The Witch Temple of MehandipurPrint
To an Indian town the possessed come in droves, their families desperate to be rid of the evil that curses them
By Edward Hower
November 30, 2011
The folktales that Indian villagers told me teemed with witches and eerie spirits. In one story I collected, seven hags cast a spell on a prince that made him catatonic while they danced in a frenzy around his bed. Another tale featured a man driven to madness when a demonic serpent crawled down his throat into his belly; only a wise priest’s white magic could force it to leave. The hero of another story had to strangle a duck into which an ogre’s life force had been transferred.
Some of the elderly women who told me these tales looked a little like witches themselves, I thought, with long, lumpy chins and eyes that bulged during the scary parts. They enjoyed cackling for the awestruck children who often clustered around us to listen. But I was assured by the local people that in this village there were no witches, because everyone was a devout Hindu … but in that village—my gaze was directed across the fields to the horizon—many witches flourished.
The translator I’d hired told me that witches, as well as demons, cherels, bhuts, djinns, and other supernatural beings, were believed to be the souls of people who had been murdered or who had died in some other violent or unnatural way, such as falling down a well. They were condemned to drift restlessly around the earth before being reincarnated. Some wanderers took human shape, often as mysterious crones, but many were invisible, and all were dangerous. People trained in witchcraft could summon them to put spells on enemies, causing illnesses, stillbirths, crop failures. Victims had to consult ritual healers to have curses removed and demons chased away.
I thought of these animistic ideas as holdovers from more primitive times, persistent scraps of tribal beliefs that had once been blended with the far fringes of Hinduism. In the Hindu temples I enjoyed visiting in Jaipur, the capital of the northern state of Rajasthan, where I lived, I found no signs of such disturbing forces. The temples were serene, often lavishly decorated places dedicated to benevolent deities. I found them to be havens from the crowded markets, the crush of urban traffic, and especially the severe, unsettling loneliness that often beset me living so far from home. Their floors were cool marble, their walls decorated with paintings of colorful deities: Lakshmi, the glamorous goddess of wealth; Ganesh, the chubby elephant-headed deity whom children loved to propitiate with candy; and noble Hanuman, the monkey-faced god who helped the hero Rama rescue his beloved Sita in one of Hinduism’s holy books, the Ramayana. Such divinities made cameo appearances in villagers’ folktales, too, rushing to the aid of brave warrior princes and faithful princesses. It always amazed me that busy peasants—men who plowed all day behind bullocks, women who toiled long hours over wood stoves—carried in their heads so much rich and elaborate literature.
When a visiting American anthropologist asked whether I’d like to accompany him to a town called Mehandipur, the site of a “witch temple” where he’d started doing fieldwork, I was eager to go, hoping to learn more about some of the spirits I’d heard about in the villagers’ tales. The temple, he told me, was the only one in India where pilgrims could bring insane family members to be cured. This aspect of the place sparked my interest, too, though I didn’t say so. When the anthropologist came down with an illness that confined him to his room at the university guesthouse, I decided to hire his driver and make the 60-mile journey by myself.
On the road, the driver was reluctant to talk about our destination. Perhaps to stop me from asking so many questions, he handed me a book the anthropologist had left in the car; it was about nuns who had run amok in a 17th-century French convent, believing themselves possessed by demons. Now I recalled that while teaching in Kenya years before, I’d read reports of uncontrollable laughing fits that broke out among students in several mission-run girls’ boarding schools; “mass hysteria” or “emotional contagion” had been blamed.
But France and Kenya seemed far removed from the peaceful scenes I was passing today. Out the window I watched turbaned men driving camel wagons, women in bright saris filling clay pitchers at a hand pump, boys playing tennis-ball cricket in an alley. The driver’s car was a Maruti, an Indian-made model named for the father of Hanuman; since the temple I’d be visiting was dedicated to Balaji, one of Hanuman’s avatars, I asked the driver whether he thought this coincidence was auspicious. He made no reply. As we drove farther into the desert, his cheerful expression faded.
