Archive for the ‘Rituals & Taboo’ Category

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10. Fire-Walking


People from South India ‘celebrate’ the Theemithi festival by walking barefoot across a pit filled with burning hot firewood, or sometimes glowing charcoal. The fire walking is done in honour of the Hindu goddess Draupati Amman – so rather than hurrying across the pit, the devotees have to sdo it slowly, as though it’s a walk in the park.

The ritual begins when the head priest traverses the pit with a pot on his head, filled with sacred water. He is then followed by other men, who seek to prove their piety by withstanding the pain. Participants suffer from burns on their feet – and sometimes worse injuries, on the all-too-common occasions when they fall into the burning pit.

9. Hooking

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The thookam festival sees the backs of devoted Hindus pierced by sharp hooks; the men are then lifted off the ground onto a scaffold using ropes. Sometimes, children are even tied to the hands of the participants. Originating from southern parts of India, the festival has now been banned by the Indian Government after continued pressure from human rights organizations.

8. Bull Fighting


Unlike its Spanish counterpart, Indian bull-fighting, or Jallikattu, is done without the help of any rope or weapons. Thankfully, the bull’s life is also spared afterwards, bovines being famously sacred in India. Celebrated during Pongal (harvest thanksgiving), this is one of the most dangerous sports played in India. Youth, ardent for some desperate glory, usually strive either to tame the bull or at least to hang on to the bull for a reward – usually money.

More than a hundred people have been killed in southern India over the past two decades. A case against Jallikattu is ongoing in the Supreme Court of India, which is considering an outright ban on the sport. The bulls are force-fed alcohol; their eyes are sprinkled with chili powder, and their testicles are pinched in an effort to infuriate them.

7. Self-flagellation


Muharram is the first month in the Islamic Calendar, and this was the month which marks the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala, when Imam Hussein ibn Ali was killed, followed by 72 warriors who were killed over the next ten days. Shi’a Muslims in India, and also other countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, mourn this event by flogging their naked bodies with a bunch of chains known as ‘Matam’. Sometimes, these Matams also contain razor blades or knives.

6. Widow-burning


Practiced extensively in the 17th century, Sati was a ritual whereby a widow – voluntarily or involuntarily – would lie down next to her dead husband before being burned alive along with the corpse. The widows who were caught trying to escape this fate, despite the intense social pressure to self-immolate, would be tied to the burning structure, or their limbs would be broken in order to prevent more attempts to flee. Sometimes, they would even be pushed back with bamboo sticks into the burning funeral pyre. Even though it was banned by the British colonial government in 1859, it was still practiced in some parts of India. It is still banned under the current Indian government, with harsh penalties for those few who still insist on forcing innocent women to their deaths.

5. Baby Tossing

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Every year in the month of December, more than a hundred babies are tossed from a temple roof into a crowd below. They plummet 200 feet, to where a group of men stand waiting with a cloth meant to catch them. The reason? Married couples – looking to be blessed with, perhaps ironically, more babies – take part in this event. It is also said to bring good health and luck to the family. The Indian government is looking to set a ban on the jaw-dropping ritual, which takes place in the southern state of Karnataka.

4. Food Rolling

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Enter certain temples in Karnataka, and you’ll be ordered to stop, drop and roll. Supplicants roll their bodies over scraps of food discarded by Brahmins – the highest, priestly caste in India. The act of rolling is practiced by all of the castes lower than Brahmin, and is said to cure skin disease.

Made snana has been in practice for over 500 years, but it is now on the verge of being banned. Though restrictions in certain temples had been put up in recent years, these restricitions were lifted after protests from devout Hindus. Members of the Indian government have therefore decided to educate, rather than impose their will upon the people. Good luck to them.

