//Superstition haunts a village

Superstition haunts a village

Residents fearing they angered the village god, swore off meat and alcohol and held vigils after five unexpected deaths at regular intervals. Rationalists in India despair at such beliefs.  Reporting from Amloha Village, India – Some say it was the prayers, others the all-night vigils, still others the three days without meat or alcohol. Whatever it was that foiled the angry god, residents in this village of about 600 breathed a huge sigh of relief Thursday when the day passed without another death.

“We were so scared,” said Kuldeep Singh, 32, village head. “Now we feel better.”

Amloha has been on a knife’s edge since late December when the first person died mysteriously. In the last few months, four others followed at fairly regular intervals, in a place where years go by without a funeral. All the dead were apparently healthy, died suddenly and displayed no clear cause of death.

The interval between the last two deaths was 17 days, prompting some to wait nervously to see what would happen Thursday, 17 days later.

Superstition enjoys a long and rich history in India. Although some of these practices may seem poetic to outsiders, says Sanal Edamaruku, president of the New Delhi-based Indian Rationalist Assn., they can have deadly consequences. Diseases go untreated, disabled children are buried up to their necks during eclipses, infants are tossed from balconies and caught to ward off evil, he said.

“Critical thinking is lacking,” said Edamaruku, who has tried for the last 25 years to bust myths, slay ghosts and quell mass hysteria, but acknowledges that it’s a daunting task.

“That’s the irony of India. We’re a rising power held back by 15th century beliefs.”

Among the factors, experts said, include insufficient education, the reverence of ancient texts laced with fantastical stories sometimes taken literally and a desire to understand the seemingly inexplicable.

“When something goes wrong, it’s easy to fall back on belief in the mysterious, which absolves you of responsibility,” said Harish Shetty, a social psychiatrist at Nityanand Clinics in the western city of Mumbai. “India has great engineers, but when it comes time for them to marry, they fall into a bundle of superstitions. It’s in our psyche.”

Roshan Lal, 55, one of Amloha’s village wise men, said he looked for rational answers after the spate of deaths but none presented themselves. So he and the rest of the community concluded that the village god, Khera, must be angry.

“I always wanted to believe in science, but now I’ve concluded this was the work of alternate forces,” said Lal, wearing a white saf, or bandanna, as he chatted with other village luminaries. “Our god was angry before, but never like this.”

The other time was in 1980, villagers say, when five to 10 people were bitten by snakes in short order.

Mohan Lal, 50, whose son Rahul died unexpectedly June 15, said Khera might be angry because someone put makeup and other cosmetics into their field four days earlier. Or, it could be because someone stored candy in the cremation ground two years ago. Both are taboo.

Kartara Ram’s son Dhaarampal died next, on July 3. “It’s very painful to lose my son,” he said. “I feel like I’ve died myself.”

Villagers point to other evidence. When resident Raman Kumar died July 20, villagers cremated his body and returned two days later to throw the unburned remains into the river in keeping with local custom. To their horror, however, his skull, other bits and the shroud were missing. Then they realized that it was the day of the solar eclipse.

The mysterious goings-on in Amloha were front-page news Thursday across India. From early morning, the village’s single-lane dirt road was clogged with television news crews.

“These TV guys are mad,” said Sohan Lal, about 40, navigating around a satellite truck. “There’s something wrong with their heads.”

Some experts note that in India, superstition can engender mass events and near-hysteria. In 2006, word spread that the water from a creek near a Muslim holy man’s grave in Mumbai tasted unusually sweet for saltwater, prompting 10,000 people to show up overnight and hundreds to drink from it.

The rationalist association said it urged people not to drink the water and to wait for tests, as did municipal officials, but most ignored the advice. The water contained hundreds of times the acceptable level of E. coli bacteria due to contamination from sewage and other runoff. Scientists and officials said the change in the water’s taste probably was caused by the heavy monsoon rains.

“Even as we try and improve literacy, we often lack scientific literacy despite all the engineers India produces,” Edamaruku said. “We’ll launch a rocket but have a holy man break a coconut to make sure the timing is auspicious.”

On Thursday, elders in Amloha said the deaths have generated the most attention the community had received in its long history. The village of lush rice fields and 20-foot cones of cow dung fuel lies deep in Haryana, one of India’s most prosperous states, about a four-hour drive from New Delhi.

“Actually nothing at all has ever happened here before,” Singh said.

“We threw the British out in 1947,” Mehar Singh Lambardar, 80, who lives with his father whose age no one can recall, told a reporter. “You’re probably the first foreigner to visit us here since the English pulled out.”

Mark Magnier(LA Times) with Anshul Rana (TOI), 07, Aug 2009