Most of my adolescence was spent in the mid-west of America, where a diet of UFO conspiracies, Sunday school stories, and movies of demonic possession tends to mold young suburbanites into people who are quick to believe. An upbringing devoid of the kind street hardened skepticism a New Yorker wears with aplomb. In college the gaping hole in my ability to fact check was exposed when I became love sick over a girl who led me straight to her evangelical church. St. Thomas Aquinas considered this kind of "missionary dating" an effective tool, one which this young beauty employed to perfection. The next couple years were a steep climb back to reason... fearing every step of the way that the trail would lead to my eternal damnation. An experience like that can make a man fairly sober, but also robs him of that last twinkle of childhood's fascination with the unknown. In India, a country whose soil is rich in the minerals of mysticism, I hoped to rekindle that sensation.
What's left of the abandoned town of Bhangarh is considered so haunted even the supervising government office is set up a good kilometer away. They say animals begin to flee as the sun falls. They say an army unit was requested to look in to the phenomena, but not one of the battle hardened soldiers would volunteer. Naturally no one is officially permitted to stay past dusk. The welcome sign reads of stiff penalties and the locals claim you won't have a pulse by daybreak. I was sold. My cheeky companion, producer and director Sashi De formulated a quick plan, which was: "Let's get into the site and then formulate a plan."
We walked though the crumbling brown walls of the old city as the last of the sun's rays fragmented through acacias and khejri. Grumpy bats woke up in the dark corners of toppled stone palaces and black faced monkeys jumped from tree to tree, scanning the sparse earth for something that might resemble dinner. Akshat, our guide from Jaipur, reluctantly complicit in our scheme, was given a chance to re-live his community theater days. His new mission: Tell the guards, doing their final sweep of the grounds, that we had climbed up to the hills in the distance and would be hiking out the other side. Classic misdirection. By the time the guards came and hustled up the hill following the false lead we were tucked deep into one of the upper chambers of Bhangarh’s main temple. A last minute plan always has it's deficiencies. In this case they were a lack of food, no lights, and no sleeping gear. I chose a small room located at the back end of what was once a great hall, which, with it's ceiling long gone, was now an open air field surrounded by high walls. Only one door led into this section across the way. The idea was that if someone, or something, entered through that door we would have two possible escape routes: Out a small hole to one side of our room, or through a doorway to the left which lead to a stone staircase spanning to the top of the surrounding walls. The entrance to our hiding spot was reached by climbing a small pile of shale like rubble, which ideally would create an abrasive rock on rock sliding noise if an intruder managed to get that far before catching our attention.
“Oh man, that freaked me out. How about that part of Shutter Island when DiCaprio get’s into the secluded ward and there are all those madmen running around.. I mean, what if there is a lunatic or two running around here.. maybe in the day you think it’s just a beggar or a saddhu but at night he kills anyone he finds around here.. that could explain it right?”
“Or a satanic cult! You’ve heard of the skull collecting tantrics in West Bengal, right? Maybe something more extreme and unpublicized.”
“All I know is if some freak walks through that doorway my fist is going in his teeth, they can publicize that.”
“Yeah right, you’d scream like a little girl.”
"Anything you need or anywhere you want to see in Rajasthan I can be of service," he cheerfully offered.
"Great, we're going to the haunted city of Bhangarh soon. You know it?"
"Yes, of course I know it," he said, enthusiasm leaking quick.
"Fantastic. Come with us."
He halfheartedly agreed as we marched through the sites. A wonderful temple to Krishna, dancing with his ruddy cheeked milkmaidens who gazed at his blue skin with desire; small shrines to Ganesh, buggy eyed in a local twist of design; orange faced Varahi Devi, who specializes in cleansing devotees of skin diseases. In light of these gems, our final destination, on first glance, was a bit anticlimatic. A temple lacking the art and spendor of the others, whitewashed with small nondescript idols.
"This temple used to practice a form of tantric magic. Black magic you say," whispered Akshat.
“Interesting," I mumbled as I slid my shoes back on. "Wait... Are there any temples or people who still practice black magic?”
“Actually we were in the forest last month and we did meet one lady who does this.”
As soon as the last words slipped out of his lips I could see his expression fall. He knew where this was going.
“Good, I want you to take us there.”
“But it’s to be honest very deep in the forest and it’s a very difficult journey.”
“It’s OK, we’ve been on some long journeys.”
“Yes, but we’re not even sure if she’d be there. She was sick, perhaps he’s in the hospital or the village.”
“It’s OK.. we’ll take that risk.”
“Well, perhaps we can talk tomorrow as I’m not sure if can be arranged.”
“Of course it can. We’ll just go there. See you at say 8am?”
With a forced smile he gave a slight head bobble.
In the morning Akshat pulled me aside. He had some ground rules.
"I have just one thing to request again and it's that you won't be saying the word 'witchcraft'."
"What if I do? What will happen," I challenged, hoping to pry some fantastical scenarios out of instigation.
"Well there are only three of us out here in these forests and you don't know what she might do."