In the annals of unsolved murders and deaths, some seem to be particularly spectacular, grim, and bizarre. These cases are very often circled by strange clues and evidence that no one can make any sense of, leaving us grasping in the dark for answers and wondering just what happened. One such case happened rather recently in the country of India, and it is a case of a mysterious mass death that has surrounded itself with strange clues, gruesome details, and talk of bizarre rituals and the paranormal.
The bizarre and rather grim case revolves around the Chundawat family, from Burari, India, a large family consisting of 77-year-old Narayan Devi, her sons Bhavnesh Bhatia (50) and Lalit Bhatia (45), their wives Savita (48) and Tina (42) respectively, a daughter Pratibha (57) and five grandchildren, Priyanka (33), Neetu (25), Monu (23), and Dhruv and Shivam (both 15). They were by all appearances a normal middle class family living a normal life. They were well-known in Burari's Sant Nagar neighborhood, where they had lived for over 20 years and owned a plywood business and a grocery store. Although they had faced a tragedy in the family in the form of the death of the family patriarch Bhopal Singh, there was nothing at all to really indicate the dark cloud that was coming to loom over them and launch them into unsolved crime history.
On July 1, 2018, Bhavnesh’s grocery shop, which was located on the first floor of the family’s home, didn’t open at the usual time, which was very unusual for him. For years it had always opened like clockwork at the designated time, but on this day the store front remained darkened, the door closed. Neighbors milled about wondering why the store wasn’t opening, and when the hours passed with no further word local man Gurcharan Singh decided to enter the premises and see if there was anything wrong. It would turn out that there was indeed something very, very wrong, as he was then met with the macabre site of 10 bodies hanging in a hall of the house, swaying lifelessly from the mesh above, with tape over their mouths and blindfolds covering their eyes. Police were immediately notified and things would only get stranger and more disturbing from there, with the first officer on the scene, a Rajeev Tomar, later saying of what he saw in that house of horrors:
In my career of 17 years so far, I have never seen a crime scene like this and I hope I do not ever have to. It was shocking. I stayed only for 10-15 seconds before rushing downstairs to call my seniors. At the time I did not see whose hands were tied and whose eyes were covered. I just saw a lot of bodies hanging, just like branches of a tree.
It was found that a total of 11 people had died here, the 10 family members found hanging from the ceiling of the first floor of the house in a circular formation, and the body of the elderly matriarch Narayan Devi discovered in another room strangled to death but oddly not hung like the others. In a drawer in one of the rooms were found eight mobile phones belonging to the family, discovered taped and hidden. The blindfolds on the victims’ eyes were oddly found to be strips torn roughly from the same bedsheet, as if it had been a sudden decision or an afterthought. In addition to these eye coverings and taped mouths, the victims’ ears had been plugged with cotton and their hands had been tied behind their backs. Autopsies would show that all of them had died without a struggle, with no other wounds or defensive injuries found, there were no drugs in their system, and the causes of death were determined to be hanging and strangulation.
There were other strange clues, such as some stools in the room, suggesting this might have been some mass suicide, but considering the blindfolds and tape over the mouths, as well as the fact that they all had arms firmly tied behind them and that three of the bodies had feet still touching the floor, this was assumed to have been more likely a murder made to look like a suicide. However, with no surviving family members left alive to tell the tale there were no leads at all and no real clue as to what had happened here. The only one to have survived at the scene was the family dog, found tied up on the terrace, and he wasn’t talking. The eldest family son, Dinesh Chaturvedi, also survived, but had not been living there.
The case remained a baffling mystery, and while police tried to make sense of it all there were some odd clues that came out. Interviews with neighbors showed that in the days leading up to the tragedy, family member Lalit Bhatia had been displaying some bizarre behavior. The normally jovial man had become morose and detached, and did strange things such as praying in front of trees and feeding stray animals. Things got even stranger still when he allegedly began claiming that his dead father was coming to him to speak to him in his dreams, at one point even saying that the deceased man was trying to possess him. This was very suspicious, and authorities took it as a sign that Lalit might have had some hand in the deaths. Taking it all even deeper into the weird was a collection of 22 notebooks and diaries written by Lalit that would prove very mysterious and puzzling indeed.
