Ritual surprises in a Rajasthan hamlet

23 Sep 2018

It was coming up near sunset time: golden side-lit shapes casting long rich shadows. As we wandered through this peaceful Rajasthan desert hamlet, photographing the shy village women as they prepared the evening meal, we heard shouting and made for the source of the commotion.

As we entered a small, tree-shaded clearing in the middle of the village, we saw a bunch of lads peering curiously into a small cube-like structure. It turned out to be a small room, a temple-shrine, from which emanated loud barks and shouts and the clanking of something heavy and metallic.

Our shoes and sandals hastily joined the pile outside the temple entrance. We flung ourselves through the temple doorway, obsequiously bowing and scraping our way into the dark corners of the room. Even our guide-photographer, who knows these villages (and many of their residents) very well, was delighted at the remarkable tableau that was unfolding before us. A short explanation of the camera-bearing foreigners was offered, permission to attend and shoot was graciously granted — but we still had no idea about what we’d be shooting.

Turns out we’d stumbled upon a faith-healing session… a potent performance of drug-fuelled, masochistic quasi-religious theatre.

Turns out we’d stumbled upon a faith-healing session. The photo-set at the top of this page tells the story, but the essence was this… a medicine-man or folk-healer and his assistants took up position, got high on opium and hashish, established a direct line of communication with the Higher Powers, received troubled or unwell village residents and banished their ailments via a potent performance of drug-fuelled, masochistic quasi-religious theatre.

The masochistic part involved the medicine man, aged and skinny as he was, brutally beating his own back with iron bars as he bellowed healing incantations. Presumably this was to channel the pain of his patients into his own body or to use pain itself as the source of his faith-medicine.

We were lucky to get to see and shoot this. The temple’s orientation, doorway facing the setting sun, the dark interior and the shafting sunlight, the smoke from incense and opium, the medical drama being played out a metre from our lenses… heady stuff indeed. And — given the sensitivity of the setting, our uninvited presence and our arms-length proximity to the goings-on — I’ve never been more glad to be using a near-silent mirrorless camera.

As for the two patients — a little boy who’d lost his appetite, and a man with stomach pain — I’d love to know what became of them. Guess I’m gonna have to go back… you coming?

Shoot this with us: