The Psycho-Ecology of Everyday Horror: Watching ‘Dahan: Raakan ka Rahasya’
By Subhajeet Singha
“So dark the con of the man”
The above line can be seen inscribed in invisible ink upon the painting of Mona Lisa which will be discovered by the eminent symbologist and professor of religious iconography Robert Langdon in Ron Howard directed Hollywood thriller, “The Da Vinci Code” (released in 2006), based on American author Dan Brown’s quasi-historical novel of the same name. Although I am referring more to the movie adaptation than the celebrated novel, as the purpose behind making of “Da Vinci Code” and the recently released Hindi web series (in Disney Hotstar) Dahan: Raakan ka Rahasya is quite similar. In one particular scene of “The Da Vinci Code”, the character of Sophie Neveu (played brilliantly by Audrey Tautou) asks the character of Sir Leigh Teabing (played elegantly by Sir Ian McKellen) how many people have been killed over millennia in the name of god and religion. And Teabing answers to her question with an unnerving and calm voice that since the dawn of civilization, there have been killings in the name of god and religion. Because that is the god humans created to their self-interest, and the religion is created to mollify that angry god of humans. To preserve the immoral sanctity of the accursed religion of humans, they will always kill. Ritualistic killings will instill the horror and the religion will always thrive in horror. In Dahan: Raakan ka Rahasya, the protagonist Ms. Avani Raut (played by Tisca Chopra), a disgraced IAS officer in aid of her son, searches for the same answer like French police officer Sophie Neveu- the question of the root of the evil inside humanity and how it infests the mob and spreads the horror unparalleled.
Dahan: Raakan ka Rahasya is a Hindi web series released in September, 2022 and is available on the streaming channel of Disney Hotstar. This series is co-written and directed by Vikranth Pawar and Jai Sharma and is consisted of nine episodes of different lengths. The plot revolves around a remotely located village called Shilaspura in Rajasthan, India. The place is laced with the residue of an unforgettable past; like ancient curses, buried treasures, occult symbols inscribed in walls and tattooed in the bodies of men, an evil force lying dormant and a political disturbance on the rise. The name Shilaspura is retrieved from the ancient temple of Shilasthal, which is an imposing edifice of stone and faith situating at the middle of the village. There are two rival tribes living in and around the village, Karapalli and Nikasiya, who are protecting and watching over an ancient evil, buried deep inside the labyrinthine caverns underneath the temple of Shilasthal. One can remember, in this connection, the description of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”,
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war! (Coleridge 231)
The plot thickens as the closely guarded secrets spill out and the fear of a devilish supernatural entity is about to be unleashed. More Avani investigates into the heart of darkness, more she comes close to the truth of her own horror and the horror of mankind. Every principal character presented in this series suffers from or hides from his or her individual horror and the horror in shape of the curse of Ridhiyakan and Raakan- the ancient sorcerer and his curse respectively.
Avani Raut is an IAS officer, upon whom a departmental disciplinary enquiry is going on, when it is revealed that she has taken a lot of bribe, abusing the influence of her post of a govt. official. Her husband committed suicide and in disgust and pain her son Anay Raut (played by Rohan Joshi) grows a bitter estrangement from her. After being cleared of the allegations of bribe, though disgraced still, Avani is sent to Shilaspura to oversee the opening of a mining project, operated by an influential corporate company called Mangon Corporation, who has unearthed a rich cache of precious minerals under the temple of Shilasthal. The word ‘Shilasthal’ is a Sanskrit word which is a conjoined of two Sanskrit words, shila or sila means rocks and sthal means the place. Somehow the name of the temple itself is an ironical suggestion of the rich minerals hiding underneath the Earth. Avani is sent there to pacify the locals who see this mining project as an abomination to their centuries old religious practice. The people of the village, who are led by the leader of the religiously fanatical and extremist group leader of Karapallis, Pramukh Swaroop (played by the veteran actor Saurabh Shukla), become agitated and clashes with the govt. break out and ensue a threat to the functioning of mine as well as a dangerous political turmoil. As Avani and Anay board the train to Rudragarh, the nearest train station to Shilaspura, from Jaipur, they already begin to hear about the strange and preternatural tales about Shilaspura and Shilasthal.
