The bane of Banamati
The bane of Banamati. On a fine morning, Khan saab, who lived in quarter no. 20, heard a voice address him, but found no body to connect it to.
Scene: CIB qrtrs, Narayanguda Year: 1951
On a fine morning, Khan saab, who lived in quarter no. 20, heard a voice address him, but found no body to connect it to. The disembodied voice lingered as he moved to the backyard and, looking around, discovered the voice vibrate from the higher branches of a tree. It sought to engage him in conversation.
Soon it shocked him to find household items like clothes, books and sundry things getting mysteriously damaged or defiled. Minutes later, Valluru Surya Prakasa Rao, sanitary engineer, who lived next door in no. 21, experienced similar happenings. Food items got contaminated, the verandah was littered with human refuse and clothes, kept inside metal trunks, caught fire. The family was greatly worried about the safety of their months-old girl-child who escaped the embrace of the occult phenomenon.
Crowds descended on the scene as the news spread and before long the area looked like a mini numaish, with mobile eateries springing up. Call it ghost, spirit or whatever, the asarira vaani seemed to enjoy the attention of the crowds and their amazement. An army of officials and their orderlies mingled with the labouring classes to witness the Ripley spectacle. There were no TV crews, barring the news wing of India’s Films Division.
The two families suffered emotional trauma as the apparently benign spirit continued to torment them for nearly a fortnight. They brought in ghost busters and tantriks etc to drive it away without success. Meantime, the happenings attracted newspapers from far and near. Finally, one Ismail saab who lived in a small village near Bhalki in Gulbarga district, then part of Hyderabad State, ended their misery by successfully bottling the spirit.
Was it black magic or chetabadi or banamati? None knew. But years later, the head of one family lost speech, became paralytic and died after long years on the sick bed. As an eight-year old, I have vague memories of the happenings because the victims were our close kin.
As a journalist in later years, I happened to investigate and report cases of witchcraft. Banamati had for long been a major scourge in Raichur, Bidar, Gulbarga, Medak, Nizamabad and Nalgonda districts which were then part of the Nizam’s Dominions. The Hyderabad incident was significant for its occurrence in the heart of the State capital unlike most such cases generally reported from the rural areas.
In the mid-80s I went to Nizamabad and Medak districts when a number of banamati cases were reported. The affected men and women looked sick, dazed, listless and rarely spoke, reduced to this state after hours of ranting and raving. A local official told me about an illiterate man who, under the spell, delivered a stunning speech in English! The sight of wooden cots tied to upper branches of trees in the affected villages of Nizamabad surprised me. Why? This was a way of warding off the evil spirits, it appeared.
On a trip to the Great Indian Bustard sanctuary in Rollapadu in Kurnool district, the blurred vision of a young girl, chained hand and foot, in Nandikotkur town caught my eye. Before I got off the car and looked, she vanished. On our return trip in the evening, we passed a hamlet which was agog with commotion. Yes. It was the same girl who walked on and on, ignoring the curious men and children who followed her. I caught up with the girl, looking haggard and barely clothed. After initial hesitation, she told me in Hindi that she belonged to Madhya Pradesh and was chained by her own family. She continued her aimless journey into the scrub jungle alone in the gathering darkness. My photographer was convinced that she was no ordinary girl, but a roving spirit. He was so terrified he refused to take photograph!
People have smart ways of dealing with the supernatural. ‘O stree repu raa’ (oh woman, come tomorrow). This sign was splattered on the front doors of scores of houses in Kurnool. People pasted this appeal to the much-feared evil spirit knowing ‘tomorrow’ would never come and they would thus be safe!
People continue to entertain beliefs and fears of such phenomena as banamati or chetabadi even in these modern times. Rationalist bodies such as the Vijayawada-based Atheist Centre and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) have made significant contribution to dispel popular notions. Yet ignorance prevails. Tukaram, an IAS officer belonging to Gond tribe, died as he preferred tribal system of medicine to the modern. A woman minister from the agency areas of Visakhapatnam lost her baby girl for the same reason.
People who the victims’ families suspect to be vehicles of occult powers suffer brutal treatment like getting tied to a tree, flogged and the teeth plucked out. The IHEU quotes National Crime Bureau statistics of 2010 to state that more than 2500 women were killed in India by mindless mobs over the past 15 years on suspicion that they were practising witchcraft.
Sustained awareness campaign alone will hopefully rid the society of superstitions.
(The writer is former Chief of Bureau, The Hindu, Hyderabad) dasukesavarao@ gmail.com, dasukesavarao@ yahoo.com