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Witch doctor is part of a dying industry

Dwindling Powers: Only a few generations ago masters of the spirits reigned supreme in rural India

By John Stackhouse
First published June 16, 1994

Biharipur, India

The candle's flame barely flickers in the torpid evening air as Natu Lal, Biharipur's only witch doctor, explains his craft.

"If a man is being troubled by unknown forces, I can help him," says the frail man, who by day farms 1.5 hectares of land and by night wanders the unchartered fields of the spirit. "If he eats eggs, there is nothing I can do for him."

For three decades, Natu Lal has acted as Biharipur's vegetarian channel to the beyond, but the days and nights of his powers are dwindling.

His eyes are bloodshot, his voice heavy with age, his mouth a jumble of decaying teeth and his grey hair thinning. For Natu Lal, physical failure has caught up with metaphysical mission.

"I no longer have the strength," the 70-year-old man says with a cough. "I am not well. How can I treat others?"

The passing of the district's last known witch doctor is the end of a great era in Biharipur. Only a few generations ago, witch doctors reigned supreme in rural India. They were the font of all medical advice, the master of all spirits.

But modern medicine has put an end to the industry. With quacks in every village (Biharipur has three), headaches are now called headaches, not evil spirits, and fever is called malaria, for which chloriquine rather than a speech to Hanuman, the monkey god, is in order.

It has not always been so. Called a jhad phus (one who deals with spirits by blowing and waving his hands), Natu Lal says he felt a spiritual calling several decades ago as a young man. He wandered the district looking for an answer until one day he found an aging witch doctor in a village 30 kilometres from Biharipur. He spent a year apprenticing.

"I found him the same way you found me," Natu Lal says, freezing his guest with a hypnotic stare. "If a man is thirsty, he will find the well."

Since then, Natu Lal has practiced his remedies. For most patients, he places a glue-like substance in a fire with butterlike ghee, cloves and sweets. He blows the smoke on a patient and chants - or in many cases, mumbles - mantras to the Hindu gods, always mindful not to conduct the ceremony at the inauspicious times of noon or midnight.

In his prime, Natu Lal treated three or four patients a day, a service for which he would accept only sweets.

A neighbour, Kashi Ram, 30, remembers the time last year he suffered from frequent dizzy spells. "I went to lots of doctors, but nothing worked," the young farmer recalls. "I figured there must be a spirit inside me."

Paying a house call, Natu Lal sprinkled water in front of Kashi Ram and chanted various mantras in his ear. "I have had no problems since then," the young man says.

Natu Lal's remedies have not always succeeded, though. Recently, a man in a neighbouring village said his body had been taken over by the village's late Brahmin priest. Hard as the witch doctor tried, he could not exorcise the priest's spirit. "The spirit obviously belonged there," Natu Lal concluded.

"How do you tell a man to leave his own house?"

Lately, however, Natu Lal, who dresses in the traditional white dhoti, has had trouble maintaining his standards. "I am too sick to take a bath these days," he says. "This work is such that you have to be clean and healthy. You're dealing with gods here."

Not long ago, he had hoped one of his three sons would take over his practice, but that dream has passed. "The boys were not concentrating," he says in a resigned tone. "They are labourers. They come home from work, and other things are on their minds."

The dropping of the torch could not make Natu Lal's wife, Yasodha, happier. "I don't want any of my sons to get into this business," she says, sounding the common lament of a doctor's spouse. "If you are not perfect, the gods will not be kind to you. If you are perfect, people will come to your door and fetch you just as you're sitting down for dinner. It is not a peaceful job."

Natu Lal is more philosophic about the demise of his practice and his profession. He has served his patients diligently and honestly, and now they look elsewhere for help. "There's no demand for this work any more," he says, with a touch of sadness. "No one believes any more."

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