Published on Academy of American Poets (

ojha : rituals

Ojhas are [medicine men, “the ones next to God,” religious ministers or priests who deal with the daily struggles of the village people]; this dynamic allows the village ojha to control the circulation of rumors, and he is the village member who has the power to trap daayans (witches). In some trials, the ojha reads grains of rice, burn marks on branches, and disturbances in the sand around his residence, for signs of a daayan.

certain beliefs precede his name & yet
he goes by many : dewar, bhagat,

priest. passive ear, the kind

of listener you’d give
your own face.


first, the village must [agree
that spirits exist]—some benevolent,
some deserving of fear. everyone

wants their universe
to have reason. so it must be
a woman who stole your portion

of rice, woman who smeared
your doorstep’s rangoli, woman
who looked sideways at your child.


give him your gossip & the ojha conjures
herbs to [appease the evil] : her raving,
innocent mouth. & by that token
what is truth. the other rumors,

too, could corroborate—that bullets
pass through, his body barely
there but for the holy
in his hands.


he chants her name with fingers
pushed into his ears. just the sound
of her bangles
undoes : a single woman

on a plot of land, unbecoming.
he reads her guilt [in grains
of rice, in the light of a lamp,
using a cup which moves

and identifies]. makes a circle
around himself. white sand
between him &
the world. it’s the dead hour.

now, he shouts, arms covered
in ants, sing.


Copyright © 2019 by Raena Shirali. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 11, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“This poem investigates the ongoing practice of witch hunting in Jharkhand, India, in the form of a persona poem. While I have written widely into the persona of a daayan (a woman accused of being a witch), the ojha (witch doctor and village priest) has presented for me a particular challenge of (dis)embodiment. ‘ojha : rituals’ explicates the methods by which ojhas determine whether or not a woman is a witch, while also asking the reader to consider themselves, alongside the village(rs), as equally susceptible to inherited social systems that devalue women, that deem women suspect and disposable. Finally, the poem integrates, in bracketed text, anthropological research into the poetic exploration of these politics of accusation.”
Raena Shirali


Raena Shirali

Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), which won the Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award.

Date Published: 2019-03-11

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