The world of witches is an un-trodden area. It is shrouded in mystery and darkness, associated with the evil. For an illiterate villager, magic is a forbidden art; for a city-dweller, it is a white lie.
Growing up in a rural environ, as children, we would hear stories of how a witch or Daini brought misfortune to a certain family or had caused someone’s death through her spells. That, they even tamed spirits and could make someone fall in love or turn someone into tigers and pigs by the look of an eye, are some of the stories we would often hear. And we heard all that, with our breaths caught up in the throat in awe and fear. It really sounded incredible, how one could achieve all that with ‘Tantra’, ‘Mantras’. Questions such as, “Do they really possess such supernatural powers or were they really that evil?” would haunt me many a times. We were told not to mess with Dainis. To a rational mind it may seem that such beliefs are nothing more than superstitions based on the ignorance of the people. And, it indeed is.
Such faith in witchcraft is mostly means of victimizing opponents and settling personal scores. Surprisingly, most of the victims are women, who on accusation of practicing witchcraft are subjected to inhumane torture, rape and social boycott.
“witch-craft is real for those who believe in it” and that “it’s no use pretending they(witchcraft beliefs) don’t exist or seeking some ground of neutrality” in a society where people believe in witches. These beliefs are held by both the educated and uneducated, the wealthy and the poor, the old and the young in many societies.
Over 80 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the last five year, mostly in the tribal belts. They are mostly from those districts with a high illiteracy rate, poor accessibility and lack of basic infrastructure, including health care, education, sanitation and potable water. Inevitably, locals fall back on ojhas and bejs to heal and often, bring the dead back to life. The malady is deep-rooted and widespread. Assam’s social landscape continues to be locked in an uneasy coexistence between the modern and the barbaric. Black magic practitioners, called bej or ojhas, still hold power in wide stretches of tribal-dominated areas in the State.
There is a need to understand what witches really are and how these hunts started.
The terms witch and witchcraft have multiple, conflicting and largely un-related meanings. The history of witchcraft dated back to several hundred years. It is remarkable that in every culture, there exists such people who were said to have special powers; people believed to be possessing evil powers and able to cast spells. Witches have long been feared. In Europe, witchcraft is generally thought of as supernatural evil. Legendary witches of literature are Baba Yaga, Robin Hood, Merlin, Joan of Arc. The word witchcraft means ‘ceaft’ of the wise and ‘wicca’ meant wise one (Glass, 13). In Europe, it was considered as a form of religion which existed much before the Druids (sun worshippers). Their beliefs were contradictory to that of the church. It is believed that in primitive times (to 1000 AD, they were respected members of the community, as they helped people ease pain and heal. The fear factor came much later), witches were feared because they could do things that others could not. They had certain knowledge which was beyond the understanding of people and the church, who thought that these powers could come from the devil. Telepathy, faith-healing, precognition, clairvoyance and astral travelling was all a part of witchcraft in the past as was the knowledge of herbs. In primitive times, magic and religion was same, priests were magicians and vice-versa. In 1563, the Scottish witchcraft Act said people who consulted the witches for their various maladies, were as guilty of practicing witchcraft. Traditionally, witches were old, ugly and female according to Christian belief. Christianity, being a patriarchal religion as no women has ever been allowed to become Pope or Cardinal in the Roman Catholic faith, “Women could turn men from prayer to lust”. It tried to do away with the Gods and Goddesses of the Pagan religions. It had become a tool to eliminate the opponents, once branded as witch. When Pope Innocent (1432-1492) took the Papal crown in 1484, he started a major campaign against the so-called witches (12:18.Exodous: ….that though shall not suffer a witches life to live) 080 Matthew. “Daemonologiaie” a book by James VI was a manual on how to detect witches. The belief that women were sinful and had the power of the devil within them developed out of the Middle Ages. The Reformation further promoted the idea of a Satanic kingdom of evil on earth with which to justify persecutions. Theologians sought to prove that accused witches represented the devil. The governments, Church and society organized “hunts” for these alleged witches: accusing, torturing, and executing thousands of people. The intensity and viciousness of these hunts varied from place to place, as did their focus on particular targets. The first and most significant written cumulative concept of witchcraft available to a large audience was the Malleus Maleficarum written by Sprenger and Kraemer. Thousands of women were prosecuted. Most people accused of witchcraft were rural, poor, and single women. The hunts are often seen as a massive effort to keep women in their place. Women were seen as evil, and unclean people whose weakness could summon the devil for sexual intercourse. During the hunt, witches were accused of “impractical” and “traceless” crimes such as intercourse with the devil, unregistered babies from hidden pregnancies, who were supposedly eaten or sacrificed and even natural disasters. However, there is no record of any solid evidence for any of these accused crimes.
In Africa too, the indigenous tribes had strong belief in the healing power Voodo.