3.Chicken-shredding Exorcisms

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In Hinduism, exorcisms are carried out by various means, according to the traditions of different regions. One of these methods involves the slaughter of a white chicken: the bloody parts are strewn around the house by the Pandit or priest, who is usually in charge of performing the exorcism. The possessed person in question is then addressed as a demon, or by the name of a dead relative who may have become a demon within them. These demons, or spirits, are said to be afraid of white chickens. In some cases, the demon is reported to have screamed ‘I go! I go!’ through the possessed body, before apparently leaving. Supposedly, this is followed by the immediate revival of the exorcised person, who appears to wake from something like a trance, with no memory of the events or of the chicken.

2. Tongue Piercing


Not studs, but long and sharp needles are used to puncture the tongue. The needles – usually made from wood or steel – can be so long that the tongue is forced to stick out of the mouth permanently, unable to retract. The piercing is common a number of religious festivals. In some regions, young boys and sometimes girls take part in the ritual piercing. The ones who are going to pierce their tongues wear a garland around their necks for a day before the ceremony. The piercing ceremony is usually followed by dancing and merrymaking. These practices are also seen in countries other than India, in southern parts of Asia.

1. Female Infanticide


This social evil exists not only in India, but also in many other parts of the world whose populations see male children as more desirable than female children. Preference for a male child can be so extreme that female infants might be killed, or set afloat in the river. Illegitimate girls, especially, were vulnerable to murder prompted by shame: only if a man agreed to marry the mother-to-be could the child often be saved – but this hardly ever happened. Infanticide was banned in the 19th century.


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1. Impalement: A sharp pole is pushed, bottom upwards, through the victim’s body

If you were Vlad the Impaler (more commonly known as Dracula) of 15th century Romania, you simply impaled your victims by forcing them to sit on a sharp and thick pole. The polewas then raised upright and the victim was left to slide further down the pole by his or her own weight.

Often, the pole would emerge through the sternum so that its tip could be placed under the chin to prevent further sliding. It could take the victim three days to die. Vlad did this to between 20,000 and 300,000. It is said he enjoyed having a meal while watching impalements.

2. Judas Cradle : The victim’s orifice is painfully stretched, flesh ripped

The Judas Cradle was perhaps a little less sadistic than impalement but still gruesome. The victim’s anus or vagina would be placed over the point of the pyramid-shaped cradle, then lowered on it by ropes. The intended effect was to stretch the orifice over a long period of time, or to slowly impale.

The victim was usually naked, adding to the overall humiliation of the torture and sometimes weights were added to the legs to increase the pain and hasten death. This torture could last anywhere from a few hours to complete days. The device was rarely washed, so the victim could also be plagued with a painful infection.

3. Coffin Torture : Torture in a metal cage, pecked at by preying birds

The Coffin Torture was feared in the Middle Ages, and is often seen in films depicting the time (see Monty Python’s Holy Grail). The victim was placed inside a metal cage roughly made in the shape of the human body. Torturers could force overweight victims into a smaller device, or even make the “coffin” slightly larger than a victim’s body to make him more uncomfortable. The cage was frequently hung from a tree or a gallows.

Serious crimes, such as heresy or blasphemy, were punished by death inside the coffin where the victim was placed under the sun allowing birds or animals to eat his or her flesh. Sometimes onlookers would throw rocks and other objects to further increase the pain. (Photo by Charles Bray)

4. The Rack : designed to dislocate every joint in its victim’s body

Who could forget the dreaded rack, commonly believed to be the most painful form ofmedievaltorture? It consisted of a wooden frame usually with two ropes fixed to the bottom and another two tied to a handle in the top. As the torturer turned the handle, the ropes would pull the victim’s arms, eventually dislocating bones with a loud crack. If the torturer kept turning the handles (they often went too far) some of the limbs were torn right off the body.

In the later Middle Ages, a new variant of rack appeared. Spikes were added that penetrated the victim’s back when he or she were forced to lie on table. As the limbs were pulled apart, so was the spinal cord, increasing not only the physical pain, but the psychological pain of knowing that, even if he or she were to survive, mobility of any kind would be lost forever.

