Tewfic El-Sawy

The Possessed

Hazrat Sayid Mira Datar Shrine

In the rear, it’s a madhouse, a local version of Dante’s Inferno as depicted by the various celebrated painters of our time..but here, it’s for real. A woman dressed in red, thin as a rail, long hair flailing, writhes and turns…her face contorted in anguish and suffering. She’s silent except for sporadic short shrieks. Her movements are erratic and, like the others here, I’m careful to keep out of her way. She hurls herself against a wall, then catches her breath for a few seconds….then starts again.
As a photographer, I'm always intrigued by the manifestations of intense religious faith that I come across during my travels, and none more so than those I witness in India, where the mutual gravitational pull of Hinduism and Islam has -over hundred and hundred of years- engendered a crossover in rituals, superstitions, habits, legends and even saints. The syncretic essence of these two faiths is nowhere better displayed than at the thousands of Sufi shrines that dot this ancient land.
Sufis brought their brand of Islam to the Indian subcontinent by walking from the west; from Afghanistan and Iran. These Sufi ascetics walked around India, and eventually settled in towns and villages, counseling and helping people. These ascetics became saints or “pirs” as they’re called. When the ascetics died, their tombs became dargahs, sacred shrines.

And it was at one of such shrines that I came to see the followers of Hazrat Sayid Mira Datar, a Sufi saint martyred in battle hundred of years ago with the reputation of healing the sick, the infirm, the possessed, the mad and the insane.
I carefully watch the women (with two exceptions, all of them were female) who got into trances. All of them, Hindus or Muslims, remove their head scarves and let their long hair free and loose. Their faces are usually expressionless. Some call out to the saint over and over using a well rehearsed cadence, gradually increasing in tempo until it reaches a feverish pitch….violently throwing their hair about. Others roll over the marble floor, bumping into people and pillars…writhing like snakes…and scratching at the tiles. Swaying from side to side violently but rhythmically, these entranced women may yell anything; repetitive supplications or insults against their husbands, families or perceived demonic forces. The rest of the pilgrims consider these wild manifestations as the women’s battle against evil, and emphasize with them. It’s unnerving to see these women, most of them writhing on the ground, while their husbands or sisters are comforting sleeping babies and children a few feet away.
There are nine doors to the saint’s crypt, all covered in pure silver. One of the doors is called the Gate of Paradise, or Janat Darwazah. Only men are allowed inside the crypt, and women can be brusquely shoved out if they dare to trespass. Only from outside one of the sides doors, can women touch one of the green embroidered gelaf that are bought daily to cover the saint’s coffin. Some, not content with a fleeting moment of intimacy with the saint’s shrouds, hug the heavy doors of the crypt…a few sobbing and wailing.
Islamic theology is replete with references to jinns, a term used to describe what are commonly known as evil spirits. However, mainstream Islamic clergy are skeptical of exorcism, citing that most cases are due to psychological and physical causes mistaken for possession. The belief in spirit possession has existed since the beginning of civilization, and malevolent spirits are considered by many traditions to be the cause of psychological problems, chronic pain, addictions, sleep disorders, and physical ailments which do not respond to conventional treatments.