Holi in Bijauli, a village of about 5,000 residents, located almost 15 km from Meerut on the Meerut-Hapur road, is marked by painful rituals, flagellation, and body piercings.
Villagers believe that by inflicting pain on themselves during the festival of colours, they will be able to ward off a 500-year-old curse that plagues their village.
How did this belief come into being? Village elders narrate the back story of a fakir visiting the village on Holi almost 500 years ago. As the tale goes, no one paid much attention to the mendicant who became infuriated and cursed the village. Crops would fail, he said, year after year. Crops indeed did fail. Villagers sought forgiveness and the fakir apparently told them that if they endured pain each Holi, crops would thrive again. And so the ritual endures.
A visit to the village before Holi reveals the macabre nature of the celebrations. A steady stream of processions make their way through the bylanes of the village, the highlight of which are bare-bodied young men wearing silken dhotis. Hundreds of needles are pierced through the lips, cheeks and torsos of these young ‘volunteers’ who have offered to participate in what is termed as a ‘sacrificial body piercing’ ceremony. As more needles pierce their bodies, the assembled crowds cheers enthusiastically prompting the volunteers to break into a frenzied dance, during which they flagellate themselves.
Anil Tyagi, a village resident, says that most of these volunteers willingly go through this ordeal. “In fact, youngsters feel proud that they have contributed to the welfare of their village,” he says.
Amit Pathak, historian and author of ‘1857, A Living History’ says that rituals incorporating self-inflicting violence has been a part of tribal cultures throughout the world. “These practices have been used by societies to communicate with nature or creation. I think it’s best not to form an opinion or pass judgment on them since it is a form of belief.”
Rationalists, though, say that such rituals are merely superstitions which should be discouraged. “It is a part of primitive human mentality that inflicting pain on yourself will attract forgiveness,” says Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. “The human body is capable of taking more pain than one can think of, and these practices simply illustrate that point. However, linking these displays with so-called curses is nothing else but superstition. “