5. The Breast Ripper : Painfully tears and mutilates a woman’s breast

Used as a horrible punishment for women, the breast ripper was used to inflict pain, blood loss and the mutilation of their breasts. It was usually used for women accused of conducting abortions or of adultery.

The claws were often placed, red hot, on the victim’s exposed breasts, the spikes penetrating to achieve a powerful grasp. They were then pulled to rip off or shred the breasts. If the victim wasn’t killed she would be scarred for life as her breasts were literally torn apart.

A common variant was known as “The Spider,” which is a similar instrument attached to a wall. The victim’s breasts were fixed to the claws and the woman was pulled by the torturer away from the wall, removing or mutilating them. This was a brutal punishment that often resulted in the victim’s death.

6. The Pear of Anguish : Rips orifices, dislocates jaw bones

This brutal instrument was used to torture women who performed abortions, liars, blasphemers and homosexuals. The pear-shaped instrument was inserted into one of the victim’s orifices: the vagina for women, the anus for homosexuals and the mouth for liars and blasphemers.

The instrument consisted of four leaves that slowly separated from each other as the torturer turned the screw at the top. The device would tear the skin at the very least or expand to mutilate the victim’s orifice. It could dislocated or break the jawbones

Pears of Anguish still in existence are lavishly engraved or adorned to differentiate between the anal, vaginal and oral pears. This torture rarely brought death, but was often followed by other torture methods.

7. The Breaking Wheel : Designed to render vicitim’s limbs useless

Also called The Catherine Wheel, this device always killed its victim, but did so very slowly. The victim’s limbs were tied to the spokes of a large wooden wheel. The wheel was then slowly revolved while the torturer smashed the victims’ limbs with an iron hammer, breaking them in many places.

Once his bones were broken, he was left on the wheel to die. Sometimes the wheel was placed on a tall pole so birds could pick and eat the flesh of the still-living human. It could take up to two or three days for him to die of dehydration.

Sometimes it was ‘mercifully’ ordered that the executioner strike the criminal on the chest and stomach, blows known as the coups de grâce (French: “blow of mercy”), which caused lethal injuries, leading to the end of the death by torture.

8. Saw Torture : Common saw cuts victim in half

Saws were was common torturedevices because they were readily found in most houses and no complex devices were required. It was a cheap way to torture and kill a victim accused of witchery, adultery, murder, blasphemy or even theft.

The victim was tied upside down, allowing blood to be diverted to the brain. This ensured that the victim maintained consciousness for as long as possible, it slowed the loss of blood and caused maximum humiliation. The torture could last several hours.

While some victims were cut completely in half as a symbolic gesture, most were only cut up to their abdomen to prolong the time it took to die.

9. The Head Crusher: Compresses the skull, shatters teeth, squeezes out the eyes

The head crusher was a popular torture method used by the Spanish Inquisition, among other users. The chin was placed over a bottom bar and the head under an upper cap. The torturer slowly turned the screw, pressing the bar against the cap. The head was then slowly compressed, first shattering the teeth into the jaw, then a slow death with agonizing pain. Some variants of this device included small containers that received the eyeballs as they were squeezed out of the victims’ eye sockets.

This instrument was an effective way to extract confessions, as the period of pain could be prolonged for many hours if the torturer chose to. If the torture was stopped midway, the victim often had irreparable damage done to the brain, jaw or eyes.

10. The Knee Splitter : Severs the knees and other limbs

Another tool favoured by the Spanish Inquisition because of its versatility, was the knee splitter. It was a vice-like instrument with sharp spikes outfitted on both sides of the grip. As the torturer turned the handle, the claws slowly squeezed against each other mutilating and penetrating the skin and bones of the knee. Although its use rarely resulted in death, the effect was to render the knees completely useless. It was also used on other body parts including elbows, arms and even the lower legs.

