Vrindavan, 2017.08.03 (VT): Maan Devi, aged 60, didn’t have a bathroom at home. So at four o’clock in the morning she headed out towards the fields, as she did every day, to ease the call of nature. Little did she know just down the road, the braid of one of the household’s ladies had been mysteriously cut off during the night.
The villagers suspected witchcraft, and unluckily for Maan Devi, she was the first person they saw when they looked outside.
“It’s a witch! A witch!” they screamed, and the people of the neighborhood, already tense from what they felt to be an onslaught from supernatural forces, came with sticks and beat the elderly woman to death.
The incident happened near Agra, about 60 kilometers from Mathura. But the recent incidents of “mysterious” braid cutting stretch from Delhi through Haryana and Rajasthan, to Western U.P., including Braj Mandal. Ladies in Nandgaon, Barsana, Kosi, Mathura and other small villages have reported their hair being cut off under mysterious conditions.
First come the headaches. Then the woman falls unconscious. When she wakes up, her braid is lying next to her, cut off. This is one common scenario described by the victims. Some say their braids were cut off in a closed house with nobody else around, while others had their braids fall off while walking in broad daylight.
The mysterious circumstances allgedly surrounding these incidents have led villagers to believe witches or black-magic makers are behind the mischief. But history offers other explanations.
Sociology and psychology have documented a concept called “mass hysteria”, also known as collective obsessional behavior. It is a phenomenon wherein the collective illusion of a threat – which may or may not be true – is transmitted through the population through rumors and fear.
Indians may recall the 2001 incident of the “Monkey Man of Delhi”. An older example of mass hysteria is the case of the Halifax Slasher of 1938. In Halifax, England, people reported being attacked by a mysterious man holding a gigantic hammer, with “bright buckles on his shoes”. Some reported being slashed by the man with a knife or a razor blade.
The panic continued for about two weeks, until one of the alleged victims admitted having inflicted the injuries upon himself to get attention. Others then admitted having done the same. At last, five people were charged with public mischief offenses, four of whom went to prison for their crimes.
Another strange example is the Dancing Plague of 1518 in the then-Holy Roman Empire. In this incident, about four hundred people began dancing for days on end without rest, some of whom eventually died from heart attacks, exhaustion or stroke. It is believed this incident of mass hysteria may have been caused by a type of fungus which has psychoactive qualities. Historian John Waller has speculated that the dancing plague was the product of “stress-induced psychosis” , since the area was very poor and the residents, who were already superstitious, faced starvation and disease.
Whether or not supernatural forces exist, there are certainly a number of more down-to-earth explanations for the braid-cutting phenomenon. Some have suggested that antisocial elements are purposely creating a panic by drugging women and cutting their hair, while many of the incidents are almost certainly faked or mere rumors.
Whatever the case may be, the matter is becoming grave as allegations of “mysterious braid cutting” continue to increase in the area, with some 20-odd incidents reported in Mathura alone.