A spike-like needle piercing one cheek and running through his mouth until it pushed through his other brown cheek, the youth trembled violently five or six feet away from me. Costumed in a multicolored robe and cape, a mirrored crown on his handsome dark head – the outfit of a female shaman or priestess – he rocked sideways, then front to back, falling deeper into the secret world of his trance. Finally, two dhoti-clad men helped him away from the ceremonial area before he hurt himself or someone else. He was just a kid, no more than fifteen or sixteen years old.
This is India today. Not 100 years ago. Not 500 years ago. Today.
Earlier in the day, we’d driven to this second Harvest Festival of the Full Moon in another remote corner of Eastern India. In many ways, it was surprisingly different from the festival and religious ceremony we’d seen the day before.
The market leading into it was smaller, without either the carnival atmosphere or the stalls of cheap merchandise. Women sat on the ground amid their vegetables and fruit, which they had arranged in simple displays. A few sold fresh fish and chicken parts and home-made dishes that could be eaten there or taken away. Only one vendor sold imported plastic merchandise: small chubby-faced dolls with white skin and round eyes in which the blue color of the pupils had run, creating alarming expressions. I wondered what the dark-skinned children of the tribe could make of them.
After weaving our way through the market, we passed through a gate into the ceremonial area. We found a spot near a small band of drums and a curved brass horn about three feet long. Tribal men near us pantomimed a welcome.
A scrawny man in filthy shirt and dhoti staggered in and began babbling at the band. One of the drummers yelled at him, angrily waving his sticks. The drunk jabbered back until the drummer knocked him down and began kicking him and beating him with his sticks. Two men in spotless, tucked up white dhotis and shirts quickly appeared, stopped the enraged drummer, and tried to force the drunk through the gate, but he just curled into a ball, so they left him and went about their business, which seemed to be to make sure that the ceremonies went smoothly.
We encountered a surprising amount of drunkenness among the men. They created their own booze, made from anything that would ferment, especially the sap of a certain palm tree. The women did most of the day to day work, so the men had time for making and drinking homemade brew. In many respects, the tribes were run by the women, but they didn’t participate in the religious ceremonies and rituals.
More than a dozen bare-chested young men and boys in tucked up dhotis paraded into the open space and sat on the bare ground. The beat of the music grew louder and more insistent. The youths and boys, a few as young as ten or eleven, began to sway and move their heads sideways. Sliding deeper into their trances, they got to their feet, often with assistance, their lean brown bodies shaking – because they’d been possessed by spirits or deities? If so, were these spirits benign or evil? Then, one by one, they were transformed from young males into female shamans or priestesses.
Colorful vests first covered their naked torsos, then capes were fastened at their shoulders. A squarish multi-colored crown decorated with large pieces of mirror was placed on each youth, then his head was covered with a white cloth. When it was removed, a needle-sharp spike now pierced both cheeks. Supposedly, because they were deep in their trances, they felt no pain. Rocking and shaking with what seemed to be spiritual ecstasy, each boy-priestess was lifted into a throne and carried in circles around the ceremonial area.
Not only were we the only foreigners witnessing this ceremony, we probably were the only foreigners who’d ever been there. The women in our group certainly were the only women in the ceremonial area. The tribe didn’t think of them as female because they wore trousers and were foreign. We were starting to feel as if we had wandered into a real life National Geographic documentary film.
One of my friends said that she saw almost the same ritual a few years before in Benin, Africa. Apparently, when this tribe came from Africa thousands of years ago, they brought these traditions and rituals with them and have passed them down, unchanged, along with the tribal deities, generation to generation in this isolated community.
After the young men had been transformed, had their cheeks pierced, and were enthroned, they were borne through the gate, accompanied by the musicians and the rest of us in a procession that maneuvered along the haphazard lanes of the festival market. Now, the women, both vendors and shoppers, could see the boy priestesses carried on their dazzling thrones.
Pushing and shoving, the crowd gazed on the ornately garbed, mutilated, writhing boys. People also were stretching and straining to see us, the pale-skinned foreigners who might as well have been gods from other worlds. Dodging stray cows, we moved forward with the others – not so easy with people stopping in our paths to gawk at us – and tried not to step on baskets of tiny red tomatoes or piles of small purple eggplants and greenish okra fingers.
An alarmed cow stopped in front of me, eyes large with confusion as the drums and horns clattered around her. She had no idea what was happening, but didn’t like it. Her big brown and white head turned one way, then the other, and finally my direction. Eventually, she sensed a partial opening at my left and charged through it.
This religious ceremony had turned out to be even more shocking than the first one we’d experienced. It was difficult to watch these boys work themselves into such violent states, rolling their eyes and swaying their heads and jerking their bodies, but even worse was the sight of the long needles piercing their smooth brown cheeks. I wanted to tell myself that it was fake, but it looked all too real.
It was hard to believe that these rituals, still practiced in Africa, had been brought to the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago. Could these tribes have been so isolated for all these centuries in one of the most populous countries on the planet? Could they really have passed these rituals unchanged into the twenty-first century? Apparently.
However, we saw examples that life was changing for these people. Children in school received free lunches. Some young men we glimpsed at the festival carried cell phones. Some wore buttoned shirts with their dhotis. Many villages had electricity and we’d spied a satellite dish above a thatched roof. Even so, traveling herb and medicine men still hiked from village to village and voodoo doctors still exorcised evil spirits from afflicted tribal people And adolescent boys such as these still fell into trances and had long needles thrust through their hairless cheeks.
I wonder if I'll ever understand India. Despite the cyber revolution in other parts of the subcontinent, despite the new emphasis on education throughout the country, in this remote world the only logic seemed to be the logic of nightmares and dreams. In dreams, the details are specific and seem real, but they don’t fit together realistically or logically. On the other hand, what’s rational about taking an assault rifle and killing school children? Is it logical to pass laws, because of one's own personal beliefs, that harm women everywhere? I find India difficult to grasp, but there’s plenty in my own country that I don’t understand.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Diesel Books-Oakland, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and by order from your local bookstore.