Religious ritual sparks outrage in India

Tamil Nadu is probing the ritual involving a priest stepping on devotees’ backs while wearing sandals with nails
The Straits Times (Singapore), Mar. 9, 2003
By V.k.raghunathan

NEW DELHI – Devotees, mostly women, in south India are allowing a priest, wearing thick wooden sandals embedded with nails, to walk over them in the belief that the ritual would cure them of their ailments or even bless the childless with a baby.

The annual ritual at the Poochiyur temple near the city of Coimbatore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu has been conducted for years without a complaint.

But this year, it sparked outrage among local media and prompted the State Human Rights Commission to call for an investigation.

The commission has since demanded an explanation from the temple administration and conducted a site inspection.

Television footage of the ritual last weekend showed a priest – holding on to his aides for support – making his way slowly across a row of devotees lying on their stomach.

Originally, only women submitted themselves to the ritual in the belief that it would help them conceive. Single women also took part in the hope of finding a life partner.

But soon, more people, including men, started taking part in the hope of a divine cure.

This ritual is conducted around the time of the Mahasivarathiri festival dedicated to Lord Siva, the Hindu god of destruction.

It is practised in many temples in the area around Coimbatore, a city known for its textile industries.

Though human-rights activists and medical experts say the practice exposes the devotees to great risk, the participants insisted there was nothing wrong or harmful in it.

Mr Ossi Fernandes, director, Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation, told The Sunday Times: ‘It is a great violation of human rights. Religion cannot be used to deprive people of their basic right to live in dignity as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.’

Ms Bhuvaneshwari, state secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, said: ‘These obscurantist practices are growing in Tamil Nadu along with communal fascism. This is dangerous.’

She told The Sunday Times that even if people are injured in the process, they think it is ‘God’s punishment for something they have done’.

However, a devotee told Aaj Tak television that the ritual had been conducted for years and there had been no complaints so far.

It had become a controversy only because of reports in the media.

The Hindu newspaper cited other devotees as saying it was the feet of the priest – not their backs – that was in contact with the nails as the nails were embedded on the upper side of the wooden sandals.

They also claimed that since two or three people helped to support the priest, they would come to no harm.

However, according to the Hindu, medical experts disputed such a claim.

They said that the priest’s weight, even if he were supported by other people, would exert a tremendous amount of pressure on the spinal area of the devotees.

This would put them at risk of a serious back injury or even paralysis of the lower limbs.

A retired police official, however, said there was not much the law enforcement authorities could do in the absence of any complaint against the practice.

‘It is a superstitious belief but not an offence. The police cannot take action if people consent to be part of the ritual.’

If the police were to take action against the practice, they could face the charge of denying people their ‘constitutional right’ to worship, he said.

But Mrs C. K. Gariyali, Social Welfare Secretary of the Tamil Nadu government, said law enforcement alone was not enough.

‘These old traditions and customs can be changed slowly by creating an awareness among the people and educating them,’ she told The Sunday Times.

Strange practices in Tamil Nadu

Other rituals and superstitious beliefs in Tamil Nadu include:

Children are buried alive for a while to appease gods in some villages near Madurai city as part of the Muthalamman festival.

During Mahasivarathiri, a Hindu religious festival, some people take part in the Mayana Vettai, or graveyard looting. They go on a midnight procession to the burial grounds to dig up human bones and chew on them.

In the Namakkal area in Tamil Nadu, women from villages used to strip and pray in the nude for rain.

Last year, villagers near Kovilpatti town organised a wedding for two donkeys to appease the rain gods.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday March 9, 2003.
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