The notebooks were filled with scrawled notes and journal entries going back 11 years, which contained a variety of information both mundane and frightening. Much of what is written is complaining about various things about his family, chastising them for perceived inadequacies, and ranting about how the family should change their ways to better themselves. Here there are strict guidelines for what they should be doing, how they should act, and even what their diet should be, yet in amongst all of this are also instructions for rituals meant to bring about salvation for their souls, called moksha. There are also vague allusions to four spirits clinging to the family that would only return to where they came from if certain practices were carried out and rituals were performed, and it also speaks of a “day of punishment,” as well as a ritual designed to allow them to meet their deceased patriarch, Bhopal Singh, for the purpose of thanking him for all he had done for them since the family business had been very successful. This ritual, called a badh tapasya, was also according to Lalit supposed to free the other four spirits that had attached themselves to the family. So far, so creepy, but it gets worse.
Even more chilling is that the diaries have an entry that shows a ritual called a havan was performed just hours before the deaths, which entails a burning of offerings on a consecrated fire for special occasions, although what relation this has to the tragedy is unknown. It all certainly points to Lalit at least displaying delusions, mental instability, and a certain amount of animosity towards his family, but it gets more sinister still, as the journals also were found to contain rituals with instructions for how to tie one’s own hands behind them, which police believe closely match what was found on the bodies. Joint Commissioner of Police Alok Kumar would say of this:
We have found handwritten notes detailing how hands and legs are to be tied and are quite similar to the manner in which the bodies of 10 persons were found. They are exhaustive notes and we are studying them.
So does this mean that Lalit was behind it all? Well, it is hard to know because he was in fact among the dead, hanging just like everyone else, so where does that leave us? Other evidence would come in that showed that there was a good possibility that the family had been convinced by Lalit to carry out a ritual together as a unit. There was testimony from neighbors and CCTV camera footage that showed two other family members who were also among the dead purchasing the stools found at the scene and the cables used to hang them, as well as other assorted goods used in ritual prayers, and it was also found that on the evening of the deaths the family ordered their dinner in, having it delivered to their house. In light of all of this, police began to suspect that Lalit had somehow convinced them to take part in a mass ritual that involved taping their hands and legs, and that they had been planning it for some time.
However, it was believed that they had not meant to kill themselves in this ritual, despite the extreme nature of it. Lalit’s notes do indeed read that they are to be tied up and hanged, but it is also explained that as soon as this was done the deceased patriarch would appear to them, speak to them, and then they would be released after a trembling of the earth and sky and would be free to untie each other. One diary entry reads, “everyone will tie their own hands and when the kriya (ritual) is done then everyone will help each other untie their hands.” It is even suggested that they were so sure they would survive the ordeal that the same ritual was planned to be carried out with a relative who had fallen on hard times the following week.
Extensive interviews with family, friends, and neighbors also painted a psychological profile of the Chundawat’s that showed they were actively planning future events, looking forward to the future, and were not suicidal in the least. Indeed, Priyanka was engaged to be wedded the following week in a wedding ceremony the family had been hard at work planning for. This seems to all show that, while the occult ritual was certainly misguided, the family had likely not expected that they would actually die performing it. In light of this, authorities began to treat this as a potential case of accidental suicide stemming from mass hysteria and a botched occult ritual that had gone awry with lethal consequences. Psychologists who have looked at the case claim that it was all the result of a “shared psychotic disorder,” and so the theory that this had been murdered began to fade in the eyes of police. However, others have not been so sure.
Relatives and surviving family members have remained skeptical that this was just a ritual gone bad, and have insisted that it had to have been murder. They claim that there was no reason to suspect that the family had been into such occult beliefs, or that they would have gone through with actually hanging themselves, and that they had not indicated to anyone that they had been planning such a thing. The family was also reported as having been acting very normally in the days leading up to the deaths, and not displaying any outward signs of distress that would be expected if they had indeed been orchestrating such a dark, dangerous ritual. Yet, there is absolutely no evidence of any motive for such a horrific mass murder of the entire family, and no evidence to really support it at all. Indeed, the best evidence offered up so far, including the testimony of neighbors, the CCTV footage, and especially those mysterious diaries and journals, all point towards an occult ritual gone bad, although whether this was meant to be a suicide or had been instigated by outside forces remains to be seen.
In the end the case has remained a murky mystery, orbited by myriad strange clues that don't really seem to add up. What happened to these people? How did they come to be found hanging from those creaking rafters, lifeless and with no one to tell their tale? What is the meaning of the odd clues and evidence, and in particular that bizarre, rambling series of diaries and journals? Did these people succumb to some sort of mad fervor and enact a dark ritual that ended them all? Was it suicide or murder? What about the one member who was not hanging, but strangled? At this point no one seems to know, the only ones who seem to know for sure the dead, and the odd case of the Burari deaths has become one of India's most discussed and well-known cases of unsolved, mysterious deaths.