After my experience at the Taj Mahal, I was hard-pressed to believe there might actually be another city even more disturbing than Agra.
And then I went to Mehandipur.
Located between Agra and Jaipur, Mehandipur (Listed under “Balaji” in Lonely Planet) is a remote village known for one thing: exorcisms.
I have always had a fascination with religion, philosophy, psychology etc., so when I read about Mehandipur in my guidebook, it was instantly put on the “must-see” list.
Now, if images of crazy people, chanting or any number of horror films comes to mind, you are absolutely correct to think of Mehandipur.
I arrived mid-morning with two Australian women I had met at my guest house in Jaipur and was instantly grateful to not have been in this town alone .
Clearly off the tourist trail, the people in this village appeared to have never seen a white person in their lives, and we were instantly stared at by what seemed to be the entire town. Shortly after, we were approached by child beggars who followed us for at least 10 minutes, grabbing our arms every few minutes to get our attention.
Lonely Planet and the Internet had provided very little information on how and where the exorcisms were conducted, but soon we found Mehandipur Balaji Mandir, a large temple in the town center with a line about five blocks long of people waiting to get in (and also a large sign saying “Photography strictly prohibited” unfortunately:/).
Lonely Planet had said they screened the exorcisms from inside the temple onto monitors outside, but I saw no evidence of this anywhere and our attempts at communicating with the locals was proving futile.
Somehow, this elderly man with semi-decent English approached us and offered to help. When we asked us about the exorcisms, he led us to a park nearby where people had gathered around another temple-like structure, where they were either circling it fervently in dedicated prayer or standing around in groups swaying their heads wildly or caring for those swaying their heads wildly.
Now, I can’t speak for all countries, but in the United States, “crazy” people seem to exhibit their mental illness by either talking to themselves or speaking incoherently. In India, there is apparently just one move to tell the world you’re possessed: the head sway.
There are several variations of the head sway, but more or less, it involves sitting cross legged (Indian style ;)), closing your eyes and swaying your head from left to right, making a “V” sort of motion. In some cases, you can take it to a more advanced level by sitting on your knees, leaning forward on your palms and adding a few chest thrusts while whipping your hair back and forth.
As fascinating as this all was, after a two-hour bus ride plus two cups of chai each, my friends and I were desperate for a bathroom and the elderly old man led us to the community bathrooms in his apartment building. After finishing our business (the bathrooms were actually fairly clean), we got to visit his apartment and meet his family, where we learned his sad tale. Apparently, the elderly old man, his wife and their daughter-in-law travel to Mehandipur every year for a few months to take their son/husband to the temple to release his demons. The four (plus a baby) live in a small 12 x 15 room together with two single beds (no mattresses), no kitchen and no attached bathroom and every day, the mother takes her son to the temple.
It was never clear to us what sort of mental illness/possession their son suffered from, but when we met the son in town, we were surprised at how “normal” he seemed. Instead of the head sway, their son just seemed to have a dopey grin on his face. Though free to walk around, their son had both his arms chained to a rod that he sort of leaned on against his shoulders as if it was no big deal, neither to him nor to those around him.
But despite the fascination of just the town itself, I was determined to see an actual exorcism, so I continued to ask the elderly man about how we could see the actual rituals (FYI, nobody in Mehandipur actually understands the word “exorcism” so I had to be a bit creative when asking my questions). He then led us the back entrance of the main temple, where he told us repeatedly we’d have to remove our shoes if we wanted to go inside. At first I thought this was no big deal, I had gotten used to taking off my shoes for a lot of Indian places. But as we climbed up the stony, sludge-covered hill, I started to have serious reconsiderations.
We weren’t allowed to enter the temple from the back side, but I was able to get a glimpse of what was going on on the inside. While I didn’t see any actual exorcisms occurring, I did see a lit fire in the corner and a few men squeegeeing a massive pile of water, sludge and God-knows-what-else outside the temple. Apparently, the exorcisms in the temple are quite dramatic, involving fire, water, chanting and even beatings.
At this point, my two companions began to reach the end of their comfort levels and wanted to go back to Jaipur. I was still determined to see an exorcism, but after much contemplation, I learned the limits of my bravery. There was no way I was going to stay in this town alone and certainly not enter that temple alone.
I finally managed to reach a compromise with them to make one last trip to the park to see what we could find there. And sure enough, as we arrived, we caught a group of people clapping and chanting fervently near the temple-like structure. Among them, a woman lay wriggling on her stomach, eyes rolled back, arms stretched out, grasping desperately for something that got increasingly more intense with each chant of the group.
When the woman got too far inside the crowd to be seen, I noticed the others in the area. One woman, seemingly catatonic, hung upside down from a bar, legs crossed, head in the dirt, eyes rolled back, oblivious to those around her. Another woman, maybe a teenager, circled around the temple on her stomach, appearing to swim in the sand with her arms and legs. I don’t know if this girl was possessed or undergoing some fervent prayer ritual, but at one point she looked up and began to stare back at me. This was not a “crazy” stare but the “oh-look-at-that-strange-white-person” stare that I had grown accustomed to in India. Hmm… (Unfortunately, I was not allowed to photograph or video anything, though apparently it was perfectly acceptable for them to photograph me…).
Finally, my Australian friends said it was time to go, and when our bus finally came, this is what we found:
In the end, we took a taxi ;).