These tales are the brilliant creation of the director Vikranth Pawar, who efficiently synthesizes the ancient tales of sorcerer and ogre with the idea of nature being destroyed by the advent of unscrupulous and thoughtless industrialization and mining. Avani and Anay are briefed about the tales of Ridhiyakan and Raakan by Avani’s associate, fellow govt. officer, Sachet Singh (played by Pankaj Sharma) upon their arrival to Shilaspura. In ancient times there was an ogress named Hadhika (whose name sounds similar to the character of Hirimba from the Mahabharata) who frequented these lands of Shilaspura. She fell in love with a human prince and bore a son named Ridhiykan, who is a great sorcerer. Throughout the series he has been called mayaabi or an illusionist in English. Soon a war broke out between two clans in Shilaspura to take control of the lands. Ridhiyakan’s father called his son for his assistance. And this runs very closely in parallel with Pandava’s call for assistance of the services of Ghatotkach, Bhima’s son. However, sensing Ridhiyakan’s power is too strong and evil; these two warring clans, forgetting their enmity, made a pact in between and somehow defeated Ridhiyakan by beheading him. But his mother laid a curse upon the land as her son was betrayed by his own kin and buried the head of her son deep inside the caverns of Earth. A temple was built upon the buried head, which would be known as the auspicious “Shilasthal” and one of the clans was given the responsibility to worship and appease the spirit of Ridhiyakan. Those tribesmen would be called Karapallis later on and the other clan was responsible for the protection of Shilasthal, who would be called Nikasiya. It is of prime importance to conciliate and domesticate the evil spirit of Ridhiyakan, otherwise the ancient evil will rise from its stone grave and will wreak havoc in the land like a maleficent plague. Ridhiyakan’s curse is known as Raakan. The people of Shilaspura are afraid of Raakan so much. The Karapalli chieftains, who are called Pramukh by dynasties, perform weird rituals and lit up magical flames to ward off the evil of Raakan.
The Karapalli and Nikasiya are still fulfilling their oaths taken centuries ago by their ancestors. They do not care for whether the curse is substantial or not. They will torture and kill whoever comes nearer to soil their inhuman religious fanatics and relics. Visiting the temple of Shilasthal, Avani comes to know about the true significance of the abhorrent place. People with psychological instability, insanity, epilepsy are brought to the temple, which is conveniently located at the top of the hillock, surrounded by the village. Then those hapless souls are subjected to brutal torture which is meant to be a public entertainment in the name of religious exorcism. When Avani comes to the temple for the very first time, she observes the spectacle of religious antiques with pure horror. Women are tied down and beaten with leather lashes while the attending mob shouts in religious ecstasy, “Raakan! Raakan! Ridhiykan”. Eventually she would also be castigated as the ‘Raakan’ and she would also be brought there, tied like an animal, to be exorcised. The temple is a haven of superstitious beliefs. During the sunset the Pramukh uses to light up a holy fire, which is called akhand jyoti or the eternal fire. In many scenes of the series, the lighting up of the fire in the temple is shown majestically. Whereas elsewhere the lighting up a fire symbolizes progress and end of darkness, here it means just the opposite. The temple is located conveniently at the middle of the village. Throughout the series it is shown that the people of the village can see the temple if they open their windows. It eerily reminds us of the ‘eye of Sauron’ from the movies of “The Lord of the Rings” series. It is like the panopticon presence of the horror of evil which surveys all alike.
Beside the faith in the akhand jyoti the people of Shilaspura believe in other superstitions too. Ridhiyakan was a great sorcerer and it is not wise to look at his deity (which is a mound of rocks inside the temple). So the pilgrims to the temple use a certain purple powder smearing all over their faces, which wards off the evil sorcery and helps them not to turn into Raakans. All the mirrors used in households and around in Shilaspura are broken, because the reflection of one’s figure will attract the maaya or the wizardry of Ridhiyakan. Avani refuses to apply the purple powder over her face and encounters flashes of her past when she visits the temple. She hallucinates her dead husband in the crowds who are shouting in frenzy observing the exorcism. It symbolizes Avani’s rejection of accepting the illusion of religion over her individual fear and facing her own individual horror.
Even at the face of mass agitation and furor the mining excavation begins soon and the blasting in the caverns underneath the temple shakes the foundation of Silasthal and a crack appears on the rock inside the temple. If the rock stands for the blind and regressive faith of people over centuries, then the fissure on the rock due to the explosion is the symbol of logical thought. After the explosion the prophecies of old days begin to be fulfilled. Pramukh Swaroop and Parimal Singh (they both are brothers and leaders of Karapallis) use to recite an ancient prophecy of the rise of Ridhiyakan and his curse of Raakan,
The water will reek with the stench of death,
And stones will pelt as rain from sky,
The mother will quiver in fear,
And man will hunt man like animals,
The clouds will clap in thunder,
Bright blood will stream down from them,
When the sorcerer awakens,
When the sorcerer awakens. (Season 1, Episode 2, 0:11:53-59)
The miners who go down the caverns return to the surface with agitated and frantic mind. They have witnessed something of pure horror inside the bowels of the Earth. Some of them go missing and one survivor reruns to the surface in an animated state. Soon he is transformed into a mindless zombie like creature, killing other men gruesomely and starts spreading the plague. All these scenes are straight out of the movies of zombie pandemic of Hollywood. Avani and police inspector Bhairo Singh (played by veteran actor Mukesh Tiwari) take it upon themselves to stop the spread of the evil.
The horror presented in Dahan is divided in multiple layers. On the onset it has been portrayed as a gothic tale of witchcraft and occultism. It literally begins with devil worshipping and a group of religious extremists who are willing to kill anyone whom they think to be possessed by Raakan. The scenes of public exorcism with the frantic shout of “Raakan! Raakan! Ridhiyakan” seem to curdle one’s blood when Avani is taken captive by them and chained by her neck to be dragged like an animal to the slaughterhouse. The society of Shilaspura is an example of unforgiving and abusive patriarchal machinery. Anay’s love interest, Rani (played by Lehar Khan), is shown to be an orphan and is sexually abused by her own uncle. The wives of the villagers are shown regularly be tortured in pretence of exorcism. The execution of Sachet Singh in the hands of one such housewife brings out the atrocious truth of domestic abuse in such societies. It was quite natural for them not to accept a female district magistrate as Avani who defiles their religious deity finally walks up from their coven of exorcism alive and disillusioned.
