Monday, 30 November, 2020

Extreme piercing: A festival of self-inflicted pain

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Warning: Some audience will locate the images of piercing disturbing

An ancient pre-harvest festival in India’s point out of West Bengal, in which males pierce by themselves with iron rods and hooks, was cancelled this yr because of to coronavirus. But Sahar Zand – who attended the event very last April – studies that a lot of community persons think that devoid of this display of devotion to the Hindu deity, Shiva, crops are certain to fail.

It is early early morning just one day in mid-April, virtually exactly a calendar year in the past. On the financial institution of the river Ganges, a handful of youthful guys are sitting down in a circle below the shade of a massive tree. They are sporting vibrant crimson and are meticulously sharpening iron rods, termed bursees, each and every about 2ft (60cm) lengthy. The sharper the rod, the reduce the chance of harm in the ritual that awaits them later on in the day.

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Sandos (left) and friends, on the riverbank

The oldest member of the team, Sandos, 26, is the only one particular in this group who has taken component in the self-harming rituals right before. In excess of the several years he has experienced his lips, ears, arms, chest, tummy and back impaled, he tells me. Indeed, it was distressing, he claims. “But soreness is momentary, it can be the reward that will past. We all have to pay back a rate to get what we want.”

The reward they are trying to get is a great harvest. In the village of Krishnadevpur in West Bengal, the pre-harvest pageant of Gajan, coinciding with the close of the Bengali calendar, is the most significant celebration of the calendar year. Collaborating is the final way for the farmers to display their devotion to Hindu deity Shiva, who they think is liable for granting them a favourable weather for their crops.

“As soon as we begin the rituals,” Sandos tells me, “our Lord Shiva will have us, and we get his superhuman toughness and bravery.”

Listening carefully is Rahul, who says he has been pushing his mom and dad to permit him consider part considering that he was 10. He is now 15 and this yr, soon after a series of poor harvests, his parents have reluctantly agreed.

“Shiva is not joyful and that is why we are all struggling, he is punishing us,” Rahul suggests, as the relaxation of the group nods in arrangement. “So to safeguard ourselves and our people from his rage, it is now far more essential than at any time to demonstrate our devotion to him.”

Once the iron rods are sharpened, 1 by one particular, the guys dive into the holy river to purify their bodies and souls.

For the final 6 a long time, 22-year-aged Ajoy has also taken part in Gajan, but not this time. He has developed sceptical. “When I am not seeing any benefits, why would I carry on to hurt myself?” he asks.

He will take me to his household farm. Rows of rotten veggies extend prior to me, bordered by bare mango trees and fly-infested fruits.

“In some cases we get no rain at all when we are intended to and our crops die in a drought, other instances we get this kind of premature and heavy rain that our fields flood and our harvest will get ruined,” he states. Heatwaves have also been getting additional extreme.

The dilemma is local weather change, Ajoy tells me, not Shiva’s rage, and the moment he finishes researching Bengali literature at a school in Kolkata, he has made the decision to glimpse for a job in other places.

Afterwards in the day, as the pageant is about to start out, hundreds of persons fill an enclosure the sizing of a football subject: there are women in vibrant saris, excited little ones working all-around, bonfires, the odor of regional treats and spices, and loud tunes booming from loudspeakers.

Sandos and Rahul are collected in the centre of the area with a different 100 or so gentlemen who, like them, are donning practically nothing but a red cloth around their midsection. “Shiva is the most highly effective deity,” they chant, “and all his devotees ought to participate in his worship.”

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Rahul (centre) chanting

They have been chanting this mantra for hours – it is a important section of a procedure that is intended to convey them into a state of trance. They will have to rapidly on the day of the pageant but might drink liquor and smoke marijuana. This is all thought to lessen the chance of harm.

As Rahul dances all around the priest who will shortly be impaling the devotees, his eyes are extensive open but he seems ideal through me.

The group begins tightening as the impaling begins, the women of all ages ululating.

I convert absent involuntarily. When I glimpse back I see that a pair of devotees, however chanting Shiva’s mantra, presently have numerous iron rods in their flesh – in their cheeks, ears, lips, nose, chest, arm, back.

The priest can take 1 of Sandos’s sharpened rods and rubs it in opposition to a banana for lubrication. Muttering a mantra, he starts to pull on Sandos’ cheek. Quickly he pierces it with the rod. It goes in just one facet and out the other. Sandos frowns and his complete physique trembles. The priest penetrates the exact cheek with two far more rods, leaving them all in.

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Sandos keeping the bursees the priest has thrust via his cheeks

Rahul is future. He steps forward, his eyes tightly shut. The priest commences with his earlobe. Future his lower lip, which receives various piercings, as does his higher lip. Eventually, the priest can make two wounds, every single an inch deep, in Rahul’s chest, leaving the rods in. A compact teardrop is the only sign of ache I see on his experience.

He tries to continue chanting Shiva’s mantra but his phrases arrive out muffled – the iron rods sticking out of his face evidently restrict his facial actions. A different devotee picks Rahul up on his shoulders and commences parading around in a circle with the some others, watched by the community.

To my amazement, I do not see a single fall of blood in the complete system.

But the pageant is not really over yet. The devotees are now planning for Charak Puja, the last and arguably most grotesque element of the competition. For this closing ritual, self-torture is taken to the upcoming stage. A few seasoned devotees will swing on a carousel, hanging from nothing more than two hooks pushed as a result of the skin on their backs.

To start with in line is Suman. He is 34 and says he’s been taking component in Gajan rituals each yr considering the fact that he was 12.

At 1st the priest refuses to impale him, arguing he has no more area still left on his again. But when Suman angrily insists, the priest slaps his decrease back, grabs a handful of his flesh, stretches it as considerably he can, then forces the hook as a result of. Suman’s fists clench tightly, his eyes clamp shut, and the veins on his forehead glimpse like they’re about to pop. He faints.

They pour h2o on him and slap him to wake him up. Then he gets up, holding on to one more devotee for equilibrium, who directs him on to a system to get on the carousel. They tie the rope to the hook.

Suman is counterbalanced by an additional devotee on the other side of the carousel, the two rotating as the rest of the attendees cheer them on. They display no signal of agony. Suman is smiling and interacting with the group underneath him.

Following a several rounds, the carousel slows down and Suman grabs one particular of the many toddlers that moms and dads are keeping up to get Shiva’s blessing. Suman and his counterpart hold a crying baby for a person rotation, then return it to its moms and dads and get an additional.

“As prolonged as the devotees are up there, they are not themselves, but they’re Shiva in disguise,” a single mother tells me. “When my lord has my newborn, I have almost nothing to get worried about.”

Right after about 10 minutes, the carousel stops and Suman gets off, changed by yet another devotee. “The whole time I was up there, I felt spiritually related to god, I felt like a bridge involving him and the relaxation of the group,” he tells me with hooks even now in his back again.

I inquire him what he thinks would take place if Gajan was to stop having location.

“It’ll be the finish of the planet,” Suman responds without having hesitation. “Lord Shiva’s rage will damage us all.”

But this April, as the neighborhood was planning for Gajan, the Indian governing administration imposed a lockdown thanks to Covid-19.

This year Gajan did not choose place – perhaps for the initial time in hundreds of years.

Hear to Sahar Zand’s radio documentary Walking on a Scorching Coil for Coronary heart and Soul, on the BBC Earth Service

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