Human Interest

Exorcisms gain popularity amid pandemic in Sri Lanka

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Mar 23 (efe-epa).- Tharindu Kavinda Prasad, an exorcist, holds a burning torch in his hand and starts shaking violently as a part of a ritual to expel supposed demons possessing a young woman with persisting backache, in Kandy province in central Sri Lanka.

Although such superstitious practices have been prevalent in the Buddhist majority island nation for ages, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen their popularity rise significantly.

Prasad, plying his trade in Sirimalwatte village, had made meticulous preparations – dishes of meat, fish and eggs were placed on a table, along with a bottle of local liquor known as ‘arrack’, a cigarette and a cheap cigar.

In a corner, the exorcist also kept a rooster and sword ready, in case the demon demanded a live sacrifice, while all attendees were on a vegetarian diet for a week.

Around 8pm, 21-year-old Prasad lit a lamp with oil used to fry the meat. Udeshika Wickremaratne, the 27-year-old patient, entered as the exorcist began to rotate his head frenetically.

The “gurunnase,” as these healers are known in Sri Lanka, claimed he had no knowledge of what happened during the session, which finally ended with the rooster’s blood being drawn as a sacrifice, while the young woman insisted she could feel a weight leaving her body.

Wickremaratne told EFE that earlier she did not believe in exorcisms, but a heavy backache forced her to visit many conventional doctors without any relief and her husband suggested coming to Prasad.

“Right away he asked me if I had a backache. I don’t know how he knew. We hadn’t revealed anything to him before he said this,” she said.

The exorcist concluded that her problem was caused by an evil spirit that had to be cast out, and decided on a date for the ritual.

Wickremaratne claimed to have been completely healed after the exorcism.

However, not all rituals have such happy endings. On Feb. 27, a nine-year-old girl was beaten to death during an exorcism.

The mother of the child and a woman who performed the ritual were subsequently arrested.

Exorcisms have become a lucrative business in Sri Lanka, with the cost of a ritual ranging between 600 rupees ($3) to 60,000 rupees ($300), higher than the average monthly wage.

W Kumari, a 53-year-old resident of the southern Ratnapura district, told EFE that she paid 50,000 rupees for a ritual to expel three “demons” that were supposed to be residing in her house, but did not find any noticeable change afterwards.

Prasad, who claims to have driven away hundreds of demons, stressed that a large number of “charlatans” had turned exorcisms into a business and were cheating the people.

He insisted on his ability to connect with the gods and cast away ghosts, while attributing his “power” to his grandfather – also a traditional healer – who died in 2012.

“We need this practice because there are unseen powers that are making people sick,” he said.

Anthropologist Praneeth Abyesundara, a professor at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Colombo, said that exorcism as a tradition was deeply rooted in Sri Lankan culture.

“Rituals were always performed in Sri Lanka. It is also a part of our indigenous medical practice and culture. But rarely are these rituals harmful or end up in deaths,” he said.

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