At least six young girls were made to walk naked in a ritual to summon rains in a drought-hit village of central India, viral social media videos showed.
One video showed the girls, some of whom looked no older than five, being paraded naked while carrying a wooden shaft bearing a frog, and begging from door to door as a group of older women trailed behind in procession.
In another video, the group of women escorting the girls are seen explaining to the person recording the video that the ritual was necessary to invoke rain and save their wilting paddy crops.
Activists and social media users have pointed out that in such cases, consent becomes difficult to determine because many of these minors are raised to believe these rituals are the norm.
India's National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has asked the administration of Damoh district, where the village is located, to submit a report on this ritual.
“We are investigating the case, but so far there have been no complaints from the girls or their families regarding this ritual,” the district police superintendent DR Teniwar told VICE World News.
The incident took place near one of India’s most drought-prone regions.
According to Teniwar, the ritual is relatively new in the area, having begun soon after an extreme drought that caused famine and pushed many people into poverty.
It’s not uncommon for some communities in India to practice rituals for rain gods.
In Indian states such as Karnataka, people hold elaborate wedding ceremonies for frogs to appease rain gods. In the state of Jharkand, men who belong to the Dalit caste are made to roll on a bed of thorns, while unmarried women are made to plow fields naked in Rajasthan in hopes of shaming the Hindu god of rainfall for allowing a drought.
While critics dismiss these practices as unrealistic superstitious beliefs, historians and folklorists have often acknowledged their ethnographic importance.
“While this incident needs to be probed further to find out the exact circumstances, the situation is complicated because parents were a part of this ritual and believed it to be part of their local practices and belief system,” Shashank Shekhar Sinha, a professor who has extensively researched gender, tribes, folk traditions and heritage, told VICE World News.
Rituals to induce rain are common around the world, such as Native American rain dances and cat-splashing festivals in Thailand. What makes India peculiar, Sinha said, is that its tradition and folklore associate rain and fertility with the female body, hence the rituals involving naked women and girls.
Moreover, climate change is causing irregularities in weather patterns, Sinha pointed out. This can alarm people and further drive them to resort to superstitions about rain and fertility.
“We don’t just see these rituals in tribal or agricultural societies. We see it in any society that is facing an uncertainty like a drought,” he said.
“Monsoons have been a source of anxiety in our historical folklore and vernacular literature, but as we see increased vagaries of nature due to climate change, there is greater talk about it today,” he added.