The Presence by Neera Kashyap

Unlike the elaborately-sculptured Murugan temple on the peak of the hill nearby, this temple had a simple gopuram with low flanking walls as entrance. Its deep veranda with white stone pillars was surmounted by a corrugated sheet and a temple facade with niches displaying deities and animals. The temple door was kept open. At the edge of the vimana built over the sanctum sanctorum sat a Nandi bull. It faced the sage sculpted on the sloping roof of an adjoining building housing guests. The sage was bearded, his stomach hollow, his body in padmasana. He was Palaniswamy who lived a century ago. The temple, situated on the outskirts of the village was built over his tomb by local villagers some forty years after his death. Little is known about him except that he seemed not to do any work, but roamed around the village and the countryside. Towards the end of his life people noted, that whoever he touched was healed, especially those suffering from mental illness. No sacred ash, no prasadam – just his touch, sometimes deliberate, other times when sought. On either side of his sculptured body, lions sit staring at the sky, their backs to him.

In the central courtyard, beneath the shade of an enormous neem tree, 30-year old Shekhar sat with his mother Shantamma. While she tried to cut his nails, his hands constantly twitched till he lurched away. Dressed in a pair of khaki shorts, his hairless chest bare, spittle hung in a fine thread from his mouth. When we first interviewed them, he had worn no clothes, had pulled at his mother’s sari and kicked her when she had continued speaking to us. It was only over several interactions were we able to diagnose his condition as that of paranoid schizophrenia. This was the condition of most patients who had come to live here for a period of about six weeks or more – to heal – because they had heard of the sage or their parents had. Delusional and bipolar disorders with current manic episodes were the other conditions we could assess.

My colleague had left but I had stayed on to do an in-depth ethnographic study to understand the healing process. Interviews of the patients’ illness experience and the caregivers’ views of the possible causes had been culturally adapted. The temple trustee, Sivakumar, a descendant of the sage’s family, had given me a room to stay in the temple complex, for the study could stretch over three months. It offered a view of the distant Palani hills. Catering mostly to people of the backward Gounder caste, the temple had simple rituals. There was a short puja in the mornings and the singing of hymns in the evenings. For the rest, the temple door was open at all times. Serving small landowners, farm laborers and factory workers, the stay was free. People donated what they could, though donations came from other well-off Gounders, once a feudal upper-caste community with businesses that continued to flourish in turmeric and cotton farming, industrial and automobile components, and heavy vehicles.

Annamalai, the caretaker had rounded up some of the inmates and was instructing them on re-potting and manuring plants. Some had been put to work on the vegetable patch on the temple’s boundary, while others worked in the kitchen or swept the grounds. A caregiver was ubiquitously present, working alongside. Kanakamma, a 60-year old bipolar patient, scrubbed a large copper utensil at a hand pump, while her daughter Geetha bent to clean its insides. Two teenage boys followed Vishwanath, the temple priest among the jasmine bushes, plucking flowers as offering. As a psychiatrist I could see that the patients had no real focus in the work, often broken by a static gaze, a leaden stillness or a sudden stream of words. But because the staff worked naturally and the caregivers with motivation, the patients as a group could be moulded into a sort of unmotivated passivity. 

Annamalai gestured to Shekhar with a hose pipe to come and water the plants. Shekhar stared back, his spittle blowing lightly in the breeze. He started to unbutton his shorts, but his mother shot up and hissed something in his ear. He stood, resisting, then looked in the direction of the temple. He began circumambulating it, slowly at first, then broke into a run. Ten rounds later, he stood before Annamalai who handed him the hose pipe, buttoning up Shekhar’s half-open shorts, who then proceeded to liberally splash water on the dusty champa leaves till they glistened.

Shantamma pointed to the scars on her arms. He would beat me, beat his father, his brother, she said with a moan. He would break furniture, mobile phones, anything. He hardly ate, hardly slept…just this terrible gaze…anything could come bursting from those…those eyes.

This was their second long visit to this temple. Here, she said, she didn’t have to chain him to a tree. Not like in that other temple where he had run wild into the streets. Do you think I have the strength to drag him back, she asked. They said he was possessed so amulets wouldn’t work. Every evening we would attend the Guruthy[1]. There would be prayers and chanting to drumbeats. They said the good goddess would possess him and rid him of his evil spirit. When nothing improved after three days, they said we should try medicines to calm him, to improve his sleep so the Guruthy prayer would work better. But he would spit out the medicines. Would not eat, would not sleep. 

