New Delhi: When the neighbourhood grocery shop in north Delhi's Burari's area didn’t open on Sunday morning, one man got worried about its owners.
A stroll to their house revealed eleven gruesome deaths. "Their shop would open by 6am every morning but when it did not till 7.30am today [Sunday] , a neighbour went to check and later informed the police after finding most of them hanging from the grill ceiling," the officer said.
Of those 11 people, one – 77-year-old Narayani Devi – was found on the floor with signs of strangulation. "They were all hanging with 'chunnis' [scarves] while Lalit had a telephone wire wrapped around his neck along with a 'chunni'," recalled another neighbor.
But while the case being probed, investigators kept coming across signs that this was a suicide pact rather than a mass murder.
Indian news site NDTV has reported that the police are focusing on the notes that pointed to bizarre rituals and ways to attain salvation that were found in the family home.
Meanwhile, the eyes of the dead have been harvested and donated to an eye bank and they have been cremated at the Nigambodh Ghat here by family members and relatives amid heavy police deployment.
The police say Narayan Devi's youngest son, 45-year-old Lalit Bhatia, drove the mass suicide, having decided that an apocalypse was on its way. He started writing instructions for ‘salvation’ in 2015.
He had reportedly taken a vow of silence a few years ago but had recently started talking again, about "visits" from his father, who had been dead for 10 years, reported the Indian website.
One of the notes found state the following: "Antim samay mein, aakhri ichha ki purti ke waqt, aasman hilegi dharti kaanpegi, us waqt tum ghabrana mat, mantra ka jaap badha dena, mein aakar utar loonga aur ko bhi utarne mein madad karunga (in your last hours, while your last wish is fulfilled, the skies will open up and the earth will shake, don't panic but start chanting the mantra louder. I will come to save you, I will bring you down and help with the others too)."
The superstitious family may have chosen to follow Lalit’s instructions, authorities believe. However, surviving family members – who live out of town - refuse to believe this line of enquiry and are calling for a murder investigation to be launched.
Who were the deceased?
The deceased were Narayani Devi's sons Bhavnesh Bhatia, 50, and Lalit Bhatia, 45, and daughters Pratibha, 57, and Priyanka, 33.
Bhavnesh's wife Savita, 48, and their children – Nitu (25), Monu (23), and Dhruv (15). Lalit's wife Tina (42) and their son Shivam (15) were found dead too.
The family ran a grocery shop and plywood business out of their double-storey home in Sant Nagar, in north Delhi's Burari's area.
Dinesh lives in Rajasthan's Kota while his another sister Sujata lives in Panipat in Haryana.
What we know
India accounts for the highest estimated number of suicides in the world in 2012, according to a WHO report, but mass suicides are not quite as common.
For now though, here’s why the authorities suspect suicide: Joint Commissioner of Police Alok Kumar said initial post-mortem reports revealed that the bodies bore no marks of either strangulation or scuffle, indicating that it may either be a case of mass suicide or murder-suicide.
"We are suspecting that the family may have died in a ritual which went wrong," a police officer said.
The officer said the notes found in the prayer rooms had instructions such as: "Everyone should be blindfolded properly, nothing but zenith should be visible to the eyes.
"Worship the banyan tree for seven days at a stretch with devotion. If somebody comes home, then do it the next day. Choose Thursday and Sunday for this.
"If the elderly woman (Narayani Devi) can't stand, she can lie down in another room.
"Use dim light for offering rituals. Offer the rituals between 12 and 1 a.m so that no one disturbs you.
"When you all were hanging during that period, god will miraculously appear and save you all at the moment."
The police officer said almost every instruction in the note seemed to have been followed by the family for "obtaining salvation".
One important rule was that the family was to avoid using mobile phones, he said. And it did take a few hours for them to recover the mobiles.
Vivek Kumar, a neighbour, said the family used to hold religious rituals and prayed every day, both morning and evening in the days leading up to the tragic incident.
The police has taken into custody an occultist and his aide a day after notes that hinted that the family belonged to a cult surfaced. The texts of pages discussed spirituality, salvation, rituals and few dates of last month. The notes were written on June 27 and 28 on the day of 'Vat Purnima'.
Articles used as offerings during prayers and rituals such as ghee, incense burner and grains were also recovered.
The police suspected an occultist or a godman behind the deaths.
The officer said that the notes had instructions like "everyone should be blindfolded properly, nothing but zenith should be visible to the eyes.
"When you all were hanging during that period, God will miraculously appear and save you all at the moment."
The police officer said almost every instruction in the note seemed to have been followed by the family for "obtaining salvation."
What are the surviving family members saying?
The late Narayani Devi's eldest son Dinesh has submitted a complaint at the Burari police station to demand registration of a case against unidentified persons for what he called "killing his family".
"I was informed by a neighbour of my brother's family that my brothers, mother and other family members were found dead in their house in Delhi. I reached Delhi on Sunday night and suspect that someone killed them. They have not died in a ritual which went wrong," Dinesh said.
"Every Hindu family performs worship, havans and kirtans [ rituals]. Thus, my family also did it. What is unusual in it? It doesn't mean that some godman or occultists killed them. I had visited them 10 days ago. The entire family was happy as my sister Pratibha's daughter, Priyanka, had got engaged," he said.
Sujata, the other surviving member, was quoted by NDTV as saying: "I can't believe that they committed suicide. Everyone was so happy. Someone has killed my family and the police have to find them."