In branding of babies, a battle between tradition and modernity

In the last 3 months, at least 7 infants have had to be taken to hospital after being subjected to homespun remedies, including branding by hot iron nails or glass bangles by traditional healers.

Written by Debabrata Mohanty | Published: February 29, 2016 1:31:36 am
Nabarangpur baby 759 The infant was suffering from asthma and pneumonia following which he applied the sticky juice on Thursday to cure him. (Express Photo)

India’s poorest district, Nabarangpur in Orissa — focus of a year-long reporting assignment of The Indian Express from August 15, 2015 — has been fighting another evil of late: superstition. In the last 3 months, at least 7 infants have had to be taken to hospital after being subjected to homespun remedies, including branding by hot iron nails or glass bangles by traditional healers. While a 15-day-old baby girl in Jharigaon block died in January this year after being branded with a hot bangle, an 8-month-old boy in LWE-affected Raighar block succumbed to septicaemia last week after his father applied the juice from the seed of the wild cashew apple, hoping it would heal his pneumonia and asthma.

District authorities have so far arrested or booked 6 traditional healers. In almost all cases, the parents fell prey to the healers even though their children were born in government healthcare institutions. It is now clear that despite a reasonable 71% of pregnant women making it to sub-centres, Primary Health Centres, Community Health Centres and the district headquarters hospital for delivery, tribals in Nabarangpur remain in the sway of traditional healers.

Tribals make up 56% of the district’s 12.2 lakh population, and traditional healers are an intrinsic part of the local ecosystem. With just about 46% literacy (as opposed to the national figure of 74%), and 1 doctor for every 20,869 persons, modern medicine and education have not touched tribal lives. Over 70% of posts of government doctors are vacant; in contrast, a recent headcount of traditional healers — disharis, jaanis and gurumayees — revealed they outnumbered ASHA and anganwadi workers 4,400 to 4,200.

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From blessing pregnant women and naming the newborn to performing rituals after death, the disharis and jaanis are involved in virtually every aspect of social life in both tribal and non-tribal society. They decide the precise time of everything from weddings to building houses, and settle disputes between couples. In the villages deep inside forests where government officials and doctors never go, the disharis and jaanis act as doctors, prescribing herbs and roots for diseases ranging between common colds to jaundice and chicken pox. They also exorcise ghosts by burning incense and resins.

The branding by hot iron or bangle is an important aspect of the traditional healing process, a practice that may have existed in this area for over a century, according to tribal researchers. During Chaitra Amavasya in July/August, people line up before the dishari to get their infant branded by hot iron nails and forks, even as the baby howls in pain. Manorama Majhi, a former child development project officer and the author of several books on traditional healing, said tribals tended to rush to the dishari the moment a vein got prominent or a few black spots appeared on the baby’s belly.

“The tribals believe a branded baby is a baby with assured good health. The tribals believe by branding the kid, the healer has vanquished the evils that may befall the child. It’s like vaccination for them. Some branded babies survive the burn infection, many don’t. But to a tribal, it is the will of God, and to them, the dishari is the agent of God,” Majhi said. The dishari also has an elevated status in the villages as he does not charge any money.

In Nabarangpur, it is not difficult to find people who have been branded in their childhood — from politicians to TV journalists, from policemen to government officials. Not just infants and toddlers, even adolescents and grown-ups are branded by hot bangles and at times hot bricks to ward off a potential ailment, or to ‘cure’ something like paralysis. There have been cases of paralysed people being severely burnt by a dishari applying hot bricks on their body.

Anthropologist Kishore Kumar Basa of Bhubaneswar’s Utkal University said baby branding should be seen from the perspective of a tribal who vacillates between modernity and tradition. “To a tribal, cultural and social mores are far more important. Tribal societies for ages did not have access to modern medicine, and believed in traditional healers. Now they are sending their women to hospital for delivery, but at the same time they don’t want to break all connections with their old mores,” Basa said.

Though the district administration on Sunday began a 45-day awareness campaign for traditional healers, experts and officials who have worked on the ground believe it is going to be a long haul. They agree the traditional healers need to be co-opted rather than be treated as adversaries, but they are aware too that persuading them to reject their age-old beliefs and practices is going to be tough.

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