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September 27, 2023

By Rakesh Khanna 


The Devati Balishtamaru is a demon from the West Coast of India, specifically from the folklore of the Kumbri Marathi community in the state of Karnataka. It is conjured into existence when three cats die at exactly the same moment. When a person is possessed by a Devati Balishtamaru, they suffer from a cough, cold, weakness, fever, and vomiting.

The Narrah, on the other hand, comes from Northern India, specifically the folklore of the Malto people of Bihar and Jharkhand. The Narrah is a shapeshifter who haunts stagnant pools of water. At night, it sneaks into people’s houses in the form of a boar or bandicoot rat and licks them, causing painful swelling in the legs or feet.

I learned about these supernatural entities (and many of the others catalogued in my book Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India) from works of cultural anthropology. Some of my source texts were by British authors from the colonial period; others were the theses of Indian anthropologists working in the second half of the twentieth century. At the time these accounts were written, many of the tribal people being studied were largely illiterate, with limited exposure to urban lifestyles or modern medicine. A lot has changed in the intervening years, with India’s literacy rates rising from about 10% a century ago to nearly 80% today.

It struck me, in researching my book, how many of the “demons” in older tribal folklore are basically just descriptions of disease. The Devati Balishtamaru could represent the tribal understanding of a bad strain of influenza. The Narrah is perhaps the Malto word for idiopathic oedema. Without the germ theory of disease or an advanced understanding of anatomy, I suppose it makes as much sense to blame a swollen foot on a shapeshifting bandicoot as on anything else.

While the Devati Balishtamaru and the Narrah appear to be personifications of physical ailments, other folkloric demons can be seen as personifications of mental illness. This zone, where psychology intersects with superstition and even exorcism, is the setting of some of my favourite horror movies; but up close in real life, it can be very disturbing. Exorcisms are still fairly common in India. There are whole temples dedicated to evicting malignant spirits, such as the Mehandipur Balaji Mandir in Rajasthan, or the Malajpur Bala Mandir in Madhya Pradesh. Visiting these places, or even watching videos of what goes on there, can be a harrowing experience.

In recent years, the Indian government’s approach to promulgating ancient religion has tended to legitimise a lot of superstition and pseudoscience. There have been incidents of exorcists being invited to perform rituals in government hospitals, and in 2017 in the state of Gujarat, dozens of famous exorcists were lauded on stage by party politicians. Benaras Hindu University, an institution which once produced a Nobel laureate and an Indian president, has in recent years offered a “Bhoot Vidya” or “Ghost Science” course, in which exorcism is studied as an academic discipline.

Perhaps unusually for someone who has written a big book on the subject of ghosts and demons, I am a rationalist and a sceptic at heart. I don’t expect my consciousness to survive in any meaningful way after death, and I don’t expect to ever get face-to-face with a jinn. At the same time, I don’t reject spirituality. I have a healthy awe for the magnificence and infinite complexity of the universe, staying aware of how little we humans actually know.

A recent scientific theory states that microbes may have a large effect on human behaviour. There is, for example, the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, a single-celled protozoan that reproduces only in cats, but which often finds its way into the human bloodstream, and may infect as much as 50% of the world’s population. It is thought to affect human behaviour by increasing the propensity for risk-taking and the likelihood of incidents such as traffic accidents.

While putting together my book I started to wonder if T. gondii is just the tip of the iceberg. Maybe someday we will learn that there is a microbial aspect to demonic possession. Perhaps many “supernatural entities” have a parasitic component. Only time and more research will tell.

You can find out more about Indian folklore in my new book, Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India.

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