- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

SITALGANJ, India With farmlands parched and dying, 80-year-old Maha Devi and many other women in northern India are resorting to dancing naked in their fields in a ritual to call on the gods for rain and to keep their husbands happy.

Each night, Mrs. Devi leads a group of 40 women from Sitalganj, a drought-ravaged village in Uttar Pradesh state, to their fields to perform their ancient ritual while their husbands remain at home.

The women sing and dance. When dawn breaks, they put on their clothes and plow the dusty earth.

But so far their prayers have gone unanswered and many areas of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and known as the nation's "food bowl," are facing their worst drought in 12 years.

"There will be no crops this year and all of us will starve," says a despondent Mrs. Devi, now fully clothed and back at her village, looking up at the unrelenting sky.

"It is the third day of our performing the plow ritual and yet the rains have been missing."

Despite Mrs. Devi's pessimism, many Indians still seem confident their pleas to the rain gods will eventually be answered, while they keep trying a range of ceremonies.

"It is up to us how we proceed in pleasing Lord Indra [the Hindu god of rains] so that he may bestow upon us his blessings in the form of showers," another resident of Sitalganj, 43 miles from Lucknow, the state capital, said.

In Aligarh district, 220 miles from Lucknow, women have been performing a similar ritual, taking off their clothes and plowing the fields naked.

In many other villages, clothed children have been calling for rain while chanting special prayers.

Politicians, both Hindu and Muslim, have also been chipping in with various religious ceremonies to invoke rain.

Rajendra Pathak, an expert on cultural practices in India, said the rituals being undertaken by the villagers were as much about distracting themselves from their hardship as actually trying to find a solution.

"The villagers believe that such rituals do bring rain," Mr. Pathak said. "But the seasonal festivals and rituals are actually aimed at diverting attention from the problems of life and are practiced to derive happiness even during hardship."

He said women working and dancing naked also served to keep their husbands happy.

"When the rains fail, the farmers either drown their sorrows in alcohol, or give vent to their frustration by beating up their wives, or flee to other states in search of jobs," Mr. Pathak said.

"That is why the women perform these rituals to prevent the men from getting depressed."

Local authorities have declared 17 of the 70 districts in Uttar Pradesh drought-affected, and opposition politicians claim the situation is much worse.

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