Academic journal article Ethnology

The Social Symbolism of Healing in Nepal

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Social Symbolism of Healing in Nepal

Article excerpt

An incident in a Nepali village, late one August afternoon in 1987, illustrates how people there have come to connect ideas about national development to healing. A young woman, Jethi, was pregnant for the third time. When her first baby was ten months old, the child fell sick and died within a day. Her second was stillborn. In her area of eastern Nepal, one kind of ghost-spirit, saruwa, is known to prey on pregnant women and infants, and Jethi has come to fear that a saruwa is attracted to her. Her worried in-laws have sent her to stay with her own mother and father for a time so that she can be present at an elaborate family ritual that will be undertaken because of the bad fortune that has plagued the family for several years. A Brahmin in their village just happens to know the spells to chase off these spirits. They have called him to the house to make an amulet for Jethi, one of many measures they will take to protect her.

The healer, a dignified old man clad in the traditional homespun tunic and pants worn by old-fashioned farmers, sat in a corner of the outer room of the house while Jethi sat quietly in front of him, staring distractedly over her shoulder at an empty corner of the room. He has arranged five small piles of rice on a banana leaf, each with a flower laid on it. For several minutes he muttered a rapid succession of syllables - his mantra - punctuated by sharp, sucking intakes of breath, then wrote a protective formula on a piece of paper. He folded this neatly in plastic to make an amulet for Jethi to wear for the duration of her pregnancy. Meanwhile, a man in store-bought shirt and pants arrived. He works in the Public Health Statistics Office in the nearby bazaar, and came with a dose of penicillin for Jethi's younger sister. A few days earlier, a painful boil had developed on the young woman's thigh, so she arranged for this neighbor to give her penicillin each day, for five days, on his way home from work. There was no question of trying other remedies: "Why should I suffer from the stupid thing when I know that penicillin will cure it in a flash?" She immediately set to boiling water to sterilize the needle. "I won't have an injection at the clinic," she later declared, in response to my question. "You never know whether they've boiled the needle."

As each sister sat with the healers helping them, their father, sweaty from a day's work in the fields, strode into the house, a sickle swinging by his side. The juxtaposition he saw made him laugh aloud. "What's going on here? In one room injections and this ritual mumbo-jumbo in the other!" Then, noticing me sitting next to Jethi with a notebook open on my lap, he declared, still laughing: "See! In our Nepal it's like this!"

This ordinary event, and the amusement seen in its incongruities, says much about contemporary Nepal. The father's offhand comment is particularly significant for the contrast between traditional and Western healing that struck him, and the aspect of Nepalese social life that he saw represented in that juxtaposition. This article examines how local people see the medical pluralism brought about, directly or indirectly, by health development initiatives. The ways local people maneuver in this pluralistic medical field is determined only in part by their access to therapies and their judgements about which works best for what. In Nepal, medical pluralism has a profound social symbolism for villagers as well. Its meaning, itself the result of specific historical experiences, is an important dimension in people's interactions with the various kinds of therapy available to them.(2) Healing is a dense signifier of the social rifts now emerging as a result of a national agenda intensely focused on development. Development activities and explanations are themselves, therefore, part of the contemporary ethnographic picture in Nepal.

At the local level, simultaneous recourse to Western medicines and ritual therapies encapsulates contradictions in the social world of contemporary Nepal. …

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