Wanting to experience all the different facets of India does take a person to some fairly unusual destinations. For some inexplicable reason, and maybe because it would provide me with some ideas for my next horror short story, I decided to visit the Tantric Temple in Balaji - in-between Jaipur and Agra - a temple famous for its exorcisms. Before continuing, I should state that none of my impressions should be taken as denigrating another person's religion or belief systems, all I write is what I saw and felt, and make no judgements either way.
To reach Balaji required a two hour bus trip, along the usual roads filled with cars, trucks, buses, dogs and hogs. Arriving at the crossroads, I was then packed in with another 16 people (and their luggage) into a jeep and driven the few kilometres to my destination. My first impression of Balaji was that I was the only foreigner here - and that overseas visitors were not a common occurrence, due to the large and prolonged number of stares I received. The numerous religious items for sale along the streets informed me that this was a temple of some note, and as I walked further along the streets, the religious stalls became more obvious, more sadhus were in the streets, and the crowds of people became thicker and thicker. The task of walking through this crowd was made more difficult because I had my full backpack and camera bag with me.
All of a sudden, on my right hand side, I espied a low rise building with people thronged around it. They had formed two crushed queues - one each from the left and right - which met in the middle at a doorway. This was obviously the temple. It was then that I noticed another foreigner with an impressive camera. I approached him and after introducing himself as Martyn, told me that he was a freelance photographer from Germany here to take some photos. I asked him if he had entered the temple, and he replied in the negative. When he asked me if I intended to enter, I replied yes and he said "You are brave" as my gaze turned towards the crush of people entering the temple just a few meters away.
I walked away from Martyn, and I turned to wave goodbye, but he was already hidden by the swarming crowds. At that moment, a security guard from the temple saw me, and beckoned me to join him on the other side of the temple queue. I pushed my way passed the mass of pilgrims and he motioned for me to leave my bags in a safe place whilst I entered the temple. He stated quite firmly that I was not allowed to take photos, and I reassured him I was just her to look. So I removed my shoes and socks, washed my hands and then he kindly led me away from the crowds through a darkened doorway on the left. We entered a black room, which had another exit on the right hand side - the air was so charged with religious fervour that you could slice through it with a sword. The guard then led me through the door and confronting me was the centre of the temple - on the left was a mis-shapen rock in the form of some creature or human, and on my right - being kept back behind a red coloured cage, where a seething mass of pilgrims - pushing tightly against the cage and wailing and chanting. They were throwing in flowers, coins and food offerings, and the look of reverence on their face was absolute. The strong smell of incense, the darkened room and the chanting was eerie - I was totally immersed in the intensity that this temple possessed and it was most powerful. I knelt, offered a prayer - gave a donation, and then quietly backed away.
As the sound of the chanting grew softer, my friendly guard indicated that I had finished my temple tour. However, I had not seen any exorcisms - so luckily I had taken the precaution of having the word "exorcism" written in Hindi (it sounds like Boht) and I showed it to him. His face showed instant recognition and because he could not take me there, he enlisted another devotee to fulfil this task.
We walked around the outside of the temple and up some stairs on the right, and finally into a room above the one I was just in. Here was a large open area, and on the right was a whitewashed wide and flat rock, with two eyes painted on it, again behind a red cage. Devotees were praying and blessing this rock and it was obvious that some of the worshippers here had some "incapacities". Some people were wailing and bobbing up and down continuously, I saw others laying on the ground shaking as if in a fit - there eyes fixed on an invisible point in the distance. At one stage, a mother lifted her limp child in her arms, held it above her head and wailed and shook the child gently - I could not see the child's face, so could not tell whether it was conscious or not, but the size of the body indicated that it was only about two or three.
We moved passed this point to the outside where the bright sun proved such a contrast to the sombre darkness of the previous room. Rising up in front of me was a huge hill of black soil - it probably raised about 30 meters almost vertically upwards. On the right hand side a steady stream of pilgrims were climbing the roughly hewn steps. But it was the hill that was most striking - for on it were dozens and dozens of tiny cream shrines, haphazardly scattered across the black surface. Before I could consider what they were used for, at my feet I saw the most startling aspect of this temple. For here there were people laying on the ground in the hot sun, and two of them had a hand on top of 5cm slab of rock about 80cm square - but placed on top of their hands were another 5 or 6 slabs of rock of about equal dimension. I then saw another man with his left knee below another equal number of slabs. It was then that my guide said words in a thick accent that I will never forget - he pointed at these poor unfortunates and said "They have ghosts". What was it, I thought, that caused people to believe that one hand or even one knee had a ghost. The weight of these rocks must be most painful, yet they lay there perfectly still, with eyes closed and nobody (except myself) gave them a passing glance. Before leaving here, I caught the sight of more people muttering prayers or something else to themselves, and facing away from me was a woman or man with extremely matted hair, sitting in some unidentified filth and moving his or her head up and down in a very rapid motion.
Whilst leaving the temple, an elderly lady who was walking up the steps, looked up when she was directly in front of me. When she saw my face, a look of horror came over her, she placed her hands up to protect herself, and then ran away muttering something incomprehensible. Perhaps she thought I was one of those ghosts that this place is so proficient at expelling. My guide then took me across the road to the third and last worship point. Here was a huge darkened room, another red cage, and I was told to kneel, kiss the ground and then my guide placed a yellow bindi mark on my forehead. The atmosphere in this temple was quite subdued, so it was a very quiet finish to my visit.
I collected my belongings, begged farewell to the guide and security guard and started thinking long and hard about what had just occurred. The whole process took only about 15 minutes, but what an incredibly intense 15 minutes it was. For the first and only time of these holidays, the moment I crossed the threshold into the temple, I went from being a traveller into a adventurer gazing at people who, whether they be possessed by "ghosts" or some form of mental illness, were obviously at the very edge of their sanity. I was witness to some incredibly passionate devotees, I heard their chanting and wailing, I saw the strange white rocks they worshipped, the rock-laden ghost-burdened people, and the curious black landscape covered in tiny temples. All of this contributed to what is probably the most bizarre and puzzling experience of my life.
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