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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 February, 2005, 13:20 GMT
India's ghost fair draws thousands
By KS Shaini
BBC News, Malajpur, Madhya Pradesh

The witchdoctor (r) exorcises Rukmani. Pics: Prakash Hatbalne
The witchdoctor (R) exorcises Rukmani. Pics: Prakash Hatbalne
Rukmani, 21, is a coy and demure Indian village girl, but her parents are convinced that she is haunted by ghosts.

"She speaks in a strange language. She speaks of people we don't know. She screams and faints," says her farm worker father.

So they have made a journey from their village in western Maharashtra state to an ancient fair of ghost busters in Malajpur in central Madhya Pradesh to rid their daughter of the ghost.

Rukmani and her parents have joined thousands of "haunted" people from all over India at this month-long ghost busters fair where witchdoctors congregate and exorcise spirits.

Today, Rukmani is one of the first clients to be exorcised as hundreds of the curious look on.

Some ghosts are sadists. Others want to take revenge on their tormentors. Others haunt people simply for fun
Chandrahas Singh, witchdoctor

One of the fair's 200-odd witchdoctors orders her to circle a local temple.

Then he sprinkles some water on the girl and chants what sound like prayers.

Suddenly, Rukmani is tossing her hair violently, rolling her eyes and swaying uncontrollably as her friends try to hold her back.

'Why are you troubling her?'

"Who are you?" asks the witchdoctor.

"I won't reply," answers Rukmani in a voice her parents say is not her own.

Witchdoctors at the ghost fair
Witchdoctors make many of the clients crawl on the ground

Now the witchdoctor picks up a broom and begins hitting Rukmani, which seems to be a sure way to rid clients of apparitions.

"Why are you troubling her? Go away, go away," yells the witchdoctor beating Rukmani.

A few minutes later, the witchdoctor announces Rukmani "cured".

Her parents are relieved and walk away with their daughter, who looks quite the same, after paying the witchdoctor.

Rukmani is luckier than many of the more unfortunate clients.

Some are thrashed mercilessly till the witchdoctors declare them cured. Other clients turn violent, hitting people and rolling on the ground.

In addition to broom beatings and prayer, witchdoctors treat their clients by making them crawl and licking prasad (divine food).

'Tackled firmly'

I asked one of the ghost busters why apparitions possessed humans in the first place.

"Ah, some ghosts are sadists. Others want to take revenge on their tormentors. Others do it simply for fun," says Chandrahas Singh.

The ghost fair
The fair is said to be nearly 100 years old

"But all have to be tackled firmly."

Besides possessed people, the fair is also frequented by cured patients who come to offer their thanks.

Farm owner Jagdish Bain Naik from Gujarat state is one of them.

He says he has been coming to the fair for the past 10 years. The first time was after a "ghost entered me and tried to destroy me".

"I felt like throwing myself before a running train, selling off my farm, leaving my family and going away somewhere," says Naik.

He says he went to several psychiatrists, but their treatment did not help.

Then someone told him about Madhya Pradesh's bhooton ka mela (fair of the ghosts).

Pent-up frustration

Naik says he was cured the first time he came here and since then has returned every year to watch the proceedings.

Rationalists and psychologists dismiss the fair as superstitious.

The head of the department of psychology at the Bhopal-based Barkatullah University, KN Tripathi, has an explanation for the large turnout.

"The majority of clients are rural women. They often feign being haunted by ghosts to abuse their husbands and in-laws. This is almost an outlet for their pent up frustrations.

"Being possessed is also a form of attention-seeking. Once possessed, you are cared for. Your wayward behaviour becomes excusable."

Local government officials are more pragmatic.

"If people have faith in something, who are we to interfere?" asks one district official.

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