Folk Medicine

Folk Medicine the system of many people's beliefs and practices concerning the relation of man to diseases, causes of disease and the efficacy of remedies. Organic, psychic and social phenomena are closely intermingled in folk medicine.

Folk medical treatment has been practised in this country from the ancient time. Despite the availability of the modern medicine, folk medicine still occupies a dominant place, especially in the rural society. Folk medicine consists of both material and non-material components. The material components consist of medicinal preparations from plants and animal products. These are dispensed usually in their raw forms and are used in treating simple diseases like cold, cough, fever, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea, dysentery, intestinal worms, etc. The non-material components consist of religious and spiritual items. The religious items include: (i) religious verses from holy books written on papers and given as amulets, or recited and blown on the face or body of the patient, or on water to be drunk, or on food to be eaten; and (ii) sacrifices and offerings given in the name of God and deities purported to get cure or remedies. Spiritual items include communicating with spirits or ancestors through human media to inquire about the disease and its remedy, recitation of incantations to drive away imaginary evil spirits, and many other similar methods. Non-material components, either independently, or in combination with material components, are generally applied in the treatment of all kinds of diseases, but are specifically used in the treatment of patients with psychological problems such as insanity, various types of phobias, and depression and fear of supernatural creatures. Sometimes their use extends to the treatments of diseases like pox, cancer, leprosy, fractures, snake-bite and even tetanus in newly born children.

Folk medicine involves folk modes of treatment and also largely determines perceptions about disease and health prevailing among common folk. Some recent studies have found that the people in a manner significantly different from modern medical science explain a number of contagious and non-contagious diseases in the villages of Bangladesh. Rural people have their own terminology to refer to diseases and unique modes of treatment. For example, they have coined several local names to express different forms of diarrhoea like dudher haga, patla paikhana, etc. Someone's erratic behaviour is called batash laga or alga batash, and is attributed to an intangible spirit, or sometimes, to a disembodied soul devoid of any corporeal spirit. Such a spirit apparently wanders through wind and penetrates the human body through its unlimited apertures. The indigenous term meho is used to express what is white discharge in medical terms or padda phool for uterine prolapse. To rural people a healthy person is one who is robust, looks lively, and shows energy in physical work. Minor sicknesses like headache, cold, slow fever, and stomach upsets do not bother them. A sick person does not go to a physician unless the sickness goes beyond what is considered a minor ailment. Sometimes, what is conceptualised in the name of a disease is something close to the notion of illness and largely refers to the functional experiences of the body. For example, if someone has an ashukh(disease), he or she does not feel well and finds it difficult to eat or walk. In fact, without establishing the correct meaning of indigenous terms or by linking the symptoms one cannot deduce the disease pattern of people in rural Bangladesh.

The explanations for causes of diseases also go with folk beliefs and folk cultures. Their notions regarding disease causation include several mythological perceptions including God's will, divine punishment for wrongdoing, improper food intake, influence of an evil eye or spirit, etc. For instance, someone's erratic behavior is attributed to alga batash or evil air. How does alga batash cause disease? The rural people will tell various stories to illustrate its working. Batash does not always penetrate the body directly. It may come through another person linked to a patient. Communicable diseases, however, are believed to be less influenced by alga batash than diseases like convulsions or hysteria, closely related to the domain of psychology. Violent behaviour accompanied by anger, deranged talk, loud laughter and other unusual behaviour are seen to be manifestations of alga batash. Similarly, malnutrition, tetanus, abortion are often thought to be caused by bad air or by an evil spirit, whereas diarrhoea and dysentry are attributed to a combination of bad air and improper food intake. Skin diseases such as scabies are perceived to be the consequence of blood poisoning. Some people categorize the causes of disease broadly into two types i.e. kasha (astringent) and rasha (laxity) in the body. According to them, ailments like urinary tract infection, pneumonia, dysentery and leucorrhoea occur when the bodily system becomes astringent while excessive rasha (laxity) in the body breeds to complications like diarrhoea, common cold, oedema and swelling of joints. It is commonly held that behind all diseases or ailments there is God's will.

The search for health in case of illness involving reproductive health, for instance, is not even independent of the cultural influences that dominate rural life. Reproductive health problems and vaginal discharge in particular, may be explained in several ways in the indigenous medical belief system. Such a discharge is often attributed to excessive heat inside the body. Another level coming within the purview of traditional beliefs is related to women's monthly cycles. Women, it is believed, may contaminate husbands during menstruation and at the time of childbirth. She is therefore segregated and is a taboo for man during such situations. Menstruating women are not allowed to bathe either in ponds or in rivers in some cases.

Childbirth is another domain where traditional explanations and practices are widespread. Village people do not have the ability to have pregnant women regularly examined by trained people and to afford childbirth expense at hospitals. The delivery of a child in most cases takes place at home under conditions that are hardly hygienic. Most deliveries are domestic affairs generally conducted by relatives of the pregnant women. Only in critical cases, is a dai (birth attendant) called in. Gender discrimination, as is apparent in many areas of rural life, also prevails in health seeking behavior. To a rural mother, her child's health is more important than her own. To a rural wife it is her husband's health, which needs modern medical attention. A husband's prolonged sickness is sometimes blamed on the wife who is then branded as inauspicious. Subordinate status, ignorance, purda system, and the traditional feminine image compel women to take recourse to traditional treatment.

It is widely believed in rural areas and also in many sections of urban society that one has to take the help of mystic powers to treat diseases. The mystic power comes from a fakir, pir, maulavi, and others. Common traditional treatments include pani pada (water incantation), jhad phook (oral incantation), tabij (sacred amulet) and tel pada (oil incantation). Broadly speaking, three categories of folk medicine prevail in Bangladesh. These are non-registered herbal, magical, and magico-religious. A practitioner in herbal medicine not registered or not having any formal medical education is locally called a kabiraj. Though this term kabiraj is generally used for graduates in Unani Ayurvedic medicine and there is hardly any such practitioners working in rural areas now.

He prepares the medicine himself from locally available herbs and usually keeps the formula a secret. The formula is either inherited or manufactured by himself or received from a master (ustad). Magical practitioners take recourse to incantation. They are called bede or ozha and are invited to perform exorcism whenever a person is bitten by a snake or has diseases such as pain, rheumatism, toothache etc. Religious practitioners are invited to perform exorcism whenever a person is possessed by a zin or bhut (evil spirit).

Too often, religio-magical practices go beyond the level of health-seeking behaviour to explain minor vices and crimes. To find out a thief or to ascertain an offender different magical techniques are used. Ayna pada (sanctified mirror), bati chala (throwing an incantated bowl), lathi chala (sanctified stick) etc. are used for tracing out a thief, or finding out the amulets utilised by malicious persons to put a curse on someone. However, for successful cure, someone with the zodiac sign Libra, must hold these things. Since these types of beliefs and practices for treating either diseases or anything else are in common use in rural Bangladesh because of traditional beliefs, cultural practices and sometimes superstitions, they are collectively called folk medicines. [Gofran Faroqi]