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In the Name of Superstition

Photographer: Narendra Shrestha

 

Hundreds of people gathered at the banks of Kamala River in Nepal at the beginning of November 2017 to witness the healing of Rinku Yadav, a young woman who is believed to be possessed by an evil spirit.

 

The healing ritual was led by Paltan Mukhiya, aged 45, a shaman or 'witch doctor' locally known as 'dhami'. As the Ghost Festival was observed at the river on a full moon day, the shaman beat Rinku Yadav with a stick, purportedly in an attempt to heal her from her possession, then got hold of her ear and had an assistant pour mustard oil into it while he chanted mantras. In the middle of the ritual, Rinku admitted that she was a ghost and now ready to leave her body. She was thus taken by the shaman’s assistant, Dulok Kumari, to the river where the assistant grabbed her by her hair to submerge her into the waters for a holy dip. The aim was to purify her. With the act of the holy dip, the evil spirit was said to have left her body and the young woman was considered healed.

 

Rinku Yadav, aged 20, is a mother to a two-year-old girl. Her husband went to Kuwait in 2016 for employment as a migrant worker. She was taken to the shaman for ‘treatment’ by her in-laws who believed that Rinku was possessed by some witch or ghost as she has been ill for a longer time.

 

The Ghost Festival is a centuries-old cultural celebration held at Kamala River in Dhanusha district, located 218.2 kms from the capital of Kathmandu. Every year on the full moon day of November, thousands of people, mostly from Dhanusha District in eastern Nepal and neighboring India and belonging mainly to the lower caste Dalit community, flock to the holy river with deep-rooted, superstitious beliefs. These pilgrims arrive at the festival convinced that something is wrong within their families or in their business because of evil spirits.

 

For a whole night, they gather at the site and chant mantras while shamans practice various rituals. Shamans like Paltan Mukhiya reiterate the tale that there are two kinds of possessions: people can be either possessed by the soul of a person who suffered an untimely and unwanted death, and are thus considered ghosts, or by their lineage god or goddess, and therefore considered godly. Those believed to be possessed will start dancing and the shamans will make them chant the words ‘Paap Ki Chaya, Dharm Ki Jay’, a mantra that means to help bring forth victory over sin. The shamans profess that only they can identify the ghost or the god by holding the possessed person’s wrist while they are dancing. Paltan Mukhiya claims that he gains his power from the Goddess Durga who visits him in his dreams. Believers come to him to help them treat their illness or in hope to become pregnant with a son instead of a daughter.

 

The Ghost Festival is an extreme example of superstition in Nepal. A local TV journalist, who has been witnessing the tradition for ten years, says that the shamans are exploiting and abusing vulnerable people in the name of healing and ritual to maintain their business and to affirm their position of power in society. Families spend up to 1,000 to 2,000 USD to attend the festival in hopes to be healed from the possession by evil spirits that this age-old superstition has them believe in.