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Monsoon Special: How to please a rain god

From hook-swinging to stripping naked, in 19th century India, people performed bizarre rituals to please the rain gods

One rain-making custom involved suspending a man with hooks attached to his back. In this photograph, a crane-like contraption lifts a man 35ft in the air. Photo: Missionary Herald (1892)
One rain-making custom involved suspending a man with hooks attached to his back. In this photograph, a crane-like contraption lifts a man 35ft in the air. Photo: Missionary Herald (1892)

In 1876, the southern India famine—globally known as the Great Famine of India—gripped the nation. Within two years, it wiped out over five million people. Two decades later, the country witnessed similar, severe water paucity. The drought took root in Bundelkhand and then swept across regions of Bihar, the United Provinces (much of present-day Uttar Pradesh) and the presidencies of Madras and Bombay, leaving behind miles of parched farmlands and a severely devastated population.

In 19th century India, farmers believed that droughts—and subsequent crop failure—were caused by their failure to please the gods. To appease their wrath (sometimes even demons), several practices—often unimaginable—were conceived and performed.

In Madurai, for instance, men practised the custom of hook-swinging in the 1890s. Although the practice had been abolished by the Madras government two decades earlier, it was resurrected by farmers. In Sholavandan, Tamil Nadu, men who belonged to the Kallar community (literally translates to “thief") practised the custom of self-mutilation. A powerfully built young man would be lifted 35-60ft in the air with hooks sewn into his back.

An edition of Scientific American (dated 5 March 1892) reproduces the text of an article in the Missionary Herald. In it, an American missionary, Reverend John S. Chandler, recounts the spectacle he witnessed in Madurai in October 1891. “Hook swinging is thought to be a means of propitiating (a demoness), so as to influence her to send rain in abundance," he says. “It is said that previous to the insertion of the hooks into the middle of the back, the muscles and skin (of the man) are rendered insensible." The man is given “arrack" (an alcoholic drink) to dull his senses, while other men pull, pinch and smack his back to numb it. Two sharp hooks are then inserted on either side of his spine.

Next, the man is suspended from a crane-like vehicle—lifted 35ft above the ground. And as he goes up, “he (claps) his feet and hands together in a measured way, and (would keep) this up during the whole performance." The ceremony would normally last an hour.

The man Chandler saw would go on to be respected by his people—tradition allowed such men to keep the hooks, cord and knife for three months after the ritual. They could exhibit the tools in public as evidence of their bravery and beg for alms.

Up north, people practised other means to pacify the rain gods. British orientalist William Crooke, an authority on Indian folklore, describes a certain “nudity-spell" in Uttar Pradesh. “During the Gorakhpur famine of 1873-74, there were many accounts received of women going about with a plough at night, stripping themselves naked and dragging it across the fields as invocation to the rain-god," he writes in his book The Popular Religion And Folk-Lore Of Northern India (Vol I, 1894). “The men kept carefully out of the way while this was being done. It was supposed that if the women were seen by men the spell would lose its effect."

In the 19th century, nudity functioned as an important component in the rain-bringing ritual in certain parts of north India. One theory suggests that women stripped when their poverty stopped them from providing ceremonial offerings. Another theory argues that the god was afraid of obscenity, and therefore, when struck by embarrassment, would orchestrate showers.

Then, there were those who resorted to singing. Anthropologist Sarat Chandra Mitra recalls hearing raspy “high-pitched" noises outside his home in Saran district’s Chhapra village in Bihar in the summer of June 1892, right before he was about to sleep. “The other day, I came across another curious custom, peculiar to this part of the country, the observance whereof is supposed to bring down I was about to retire to bed, I heard a great noise," he writes in a paper titled On The Har Paraurī, or The Behāri Women’s Ceremony For Producing Rain (1897).

When he set out to make inquiries the next day, he learnt that the women were, in fact, invoking the powers of Vishnu, the Preserver. In the northern regions of India, women would march through the neighbourhoods singing folk songs over 10-12 days, in the hope that it would rain. At the end of 12 days, the women would return to the fields, and, with a plough in hand, crack open the earth while they continued to sing. Occasionally, they would throw in abuse addressed to the local thekedaar (contractor) and land-tax collector, for it was believed to bring good luck.

Over 100 years later, however, droughts continue to sweep the country; and folksongs and acts of nudity are still performed in parts of rural India. Scientists have predicted that, by the end of this century, average temperatures could increase by as much as 5 degrees Celsius. If that comes to pass, even the gods may not be able to help.

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