The Uttar Pradesh shrine of what is said to be a trapped ghost draws the ‘possessed,’ hoping to rid themselves of whatever haunts them.
A strange calm hangs over the village, one that hardly appears to be in the midst of a famous mela. The heat is peaking, the fields around lie desolate and I have the odd feeling of being lost while trying to put some of my own ghosts to rest. Located 20 km from the district headquarters of Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, this is Belahara. A dusty, rocky village, it comes alive once every year during the festival of Navratri, when the ‘possessed’ from around the country converge at the temple of Mohan baram baba.
On the surface, the fair resembles the regular confluence of the rural colour palette, where jalebis are fried next to stalls selling underwear. But the truer reality is hidden. Walking down a street lined with flower shops and incense, I reach the low walls of the temple compound. There, a bizarre scene unfolds, as the temple area is full of the cries of people in the midst of ridding themselves of whatever demon had possessed them. There is no drumbeat, no smoke engulfing the compound, but the possessed are nonetheless deep in trances, leaving their loved ones staring at them in disbelief. A pool of muddy water is the final stage of cleansing. A few women float in the water; a man sings two lines of a Bhojpuri song over and over before finally doing a somersault, sending up a huge splash. The echoes of chanting – baram baba, baram baba, baram baba – get louder.
The cult of the baram is popular along India’s cow belt of Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, especially in the villages. How does one become a baram, though? I go back to Prakash, under whose stall I had left my shoes. “In the past,” he says, “when a Brahmin was unable to attain moksha, he would get stuck on Earth and haunt the village until he got a following to pray to him. He would become a baram,” he says. Unconvincing though the explanation is, the popular belief in the area is that there are 108 baram floating around.
The tale of Mohan Dubey, at whose shrine the mela takes place, has a little more girth, as the temple’s head priest, Ram Manohar Dubey, narrates. Born in Belahara some 350 years ago, Mohan declared that he wanted to be a baram baba. But epidemic struck the village, taking him and several others with it. Thereafter, he appeared multiple times in his relatives’ dreams, telling them that he had become a baram and they should construct a temple for him. The few who woke up remembering the dream, however, immediately tried to forget it, lest it bring bad fortune.
Yet Mohan was not to be denied. In a fit of rage, he left for the village of Chainpur, in modern-day Bihar, and arrived at the house of Harsu baram, the king of the barams. Thereafter, unnatural deaths began to occur in Belahara, and its citizens panicked. Finally, Mohan appeared again in the dream of his nephew, Ram Avtar Dubey, and told him that he was disappointed and had left for the king’s court. “The village’s existence,” says the priest, “depended on Mohan baram being brought back home.”
So, using a pot of water, Ram Avtar went to Harsu and brought the baram of his uncle back to the village, where he then erected a temple as demanded. Calm soon returned to the village, and Mohan baram has been worshipped every day since. Soon, word of the new temple spread among the local communities, and tormented souls from far and wide began to arrive in Belahara to seek Mohan’s assistance.
Feeling a little heady, I decide to leave the temple. I reach for a ten-rupee note to give to Prakash for having kept my shoes sage, but he refuses to accept it – lest baram baba notice.
Akshay Singh is an independent photojournalist in New Delhi.