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April 10th, 2004


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10:03 pm - Jhankris : The faith healers of Nepal
By Adrian Storrs

They are magico-religious specialists, part herbalists, part priests. their technique is spritual rather than biological. Their business is to determine the nature of the spirit, and then either to placate it or drive it from the ill person's body.

In most countries of the world, faith healing and herbal medicines are widely used. Nepal is no exception. From time immemorial, Jhankris, as the Nepalese faith healers and medicine men are called, have given medical care to the rural people. They are magico-religious specialists, part herbalists, part priests. Their technique is spiritual rather than biological, relying on the belief that ghosts and spirits are the causes of illness. Their business is to determine the nature of the spirit, and then either to placate it or drive it from the ill person’s body. To get an idea of how a Jhankri works, one must visualize an imaginary case.

The scene is a village in the remote hills. In a clay and thatched-roof farmhouse, a young man lies sick. Beside him on the cold earthen floor squats a Jhankri. All around, in the gloom of the dimly lit room, the young man’s family watches anxiously. Far from a health clinic and worried about their son’s fever, the parents called in the village healer, the only medical help available to them.

The man who is closely examining his patient is no ordinary healer by Western standards. To foreign eyes, his methods of diagnosis and treatment may seem bizarre. His medical kit has no place in a physician’s consulting room, and his dress is highly unorthodox.

The Jhankri wears a long white robe and a dark waistcoat. Over one shoulder hang strings of beads, charms and little bells. On his head is a circlet of feathers, under which are two scarves, one red and the other white, which trail down his back almost to his knees. In one hand, he holds the round, flat Jhankri drum, and in the other a thin curved stick. This drum, with its decorations and red trident markings, is an important tool of his trade. Beside him, spread out on leaves or in small pots, are his herbal medicines.

Quietly and carefully, the Jhankri continues his examination. Then, having lit a small oil lamp in front of his patient, he begins his treatment: the slow beating of the drum. The Jhankri begins to sway, backward and forward. Quickening the beat of the drum, he goes into a trance, in which state he can make his diagnosis and determine the illness’s appropriate cure.

As the ritual proceeds, the Jhankri begins to shake. It is at this stage that people believe that the Jhankri, who belongs to the material world, is on the threshold of the spiritual world and thus in contact with the cause of the illness. There is a deep-rooted faith that Jhankris, because of this spiritual contact, can bring about the withdrawal of the cause. In other words, Jhankris do not necessarily treat the disease itself but rather whatever causes it. They are assisted by the fact that their patients have implicit belief that they will be cured.

The Jhankri goes on beating the drum, slowly, then quickly, then slowly again; sometimes close to the patient, then at a distance. It doesn’t take long for the drumming, together with shaking and swaying of the healer’s body and the flickering lamp flame, to put the patient into a hypnotic state.cAt intervals the Jhankri moves around his patient in a characteristic twirling dance, drumming all the time and murmuring incantations. He is then at the height of his trance. (The ritual continues for many minutes, the time depending on the tenacity of the spirit or the difficulty in placating it). At last, the Jhankri is satisfied that he has found the cause of the young man’s illness and that he has exorcised the spirit. Suddenly, he bangs the drum loudly close to the patient’s head to get him out of hypnosis. Afterward, he prescribes some herbal medicines which he mixes himself to reduce the boy’s fever.

Jhankris can recognize and know how to treat many disorders, the most common being those of the respiratory and alimentary systems, as well as such ailments or illnesses as boils, fevers, allergies, typhoid, jaundice, urinary infections and malnutrition. Most Jhankris will prescribe medicinal herbs, of which they possess considerable knowledge. Most of the herbs they use can be gathered locally, though some are obtained from specialist dealers in the cities.

Much of the Jhankris’ success is due to the fact that they are well known, respected and accepted, especially as intermediaries between man and spirits. Furthermore, the Jhankris will go to patients at any time and treat them in their homes. They do not separate patients from their families. This is very important for the simple, unaffected rural people among whom family ties are very strong.

In some societies, such as the Gurungs, Jhankris are also respected for their ability to counteract the power of witches. The belief in witches is very strong among many Nepalese. Witches, the people believe, can cast spells causing misfortune, either by looking at their victims or by making incantations over food that the victim later eats. A Jhankri can nullify the evil spell if he can work out the incantations used by the witch.

It is also believed that at night witches take on forms different from their everyday appearances. This form is hairy and has backward pointing feet. It is interesting to note that in West Africa there is a belief in ‘Little People’ who inhabit the forests and whose feet also point backward.

Jhankris may be of any caste, and their practicing age varies from 20 to 70. They often become possessed at any early age and from then they start training. This training is long and comprehensive and involves, among other things, learning about plants, their medicinal properties and how to prepare the medicines.

They must learn to recognize physiological disorders, but above all, they must acquire a good understanding of human nature. A village Jhankri knows all his potential patients, their backgrounds, their personal problems, and their relationships with their families and with others in the community. A Jhankri also learns to treat everyone with absolute equality irrespective of caste, wealth, religion or sex.

Sometimes Jhankris are called upon to treat animals, and thus also serve as the local veterinarians. They may be asked to foretell a client’s future, or to officiate at domestic ceremonies such as marriages and funerals. Unlike the lamas, who never perform animal sacrifices, a Jhankri will do so if necessary. An experienced village Jhankri is a man of many skills and duties.

Payment for their services is usually made in foodstuffs such as rice, fruit, etc., but only if the patient is cured. If no cure is effected, then the charge may be just a few paisa. Many Jhankris, however, give their services free, particularly those who have other occupations.

To outsiders, the rituals, antics, and incantations may seem ridiculous and the use of herbal medicines old-fashioned. But let us not be scornful; after all, hypnotism is used in some modern medical treatments, and in many of the highly technical societies, herbal remedies are coming back into use. Perhaps the Jhankris have some extra special power that makes them aware of things beyond the ken of science. One thing is known: the Jhankris’ record of success indicates the existence of something beyond the knowledge of modem science.

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