The history of India is one of inchoate assimilation of disparate tribes - their respective myths, customs and cults left fairly intact, only incoherently unified in a hierarchical order. The Indians too had a very strong belief in black magic. The word ‘black magic’ is very old, and has been in existence from the time immemorial. The Indian Vedas, the Yajurveda, in particular, gave descriptions of black magic. The belief that such super-power exists itself is a superstition. The black magic, generally involves some tantrik (occult) rituals. These rituals are used to remove the spell on individuals who think that they are being possessed by the evil spirits. There is a belief that some tantriks had supernatural powers, through which they could manipulate the behaviour of a person. Tantra shastra was itself a part of study then. Goddess Kali was considered chief deity by the practitioners of this cult. By chanting mantras or performing some sacrifices, one is able to attain special powers from God or demon. But unlike Europe, there was no mass prosecution of the so-called witches. This gender biased concept of witches developed only recently.
The Assamese society, consisting largely of tribal communities had always believed in the existence of spirit and other supernatural powers. Through a brief history of time, it was alienated from mainstream India’s influence and their culture. Considered as a forbidden land since the Ancient times, it was inflicted by diseases like malaria, cholera and others. The tribes mostly consisted of nature worshipers. To their mind and imagination, earth, air and sky were alike people with a vast number of spiritual beings (Rev. Sydney Endel). The diseases that inflicted them were beyond the understanding of common people. They believed that the cause of their maladies was the result of someone casting an evil spell (Ban mara) on them. The local healers or the Ojhas or Bej were approached for remedy. In Mayong, witch-craft is still widely practiced. They perform strange rituals and sacrifices and are believed to have supernatural powers. It is this deep-rooted superstition and lack of modern healthcare services that instances of witch hunting is increasing at an alarming rate in the past few decades. More than 500 people have been killed and only 116 cases have been registered since 2001 in Assam alone. The sad part is that witch-hunting is a group activity, where often the whole community takes part. Once branded a witch (daini), the person is publicly humiliated, tortured even raped and killed.
Now the question is are not the Bejs, Ojhas and Dainis alike. They all are practitioners of black magic. The ojha and bej are viewed as good ones while the dainis are considered evil. It is often believed that ojha is the one who generally detects daini. Witch-hunting is much more of a gender issue or a tool to settle scores by people of vested interests.
But it cannot be denied that these people have incredible knowledge of herbs and locally available medicines handed down over generations, and these are sometimes more cost effective than the modern day medicines. This art has been widely misunderstood. Though one cannot give a scientific explanation to ‘uncommon’ incidents people claim to have witnessed, the belief is sometimes so strong that there is no need for proof, no matter how irrational it looks. There is still a lot to be explained and a lot more that needs explanation, but maybe Maya or magic is one of those aspects that lie beyond the penultimate exteriors of the human brain, of human understanding.
(continued from last issue) The Sahib, the young garden manager responded positively to the elderly man’s gesture saying, “This is a very big festival of the garden which one cannot avoid attending”. Slowly a good number of participants, both men and women began to move towards the young Sahib and his fiance to welcome them. Rajib was not an alien Sahib. He is a son of the native soil. And the garden workers have already found him easy to approach and a few elderly ones among them consider him as their own man, especially him being the son of the garden head clerk. And for this reason too, Rajib is always invited by the garden community to all the functions and festivals held in the Chenehjuri garden. Marry has also earned popularity among the garden workers as she happened to be the granddaughter of their once respected sardar Ramdin. Marry is also called as ‘Kanchana’ affectionately by her mother, a name also known to many in the garden. Yet for all practical purposes, she was called Marry, a name given by her father, the senior sahib.
A group of women starts singing aloud-
Aijre karam raja
Kailere karam raja
Kash nadir pare
(Oh! God Karam, please stay today in our home. You will depart tomorrow for the other side of the river Kash)
Being unable to understand the importance of the song, Marry implores Rajib to explain it. Having been born and brought up in a different environ, Marry does not understand the language of her own community. On the other hand. Rajib, being well acquainted with the language and culture of the garden community is able to understand and also speak the ‘Chadni’ language, a language in which the garden community members interact with one another. So he explains Marry, the meaning of the song-
He Karam raja
Ajihe tumi amar gharat assa
Jabagoi Kash nadir siparoloi
(Oh! God Karam. Today thou art in our home. Tomorrow thou will depart for the other side of the river Kash)
Meanwhile, Rajib and Marry have been looking attentively at the prayer and rituals being performed in the raised pedestal of the ‘Karam Puja’ (a religious festival), a pedestal well adorned with betel nuts, vermilion, silver coins and perfumed oil. The head priest has been explaining the tales and legends connected with this religious festival. After a while, one of the devotees placed a table in front of the visiting guests, Rajib and Marry. The table was laid with eatables and glasses of drinking water. The religious rituals have now come to an end and rehearsal for ‘Jhumri’ dance has begun, along with singing of the following songs:
Akhra bandana kori
Saraswati make dhari
Aso sabai khelibo jhumri...
(Let us all dance to the tune of Jhumur. Let us all worship the Goddess Saraswati.)
Most of the young boys and girls are participating in the festive celebrations, singing and dancing throughout the night. At dawn the next day, they will carry the idol of ‘Karam God’ tied with branches of ‘Jika’ (a vegetable plant) near the household areas to be finally immersed in the river bank. Rajib explains to Marry in details the legends and rituals connected with this festival. (to be continued)
(This is an English translation of the Assamese novel Cheneh Juri by Dulal Chandra Das)