The teenagers, Shankar and Senthil followed the priest Vishwanath into the temple, holding brass plates heaped with jasmine. The bell rang for the mid-morning puja. The grey stone walls of the temple hall had niches, each adorned with a stone deity before which burnt an earthen lamp. The ceiling was whitewashed, discolored gray. At the end of the hall, within a granite open-pillar enclosure, on a raised platform, was a stone sculpture of the bearded sage in padmasana, a faint smile lighting a face deep in repose. Below were a shivalinga and Nandi – all three images garlanded with single strings of marigold.

The smoke from an oil lamp mingled with incense and camphor fumes as Vishwanath waved the offerings to the rhythmic ringing of a bell. The teenager Senthil refused to hand over his plate of jasmine flowers, despite a stern look from the priest, so Vishwanath gestured that he offer them himself. After a few minutes of agonizing, Senthil stepped into the pillared enclosure, stared at the sage and upturned the plate on his head, jasmine falling like slow rain, caught in the stone ridges of hair, beard and loincloth. At the end, as Vishwanath began chanting the Siva mantra, Karpuura Gauram Karuna Avataaram many joined in, loudest and most tuneless among them was the voice of Kanakamma, her hands fervently folded at her chest, her sari still wet from the washing.

The simple lunch that followed was more strictly supervised. Sambar, rice, a chutney and cucumber slices were served on banana leaves on the floor. Annamalai and the kitchen staff made sure that the used leaves were washed clean of oil and wastes in an iron bucket full of water, the leaves collected to be fed to the cows. By turns, the guests swept clean the dining room floor, using a broom and rationed water.

By mid-October the rains had set in, the north-east monsoon winds cooling the earth, bringing plentiful showers. The evenings were the quietest, the blue outlines of the Palani hills washed and visible in the deepening dusk. This was the time I recorded the events of the day, adapting my notes to new findings revealed by caregivers or by observing changes in the behavior patterns of the patients. Kanakamma, who hailed from a small landowning family, still spoke delusionally about her sons and sons-in-law being grey cotton kings and export leaders, who treated her like a queen… but less so. The teenager Senthil was still depressed, still withdrawn, still prone to visual hallucinations…but less so. Shekhar seemed not to show any improvement, still an insomniac, still resistant to instructions and to a sense of community. His mother had begun to show signs of depression.

Evening was also the time for the satsang in the temple when Pandit Vishwanath sat at his harmonium and sang hymns from the Tevaram, the Tamil compositions of three poet saints. This was the high point of the day when the inmates sat relatively quiet. Except for the occasional outburst which was hissed into silence by caregivers, the priest was able to sing uninterruptedly and with a fervor that rose with every verse. Sivakumar, the trustee usually attended the satsangs with his wife and daughter, later chatting freely with the inmates in the courtyard. Despite the sound of the rain, Vishwanath’s voice rose clearly in the dim temple light. Eyes fixed on the sage’s image, he sang one of Appar’s songs that evening, his voice reverberating through the small hall:

To none are we subject. Death we do not fear.
We do not grieve in hell.
No tremblings know we, and no illnesses.
It’s joy for us, joy day by day, for we are His.
Forever His, His; who does reign, our Sankara, in bliss.

There was no preceding flutter, just a howl, a loud importunate howl. It was Shekhar, breathing heavily, his face contorted as he stared at a point in the unlit wall.

‘You are him’, he screamed. ‘You are him. You have come. You have come for me. You have come. At last… I will live…at last…’ Shantamma tried to pull her son down to the floor but he twisted out of her grasp and ran towards the wall, began hitting his head against it several times. With wild eyes he stared at the sage’s image in the pillared enclosure, ran towards it. He fell on the ground, raised his head and placed it on the sage’s lap. For a few minutes there was complete silence. Sivakumar signalled the assembled to leave the hall.

