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Gods Against Ghosts: The Exorcisms of India’s Mehandipur Balaji

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Gods Against Ghosts: The Exorcisms of India’s Mehandipur Balaji

A temple in northern India is famed for its exorcism rituals.

Gods Against Ghosts: The Exorcisms of India’s Mehandipur Balaji
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you want to go to the Balaji temple like a regular tourist, don’t.

When I traveled there, I did not take a camera, stayed in the shadows, and did not ask questions. Yet, although I did not record the scenes of that particular evening in any way other than with my own eyes, they remain deeply engraved in my memory. It was perhaps one of the strongest experiences in my life so far.

Although it is hidden in the plains of the Indian countryside only some 200 kilometers or so southwest from Delhi, it took me nearly an entire day to reach Mehandipur from the capital. That was perhaps because I took the cheapest, slowest, and most decrepit state buses that plied the local roads that stretch within the triangle of the Delhi-Agra, Delhi-Jaipur, and Jaipur-Agra expressways. The three major cities – Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra – form what is called the “Golden Triangle,” the shortest, most popular, and most clichéd foreign tourist route in northern India. The tour buses that cross between Agra and Jaipur actually pass not far from Mehandipur, but to my knowledge none take a short detour to that village, and I think it is better that way.

It was, however, my goal to reach Mehandipur and keep away from the golden edges of the famed triangle. Otherwise a nondescript village in a chain of similarly dusty settlements, Mehandipur is known for its Hindu temple (Shri Mehandipur Balaji Mandir) where exorcism rituals take place.

Balaji is a name of a local deity which is identified with Hanuman, the monkey god who was an ardent follower of the god Rama in the Ramayana epic. In local tradition, Balaji is believed to have a special power of exorcising ghosts from humans. This is why people believed to be possessed are brought to the temple. The sinister beings that can possess people are called bhuts or prets in Hindi. In this text, I will translate bhut as a “ghost” or a “demon.” The latter translation may be imprecise and should be treated as a poetic expression only.

I have never undertaken any research in the field of exorcisms and this article is only meant to describe my experiences and impressions. The rituals of exorcism are certainly still being followed in India but most of these happen in limited areas, such as a home in a village, and thus are usually absolutely out of bounds for strangers — not that I would wish to infringe this privacy anyway. Balaji’s temple, as far as I know, is one of the few places in India where exorcisms are undertaken on a slightly larger scale and thus not as privately. This was where I could go to watch the ritual without bothering anybody or being noticed, but, admittedly, also without being directly invited.

I arrived in time to witness the evening arti: the ritual of god’s adoration. The ritual took place in the main temple and was mostly similar to other such rituals. What was noticeable different however, were the attendees, some of whom appeared to be disabled and I assumed were believed to be “possessed.”

At least one person seemed to be in trance when the main ritual was taking place. A more ghastly discovery awaited me behind the temple, where some people were kept chained (which, I hope, will either be taken care of by proper authorities or perhaps already has been). I could not tell how permanent or temporary the imprisonment was, but it was certainly inhuman. The space with the chains was limited by the temple’s back wall on one side and a crate on the other, amounting to a sight not much different from a prison.

After the main ritual I joined a crowd of people, who sat themselves along the stairs that went up the right wall of the temple. Sitting on bare steps and in half-stretched shadows of the commencing night, some of the people joined in the religious singing. There was a woman there that passed through the crowds as if they did not exist. Upon reaching the top of the tall staircase, the woman laid down. And then she slid down the stairs head-first like a child on a playground slide. Effortless and elastic, she was practically flowing down the hard steps, her body moving bonelessly like a river down a hill. She slid right in between the sitting and singing people and no one caught her. As soon as she fell from the lowest step, she stood up without a shout or a squeak to signal pain. Not displaying any signs of physical injuries – though the bruises could have been invisible to me in the half-darkness – she climbed the stairs again.

