More than 200 women in Dhamtari district of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh laid on the ground at a local fair as tribal priests and “healers” walked on their backs last week. This is part of more than a century old fertility ritual. The women allow priests to walk on their backs in the belief that it will “bless” them with a child. Videos of the bizarre festival called Madhai Mela, which takes place annually on the first Friday after Diwali, a Hindu festival, are going viral.
“Even after being married for almost 17 years, my husband and I were not able to conceive a child,” Rameshwari Sinha, a housewife from the district, told VICE World News. Sinha said that she and her husband went to various doctors and even tried fertility treatments like IVF, but to no avail. “A few years ago I took part in the ritual, and the very next year, I had a baby boy,” she said. For women like Sinha, who grew up listening to stories about this mystical ritual, the ritual trumps it’s lack of scientific evidence.
While India is the second most populous nation in the world, having children, especially a son, is considered important to ensure the family’s lineage.
“Hundreds of women show up to pray every year expecting their wishes to come true. Most women who participate in this ritual do so to have children,” RN Dhruv, the secretary of the temple trust, which helps organise the festival, explained to VICE World News.
According to Dhruv, women crouch themselves and allow priests to walk over them to enter the temple as they believe the priests are possessed by the Hindu goddess named Angaarmoti. “There are many women who were told by the doctors that they will not be able to conceive. They participated in the ritual and have come back to the temple with their newborn babies.”
Dhruv believes that because the tribal priests are possessed by the Hindu goddess, they can walk on the women’s back without causing them pain.
“The goddess ensures that no pain is caused to the women who lay down. It is what they must sacrifice in order to have a child,” Sushila Tharam, a woman whose younger sister had participated in the ritual, told VICE World News.
Not everyone is swayed. “It is very hazardous as men are seen walking on women. This could injure their vital organs,” Kiranmayee Nayak, chairperson of the state commission for women, said. Nayak plans to hold campaigns to sensitise women about scientific conception practices.
But women like Sinha refuse to believe otherwise. “People are jealous, so they make rumours that this is outdated or that it hurts us. It makes me sad to see that people don’t believe in the power of our goddess,” she said.
In India, bizarre fertility rituals are a common affair. Last week, in a disturbing black magic attempt, a couple ate the organs of a seven year old girl after she was gang raped, believing this could help them conceive a child.
Among a few sections of the Hindu community, girls are deified till they reach puberty, after which a ritual is held to celebrate the onset of their fertility. In some sects, women are made to eat food off the floor with their hands tied behind their back to make them more fertile.
“While fertility rituals are common worldwide, in India there is a pressure on women to be fertile,” Rituparna Patgiri, who teachers sociology at Delhi University’s Indraprastha College for Women, told VICE World News. “All the fertility rituals we hear about in India are centered on women. The men are usually not the ones considered to be infertile,” she said.
Earlier this month, an Indian woman died by suicide after being harassed by her husband and family. She faced this harassment after an astrologer predicted that she could not conceive children.
The ritual that took place in Chhattisgarh last week was also criticised as the large crowds who gathered flouted social distancing guidelines. Many were roaming around freely without a mask despite the presence of policemen.