Ganesha’s ‘milk miracle’ to braid-chopping: India’s history of mass hysteria
Call it ignorance or superstition, instances of similar mass hysteria are not rare. The most celebrated of them was when idols of Lord Ganesha were said to be drinking milk in the 1990s, prompting devotees to throng temples across the country.Updated: Aug 05, 2017 23:55 IST
Parts of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab are gripped by fear after dozens of women reported that they have had their hair mysteriously chopped off while unconscious.
Many of the women have complained of being dazzled by a sudden flash of light, following which they fell unconscious. Once they gained their senses, they found their braids missing.
The reports have left many scared and paranoid. In Agra, a 62-year-old widow was beaten to death after locals suspected her to be behind the incidents. At many other places, residents are staying awake overnight to keep vigil.
Call it ignorance or superstition, instances of similar mass hysteria are not rare. The most celebrated of them was when idols of Lord Ganesha were said to be drinking milk in the 1990s, prompting devotees to throng temples across the country. HT looks back at examples of public frenzy, both past and present:
Odisha: Panic has been sweeping villages of Cuttack district’s Niali block since June this year with people complaining of mysterious deaths of sheep. The liver and other internal organs of the dead sheep were found missing and locals blamed the killings on a ‘mystery creature’.
Some said a dog-like creature with long nails was on the prowl. To douse the panic, the state forest department initiated night patrolling. A team from the Simlipal National Park was also deployed with tranquilizer guns and drones. But nothing came out of the patrolling efforts.
Experts say a pack of wolves could be the culprit. For the time being, the hysteria has subsided a bit. But parts of Niali are still in panic.
West Bengal: In January 2017, social media was flooded with messages of ‘aliens from the outer space’ kidnapping children from Hoogly, Burdwan, North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts.
Soon, panic took hold and led to at least two lynchings by vigilante groups. A dozen other people were assaulted by angry villagers. The West Bengal government took note after an elderly NRI woman visiting the state was beaten up in Hoogly.
The hysteria died down just as suddenly as it started. Some 25 people were arrested either for spreading rumours or attacking innocent people.
Uttar Pradesh: An idol of Lord Hanuman was reported to be shedding tears at a temple in Meerganj of Allahabad in March, 2017.
Scientists attributed the tears to the presence of mercuric oxide in vermillion applied by devotees on the idol. But devotees saw it as a bad omen and claimed the God was unhappy with the state of affairs in the world.
Sometime later, the idol stopped shedding tears, ending the hysteria over the phenomenon.
Punjab: Thousands of people thronged the Chamatkari Nalka, a ‘magical handpump’, in Fatehgarh Sahib district in 2016 with the belief that its water can cure all their “ills and end all grief”. At times, the queues went up to a kilometre.
It all began after an old woman suffering from joint pain claimed of a cure on drinking water from the pump. The hand pump overnight became a pilgrimage site.
It all ended abruptly after local villagers got fed up with the rush of people. One night, the hand pump was uprooted. No one knows who did it.
Madhya Pradesh: Residents of Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur and Bhind of Madhya Pradesh began spotting mysterious scratches surfacing on their mortar and pestle (Sil-Batta) and grinding stone (Chakki) in 2015. Similar phenomenon was also reported from Jhansi and Mahoba of Uttar Pradesh.
It led to consternation and locals claimed supernatural powers were behind the scratches. Entomologists — those who study insects — disagreed. They said the scratches were caused by aggressive beetle species and their caustic excreta resulting in the whitish abrasive marks on stone. The panic subsided after it had raged for weeks.
Uttar Pradesh: Lucknow and other parts were swept by rumours in 2012 that people would turn into stone “if they slept tonight”.
None knew who started it all, but the rumours caused immense disquiet. Neighbourhoods stayed awake overnight and many took out noisy processions after midnight to keep people awake.
The rumours ran out of steam after a few weeks. No one turned into stone and there were no arrests.
Assam: Hundreds of men, mostly belonging to Hindu families of four districts in western Assam, complained of their genital shrinking in 1982.
The complaints caused panic, though doctors blamed it on genital infections leading to a psychological epidemic called Koro. Those who suffered from it felt their penis disappearing into their abdomen.
The psychiatry department of Gauhati Medical College intervened and a mass awareness campaign helped display the fear after it had a free run between July and September of that year.
(With inputs from Lucknow, Chandigarh, Bhopal, Guwahati, Kolkata and Bhubaneswar)