Print edition : November 06, 2009

Women and girls, supposedly possessed by evil spirits, lined for the ritual whipping near the Sri Achappan temple.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A CROWD of some 10,000 people watched as a bizarre ritual of casting away evil spirits by flogging the women said to be possessed by them unfolded on September 28 at Vellalapatti, a nondescript hamlet in Tiruchi district in Tamil Nadu. More than 2,000 women, including many school- and college-going girls, sat in a serpentine, half-kilometre-long queue for nearly five hours under a scorching sun near the ancient Sri Achappan temple, writhing and crying out in pain as the leather whips, coated with vermilion and ash, of the priests descended on them.

The whipping ceremony is held on Vijayadasami day as part of week-long festivities every year. The women, brought usually by their families, come from Namakkal and Tiruchi districts, and sometimes from farther away.

The shout of pain is believed to signify that the evil spirit is leaving the unfortunate victim. Many get three or four lashes to drive away the multiple spirits supposedly possessing them. The lashing stops when a woman cries out in pain, otherwise it continues. That is the power of these eerie elements that control the women, said Subramanian, an organiser.

The audience erupted into expressions of frenzied ecstasy as the whip came down on each woman. Doing tribal-style jigs to the sober beats of thappus and producing primal sounds, two sturdy male priests, dressed in traditional clothes, cracked the holy whips on the women, who sat with their hands held up and their heads kept down. The flogging left gaping wounds on some of the young women, while others were badly bruised. Turmeric paste was smeared on the wounds immediately afterwards to numb the pain.

Most of the girls were young and were terribly frightened. Older relatives, who had brought them, sat close by, either beside or behind them, to make sure that they could not dodge the whips or break away from the queue.

Vanita, a plus-II student from Erumapatti, received two powerful lashes from the priest that left her hands severely lacerated. Crying uncontrollably, she said her parents brought her for the flogging to get her interested in her studies once again. She had fared badly in her monthly examinations, and her parents, both primary school teachers, thought their neighbours had a point when they suggested that Vanita was under the spell of wicked spirits.

My parents did not want to take any chance as the public examinations are drawing close. They forced me to attend the ritual and made me receive lashes from an unknown person and in front of so many people, Vanita said. More than the trauma of the experience, however, it was the thought of what her school friends and neighbours would say that worried her. The ritual, she said, was known to be meant for curing mental disorders. Now I have to face a stigma back at my school, she said.

Vanita was not the only girl who was forced to undergo the flogging. There were many others, of her own age and even younger at 10 or 12, who were forced into it. Most looked extremely thin and appeared anguished and despairing after the flogging.

A 16-year-old girl from a village in Dindigul district was there because her parents thought the ritual would bring about her puberty. They plan to return to the temple after she attains puberty. It will be our token of gratitude to him [Sri Achappan], her father said. The frail girl collapsed on the shoulders of her mother after the flogging, which left bruises all over her body.

Another girl, studying in an engineering college in Namakkal, received the lashes because she had irregular menstrual periods. She, too, was there with her parents. There was a newly married woman from Chellipalayam, accompanied by her husband, who got three heavy lashes to get rid of the evil spirit that her in-laws claimed had possessed her since her wedding night.

A lash here will cure all ills, physical and mental, which afflict mainly women, said a 60-year-old woman from Varagur who has got herself flogged at the temple for the last five years. She proudly displayed her hands bearing the criss-cross scars left by the whip.

When asked whether such flogging was not criminal, the temple priest, Kulla Goundan of Kurumbar descent, said: Our devotees strongly believe in Achappans miracle cure. We just execute his orders. You must undergo the ritual to feel the relief, he said. The spirits, he said, generally preferred women as they were weak. One of the organisers proudly said that more than 2,000 women and girls came to receive the whip lashes this year.

Another disturbing factor in the entire episode was the electrifying excitement that ran through the raucous crowd, mainly men and boys, whenever the whip came down with a waspish sound. It peaked when a man dressed up like a clown and holding a whip regaled the audience with his share of floggings. The din drowned out the cries of the women.

R. Iilangovan in Salem/Namakkal

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