Print edition : November 06, 2009

THE WHIPPING CEREMONY under way at the Sri Achappan temple at Vellalapatti village in Tiruchi district on September 28.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE mass whipping of women at Vellalapatti village in Tamil Nadus Tiruchi district on September 29, just 10 days ahead of World Mental Health Day, has pricked the public conscience. The women, who were believed to be possessed, were flogged to exorcise evil spirits. The State government appears to be responding to the incident like an ostrich.

Such rituals, attacking the dignity of women, have been practised in many villages of the State for as long as memory goes back, informed sources say. This time the media drew public attention to the ritual flogging held every year on Vijayadasami day at the Sri Achappan temple at Vellalapatti (see box).

Exorcism by priests and soothsayers is not uncommon in villages and semi-urban areas of the State. This is hardly surprising in a country where mental illness is often attributed to supernatural causes and hence a need is felt for intermediaries to negotiate with such forces.

For those living in cities, it may be difficult to believe that in many villages priests and exorcists, rather than doctors, are sought out to address physical ailments, not to speak of mental illnesses.

The Sri Achappan temple.-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

The Vellalapatti incident has thrown up questions relating to the treatment meted out to people with psychiatric problems in general and women in particular. The fear of social stigma, a lack of awareness, gender bias, the high cost of treatment and the widely held belief in karma are some of the factors that come in the way of treatment. The lack of political will ensures that savage acts such as flogging by exorcists go unpunished.

In Nallapanaickenpatti, the kovil Gounder of the Achappan temple at Vellalapatti, M. Subramanian, said that his ancestors had been for generations blessed with the task of flogging the possessed. Now the mantle had fallen on him. It was not he but a divine force that made him wield his whip on possessed girls and women. He said the latter, ranging from seven-year-olds to 70-year-olds, came voluntarily. If the possessed women did not respond to the whip lashes, he turned to the Thalaimalai hills, prayed to Kali and used more lashes to drive away the spirits. Some of the possessed had received as many as 10 lashes, he said proudly, asking: How can anybody find fault with me for doing my duty?

There are some half dozen soothsayers-cum-exorcists at Vellimalai, a village surrounded by hillocks in Madurai district, and they have no qualms about thrashing or flogging possessed women.

One of them, Chinniah, has a house surrounded by lush green fields where he has created an ambience designed to frighten his already bewildered clients. Every now and then he wields a cane while delivering his predictions, as if in a deep trance. He offers solutions to problems ranging from property disputes to health problems and from childrens education to business ventures.

A saffron-clad priest of a local temple emphatically denied practising exorcism, but enquiries with local residents revealed that he, too, was very much in the business. The swamiji uses his divine powers to cast away evil spirits and beats his possessed clients to drive the spirits away.

M. Subramanian, the "kovil Gounder". His family has been for generations entrusted with the task of flogging the possessed.-E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

It is not just Vellimalai. Almost all the villages in the State have their own godmen and exorcists, informed sources said. In January 2003, the State government issued an order prohibiting exorcism in temples, on the basis of a recommendation made by the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in August 2002. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) Department also issued a circular to its officers that as public servants they were duty-bound to protect human dignity and decency by not allowing practices denigrating women in the name of exorcism. They were asked to ensure that such rituals were not held in temple precincts and to report violations to the HR&CE Commissioner. The order also required complaints to be lodged against people resorting to or abetting such practices.

Soon afterwards, the SHRC took suo motu cognisance of a press report of March 4, 2003, relating to a temple ritual at Poochiyur near Periyanaickenpalayam in Coimbatore district, in which a priest wearing sandals with nails sticking out of the soles walked over women devotees. It also issued notice to the HR&CE Commissioner, calling for a report on the abhorrent practice.

Sadly, the governments response to such crimes against women has consisted of half-hearted measures and knee-jerk reactions. The district authorities in Tiruchi, who did not allow the flogging ceremony in 2003, have since turned a Nelsons eye to it. Policemen deployed at the venue remained mute spectators as the women were flogged. T. Soundiah, the Collector of Tiruchi district, said that trying to abruptly end such rituals might hurt religious sentiments and provoke people to boycott elections. Besides, the administration would be blamed if there were any natural calamities. However, the district administration had initiated steps through some non-governmental organisations and womens self-help groups to build awareness about the truth of such practices, he said.

K.M. Ramathal, Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Commission for Women, told Frontline that the commission would take suo motu cognisance of the reports on the September 28 flogging. We will not remain silent when women are insulted. This is atrocious. This cannot be allowed to continue. We will take all necessary steps to stop this practice, she said.

K. Elango, general secretary of the State unit of the All India Lawyers Union, said, The priest who wields his whip is committing an offence against women and society as a whole. The practice must be stopped immediately. A Central law to ban it is necessary. The law-enforcing authorities should be strengthened so that they do not succumb to pressure from forces that want to perpetuate such practices.

Under the existing laws, such practices attract Section 350 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with an offender who intentionally uses force on another person, without his consent and such force is made for the purpose of committing an offence or to cause injury, fear or annoyance to the victim; Section 352 (assault or criminal force otherwise than on grave provocation); Section 354 (assault or criminal force to a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty); and Section 355 (assault or criminal force with intent to dishonour a person, otherwise than on grave provocation).

Section 3 of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 1998, also prohibits harassment of women. Harassment is described in Section 2 as any indecent conduct or act by a man which causes, or is likely to cause, intimidation, fear, shame or embarrassment, including abusing or causing hurt or nuisance to, or assault. Section 4 of the Act says: Whoever commits or participates in or abets eve-teasing in or within the precincts of any educational institution, temple or other place of worship, bus stop, road, railway station, cinema theatre, park, beach, place of festival, public service vehicle or any other place shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or shall be liable to fine which may extend to Rs.10,000 or both.