The number of spikes the knee splitter contained varied from three to more than twenty. Some claws were heated beforehand to maximize pain – others had dozens of small claws that penetrated the flesh slowly and painfully.

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Public Stoning

Iranian courts still order public stonings, and those sentenced are often severely whipped before they are stoned.

Women are buried up to their necks before a stoning. If convicted of adultery, Iranian law requires the stones not be too big or too small so that the probable death is not merciful or prolonged. If a woman miraculously survives a stoning, she must then serve a jail sentence.

For men, the stoning procedure is a bit different. Men are buried up to their waists before a stoning. If they confess and manage to escape, they are free.

Appointment at the Gallows: Hanging

In most of the world, execution by hanging is used. Iran recently cut back on the number of its judicial hangings, but in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Botswana, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, St. Kitts & Nevis and Sudan hanging is extremely common. In 2008, approximately 339 men and four women were hanged in these countries.

Short Drop Hanging

The gallows and method of death they produce vary from country to country. Often the “American style” or “short drop” method of hanging is used, which means the drop is only inches and does not break the condemned’s neck. He or she struggles in the noose, causing it to tighten and after some time of suffering, dies from asphyxia.

Suspension Hanging

In some countries, the method of choice is suspension hanging, which utilizes a crane or other heavy equipment to lift the prisoner off the ground by the noose. The manner of death is the same as the short drop, which makes it slow and agonizing. After short drop or suspension hangings, the deceased’s face is generally engorged and blue with blood marks evident on the face and eyes, and the tongue may protrude.

Standard Drop Hanging

Standard drop hanging was adopted as the normal method of hanging in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century. Prisoners drop four to six feet, which often rips the skin, breaks the neck and in some cases causes decapitation. This method of hanging is still carried out today in some of the countries listed above.

Long Drop Hanging

Long drop or “measured drop” hanging was adopted by British Colonies and practiced in Britain as a “more humane” form of punishment. The distance of the drop is calculated by the prisoner’s height, weight and body type and designed to break the neck. If the calculations are incorrect and the drop is too long or too short, the prisoner’s head may be ripped off or they may slowly die from strangulation. This is now a very common form of hanging.

The Electric Chair

Since all methods of hanging are either cruel and inhumane or potentially so, the electric chair was introduced in the U.S. in 1888. The electric chair was designed as a “more humane” method of execution, although it does not cause instant death. Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were battling to dominate electrical utilities at the time, and Westinghouse’s alternating current powered the first electric chair. Edison was pleased that the electric chair required Westinghouse’s current, as he had always made the argument that the alternating current was dangerous.

The electric chair has been used in 27 U.S. states and the Philippines. The first man to die in the electric chair was William Kemmler, who was convicted of murdering his lover. Kemmler was executed on August 6, 1890. He sat in the chair on his own and was strapped to the chair with leather straps around his torso, arms and legs. Head and spinal electrodes with layers of sponge soaked in brine were attached to Kemmler and a black cloth was put over his face.

When the switch was thrown, Kemmler went rigid for 17 seconds, then his body relaxed. He was declared dead, but 30 seconds later his chest had a series of spasms. A second charge of electricity was sent through his body for 70 seconds, until there was a smell of burning flesh and vapor and smoke were seen rising from his body. Kemmler was then officially declared dead.

The electric chair is still a legal method of execution in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Death row inmates are given the choice of dying by lethal injection or the electric chair. Since 1993, at least five electric chair executions have gone seriously wrong with prisoners being slowly tortured to death with blue and orange flames shooting out of the helmet while he or she is still alive and in intense agony.

