How far would you go to show your religious faith? Some families in rural India — both Hindus and Muslims — are willing to let their babies be tossed off the roof of a shrine, to be caught in a stretched bedsheet about 30 feet below.
The ritual, long popular in Maharashtra and Karnataka States, dates back almost 700 years, to a time when infant mortality was high, medical knowledge was scant and families had few places to turn for help.
Legend has it that a saint advised people whose babies were dying to build a shrine and drop the ailing infants from the roof to show their trust in the almighty. When they did so, the story goes, the babies were miraculously cradled to safety in a hammock-like sheet that appeared in midair.
From then on, prayers for the birth of a healthy baby in the region have included a promise to toss the baby as an offering to the god who granted the prayers. Villagers believe that the ritual brings the child long life and good luck, and maintain that it does no harm.
The practice came under fire in 2009, when a widely circulated video recorded at the Baba Umer Dargah, a shrine in Solapur, Maharashtra, prompted the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to intervene. The commission investigated and ordered that the baby-tossing be stopped.
“We do not support this superstitious practice,” said G. Mohanty, a media adviser at the commission. “It is against the interest of the children. They may be really scared, and nobody knows how it affects their psyche.”
Officials say the practice is illegal under India’s children’s rights law, and the local police authorities in Solapur say they have not received any reports of baby-tossing since 2010. Even so, witnesses say it continues on a small scale in some villages, including in Mangasuli, where the Lord Khandoba, an avatar of Shiva, is worshiped by Hindus as the deity of the family.
“The practice continues throughout the year, and babies are tossed within two months of being born, come rain or shine — it’s tradition,” said Javed Fardin Akhtar, a resident of the nearby city of Sangli who said he witnessed the ritual in Mangasuli in April.
Mr. Akhtar said that the actual tossing was done not by the parents, but by experienced devotees of the shrine. After one bounce on the bedsheet, the babies are swiftly returned to the arms of parents waiting anxiously in the cheering crowd below.
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