MALAJPUR — Every February, people gather in the village of Malajpur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, for a unique ghost fair. It’s one of India’s most celebrated festivals — an ancient event where exorcists rid the body of evil spirits.

Amardas believes that a ghost has taken control of her sister-in-law, Dharmati Bai, who has been shouting strange words for more than a month now. “My sister-in-law must have been possessed by a ghost,” she says. “We've come to the Malajpur ghost fair to pay our respects to the temple. They’re treating her now, and I hope she’ll be cured.”

Head priest Lalji Yadav is holding a broom and starts to beat Dharmati with it. After some time, he offers her some holy water and declares that she’s now free from the evil spirit.

“We catch ghosts here, and they never return to the body after we treat the patients,” the priest says. “We treat them by bringing them to the temple, then we use brooms to chase away the ghosts — a practice we’ve been using for hundreds of years. Every year people from different areas come to be exorcised.”

The 18th century temple is a shrine to Saint Deoji — believed to have the power to exorcise evil spirits. Believers say the power has been passed on to the temple’s priests.

More than half a million people come here each year, says local Mekam Singh Rajput.

“Anyone who comes here to pray will see his wishes fulfilled, especially those who are possessed by evil spirits and ghosts,” Rajput says. “People from different parts of the country visit this fair and get treatment at the temple. If you’re looking for a miracle, then you should visit the temple.”

In the region’s rural society, belief in ghosts is widespread. Women still attend ghost festivals like this, believing that their wishes will be granted. Indrawati Kherwal comes from Ghodadongri, a village 85 kilometers away from the festival venue. This is her 22nd visit to the temple. She asked for a child for her daughter, who finally gave birth after seven years of marriage.

“I’ve been coming here for the last 25 years,” Kherwal says. “I believe you just have to come here with your wishes, and they will be fulfilled by the temple’s saint. I’ve gotten everything I asked for. And those who visit the fair know about the miracles.”

Superstition prevails despite medicine

Despite progress in science and technology in India, many people still turn to exorcism rituals to cure diseases — including epilepsy, depression or mental disorders that are seen as a result of possession by evil spirits. Sarma Niwarihas hopes to find a cure for his brother.

“He was beating and abusing everyone, and even burned his clothes at home,” Niwarihas says. “We believe that he was possessed by ghosts. We brought him here for treatment, and his condition is improving.”

But beginning this year, the district administration has introduced modern medical treatment instead of relying on exorcism rituals. The local media has been criticizing the ghost fair for conning innocent villagers and playing on their beliefs.

“People who come here are illiterate and have very little knowledge about the diseases that their relatives are suffering from,” says Rahul Sharma, a clinical psychologist from a government medical college. “They come here because of a lack of knowledge and their belief in superstition. We just want to tell them that medical treatment is available for them, and that they should not waste their time at the temple.”