U. Vasuki, leader of the All India Democratic Womens Association, said, This is totally anti-woman and is an insult to civilised society. The perpetrators should not be let off under the pretext of tradition. Flogging is allowed only in a fundamentalist framework, and there is no space for it in a democratic polity. Pointing to the contradiction in Indias emergence as a global leader and its inability to stop such retrograde practices, she said that the level of scientific temper and gender sensitivity must be included as parameters to measure development.

Chinniah, a soothsayer at Vellimalai village in Madurai district, with clients. He offers solutions on issues ranging from property disputes to health problems and from childrens education to business ventures.-K. GANESAN

Gita Menon, veteran clinical psychologist, said social stigma was probably the largest single factor preventing people from seeking treatment for mental illnesses. A person can go to a psychiatrist, consult him or her, go through medication and follow the medical advice. But when it comes to getting the person married, social stigma comes in the way, she said. On the Vellalapatti episode, she said, In a male-dominated society, women have been the target of such attacks. It has been so in good days and bad days. This is evident from the Tamil proverb, Aavadhum pennale, azhivathum pennale it is women who create and destroy. I do not know why this cannot be classified as a crime against women. This has to be done as flogging women has caused concern even in Islamic countries.

On the claim that women who were thought to be possessed were only pretending, she said that there was an element of attention seeking in many cases of hysterical behaviour. One aspect of psychopathology is that the women can act out and get their own back on the tormentors. This is one way they can fulfil their need to get their tormentors to do what they want and get the attention they are denied, she said.

She did not think that treatment for mental illnesses was expensive, at least in government hospitals. Free treatment is offered at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in Chennai and the outpatient wards in the district headquarters hospitals. Though the cost of treatment in the private sector is relatively high, there are reasonably priced alternatives to expensive medicines. Gita Menon said that there may not be too many mentally ill patients in Chennai who went untreated and that the focus should shift to the villages.

Dr O. Somasundaram, former Superintendent of IMH and veteran psychiatrist, made a documentary film on temple treatment in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s. He said that though temple treatment and faith healing were not uncommon in many parts of the world, these trends were particularly strong in countries like India. He concurred with the view that availability of health facilities in the community did not bear a direct relationship with their utilisation. He added that a survey conducted around 15 years ago made it clear that a very high percentage of the mentally ill residing in areas around the Government General Hospital in Chennai did not go to the hospital. Women, he said, bore the brunt of insults and humiliations meted out to abnormal people because abnormality was easily noticed in them. Some exorcists were known to ask affected women to meet them, alone, past midnight, he said.

He said that even among the traditional healers there were some who guided the mentally ill to psychiatrists once they realised that they would not be able to cure the illness. It was not just the traditional healers at lower levels who exploited peoples weaknesses, he said, adding that those who committed irregularities at higher levels should not be allowed to go scot-free. Mental health care in the developed world does not always present a very encouraging picture, either. The interim report to the United States President on the Presidents New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (2002) pointed out that Americas mental health service delivery system is in shambles[and] needs dramatic reform, Dr Somasundaram said.

Muthumeenal, who fended off a soothsayers attempts to exploit her, has told her story in her autobiography, now available in an English translation.-M. MOORTHY

Scholars, archaeologists and folklorists are of the view that exorcism has a 2,000-year history in Tamil society. Folklore researcher S. Madasamy and folklorist A. Sivasubramanian refer to the concepts of Velan Veriyattu and Thunangaikoothu found in ancient Tamil literature. Kurunjipattu, Kurunthogai, Aingurunooru and Silapathikaram have references to these.

According to a senior archaeologist, a seventh century stone inscription at the Kamatchi Amman temple in Kancheepuram tells the story of a queen of the Pallava kingdom who was under the spell of a Brahma Rakshasam. The king sought the help of an Aajivaha monk to save her from the evil spirit.

Velan Veriyattu was aimed at invoking the god Murugan to intervene and rescue the possessed woman so that she could live in peace. Thunangaikoothu was nothing but a dance of devils, or of persons imitating them, striking the elbows on the sides, hands raised upright, Madasamy said. Tamil proverbs and adages advised people to take steps to provide medical treatment to the mentally ill even while attempting to exorcise the evil spirit. The trend of scaring people, particularly women, to exercise power over them probably emerged in Tamil society only during the last 200-300 years, he said.

Madasamy expressed dismay at the way television serials contributed to deepening this kind of fear. Recalling his experience as a coordinator of the literacy campaign in the State, he spoke of how the brutal treatment meted out by exorcists had ruined the lives of young girls. He stressed the need for an intense campaign by the media and mass movements to defeat this trend.

The story of Muthumeenal is a classic example of a young woman caught between the devil of social stigma and the deep sea of exorcism. The saga of her struggle and eventual success is narrated in her autobiography titled Mul (Thorn).

With her poet husband, Buddha Ayyanar, and son A.M. Ananda Buddhan at her side in her home, she told her story. She is from Arittapatthi village in Madurai district. She was diagnosed with leprosy at the age of nine. It was detected early, and she was cured after regular treatment at a government hospital initially and at a private nursing home later. But when her parents started looking for a match for her, there were rumours that she still suffered from the disease and that drove away all prospective grooms.

Muthumeenal approached an exorcist-cum-soothsayer but soon realised that his intention was to sexually exploit her. She was able to hold her own and went on to build a new life. Now she is busy bringing out an English translation of Mul.

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