Tens of thousands trek to exorcist fair in India

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

MALAJPUR, India -- Farm laborer Jeevan dragged his kicking and screaming wife by her hair toward the priests at the temple of Guru Deoji Maharaj.

Jeevan said she was possessed by evil spirits and needed to be exorcised.

He was among tens of thousands of rural Indians who trekked to the monthlong exorcism fair held every year at the temple in central India.

Jeevan said his wife, Jagoti, had changed after they married.

"She was a good girl and a loving wife. But for the past two years, there has been a sudden drastic change in her behavioral pattern," he said. "She utters bad language, abuses neighbors, beats up the children, doesn't wear clothes and speaks in a man's voice and a strange language."

Starting on the Hindu auspicious day of Paush Purnima, a full moon night in January, the temple's exorcism fair offers treatment to all who have fallen under the spell of ghosts and evil spirits. On the first day this year, some 70,000 people came to the village.

The majority of those brought for help are women with postnatal problems, but families also bring men, most of whom are suffering mental disorders.

Psychiatrists say the women may be suffering from treatable mental disorders, but their families believe the behavior is due to possession by evil spirits.

Doctors also speculate that some women who lead lives of drudgery toiling in the house and fields act possessed to garner attention from their families or to get a break from the dreariness of life.

"She starts showing unusual symptoms, behaving strangely. Once she acts as if possessed, everyone gives her attention. The husband who never spoke to her all day will sit next to her and pay attention," said Sumit Roy, a psychiatrist in Bhopal.

Malajpur is a featureless village whose claim to fame is the temple and its 200 Hindu priests who say they have been trained in the art of expelling evil spirits.

No one knows how the practice of exorcism began, but head priest Chandra Singh Mahant said the fair has been observed annually for about 250 years.

Treatment often includes being beaten by the priests.

Jeevan's wife rolled on the ground as a priest beat her with a broom. Her hair matted and sari muddied from her contortions, Jagoti shrieked repeatedly until she fainted.

"Bring her back tomorrow if she's not better," Mahant advised her husband.

Many become hysterical

Exorcisms start in the late evening each night of the fair.

Those believed to be possessed are made to circle the temple clockwise. Severe cases must walk backward. As the temple gong sounds, priests chant mantras and the crowd shouts.

People being treated become hysterical. Women savagely toss their hair or roll on the ground. Some run wild. As they shriek and shout, their relatives bring them before the priest, who sprinkles them with sacred water.

Psychiatrists say exorcists can have some success because they are usually people in positions of authority.

"People suffering from hysteria respond to authority," said Roy. "Exorcists speak in loud, authoritative voices, and the patients respond to their commands."

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