The rain had stopped as I caught up with Sivakumar at the temple entrance. I came straight to the point:

‘Sir, there are projects in many religious places in the country where allopathic clinics have been opened to treat patients with psychiatric illnesses,’ I began. ‘On the premises of temples, dargahs, churches. The doctors don’t interfere with the beliefs of the patients, but offer proper diagnoses and medicines based on their mental condition. Sometimes, the religious centres send the patients to the clinics themselves, sometimes they bless the medicines before the patients start to take them. The results have been good, this combination of faith and medicine.’

Sivakumar listened, his face inclined, open. Then with a sweeping gesture towards the temple, he said: ‘He has been there for us. Always there. Now you have come. There must be something in this. Let him reveal his will. We will wait.’ He folded his hands and turned to join his family.

The next morning I saw Shantamma stretched on the cement slab under the neem tree. Her eyes were fixed on Shekhar who was assisting Vishwanath pluck flowers. Shekhar’s foot slipped and his plate of flowers fell into slush. As he stared at the mud-streaked flowers, his body trembled with anger. Calmly, Vishwanath picked up the plate, asked Shekhar to wash it and start again. The priest pressed the fallen flowers into a hedge, washed his hands with the garden hose before picking up his basket again. He slowed his pace as he waited for Shekhar to re-join him. Shantamma continued to gaze inertly from under the tree.

I noted more and more inmates going into the temple during free hours. The customary quiet of the temple was replaced by a noisy need as some used the temple to speak to each other, some pleaded loudly at the shrine, while others sat inert near their caregivers, staring blankly at the walls. Some caregivers would lead their afflicted kin to enter the shrine and touch Palaniswamy’s sculptured image. Flowers or fruit were offered and vibhuti smeared liberally on their own foreheads. I never found Shekhar in the temple, though I sometimes saw Shantamma’s shadowy figure slumped against a wall.

One wintry full moon night, I stepped out of my room to gaze at the clouds as they covered and uncovered the moon. The leaves of the coconut trees swayed in the breeze like enormous blades. It was nearly midnight. Unthinkingly, I found myself circumambulating the temple, as I had seen many others do. I was surprised to find the temple door shut. I pressed on the brass lever. The door opened. Except for one dim electric bulb, the hall was lit only by the oil lamps placed before the sage and deities in the niches. I heard a voice I could not recognise. A high-pitched voice raised in appeal. A consistent plea. From his bent bare back and unruly hair, I recognised Shekhar. I stood rooted to the spot. After a long while, he turned around to look at me. His face was as clear as the unclouded moon.

At the end of my three month stay, my colleague returned to help me make a second scientific assessment of the patients’ recovery patterns. Of special note was the fact that this temple offered no amulets for healing, no mantras for chanting, and no ritual ceremonies for healing spirit possession. It offered the ever-living presence of a long-dead sage with special healing powers, a supportive trustee and his staff, a participatory work environment and daily reminders of the sage’s sacred presence through pujas and hymns. We found an overall improvement in the symptoms of the people with psychotic illnesses who had earlier received no psychopharmacological interventions. We observed an improvement of nearly 20% in the psychiatric rating scale for these patients who had stayed an average of six weeks. This improvement matched what is achieved by prescribed medicines, including the newer psychotropic agents.

It was Shekhar who showed signs of a complete recovery.


This story has been fictionalised from a study conducted by scientists from NIMHANS, India’s leading institute for mental health sciences, at a healing temple in south India known as a source of help for people with serious mental disorders. The study was published in the British Medical Journal on 6 July 2002, Volume 325. The study’s authors: R.Raguram, A.Venkateswaran, Jayashree Ramakrishna, Mitchell G Weiss.

[1] A temple prayer session with drumbeats and chants designed to invoke the goddess to possess the patient in order to rid him/her of evil spirit possession.

Neera Kashyap has published a book of short stories for young adults, ‘Daring to Dream’ (Rupa &Co.) and contributed to several prize-winning children’s anthologies. As a writer of poetry, haikai, short fiction and book reviews, her work has appeared in several international literary journals and poetry anthologies. Her short stories have appeared in international  journals which include Kitaab, Mad in Asia Pacific , Spillwords & Papercuts; the Indian journals include Indian Quarterly , Yugen Quest Review, Out of Print Magazine & Blog, RIC Journal (Indo-French), Guftugu Journal, Teesta Review, Usawa Literary Review, and The Bombay Literary Magazine. She lives in Delhi.