The Crusader of Mental Health

Investigation of Banamati

In July 1980 Karnataka Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly of Karnataka) discussed the ‘Banamati’ phenomenon in Bidar and Gulbarga and how to solve the problem. Banamati refers to reported incidents where women would suddenly strip off their clothes and run, men would become impotent; stones, ash, and mud would rain down on houses, blood would be seen in milk, folded clothes would turn into ashes, slash wounds would appear on udders of milch cattle.
Dr. H. Narasimhaiah, former Vice Chancellor of Bangalore University was appointed as chairman of the panel in August 1980. Two psychiatrists from NIMHANS were also part of the panel. They visited Bidar and interviewed selected people. They could not find witnesses of this supernatural phenomenon.
After this preliminary study, it was decided to constitute a larger team and conduct a more detailed study. Dr. H S Narayanan, associate professor of psychiatry, NIMHANS, asked CRC to join a team of 10 people, of which 7 doctors were from the institute. The team visited several villages in the backward districts of Bidar and Gulbarga during a period of three weeks in January 1981.
They met hundreds of people and interviewed them. CRC was moved by their poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, lack of any hospital or medical care nearby, illiteracy, and the harsh, parched land, where they had to toil and make a living. To add to their misery, they were terrorized by Banamati incidents. They claimed that witch doctors conducted black magic rites to invoke banamati.
The team went to Pastapura, a severely Banamati affected village, and conducted a house-to-house survey. They enquired from village leaders and got the names of afflicted people. They visited the affected houses and prescribed medication for sick people. They collated and analyzed the survey results.
At that time, when people with neurological and mental illnesses like epilepsy and schizophrenia were brought to doctors, the doctor asked them to go to Banamati healers first and try their treatment. The doctors were afraid to treat them because in case their treatment failed, people would blame them. The people believed that taking the affected person to an allopathic doctor would worsen the Banamati effect. Lawyers and the police too would ask the victims to go to the healers.

The study team found 90% among the victims had mental illness; the rest had physical ailments. These diseases, whether mental or physical, were common across people. The doctors concluded that all the Banamati instances were either hoaxes or exaggerated versions of incidents. They prepared a report recommending that people should be educated that Banamati was a myth, mental health care should be made available in these areas and health workers and general doctors should be given training on management of common mental disorders.

Visit to Benakahalli Village
When the NIMHANS team reached Benekahalli, the villagers, who had been informed earlier about the visit of the team, had already gathered in numbers at a place. The afflicted women were seated in a group separately.
The men folk greeted the team and narrated their plight. They requested the doctors to free them from the Banamati scourge. CRC and Dr Kesavan addressed the group of women. They said they were doctors from Bangalore, and wanted them to share their experiences of being troubled by Banamati. At first the women stared silently at the two doctors. Then one woman started moaning and shaking her head; her body began to sway. At once the atmosphere turned electric. More women started making loud crying sounds and swaying; some were rolling on the ground.

“See Sirs, this is how our women suffer when Banamati affects them”.
CRC realized they were witnessing mass hysteria. Both doctors knelt down, and pressed the foreheads of two women with their fingers.

“All right, we have seen how you are suffering under Banamati”. CRC raised his voice, “Look, now the power of Banamati will pass, and you will recover”.
The two women came out of their hysteria. The other women too quickly came back to their normal selves. The hysteria was an expression of the women’s suppressed frustrations, sufferings, and sorrow. The team addressed the villagers, telling them to overcome their fear of Banamati and panic, or else they would continue to suffer. They were advised to share their concerns with people they could trust. The doctors assured them that Banamati would not terrorize them in future. The policemen present there told the doctors that they had now understood that it was mass hysteria and had learnt how to deal with it.

Meeting the perpetrators of Banamati

Some people from a neighboring village, Salebeeranahalli, approached the police in Chincholi with the complaint that they had caught some men practicing Banamati in a graveyard. The police informed the team about this. Two members of the team, including CRC, visited the village and interviewed these men. The villagers handed over to the team some items found with the accused men : a mirror, vermilion powder, few limes, a book on Banamati rituals, lamps and a coconut.

Seeing the doctors the captives said they had not been invoking Banamati but had been engaged in finding out the people who had done it. The captives had already been beaten by the villagers. One of the captured men said that his name was Husain. He claimed he would read Koran and then look into a mirror to see the faces of Banamati perpetrators.

The police asked him what he had seen. Husain pointed to the other two men and said he had seen their faces. He accused them of being sorcerers, who were trying to make someone else a scapegoat. The second man, on interrogation said his name was Kala. His wife was a victim of Banamati. He had come to the graveyard along with the other two men to find out who had done Banamati on her.

The third man said that he would get possessed by a god, and could cure people of Banamati. He started chanting something and waving his body, as though he was possessed.

It emerged from interrogation and facts narrated by villagers that these three men used to extort money from gullible people by threatening them with Banamati. They did not possess any supernatural powers.

The Remover of Banamati

On a new moon night in Kukkeri village, about 5 km from Pastapura, a popular healer was to hold a session to cure the victims of Banamati. When the doctors came to know about this, they drove and reached Kukkeri at 9 pm. In front of a mosque, a man dressed like a faqir, was dancing to the beating of drums. Some people told the doctors that the man would get possessed by a powerful god or spirit, and could treat people even severely affected by Banamati.
A man came up to the faqir and said his family was suffering from Banamati. The faqir lifted the man and continued his dance. He released the man shortly. The faqir’s assistant told the man to bring some money for which he would be given a holy ‘tabiz’. He should be tied around the neck or wrist; this would release him from Banamati.

Apparently the faqir would earn more than fifteen thousand rupees in one such session. If the victims got freed of the curse due to such a shaman, the shaman’s fame would spread, or else the victims sought other healers.

The stories of the female victims of Banamati were tragic. One was a 16 year old girl, whose husband was an ailing, 60 year old man. One woman had not borne children; her husband had remarried. She had to do all household work for her keep. Another was a schizophrenic, while another had tuberculosis of the spine, which had affected her legs; unable to walk, she had to crawl. One woman had a diseased heart and was anemic. No one had taken steps to have these women treated. They were labeled victims of Banamati.

The investigation committee submitted a report stating that the Banamati phenomenon was not supernatural in nature. They made several recommendations, such as better mental health services to be provided, enactment of a law to punish the practicing of witchcraft to exploit people, and the training of general practitioners, nurses and health workers in psychiatry. Subsequently, a two-week training program on mental health care was arranged in NIMHANS for all the doctors and health workers in Bellary.
CRC wrote a book on Banamati in Kannada, which described the phenomenon and the findings of team, and explained that it was not a supernatural phenomenon, but the work of people who sought to exploit the gullible. Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat published the book and priced it at one rupee in 1981. So far the book has been printed 7 times and sold over 60000 copies. This got him Kannada Sahitya Parishat’s Dr. H. Narasimhaiah Endowment Award in 1982. It was widely distributed through educational institutions, libraries, jatras or village fairs and exhibitions. The book helped in dispelling the myth; people started going to psychiatrists rather than traditional healers of Banamati.