I began to feel a little apprehensive myself as we approached the rocky Aravalli Hills, which jutted up from the desolate landscape. We passed gullies so raw they seemed to have been gouged out of the earth by enormous pickaxes. Wind-tormented thorn trees were the only vegetation. Just outside the town of Mehandipur, the road, nearly empty a few minutes before, became congested with traffic—cars and rumbling old buses, horse-drawn tongas, and bullock carts packed with pilgrims. People wandered the town’s one main street in a dusty haze the vehicles stirred up. Men’s clothes were shabby brown and gray; ghostlike women covered their heads with dark shawls.
The temple itself, rising between two hills, looked like none I’d seen before. Massive as an armory, with tall columns, built of grimy stone and brick, it took up almost all one side of the main street. Many of its arched windows were blocked up, its balconies crumbling. Crows swirled above the roof like ashes rising from a smoldering fire. As I stepped out of the car, scrawny children clustered around me. They thrust their hands into my face, clutched at my pants. “Hallo sah! Rupee sah!” they shrieked. Frightened, confused, I pushed away the little fingers. Rags flapping, the kids flocked off to accost some Indian pilgrims climbing down from a bus. One old woman was knocked to the ground. The children dove at her, heads bobbing as if they were trying to peck her to death.
The driver slipped away to a roadside tea stall. I approached the temple. Normally I didn’t think twice about leaving my shoes outside temples—the custom in India—but today I slipped them between two blocks of cement at the base of some stone steps. Barefoot, I felt vulnerable and precarious as I climbed the uneven stairs toward the entrance.
The foyer was gloomily lit, with no paintings of elegant goddesses on the walls, just smoke-smudged plaster. The air reverberated with murmuring voices and muffled thuds. I stood still, squinting curiously as the crowd shoved around me. Ahead was a woman sprawled on her side, her hips thrusting violently, her eyes jumping back in their sockets as if she were having agonizing orgasms. When a man knelt to hold her still, she tried to bite his arm, teeth flashing.
I was knocked sideways, my shoulder slammed against a wall. A crush of men crowded past, carrying what looked like a door. It was a door. A man was lashed to it with rope. His bullet head clunked against the heavy wood. Thrashing at his constraints, he’d torn away most of his clothes; his uncircumcised penis flapped like a frenzied fish. Wincing at his screams, I turned away. My impulse to both stay and flee were so confused that I found myself stamping my feet in place.
Someone tugged my arm. “I will guide you!” A boy in a patched tunic shouted at me over the racket. His hair was matted with dust; one of his eyes was milky white. “I am Praful. Knowing all temple things. Other forengee always hire me.” He spoke in a low, gravelly voice, as if he were a stunted adult masquerading as a kid. “Hundred rupees only!”
His fee seemed high, but the sound of his English reassured me. “Yeah, all right,” I agreed.
Eyes watering from clouds of thick smoke, I shuffled behind him, holding his shoulder. I made out a woman sitting cross-legged on the floor, her head and shoulders shaking hard, her face nearly hidden behind a tangle of black hair. According to Praful, she was “possessed by a preta,” or evil spirit, as a result of a curse put on her by malicious neighbors. Men and women squatted close around her, stroking her and speaking urgently to the preta—“Get out! Leave her!”
The woman’s lips curled back; the preta screeched through her mouth: “You people get away! Go fuck your sisters! Eat shit! ” Praful grinned as he translated, his good eye glowing.
A boy about Praful’s size but much darker came stumbling toward me. I tensed as if for the impact of his body, but he swerved away. Turning, I saw him caught by a tall man who tried to console him as he whimpered loudly. A memory came rushing back: once, a student at the school where I’d taught in Kenya raced up a hall and threw himself into my arms, gasping and weeping, before dashing erratically away. For days, the boy remained confused, trembling, unable to eat or sleep. Very concerned, I took him to the modern hospital in Nairobi, where a psychiatrist tried in vain to diagnose his case. “Send him back to his village,” I was told—by both a British and an African doctor. That meant, one of my Kenyan colleagues said, that he needed to be seen by a nganga, a traditional healer. Since the boy was nominally a Christian, one of the more religious teachers objected to sending him to a “primitive witch doctor.” He was overruled by the other teachers; a passage from the Bible (Matthew 8:28-33) was found that reported Jesus healing a man by casting out the demons that had possessed him.
