In a strange ritual, more than 2,000 women including school-going teen-aged girls, who were believed to be ‘possessed’ by evil spirits were given vicious whip lashes to “free them from these bad elements” at the annual festival of the ancient Sri Achappan Temple at Bavithram Vellalapatti, a remote village situated on the border of Tiruchi and Namakkal districts, on Monday, the Vijayadasami Day.

The men priests, dressed in traditional attire, cracked whips on the ‘possessed’ women, the salvation seekers, who sat in a half-kilometre-long queue for nearly five hours on a sprawling open space called ‘lashing ground’ near the temple.

Many of them were young school and college-going girls, who winced when they received the lashes and writhed in pain on the ground. The long and wieldy whips, which descended on them in full ferocity, had left them gasping for breath, causing burning marks of wounds on them and forcing them to sob and cry in searing pain. Many were given three to four flogs to drive away the ‘multiple spirits’ that possessed them.

Vanita, a twelfth standard student from a nearby village, who received the lash, was holding both her hands in pain. Sobbing uncontrollably, she told The Hindu that she had to sit on the queue as her parents insisted. As she was not showing interest in studies, they believed that an evil spirit had possessed her, preventing her from scoring high marks. "They forced me. Now my friends will look at me suspiciously once they know that I attended the festival, known for curing mental disorders,” she said.

Vanita was not the only girl student to be flogged against her wishes and to face taboo back at home. Many of her age and even those younger, in the age group of 11 and 12 and studying, had undergone the ordeal to drive away the presumed extraterrestrials that did not permit them to study well.

Another girl, about 16, from a village in Dindigul district was brought to the 'lashing ground’ as she was yet to attain puberty and another for her irregular menstrual periods. Even a newly wed wife, accompanied by her husband, attended it saying that her in-laws had told her that she was 'possessed.’

“A lash here will cure all these ills, physical and mental, that afflict women,” said a 60-year old Chelli, a regular receiver of lashes in the temple for the past decade. Her hands bore criss-cross marks of scars from wounds she received from the whips.

Asked if the practice was not a crime, the temple priest and co-ordinator, Kulla Goundan, of Kurumbar descent, said it was not so. “It is a belief of devotees and the practice is in vogue for long. We cannot alter [that],” he said. Nearly 10,000 people gathered for the festival, which concluded on Tuesday.

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