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India's place for healing

In a country where mental health care for women is often nonexistent, a healing shrine provides an oasis for the troubled.

By CLAUDIA KOLKER
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002


UNAVA, India -- She crouches on the shrine's cool floor, slaps her palms down violently and bellows for the saint:

"Unburden me," yells Puriben Bargharv. "Whatever I've done wrong, forgive me."

Bargharv is 25 years old. The wife of a farm laborer, she lived with her in-laws until trouble started a year ago. First, she was unable to conceive. Then the sickness came.

"I couldn't eat, I couldn't drink. I forgot my husband's name," she says.

Doctors told her there was nothing wrong, so neighbors sent her here, to Mira Datar shrine in western India.

Six centuries have built this sanctuary's fame for healing mental illness -- especially in women. Men also worship or seek healing here. But it is the women, and their freedom to express themselves unhindered, that bring Mira Datar its renown.

Healing shrines abound in India. Hindu, Muslim, even Christian, they range from miniature cities to huts housing a lone holy brick. Mira Datar, rising from a dusty roadside, typifies the Sufi Muslim shrine. Step into its entrance, and vendors call out keenly over mounds of rose petals and incense. Beyond them, in a courtyard, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus drift together toward the modest shrine.

Only 60 miles from here, scores of Hindus and as many as 2,000 Muslims died in religious riots earlier this year. But Sufism has always welcomed all faiths in its temples. Amid the killing, Mira Datar pilgrims continued worshiping in peace.

All Puriben Bargharv, a Hindu, knows is that she feels at home here. "I'm running out of energy," she howls.

Bang, her palms slap down. Her hair sprawls in an inky web across the floor.

A tiny girl draws close to watch. Elsewhere, squatting under bright murals of flowers and trees, pilgrims chatter with each other unperturbed.

"When I'm home, I have a burning sensation over my whole body," Bargharv whispers. "Here, I feel all right. I feel that I am safe."

A martyr who defended women

In the universe of Mira Datar, Bargharv and women like her pose no mystery. They are "possessed," and living at the shrine will cure them.

Mira Datar was a 14th century martyr who died defending Islam. Entombed inside a silver crypt, he now is famous for defending women from invading demons.

Saintly power flows like sound waves, Sufi tradition holds. So when a "possessed" woman nears his crypt, the clash between the saint and demon throws her in a trance, writes anthropologist Beatriz Pfleiderer, author of a book about the shrine.

Rocking rhythmically, the transported woman may yell anything from gibberish to diatribes against her husband, in-laws or perceived spiritual attacker. Far from blaming her, says Pfleiderer, Mira Datar's pilgrims see the woman's wild behavior as a battle against evil. Such acceptance can be rare for India's mentally ill -- especially poor rural women, who make up much of the shrine's population.

In a poor country with little culture of psychiatry, public institutions can be cruel. Female patients are often chained, confined or physically abused, says Amita Dhanda, a lawyer and advocate for patients' rights. Men and women both, she says, endure treatments like electroshock without anesthesia.

Because Indian society regulates female behavior so strictly, families often blame a mentally ill woman for her illness, or just abandon her, adds Bhargavi Davar, an activist and author of a book on women's mental health.

In a setting where they are free to utter anything, she says, "possessed" women often reveal home lives of terrible duress.

"Just like with depression or common mental illnesses, what triggers a trance usually is something happening in the immediate social circle," Davar says. "It can be dowry violence, beating, pressure to have a boy child. A trance is a way of saying, 'Look what you're doing to me.' "

In Indian tradition, even a woman's hair falls under constraint, contained and combed from girlhood. Like her rocking motions, the wild locks of a "possessed" woman are a form of sexual expression, says Pfleiderer, the anthropologist.

"There's so much control in India over women's emotions," Davar adds. "It's okay if they cry, but they can't express anger. They may express pain, but not sexual pleasure. In rural India, if you did experience your body in such a free way, you'd get kicked out of your house."

Davar, perhaps India's best-known crusader for modernizing mental health care, says compassionate temple environments like Mira Datar can comfort people too poor or ill to benefit from other treatment.

Experience, she says, persuades her.

Davar's mother, a schizophrenic, chose to live for 20 years inside a shrine. There, her symptoms were treated as signs of divinity.

Each time doctors tried to medicate her, she fled back to her shrine. When she finally came home, she still believed she was a goddess. Dressed exclusively in silk, she assumed the ritual postures of Hindu gods. Local folk accepted this new identity and paid her homage.

"I don't want to minimize her disability," Davar says. "But she was very happy. In India, the difference between mental illness and spirituality is very small."

Spiritual devotion and brotherly support

It is dusk at Mira Datar. As pilgrims mill about for one last prayer, a stone-faced woman stands motionless beside the tomb.

Sita -- she will give no other name -- once lived with her husband, two children and a constant, unnamed misery. "I vomited blood," she says. "My body felt like it was burning."

Doctors deemed her perfectly healthy. So village elders sent her to the shrine, and now Sita returns here -- sometimes for months -- every time her symptoms surge. It's a common pattern here. Tormented in mind or body, several other women pilgrims say that sojourning at Mira Datar eases their distress. Going home, they say, tends to bring their illness on again.

Outside, the sanctuary bustles like a fairground. Families picnic on lentil stew while women howl in trances only yards away. With chains and padlocks on their necks as talismans, worshipers stream toward the shrine cupping handfuls of rose petals as offering. A goat wearing a lock and chain sniffs pertly near their feet for scraps. Near the door, a young man turns repeated, manic somersaults.

Despite the chaos, Sita says, Mira Datar's dim, rose-scented corridors bring her a sense of peace. She credits Sayed Salaudin for bringing her her health.

Descendants of the buried saint, Salaudin and his male relatives hold legal right to Mira Datar's roughly 30 jobs. A few sit on a public council that directs shrine donations to upkeep. Some guide pilgrims to the tomb, or hector them to buy prayer blankets.

Others, like 24-year-old Salaudin, listen to the pilgrims' woes, and pray.

"Salaudin is like a brother to me," Sita says, her stony features warming. "I tell him all my problems. The longer he knows me, the more his prayers work."

The pilgrims, she explains, give attendants payment when they feel well again. Sita, who is Hindu, paid Salaudin about $40 for his Muslim prayers after a recent six-month stay.

Salaudin listens from a distance. Dignified and handsome, he must observe strict boundaries, only talking to his pilgrims in full view of the whole shrine.

His work, he later says discreetly, mixes spiritual devotion with brotherly support.

Outsiders, of course, might describe it more as therapy -- or even as the role of a good husband. Whatever the relationship is called, however, it's a rare one for a Muslim man and Hindu woman in this region.

One of India's most conservative states, Gujarat is infamous not only for religious strife, but for repressing and segregating women. Mira Datar's fame, sociologists have theorized, arose from the sheer number of women who fled here for help over the centuries.

Even in the most progressive culture, says activist Davar, a compassionate environment is key in treating mental illness. In a country where good health care is a luxury, she says, Mira Datar at least offers some women a respite.

"I would rather be possessed," she says, "than be depressed. At least you can express yourself."

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