Several hundred villagers in northern India watched enthralled as a long-haired sadhu or holy man dressed in saffron robes drew ash out of thin air, exploded huge stones with "mental power" and turned water into blood.

The simple folk witnessing the magical performance last month in a small village near Rohtak in Haryana state, 60km from New Delhi, were intimidated by this "divine power".

They hoped, through generous donations at the end of his performance, to dissuade the miracle man from unleashing havoc on their village through his avowed "supernatural" prowess.

But as the awe-struck villagers reached into their pockets, the holy man whipped off his saffron robes to reveal himself as the local college science teacher.

He then repeated his presentation; but this time he showed his audience how he had achieved the "miracles" through sleight of hand and a few chemicals.

Such proceedings are a regular feature organised across several states by the Indian Rationalist Association to debunk belief in miracles, palmistry and astrology. The rationalists endeavour to expose thousands of "god men" or imposters who terrify superstitious rural people into paying them large sums of money.

Sanal Edamaraku, the head of Rationalist International in New Delhi, joined the rationalist movement as a student activist shortly after it began in southern India several decades ago. He said thousands of volunteers regularly travelled across rural areas demystifying "wondrous deeds" by demonstrating how exactly they were executed.

He said this sustained campaign had resulted in villagers stoning confidence tricksters posing as holy men and chasing them away in states like Haryana, neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and Orissa in the east. Gimmicks used by these con men include setting fire to objects through "mind energy", eating glass, walking on burning embers, piercing their flesh with steel tridents and at times, even levitation.

Edamaruku said that one trick which never failed to impress people involved causing a small explosion after sprinkling water on to a stone.

This was accomplished simply by pouring water on scattered sodium crystals, he said.

The Rationalists, whose membership is around 100,000, was founded six decades ago by a handful of scientists and intellectuals in the southern city of Chennai. Over the years they have exposed the nexus between Indian politicians and their army of holy men and astrologers who manage the heavens for their masters, choreographing even their public actions in consonance with the stars. All association activists are volunteers and funding is through donations.

"Our basic aim is to bring the rudiments of science and logic to ordinary people" said Edamaruku.


* Lighting candles and piles of dry grass with the flick of a finger is achieved by using chemicals that ignite on exposure to sunlight.

* Piercing the body with a trident was managed with it bent at strategic points, giving the impression of deep penetration.

* Other "marvels" like walking on fire, swallowing ground glass, producing ash out of air and levitating could all be carried out through a combination of chemicals, craftily erected apparatus and dexterous manipulation in which sleight of hand plays a vital role.