After two weeks at home, the boy returned to school his normal, lively self, as if nothing had happened. His brothers, jealous that he’d been sent to school, had hired a sorcerer to cast a spell on him. But how had the spell been transmitted? What had the traditional healer done to remove it? These were matters, I was told, that a foreigner had no business asking about.
I thought I’d never forget that first brush with witchcraft, but so many people in Africa told me about similar experiences that they stopped seeming memorable. The Indians I knew in Kenya were slightly scornful of traditional African beliefs. Here in Rajasthan, my Indian university colleagues, who as children had enjoyed ghost stories told by household servants, were more tolerant of uneducated people’s ideas. They were glad, they said, that I was recording and writing down tales in the villages to preserve the nation’s oral heritage.
Yes, good … but how did the Indian pilgrims in the witch temple like having me in their midst? So far, they hadn’t taken much notice of me. They had a lot more pressing concerns.
Now I stood with a crowd before a cavelike altar illuminated by eerie red bulbs. Worshippers shouted chants and clanged a bronze bell that hung from the low, soot-stained ceiling. Behind a short fence, priests in grimy robes snatched puffed-rice balls from the pilgrims and thrust the offerings into glowing braziers. Plumes of sickly sweet smoke gushed up from the coals. Supplicants leaned forward en masse, mouths open as they tried to eat the smoke rendered holy by the priests. Farther along, people clutched at the sticky offerings that the priests had touched against the altar and returned. Some people squashed the ash-smeared balls between the lips of relatives too weak or disoriented to feed themselves. The god on the altar was Balaji himself: a stele painted a gleaming ocher with a monkey’s mouth below two black eye-dots. Hanuman in this form appeared drained of all nobility, reduced to a stony lump of raw capricious power.
Praful led me to a bigger stone image with an ocher-splotched face that peered out from necklaces of flower garlands that people had draped over its head. He said this figure was a helper of Balaji, a judge called Mahakal Bhairav, “the god of punishment,” whose court this area was. His black eyes appeared fixed on a circular cavity in the stone floor—a place for “hanging,” Praful said. “There—see! ” He pointed to two brawny men carrying a woman whose loose hair swept along the flagstones. Her legs were bound in clinking chains. The men lifted her and hung her upside down over the dark hole. Her head dropped out of sight. They bobbed her down and up, down and up. Over and over her forehead struck the hole’s stone rim, already stained dark with old dried blood. Her agonized voice echoed through the shadowy room.
“What’s she screaming?” I shouted at Praful.
“Her preta is speaking—not her!” he said. “It says it refuses to leave her.”
I heard the men pleading with the spirit to stop tormenting the woman, and clenched my teeth, praying that they’d stop cracking her head before they knocked her even more senseless. Finally they raised her high off the floor. One of the men cradled her gently in his arms and carried her past me. Her eyes were rolled back in their sockets. She looked battered but peaceful.
“She has come from Bengal,” Praful said, overhearing the men talking. “Confined on a bullock cart.”
“That’s over a thousand miles.” I gaped at the woman. “All that way—in chains?”
“It must be.” Mahakal Bhairav had helped her, he explained; her preta had driven her mad but had been punished so harshly that it fled. Now the woman could go home with her husband, sisters, and brothers.
We climbed some stone steps and entered a big room where a loud chanting session was in progress, led by a priest who stood in a sea of nodding turbans and hooded women’s heads. Sitting or squatting, people packed the room so tightly I didn’t see how I’d push my way through. I felt tremors against my leg: several people were vibrating with palsy. But I stopped noticing them as I stared hard at an adolescent boy who pressed himself into a corner. He was sobbing continuously; high-pitched notes spurted from his mouth as if from some inner abscess of misery. For long moments I couldn’t stop listening. Then I needed to flee the room. Pushing, dragging my feet as if through quicksand, I forced my way to the temple’s back door.
Daylight! I stood on a terrace outdoors. Pacing around, I tried to clear my head. The floor was strewn with crushed flower petals, dust, random brown lumps. I jumped back as a woman collapsed with a long wail. Two priests turned her face-down, then pinned her ankles and shoulders to the floor. Another priest slowly set a thick, flat stone on the middle of her back. Then he hefted another slab onto her buttocks. The priests chanted quietly. Her moaning subsided. Her lips opened, and I heard steady, rasped breathing.
