by Afsaana Rashid
– Indian-administered Kashmir -
While the world has progressed by leaps and bounds in technological advancement, the Kashmir valley remains rooted in cultural tradition. The state of Kashmir abounds in ancient literature, language, religion, arts, crafts, dance, and music. Its culture is steeped in story telling, philosophy and folklore, even when it comes to medicine. In the Kashmir valley there are hundreds of families who turn to faith healers for solutions to their problems, especially those with psychiatric issues. Researchers Dr. Mushtaq Ahmad Margoob, a leading psychiatrist of the valley, and Huda Mushtaq, point to the decades long conflict in Kashmir for the phenomenal increase in the region’s psychological problems.
“My family, including my children, treated me like a lunatic a few years back when I could not cope up with certain problems. Consequently, I tried many doctors, including psychiatrists, but nothing worked,” says Hajra, a woman in her mid-forties.
Her teenager son, Aquib, who accompanies her adds, “Though certain symptoms are still there - she’ll lose her temper or talk to herself loudly - but thank Almighty she is better. We had lost hope as medicines failed and most of the time she spent sleeping. Now she is much better.”
Miles away in old Srinagar city, Naseema Bano says, “My niece who had fallen prey to a bad omen (possession syndrome) indulged in strange activities. We took her to doctors and faith healers simultaneously for weeks but nothing worked. Doctors don’t believe in bad omens and many faith healers failed to treat her. Finally, one of our neighbors suggested a faith healer (Jal Sahib) so we approached him. He in turn visited my sister’s place, stayed there for a night, and recited hymns with light music in the background. The next morning, my niece was as fine as before.”
Dr. Hameedullah Shah, Head of Department at the Psychiatry Government Medical College in Srinagar, says depending on the nature of the illness, faith healers in Kashmir have their role. He believes that two types of faith healers exist: those that exploit the patient and those that are Jin (supernatural being) faith healers that deal with “possession syndrome.”Dr. Shah denies the role of faith healers in treating psychiatric patients. “These are psychological problems and can be treated. I think people have started [realizing] that these are diseases and not supernatural things,” says Dr. Shah.
Dr. Shah says that the concept of supernatural beings is so deep in Kashmiri society that it is difficult to challenge the cultural belief. He says that “possessed” people tend to narrate stories through which a supernatural being speaks from the patients’ mouth, claiming that the person in question urinated or spit on a place where the family of the supernatural being used to reside. Dr. Shah calls this a case of hysteria, not possession, and goes on to add that there are cases where faith healers have actually tortured their patients.
According to a medical journal report, Pir, Faqir and Psychotherapist: Their role in psychosocial intervention of trauma, in 2005 68.5 percent of patients seeking psychiatric help (84 percent rural and 53 percent urban) were found to have visited faith healers first.
“On an average, 500-1500 patients per month seek my ‘professional’ advice and assistance. Even doctors are on my list,” says eighty year old Ghulam Mohammad Mir, a faith healer who was once a food grains and dry fruits dealer. Locally known as “Bub,” Mir owned a shop at Batmaloo-Srinagar 16 years ago. Now he has people thronging to his place to seek his advice.
Mir says there are innumerable examples where couples who were childless approached him. “I prayed to Allah and they were blessed with children,” says the faith healer. Mir adds that many people with psychiatric problems also approach him. “Usually, such patients are possessed by supernatural forces. With the help of certain special prayers, I treat them,” he says.
Mir treats his patients by offering them water that they must drink in his presence and a piece of chandan, or Sandalwood, to hang on their wall at home to ward off evil spirits. But mostly, he believes in bandhaar, or the common feast.
“Generally, I ask people who visit me to gather at my place and have a simple common feast on a particular day that is arranged out of donations they give me.” Mir says he treated four women and a boy, whom doctors had declared as suffering from cancer. “I simply asked them to eat from the bandhaar,” and they were cured says Mir. Mir believes, “If people follow their respective religion, nothing is going to harm them.”Dr. Mushtaq Ahmad Margoob says faith reinforces immunity. He says a spiritual component is essential for any healing.
“Even WHO and other credible organizations emphasize healing through spirituality. Unfortunately, it got hijacked by those who are not remotely connected with it,” says Dr. Margoob. He goes on to say that faith in the Creator has enabled people to cope with trauma, irrespective of their status, or educational and financial situation. He says that the traditional faith healers can manage minor issues and offer helpful guidance but that they are not qualified to deal with serious cases. The psychiatrist also cautions against imposters who fleece the common masses and create problems for vulnerable groups, especially in the rural areas, while claiming to deal with “supernatural beings.”
Dr. Reyaz Ahmad Rangrez (Shah), Assistant Medical Superintendent at the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar says that people from particular backgrounds rely on faith healers because they have no faith or trust in the allopathic system. He adds that many people from rural backgrounds admit that they have been to faith healers first, even approaching them for ordinary illness, before seeking his treatment.
As the literacy rate in the Kashmir valley increases, many people, especially the younger generations, are increasingly turning to allopathic treatments. And as Kashmiris become exposed to psychiatric help, they’re relying on faith healers less and referring their friends and loved ones more. The Pir, Faqir and Psychotherapist report confirms growing interest in the healing potential of psychiatry: of the 912 patients seeking treatment at the Government Psychiatric Disease Hospital, Kashmir’s lone psychiatric hospital, roughly 76 percent were referred by old patients.
The report also indicates that increased psycho-education through media, governmental health services and non-government organizations has led to an increased demand for psychotherapeutic and medical treatment by mental health professionals. On the other hand, continued exposure to death and destruction has reinforced Kashmiri’s faith in the Almighty resulting in a massive rush to faith healers, shrines and other religious places.
Dr. Reyaz Ahmad Rangrez acknowledges the duality in Kashmir society. He adds, “in terminal illness cases, where at times mercy killings are preferred, we ask their attendants or relatives to take the patient for a faith healing.” For people raised on traditional ideas, faith healing still offers a comfort that modern science cannot.
About the Author
Afsaana Rashid is a journalist living in Indian-administered Kashmir and the author of Waiting for Justice: Widows and Half Widows, a book that addresses the plight of many women whose husbands have been subjected to enforced disappearance or custodial killings over the past two decades of Kashmir's conflict. Currently a senior correspondent with Kashmir’s Daily Etalaat, she has also been a correspondent for The Kashmir Times and Kashmir Images. She received her Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir.
In 2005, Afsaana was awarded a fellowship for her work on the impact of conflict on the subsistence livelihoods of marginalized communities in Kashmir by Action Aid India. The following year, she was awarded a Sanjoy Ghose Media fellowship for her work in conflict areas. She also received a UN Population Fund-Laadli Media Award for best reporting in adverse conditions on gender issues in April 2008.
Devoted to covering human rights violations, Afsaana hopes to give a voice to the voiceless.