Judicial Caning

In some countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, judicial caning is a common punishment for male offenders. Thousands of men are sentenced to caning each year in these countries and for some crimes it is a mandatory punishment. Judicial caning is done privately inside prisons. Prisoners are stripped naked and shackled to an A-frame. They are then beaten full-force with a four-foot rattan cane that has been soaked in water. The cane splits the skin and rips at the bare flesh. There is usually severe physical damage and permanent scarring. In some cases an attendant holds the prisoner’s head and reminds him to breathe. After the caning, the prisoners are given medical treatment to clean the wounds.

A graphic six-minute video of a Malaysian judicial caning, which would be extremely upsetting for most people to watch is online. It is not advisable to watch this video, which was filmed as part of an educational documentary to deter crime.

Death by Shooting

Most countries have stopped the practice of death by firing squad or by single bullet to the head and now use lethal injection. However, shooting executions are still used in the state of Utah, Afghanistan, Belarus, Ethiopia, Indonesia, North Korea, Nigeria, Yemen, Vietnam and some parts of China.

China has the death penalty for 68 crimes. During a war on crime effort in China in the spring of 2001 there were 1,781 executions, according to Amnesty International records. That figure is higher than all of the other executions in the world put together for the same period. Executions are carried out immediately after a public sentencing. China keeps its death penalty statistics a state secret. The prisoner’s arms are shackled behind them and they are forced to kneel before they are shot in the back of the head at close range or shot in the heart from behind with an automatic rifle. The family of the executed person is required to pay for the bullets used.


In Saudi Arabia, public beheading is the punishment for murder, rape, drug trafficking, sodomy, armed robbery, apostasy and other offenses. Men and women receive sentences of death by beheading and are usually given sedatives beforehand. The condemned are taken by the police to a public place and their eyes are covered. A sheet of plastic is spread out on the ground and the prisoner is forced to kneel facing Mecca. The prisoner’s name and crime is read out loud and the executioner is given a traditional Arab scimitar. The executioner generally takes a few practice swings in the air before poking the prisoner in the back of the neck with the tip of the sword. This causes the prisoner to lift their head so that it can be removed with a single stroke. The head often flies two to three feet away from the body and is picked up and given to a doctor who sews it back on. The deceased’s body is wrapped in the plastic sheet and taken away for burial in an unmarked grave at the prison.

Whipping, Flogging and Lashing

Whipping, flogging and lashing are judicial punishments in which the prisoner is beaten with a whip, strap or flogger. While many countries have now outlawed judicial beatings, the practice is still widespread in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Bahamas, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Libya, Yemen, Malaysia, Brunei, parts of Nigeria and Indonesia as well as other countries.

In American prisons, flogging and beatings are still used, unofficially, to maintain order.


Mutilation, including eye gouging, chemical blinding, amputation of fingers, hands or other body parts, is also used in some countries, especially in those whose legal system is based on Islamic law.


In Saudi Arabia, those convicted of crimes involving theft are often sentenced to amputation, and their right hands are removed. For those found guilty of highway robbery, cross amputation, or removal of the right hand and left foot is ordered. In Iran, prisoners may also be sentenced to amputation of both hands and feet for serious crimes. Judicial amputation is still practiced in many other countries too including Yemen, Sudan, and Islamic regions of Nigeria. Under the Taliban, judicial amputations were common in Afghanistan.

An Eye for an Eye – Literally

In Saudi Arabia, Indian citizen Puthan Veettil `Abd ul-Latif Noushad was sentenced to a brutal punishment in 2005. The Greater Shari`a Court of Dammam ordered his right eye gouged out as retribution for taking part in a brawl. A Saudi citizen was injured in the brawl and insisted that the punishment be carried out.

Although Saudi Arabia consented to the Convention against Torture in 1997, brutal judicial punishments in the country have not stopped. Eye gouging sentences are not uncommon.

Chemical Blinding

In Iran, a 27-year-old man who was rejected by a woman attacked and threw acid on her, causing her to be blind and disfigured. The Supreme Court has upheld his sentence, which is chemical blinding in both eyes. He will be strapped down and have drops of hydrochloric acid placed in each of his eyes.