“She is starting to vomit a preta now,” said Praful, who had followed me out.
“How long will it take?”
He shrugged. “There can be many different kinds of spirits in her. She must stay under stones all day, I think.”
Blinking in the light, I saw two other women and one man lying face-down on the terrace with huge, flat rocks on their backs. All the people having spirits crushed out of them were attended by family members—men, women, and children—who sat nearby on benches, taking turns wiping the patients’ faces and murmuring into their ears.
A scab-eared dog sniffed at the face of a collapsed woman. Her relatives gently pushed the animal away. Dogs were sacred to Mahakal Bhairav, Praful said; throughout the temple they were considered auspicious and were free to roam. In a stone pool, children washed a puppy in filthy water. People caught the overflow in clay cups and gulped it down. I padded away, feeling headachy.
Around this area of the temple were smoky little stalls where people were eating or pushing finger-loads of food into ill relatives’ mouths. Cups of steaming tea were passed around, some of it spilling on the clothes of patients who were gesticulating or trembling too hard to drink. More dogs pushed in and out of the crowd, food dripping from their mouths.
Praful watched me scrape my bare heel against the stone. “That is shit on your feet, sir,” he said, smiling.
I looked down. Shit was indeed what had been making my feet feel so sticky. Dog turds littered the terrace. I felt grimy, my shirt sticking to my back, my face damp with sweat. Clouds had drifted over the sun; the afternoon was heavy with shadows. On a hillside rising from the terrace I saw upright slabs of stone.
“Are those tombstones?” I asked Praful.
“No, they are markers for preta who were left behind. If a family buys a marker, the preta must stay here under it, not bother the people after they go home.”
Now I could see that the entire hillside was covered with little stone slabs, some leaning, some collapsed—like houses in a derelict toy necropolis. Though the terrace was crowded, no one was walking among the little structures, and I could understand why. Crows were perched on the spirit houses as if they were preta searching for their departed victims.
I wondered if some sort of emotional contagion had been going on inside. Probably not: the patients seemed engulfed by individual torments. Also, healthy people were mixed among the ill ones, family members calmly consoling afflicted relatives during this lengthy process of pilgrimage and exorcism. Indeed, if anyone was cured here, I thought, the families must get most of the credit.
Praful pulled me into an open doorway. Here was a big, well-lit reception hall full of much better dressed people. Men in white bush suits and women in silk saris were being attended to by several priests who smiled and nodded a lot. They wore clean robes with burnished leather sandals. Some mildly disturbed people were here, too, a few trembling or making soft squawking sounds, but they seemed otherwise under control.
A smiling man in a white robe strode up to me, his thick, tortoise-shell glasses forming two squares like reinforced windows in his pudgy face. “I am head priest of Balaji temple,” he said, greeting me with his palms pressed together in front of his face. As I made the same gesture, I saw a flash on his wrist—a heavy gold watch, its face sparkling with jewels. “Welcome to you!” he said, leaning forward. “What is your country, please?”
“America.” I stepped back. He reeked of cologne.
“AM-rica. Yes, of course!” He nodded. “Have you questions for your fieldwork?”
He’d mistaken me for another forengee, the visiting American anthropologist. I tried to think of something to ask anyway. “Um … how do you exorcise spirits?”
“Myself, I do no exorcising.” He pushed out his lower lip, smiling beneficently. “All good works here are done by Balaji!”
“I see. How do the people who come here get possessed by spirits?”
“Most were doing bad things in previous lives. Now they must suffer.” The priest’s eyebrows flipped up as he watched me for a response. “But in the court of Balaji, very many are pardoned.”
“So they only have to come once?” I asked.
“Some, once is enough. But if the preta are very strong, then people must stay several days, several weeks, making small contributions. We are having dharamsala for them—rest houses.”
“Convenient,” I said.
The priest smiled. “Families save for years to make long journeys here with afflicted ones. This temple is their only hope for curing, so naturally they wish to make good offerings.”
“Offerings like your wristwatch?”
His heavy-lidded smile faded, and he wordlessly slipped away to join some men in suits who’d just entered the hall. Around me, other priests were seated on floor mats consulting thick astrology books with clients, or humming prayers in a slow-rolling surf of sound. I headed outdoors again.
