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A Balcony in Nepal: Glimpses of a Himalayan Village

Olds, Sally Wendkos

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31829a71ec
Medicine and the Arts

Sally Wendkos Olds is the author of The Complete Book of Breastfeeding (4th edition, 2010) and 10 other books. Excerpt from A Balcony in Nepal: Glimpses of a Himalayan Village, copyright © 2002 by Sally Wendkos Olds. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Two months ago Buddi himself went to one of the ten shamans in Badel. “We have no doctors here, no medicine,” he tells us with a shrug. “One time I put on those stupid army boots my uncle gave me, and I walk with my wife to my father-in-law’s house in Rakha, maybe two hours. And when I come home, my ankle hurt me so bad I can’t walk on that foot. The ankle was big, like this.” With his graceful, long-fingered hands, he sculpts arcs in the air around his slender ankle.

“So I called the shaman, and he say, my ankle hurts because I crossed the river without praying to the river god. So the shaman chanted over the ankle and told me to go back down to the river and pray, and after a couple of days my foot feels better. That’s because I believed in it then. I don’t believe it anymore. In Kathmandu if I get sick I go to doctor, I get medicine. Here in Badel we don’t have that.”

So if he doesn’t believe in it, why did he take Kusum? I guess because there was no better alternative. When in Badel do as the Badeli. Or perhaps he does underneath his protestations, believe, but knowing that Westerners are skeptical, and abashed before Marge and me, he masks his faith, the faith that can, in fact, bring about healing. Doctors have known for centuries that such faith can often perform miracles. Contemporary Western physicians and researchers are finally acknowledging the strong connection between mind and body, a connection that has always been well accepted in many societies, where shamans have long been revered for their healing powers.

How do shamans do their work? In these hill villages of Nepal, these people—almost always men—usually show their psychic powers in adolescence and from that point on pursue their calling. They usually follow other professions too, such as farming and cattle-raising, but when their jhankri self is called upon, their shamanism duties toward their community assume the highest priority. Whether called upon to conduct a ceremony, cure an illness or foretell the future, they perform their tasks in a self-created trance. In this state, they determine the cause of illness—a fright, a dereliction towards a god or a person, some misdeed that must be righted. And under the trance, they come up with the solution, which may involve herbal medicine, animal sacrifice, exorcism or hands-on manipulation of the patient.

We met our first shaman on our way to Badel. One night, when we camped in the courtyard of a home, we found ourselves observing the local clinic. There sitting in the corner of a porch, a few yards away from our tents, the medicine man was counting out grains of rice and murmuring incantations, as the population around him grew. We watched him treat people with stomach aches, headaches and other complaints by praying over them and sprinkling rice on the offending parts of their bodies. With no medical facilities in these remote villages, anyone with any ailment comes to see the shaman. And many of them do go away healed. Clearly, here is the mind-body connection at work—the way it works around the world, in defiance of all the efforts in all the societies that have tried to divorce the science of medicine from the art of healing.

© 2013 by the Association of American Medical Colleges