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Spirits thrashed out of girls at ghost fair

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RASHEED KIDWAI Published 01.02.05, 12:00 AM

Betul (Madhya Pradesh), Jan 31: Rama Devi shook uncontrollably as the priest dragged her towards a tomb. She appeared to be saying something but the words made no sense.

?What is your name?? Chandra Singh, the priest, asked the 16-year-old.

He is not speaking to her, somebody among the crowd of onlookers explained. He is speaking to the ghost inside her.

The priest pulled her ear hard. Then he began thrashing her with a broom. As her cries faded, the crowd broke into a cheer. She is free of the ghost.

Rama is among hundreds of girls who have been brought to Malajpur, a nondescript village in the Satpura ranges, to be ?exorcised? at the annual ?bhoot pret ka mela? or ghost fair. The centre of the action is a ?temple? with a raised marble platform. Those said to be possessed encircle the platform chanting mantras.

Ram Charan Malviya, one of the priests, said the temple was founded by Guru Maharaj Deoji, a saint who lived in the 18th century. According to residents of the village, 300 km south of Bhopal, Deoji could perform ?miracles? like turning water into ghee.

One legend has it that once he opened a village grain store to feed the birds. When the owner complained, Deoji asked him to take what he needed from a sack of grain. But however much he took, there was still some grain left.

Residents of the Betul village said the saint passed on his extraordinary powers to expel ?evil spirits? to four of his disciples who in turn passed on the secret mantras to their successors. Part of the ritual is a severe beating with brooms after the possessed is led to Deoji?s samadhi (tomb).

Shamim Modi, a woman activist who has also contested Assembly polls as an Independent, said many of the ?possessed? who come to be exorcised suffer from epilepsy, schizophrenia or depression. But as no one in villages has heard of such conditions, people assume they are possessed. Moreover, Betul is one of the state?s most backward districts.

Shamim?s husband Anurag, an associate of Narmada Bhachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar, said nearly 85 per cent of the so-called possessed are women. In a conservative village society, many women find themselves powerless and ignored, he said. In their desperate bid for attention, some refuse to do the housework or start behaving strangely which leads the men to believe a ghost has possessed them.

One of the possessed, Malti, appeared to be struggling with an invisible enemy. Dressed in a green sari, her hair dishevelled, her hands clawed at the empty air as she wept and ran around the platform, yelping loudly. Then the exorcism began as the priests helped her move closer to the samadhi.

Belief in ghosts is widespread in rural Madhya Pradesh. Those who bring their relatives to the fair believe their bodies have been taken over by the ghosts of the ?undead? and that exorcism is the only release. As beating with a broom is considered a dishonour, the ghost is subjected to the shame, not the person whose body it has possessed, explained Charan Singh, another priest.

Malviya claimed that after the thrashing, the ghosts take shelter in a Banyan tree a few hundred metres away from the samadhi. ?There are thousands of ghosts in that tree,? he said.

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