When she was passing by me, her long, black, and loose hair accidentally brushed my shoulder by just its very ends. It was nothing more than an echo of a touch, the slightest contact possible, and yet it sent a current of shivers through my body, as if it was passed by a frightening force. The woman paid no attention to her crowded surroundings. I was only able to grasp two phrases, which she repeated a few times, murmuring them to herself: Jab shaadee hogi tab main nachoongi (“If there is wedding, I will dance”) and Mujhe chor do! (“Leave me alone!”). Then she slid from the stairs again, looking as unharmed and unperturbed as before.

Some time later I left the steps and directed my attention to the building behind me. The staircase was squeezed in between the main temple and an adjacent building, and it was in the latter where I was able to witness the exorcisms.

There was just a little bit of light in the otherwise dark and spacious hall. There was also just a little bit of unquestionable facts available to me, a mute spectator. The rest was enveloped in the shade of my own, uncertain interpretation. The scene was centered around a woman with free-flowing hair surrounded by a small group of people, four or maybe five in total.

It looked as if the group had somehow ensnared the woman. She looked clearly distressed by being encircled. But there were no weapons, no nets, no chains, no ropes, no traps, and no violence at all – just singing and dancing. Although the group was small and it seemed as if she could have easily just escaped by running between the people, the woman did not flee.

The group was chanting a short phrase, led by one man and with the help of very simple, held-hand musical instruments. As they kept repeating the phrase, they were circling around the woman. Their movement, chanting, and music were synchronous and increasing in pace. As the dull rhythmical repetition evolved into quick singing, and as the walking around morphed into a swirling wheel, the woman in the middle started to struggle. It seemed that a part of her was being possessed by a rhythm, as if her body wanted to catch up with the pace, to give in to the music and to become a center of the spinning circle.

But another part of her fought back. She started to make moves that looked violent. She was reaching out with her hands as if trying to catch, or maybe rather scratch, the human wheel turning around her. It was a tight circle and, watching the scene from a distance of few meters, I would think she should have been able to reach the other people. Somehow, however, she was not able to – at each attempt her hands just hit the air and she remained helplessly trapped. The more the rhythm gained pace, the more strongly she resisted it. It looked like the music was something physically influencing and yet invisible, like a magnetic power. The rhythm, ensnaring the woman like a net revolving around her body, finally got hold of her, forcing her to swirl with it without any further resistance.

The music soon reached a pace at which it was impossible for the people to dance, chant, or play the instruments any quicker. Then the swirling wheel came to an abrupt halt and while the group stopped its moves easily, the ensnared woman fell on the floor as if the same invisible power dropped her body like a doll released from its strings. She got up very quickly. The woman suddenly looked calm and the group, without saying a single word I could hear, just let her go. She left the middle of the hall passing between them, relaxed and without any violent movement. I thought I even saw a slight smile on her face.

My interpretation – and I stress it is only that much, the impression of a foreign observer – is that the woman, apparently considered to be possessed, was brought to the place by her family members. This is, I had read, how people with apparent disabilities usually reach the temple. I guess that the group consisted of woman’s relatives and a local exorcist. The latter had possibly instructed the family members on how to help by taking part in the ritual. It also seemed from the distance that everybody knew what to do without any conversations or instructions, and the woman was simply given a free passage right after the ecstatic swirl came to its peak. Based on this I also think that the ritual is tried more than once on given person and that it was not the first time that the group had gone through this procedure.

One word that caught my attention in the melodically repeated phrase was “Balaji,” most possibly a call to the deity for assistance. I think that the words were a mantra, a religious phrase in Hindu beliefs which is usually connected to a particular god, holy person, a ritual or, more broadly, a tradition. Repeating the mantra many times in a sincere and devoted way is believed to bring certain graces, depending on the particular mantra. Thus, I think, the mantra to Balaji is considered to offer the power to chase away the evil powers and this was the weapon which the exorcist used to chase away what he believed was a demon settled in the woman’s body.

If you expect any conclusion, dear reader, I admit I have no more to offer. The matter is too hard and too much beyond my field and my understanding to try to summarize it. Other than what is above, I think these things need people wiser than me to analyze, and emotionally strong people to witness.