MALAJPUR — Every February, people gather in the village of Malajpur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, for a unique ghost fair. It’s one of India’s most celebrated festivals — an ancient event where exorcists rid the body of evil spirits.
Amardas believes that a ghost has taken control of her sister-in-law, Dharmati Bai, who has been shouting strange words for more than a month now. “My sister-in-law must have been possessed by a ghost,” she says. “We've come to the Malajpur ghost fair to pay our respects to the temple. They’re treating her now, and I hope she’ll be cured.”
Head priest Lalji Yadav is holding a broom and starts to beat Dharmati with it. After some time, he offers her some holy water and declares that she’s now free from the evil spirit.
“We catch ghosts here, and they never return to the body after we treat the patients,” the priest says. “We treat them by bringing them to the temple, then we use brooms to chase away the ghosts — a practice we’ve been using for hundreds of years. Every year people from different areas come to be exorcised.”
The 18th century temple is a shrine to Saint Deoji — believed to have the power to exorcise evil spirits. Believers say the power has been passed on to the temple’s priests.
More than half a million people come here each year, says local Mekam Singh Rajput.
“Anyone who comes here to pray will see his wishes fulfilled, especially those who are possessed by evil spirits and ghosts,” Rajput says. “People from different parts of the country visit this fair and get treatment at the temple. If you’re looking for a miracle, then you should visit the temple.”
In the region’s rural society, belief in ghosts is widespread. Women still attend ghost festivals like this, believing that their wishes will be granted. Indrawati Kherwal comes from Ghodadongri, a village 85 kilometers away from the festival venue. This is her 22nd visit to the temple. She asked for a child for her daughter, who finally gave birth after seven years of marriage.
“I’ve been coming here for the last 25 years,” Kherwal says. “I believe you just have to come here with your wishes, and they will be fulfilled by the temple’s saint. I’ve gotten everything I asked for. And those who visit the fair know about the miracles.”
Superstition prevails despite medicine
Despite progress in science and technology in India, many people still turn to exorcism rituals to cure diseases — including epilepsy, depression or mental disorders that are seen as a result of possession by evil spirits. Sarma Niwarihas hopes to find a cure for his brother.
“He was beating and abusing everyone, and even burned his clothes at home,” Niwarihas says. “We believe that he was possessed by ghosts. We brought him here for treatment, and his condition is improving.”
But beginning this year, the district administration has introduced modern medical treatment instead of relying on exorcism rituals. The local media has been criticizing the ghost fair for conning innocent villagers and playing on their beliefs.
“People who come here are illiterate and have very little knowledge about the diseases that their relatives are suffering from,” says Rahul Sharma, a clinical psychologist from a government medical college. “They come here because of a lack of knowledge and their belief in superstition. We just want to tell them that medical treatment is available for them, and that they should not waste their time at the temple.”
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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