The horrors of patriarchal society, the secret extremist religious groups are somehow shadowed by the actual rahasya or mystery of Raakan. The environment scientist Dr. Sandeep Bajaj (played by Ankur Nayyar) discovers and points it out when he finds out about the multiple dead bodies of the migratory birds in the forest and dead fishes floating in the local lake. It is an unknown pathogen which was buried deep in the caves under the Shilasthal and the miners who get exposed to the pathogen during the excavation, awakens the Raakan or the plague in the waking world.
In this age of Anthropocene, that is the rapid progress of technology and industrial scale exploitation and contamination of natural resources by human beings, activists, thinkers, and writers have warned us repeatedly about the growing dangers of massive ecological disaster. What Rachel Carson began with her monumental work Silent Spring in 1962, it has become a crusade later on for activists and writers like Arundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh’s non-fiction volume The Nutmeg’s Curse tells us about ‘terraforming’. Like Mangon Corporation changes the ecological equilibrium in Shilaspura and aggravates the situation to release the pathogen outside the mines, the idea of ‘terraforming’ is similar. During last two hundred years or vaguely the age of Anthropocene, human beings have not only plundered natural resources, but they have changed the natural balance too, creating a new ‘terra’ or Earth. The formation of this new terra is not conducive for sustainability of other species. The birds and the fishes are the primary signs of warning of the impending terraforming which no one pays any heed to. The pathogen unleashes a deadly plague upon the living beings who come in contact with it, it addles human brains, stimulates their sensors of horror in the brain and they turn into zombies as their blood congeals within their body and turns black without enough supply of oxygen. This pathogen is quite similar to Chlordane, a form of chlorinated hydrocarbon, found in pesticides, which is mentioned by Rachel Carson, “Its residues are long persistent in soil, on foodstuffs and on surface to which it may be applied, yet it is also quite volatile and poisoning by inhalation is a definite risk to anyone handling it or exposed to it” (24). Like Chlordane, the catastrophe at Shilaspura is also man-made which is able to wipe out civilization. Finally, the spread of the plague and the pathogen is arrested by the heroic of Avani and Anay.
The series deals in horrors of different origin and weight. With the gradual unfolding of the plot, the supernatural terror fades but the other forms of terror emerges prominently. The characters also change their priority and vision. For example, Bhairo Singh appears to be a corrupted police officer, on the payroll of Mangon Corporation, because he needs money to treat her daughter’s terminal disease. His fear of losing her daughter becomes insignificant when he joins with Avani to stop the catastrophe. Even Avani learns about the truth behind her accusation as it was her husband who framed her and committed suicide in fear of being exposed. The ‘female’ has always been represented in two extremely polarized identities, either a goddess or an ogress like Hadhika. Avni confronts Sachet Singh and Pramukh Swaroop when women are being abused under the garb of exorcism under their supervision. In a misogynist, corrosive patriarchal society it is so typical to brand women as heretic or witch. The horrible apparatus, with which those men of Shilaspura clasp the neck of women and drag them to Shilasthal, is a symbol of oppression similar to medieval chastity belt around women. Like the ‘nature’ around Shilaspura is being exploited by a corporate company, the ‘females’ of Shilaspura have the same fate. If we follow the arguments presented in the book, “Gyn/Ecology”, by the radical feminist thinker Mary Daly, we would understand the schemes of patriarchy hidden under the narratives which subjugates female identity as we can observe in “Dahan”. The horrors of physical and psychological abuse in hands of patriarchy, executions in name of religion, humanity’s unlimited greed to exploit natural resources, the corrupt govt. system they all add up to the theater of horror this series brings before us.
In the first episode a T.T.E (travelling ticket checker) in the railway compartment advises Aney to drop a coin to the grave of a fakir before the train arrives at Rudragarh. He does not do it because Avani does not allow it. The very last scene of the last episode shows the train moving slowly past the grave of that fakir and Avani is standing at the gate of the railway carriage to toss a coin. But she does not drop it even now. She will never again give in to her individual fear.
Carson, Rachel. Man’s War Against Nature, Penguin Classics. 2021.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Selected Poetry, Penguin Classics, 2012.
Dahan: Raakan ka Rahasya. Directed by Vikranth Pawar and Jai Sharma, Disney Hotstar. 2022.
Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology, Beacon Press. 2016.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. John Murray. 2021.
Subhajeet Singha is presently working as Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English, Deshapran Mahavidyalaya, affiliated to Vidyasagar University, West Bengal. He has completed M.A., M.Phil (from Rabindrabharati University) and currently pursuing Ph.D. from Bankura University, West Bengal. His areas of research include Postcolonial Studies, Renaissance Literature, 19th Century Historiographical Studies of Bengal, Famine Studies.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.