Saving a long tradition from oblivion

Dhaka,  Wed,  23 August 2017
Published : 12 May 2017, 20:35:45
Kaviraji treatment

Saving a long tradition from oblivion

Saving a long tradition from oblivion
Dr. Saifur Rashid
Bangladesh is known as a country of villages.  It has more than 87,000 villages. The majority (71.9 per cent) of its population lives in villages located in remote hills, coasts, plain lands and floodplains as well as in rural and peri-urban areas (Bangladesh Demographic Profile 2012). Most of these rural people belonging to different religious and ethnic groups (about 1.0 per cent of its total population) still rely on 'kavirajes' (the folk healers) for their primary health care. The 'kaviraji' practices greatly vary from place to place, region to region and community to community due to various factors such as economy, culture, religion, education, ethnicity and environment. The cultural phenomenon of spiritualism also plays a significant role in popularising 'kaviraji' practices, where illness is sometimes viewed as possession by evil spirits.  

Kaviraji treatment in Bangladesh: The traditional medical practice in rural Bangladesh is mostly known as Kaviraji treatment. It is also known as 'Veshojo chikitsya' or herbal treatment or 'bonojo chiktsya' or treatment by using wild forest herbs. The kavirajes primarily use different plants, herbs, roots, certain spices, vegetables or other common items available in and around their villages. In some cases, they also do some performances and rituals based on faiths and holy verses (mantras or doas). Almost in every village, there are one or more practising Kavirajes and they use different plants and plant extracts including leaves, barks, bulb, cord, fruit, flower, leaf, root, rhizome, seed, seed pulp, seed oil, stems, fruits and others to get cure for different diseases. Some of the kavirajes also use snakes' blood, birds or other animal parts, fish or fish oil and other chemicals as ingredients of their medicines. Dilution, dose, administration time and mixture play a significant role in the need of combinations.  Kavirajes rely exclusively on medicinal herbs in their formulations, which are simple and mainly consist of plant juice administered orally or rubbed on the body parts as paste, cream or in other forms depending on the ailment. Most of these kavirajes use some identified medicinal plants for curing cough, cut and wounds, fever, dysentery, skin diseases and other common ailments. It is important to mention that due to strong presence of Purdah (covering the body to maintain the chastity) in the rural societies; women are not encouraged to go outside alone. In most cases women feel shy to consult doctors, who are not familiar with them, especially if the doctor is a male person. In both hilly and remote rural areas, generally women and children who suffer from fever, pain, common cold or general ailments such as anemia, malnutrition, eye infection, common dental diseases, ear and other problems turn to the kavirajes while a significant number of male persons go to kavirajes for curing various sex-related diseases.

Kaviraj and the transfer of traditional medical knowledge: Information and knowledge about kaviraji practices have been passed on through generations. In most cases, the patient either recovers or dies. If he gets well, it is believed that the method of treatment used was a valid one, and this method becomes permanent. But in the other way, if the patient dies, people (mostly educated people and the biomedical practitioners) consider them as 'quack doctors' (hature dakter). It means they are not trained practitioners or they don't have proper knowledge of giving the right treatment. Kavirajes do their practices either from home in their own villages, from shops (called kaviraj Ghar) in the village markets or by opening temporary stalls in different bazaars or hats on different days. These kavirajes are also locally called aushod canvassers (who sell medicine through canvassing with sound systems and microphones in the public places). In some areas, kavirajes use their sons, daughters or their wives as their associates. In the big cities, kavirajes mostly run their shops in some selected areas, where the lower and lower middle income people mostly reside. Doing treatment by using traditional medicines is also locally called Vesoj Chikitsha (herbal treatment). The reasons for turning to herbal treatment include the low cost of medicine, no fees for consultation, pay-later facilities, no side effects and easy access to them.

The role of Kavirajes and validity of their practices: For century after century the Kavirajes have been enjoying considerable trust and support from their patients because of their holistic approach to treatment, where the Kavirajes not only treat the symptoms, but also try to find the underlying cause(s) of the ailment. The kavirajes have knowledge not only about the plants but also the way of its administration. Kavirajes do not have their own medicinal books or don't follow any standardised customs. As a result, the selection of a medicinal plant by a Kaviraj for treatment of any specific ailment is unique and varies considerably between Kavirajes of a particular area or even village and each of these Kavirajes tends to keep his or her knowledge about medicinal plants within their family.

The increasing commercialisation of various local herbal properties and the use of ecological knowledge about medicine for other purposes without the formal consent of the local or indigenous people have now become major concerns about survival of many of the intangible cultural properties associated with kaviraji practices. Even with strong existence and significant use of herbal medicine among the major rural communities in Bangladesh, the kaviraji practices are still not officially well-recognised as there are questions about the validation and standardisation of medicines. Besides these, there is another serious concern: Illegal and unsustainable collection of medicinal extracts/barks from different areas including all reserve forest tracts. More in-depth studies are also required to protect, promote and safeguard the various cultural properties associated with kaviraji treatments. It is strongly believed that the knowledge which is possessed by thousands of kavirajes, if nurtured through proper analysis, quality assessment and with advance researches, would be an asset for treating and preventing diseases of the rural people at minimum costs. Kaviraji knowledge and practices, which possess very high historical and cultural value for the country, are needed to be designated immediately for their future protection, preservation and documentation. Moreover, the selection of more medical practices for recognition by the UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is also important for encouragement of the local folk medical practitioners and their involvement in primary healthcare services to the rural masses.

The writer is a professor at the Department of Anthropology,

the University of Dhaka.
Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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