The temple scenes brought back some vivid memories. The teenager I’d watched weeping in a corner reminded me of another kid of about the same age—me—who’d had jags of uncontrollable sobbing, too. Locking myself in my room, I’d sat on the floor nodding my head slowly for long spells as I wept and gasped. I recalled my mother screaming through the door, “What’s gotten into you?” The jags let up eventually, but dark depressions started settling over me, sometimes making it hard to leave my room. Lying awake in bed, I pictured the mood as the heavy, leathery wings of an enormous blackbird trying to suffocate me. At 19, I once gave in to a fit of rage and flung a carving knife at my father. I missed, but I laughed to see his face go pale with sudden dread. What the hell had gotten into me?
If I’d been the son of destitute Indian peasants, I’d have been dragged off to this temple to have whatever-it-was exorcised. Instead, my parents drove me to an elegant hospital in Connecticut and left me there to be cured. The place had a meeting room not unlike this temple’s reception hall. There the patients—except we were called guests—heard cheerful lectures each week. I went for staff-guided walks in the tranquil woods that surrounded the hospital grounds. Three times a week I met with a psychiatrist, who over a period of months stripped away most of my demons. Later, I wanted to believe that I’d left them all behind when I went to Africa to teach for three years. But of course they couldn’t be left behind; old and new ones visited me there, and elsewhere from time to time over the next 20 years. Even here in India, I was sometimes beset with bouts of loneliness and culture shock and, yes, weeping that had kept me confined for days to my room at the university.
Praful and I didn’t have to descend back through the temple to reach the town; he showed me to the stairs leading down a steep alley. My head throbbed with a heavy, dizzying ache, and I had to stop now and then to sit on the steps. From there I looked down onto the street, where people swarmed slowly among animals and vehicles. Beyond the shop roofs, the Aravalli Hills rose into the stone-colored sky, their rounded peaks straining against dark clouds that pressed down on them. I myself felt oppressed. The dusty air I’d breathed burned in my lungs; I wondered whether I’d inhaled some of the temple’s expelled spirits.
I pictured some of those pretas swooping and diving in the air like a flock of red-eyed crows; they settled in cackling clusters all over the temple roof. Closer up, many had the curved fangs and horns of demons I’d seen painted on the backs of trucks. All were creatures of the dark side of the religion I’d thought so gentle and welcoming, the raw underside of the folktales whose heroic princes and beautiful princesses I’d admired so much. In earlier times, the faith I’d been born into, Christianity, had inspired great literature but also preyed on the weak and the deranged, too. Its priests, like the man with the gold watch upstairs, had enriched themselves by periodically scouring witches from the land. If I wanted to open myself to the peace I’d felt radiating through Jaipur’s temples, I also had to choke on the gritty sanctified smoke that India’s most wretched people offered here to the fearsome god Balaji. I’d been enchanted by folklore’s magical beings; now I had some idea of what it felt like to be cursed by them as well—not as characters in stories, but as forces as real and capricious as illness, insanity, and other inexplicable tragedies of life.
I continued to the main street, then sat down hard on a low stone wall. Praful pointed to my bare feet. Their soles were black. “Are you wishing to clean?”
I wished I could scrub myself all over with soap suds and a wire brush but had to be content to splash my feet under an outdoor spigot near the cement blocks where I’d left my shoes.
“Two hundred rupees!” Praful said in his gravelly voice, thrusting out his hand.
I scowled at him. “You said a hundred!”
“I go find your shoes. Two hundred rupees!”
I leaned over to peer between the blocks. My shoes were missing. “Aw, fuck you!” I screamed.
The boy—or dwarf, or whatever he was—laughed. I paid up. He sloped off. I dug my bare toes into the ground, my eyes half shut in exhaustion. Finally he stepped before me again and flung the shoes down at my feet. I half-expected him to vanish like a puff of dust, but he turned and quickly climbed back up the stairs.
When I got back to the university guesthouse, my head was pounding so hard, I had to go to bed. I wept and vomited all night. The crushing ache kept me in bed for three more days until finally, I believe, it flew back across the desert to the Balaji temple in Mehandipur.
Edward Hower is the author of nine books of fiction and is completing a memoir of his years in India as a Fulbright fellow. He teaches in Cornell University’s Prison Education Program.