Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Encounters with Talsa: Worship and Healing Practices for Measles among a Rural-Urban Migrant Santal Tribal Community in Orissa, India

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Encounters with Talsa: Worship and Healing Practices for Measles among a Rural-Urban Migrant Santal Tribal Community in Orissa, India

Article excerpt

Measles, in biomedical terms, is a common childhood viral disease with 164 thousand deaths globally per year, and it manifests through symptoms of cough, fever, body ache and blotchy red rashes. The present paper reports the rituals and practices related to prevention and treatment of measles (talsa) among Santals of Orissa who have migrated from their native tribal villages to the urban city of Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa State in India. It is based on ethnographic data collected from Santal households and traditional healers inhabiting four Santal dominated slums in Bhubaneswar City. The data relate to beliefs about illness etiologies, and folk systems of health beliefs more generally. The present ethnographic study investigates objectively a living worldview by stressing illness experiences and management. The people believe that measles occurs every year, especially if their village deity is displeased - perhaps because they have not given satisfactory offerings to the deity. They also think that it occurs due to extreme heat, which the body cannot bear. The blotchy rashes on the skin are believed to come from the bone by breaking the bones, so it appears on the body. To prevent measles in their area, the majhialam (village head, here the head of the slum in which Santals are living) performs a ritual and subsequently every household sacrifices a chick or a goat. On occurrence of even a single case of measles, another ritual is performed to prevent the spread of the disease. The paper describes these rituals and their linkage with the belief system.

Key Words: Ethnography; measles; medical anthropology, migration; tribal culture.

Introduction

Measles is an acute highly infectious common childhood disease caused by a specific virus of the group myxoviruses. It manifests through symptoms of cough, fever, body ache and blotchy red rashes. References to measles can be found from as early as the 7th century. The disease was described by the Persian physician Rhazes in the 10th century as "more dreaded than smallpox". Measles is endemic virtually in all parts of the world, and it is associated with high morbidity and mortality in developing societies. In 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year. It remains one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. An estimated 164,000 people died from measles in 2008, mainly children under the age of five (World Health Organization, 2011). In India in 2005, there were an estimated 92,000 deaths from measles-related complications among children aged <5 years (Million Death Study Collaborators, 2010).

Biomedicine applies biological and physiological principles to understand and treat the disease clinically. However, the traditional healing system comprises illness etiologies and folk theories and various health beliefs. The existing literature on traditional healing systems or practices provides us with valuable cultural information. Sontag's foundational work "Illness as Metaphor" (1978) remarked that the illnesses are socially conceived (Sontag, 1978). The metaphors link together diseases cause, symptoms, body and treatment, and cosmology - such as mind versus body and nature versus spirit (Henry, 1999). As an analytic approach, "systems of beliefs and practices," whether scientific or animistic, are to some extent able to explain embodied experience and illness management. Suchman (1983) noted that the need for health planners to understand the culture of their population arises from the fact that the meaning of illness, and behavioural responses to illness, are basic factors influencing the reactions to public health programs. In this study, we attempted to explore the metaphoric explanation of measles used by a migrant tribal community of Santal living in Bhubaneswar slums. These explanations suggest that though the categories of natural have been separated from spiritual, they are not easily separated in practice. …

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