India

Hair thieves striking fear in India

Sunita Devi in front of her house
Image caption Sunita Devi says the attack has left her traumatised

More than 50 women in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Rajasthan have reported that they have had their hair chopped off while they were unconscious. Police are struggling to solve the mystery that is leaving women paranoid and worried, reports the BBC's Vikas Pandey.

"There was a strong flash of light that left me unconscious. An hour later, I found that my hair had also been chopped off," says Sunita Devi, a 53-year-old housewife from the Bhimgarh Kheri area of Gurgaon district in Haryana.

The "attack" on Friday has left her traumatised.

"I am unable to sleep or concentrate on anything. I had read about such incidents taking place in Rajasthan, but never thought it would happen to me," she adds.

Reports of "phantom barbers" first emerged in early July from Rajasthan, but a spate of similar incidents are being reported from Haryana and even the capital, Delhi.

Sunita Devi lives in a close-knit community of traders and farmers.

Some of her neighbours are taking it in turns to stay with her until she is able to come out of the shock.

She says her attacker was an elderly man "dressed in bright-coloured clothes".

"I was alone on the ground floor of the house, and my daughter-in-law and grandson were upstairs when the attack happened at around 21:30," she says.

They saw and heard nothing.

Image caption Munesh Devi says there is fear in the community

The mystery deepens when I ask if anybody else saw the attacker.

Sunita Devi's neighbour Munesh Devi says that the narrow lane, which has around 20 houses, is usually buzzing between 21:00 and 22:00.

"People get together after dinner to just talk and relax. Friday was no different, but none of us saw any unknown person going in or coming out of Sunita's house," she says.

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And it didn't end there.

Just a few yards away, homemaker Asha Devi lost her hair in a similar attack the following day.

But this time the attacker was reportedly a woman.

Asha Devi's father-in-law, Suraj Pal, says that following the incident, he sent her and other women of his family to a relative's house in Uttar Pradesh state.

"They were so paranoid after the attack, I told them to be away for a few weeks. There is fear in the community," he says.

Mr Pal says he was at home when Asha Devi went outside to complete a household chore at around 22:00.

"I went outside to find her when she didn't return for more than 30 minutes. We found her unconscious in the bathroom. Her hair was chopped and thrown on the floor," he says.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Attacks have also taken place in Delhi

He adds that Asha gained consciousness after an hour and told him that a woman had attacked her.

"She told me that everything happened in less than 10 seconds," he says.

I found similar cases in rural areas of Rewari district - around 70km (43 miles) from Gurgaon. These are a few:

  • Reena Devi, 28, from Jonawasa village says she was attacked on Thursday. And the attacker seems to be a cat this time. "I was doing my chores when I saw a large figure that resembled a cat. Then I felt somebody touching my shoulders, and that's the last thing I remember," she says. She agrees that her "story is hard to believe". "I know it sounds impossible. But that's what I saw. Some people say I cut my hair, but why would I do that?" she asks.
  • In the neighbouring village of Kharkharra, Sundar Devi, 60, has been bedridden since she was attacked on Saturday. "I was going to a neighbour's house when somebody tapped my shoulder from behind. When I looked back, there was nobody. That's the last thing I remember," she says.
  • Reema Devi, 28, says her hair was chopped off while she was playing a game on her phone on Thursday. "My husband and children were also in the room. I felt a pull on my hair and when I looked back, my hair was on the floor," she says.

'Mass hysteria'

Gurgaon police spokesperson Ravinder Kumar says that the complaints are being investigated.

"These are bizarre cases. We have found no clues at crime scenes, medical tests of the victims show nothing abnormal," he said, adding that nobody has seen the alleged attackers.

Mr Kumar adds that police from different districts are coordinating efforts to "make some sense" of these incidents.

"Only the victims say that they have seen or felt the presence of attackers. We will get to the bottom of these cases, but until then, I urge people to not believe in rumours," he says.

Image caption Sundar Devi, 60, has been bedridden since she was attacked on Saturday
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Women in some parts of Delhi have been using bands containing pictures of gods to protect their hair

And rumours are not in short supply.

As I travelled from one village to another, I was given different theories for the attacks.

In one village, an elderly man told me that an organised gang was involved. Another said he believed that tantriks, or so-called witch doctors, were behind the attacks because people went to them for treatment in such scenarios.

One woman insisted "supernatural forces" were involved. Others accused the "victims" of cutting their hair to get attention.

Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku told the BBC that he believed that these cases were a classic example of "mass hysteria".

"There is no miracle or supernatural force behind all this. Women who have reported these cases must be going through some internal psychological conflict." he says.

"When they hear about such incidents, they end up replicating it - sometimes even subconsciously."

But Reena Devi disagrees.

"I spent years growing my hair and it made me happy. And now that it's gone, you can't even imagine my pain. It's ridiculous to say that women are chopping off their own hair," she says.


Other incidents of mass hysteria in India

Image copyright Getty Images
  • In the mid-1990s, millions of Hindus around the world were gripped by reports in Delhi of sacred statues "drinking" milk. In the early morning of 21 September 1995, rumours of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha sipping milk from a spoon spread across the country. Offering food and drink like milk to the gods is an integral part of Hindu rituals.
  • In 2001, "a monkey-man" reportedly attacked hundreds of people in Delhi. Reports later suggested it was case of mass hysteria.
  • Thousands started travelling to a popular beach in Mumbai in 2006 after rumours that the sea water had miraculously turned sweet.