Suddenly he breaks off in mid-sentence as he is speaking and jerks his body into an extraordinary, contorted position, as if he were being twisted by some unseen force. He starts to jabber strange meaningless syllables again. “Another ghost,” says one of the priests and drags him back to the front, where the high priest starts to exorcise him again.
It is an intense and frightening experience in the moonlight. But it is not the only thing that is disturbing about the ghost fair. In the light of day, before the ceremony began and the hysteria set in, you could see another side to the ghost fair.
Not all of the people who had been brought here by their relatives to be “exorcised” spoke of being possessed by a ghost. Sarita, for instance, a 13-year-old girl in a yellow sari whose family were convinced she was possessed by an evil spirit. “She falls unconscious every two days or so, and she starts rambling. We can’t understand what language she is speaking in,” said her brother, Halil.
Her attacks sound suspiciously like some form of epilepsy, which is not going to be helped by being shouted at and beaten with a broom by a priest in front of a huge crowd by moonlight. “We took her to a doctor but he said she couldn’t be cured,” Halil says defensively. And when someone suggests she might need medical care instead of exorcism, the mood starts to turn ugly.
Belief in ghosts is widespread in rural India. You do not have to be in India long to meet someone who has a story about ghosts. Big cities like Bombay and Delhi may be too sophisticated for that sort of thing, but Malajpur is a long way from the brave new India of Bollywood, call centres, and the world’s second fastest growing economy. Little of India’s rapid modernisation has permeated the country’s remote villages, where life continues much as it has for centuries.
The people who bring their relatives to the ghost fair believe that their bodies have been taken over by the ghosts of the dead, and that exorcism is the only release for them. But Indian sceptics say they may be the victims of ignorance.
Indian psychiatrists have expressed fears that many of the “possessed” who come here seeking to be exorcised are in fact suffering from medical conditions, such as epilepsy, or psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia or clinical depression. But in the villages, no one has heard of such conditions and so people assume they are possessed. There is another theory. A very high proportion of the “possessed”, as much as 90 per cent, are women. Some psychologists have suggested this stems from the powerlessness of most women in Indian village society, where women find themselves relegated to household chores, and are often largely ignored. In a desperate bid for attention, they refuse to do the housework, or start to behave strangely. The men believe that they have changed because they have been possessed by a ghost.
Vijay Pawar brought his 28-year-old wife, Vidya, to be exorcised. “It began one and a half months ago,” he said. “She won’t eat, won’t behave in an ordinary fashion. She is completely blank when you speak to her. She won’t do her work around the house. She has changed drastically since she gave birth to our youngest child. She used to be a good housewife.”
The priests at the temple have their own explanation for what is wrong with the “possessed”. “These people are not insane. There is a difference between insanity and being possessed,” says Ram Charan Malviya, the temple spokesman. “Insane people still know their own names and addresses. But if you ask someone who is possessed, they won’t say their own name, they’ll say the name of the spirit that is possessing them.”
Mr Malviya has a long snow-white beard, and silvery hair halfway down his back. As he speaks, the high priest is receiving a steady stream of pilgrims who prostrate themselves before him or kiss his feet. They ask him to bless protective threads, and each puts an offering of cash on top of a steadily mounting pile of money at his feet.
“In Hindu belief, you have to live through 8,400,000 reincarnations,” says Mr Malviya. “One of these is as a ghost, and it is the longest life. Once, we exorcised a man of a ghost who was living in the time of Lord Rama.” According to Hindu belief, that was 5,000 years ago.
“When the priests exorcise the ghosts, they order them to go into the banyan tree over there. There are thousands of ghosts in that tree.” By daylight, it is a handsome old tree. Later, in the moonlight, it will take on a distinctly sinister appearance.
Guru Maharaj Deoji, the founder of the temple here, lived in the 18th century. His followers say he performed a number of miracles. He turned water into ghee, the clarified butter Indians cook with. He made sweets out of the dust for children. Once, he opened up the village grain store and fed the birds with their grain. When the villagers complained, he told them to take what they needed from the one remaining sack of grain. And however much they took, the sack never ran out.
He made the blind see again. Once a British officer told the guru to carry his bags for him. The guru threw them into a tree and they stayed hanging there. The people said that he had no shadow.
He had no priests for his temple but appointed four of what Mr Malviya calls “soldiers”, who he trained in the art of exorcism. Today’s priests are the descendants of those “soldiers” — the skills of exorcism have been handed down from generation to generation.
According to Mr Malviya, the power of exorcism comes from a powerful mantra the guru taught his followers.
Beating the “possessed” with a broom heaps insult on injury: being beaten with a broom is a great dishonour in Indian culture, because brooms used to be considered “untouchable”. But it is the ghost that is threatened with the shame of the beating, not the person whose body it has possessed.
Meanwhile the pile of money at the high priest’s feet continues to grow. But whether you are a sceptic or a believer, there’s no doubting the suffering of the “possessed” is real, whatever its cause. Dasri Bai, a gaunt 50-year-old woman, shuffles up and tells us she is possessed. Her eyes are certainly haunted. “When the ghost comes into me my head spins and my whole body aches,” she said. “I don’t know the ghost’s name, I can never remember it. I am very scared. During the night I don’t want to be alone because the ghost might come.” But she lives alone: she was widowed young, before she could have any children.
The young man who was running around the temple platform as if trying to escape from something calling itself “Ganesh”. He was “exorcised” by the high priest, and afterwards he told his story.
“I had this problem that I couldn’t sleep. In my sleep I used to feel that some one was strangling me.” A married man with three young children, his life had been brought to a standstill. “I didn’t know the ghost’s name but I felt he was trying to kill me,” he says.