Nepal's traditional dhami-jhankri and shamans offer a parallel health care system in a country where hospitals are either overcrowded, expensive or don't help patients get better. Even practitioners of western medicine admit there may be aspects of this traditional form of healing that can complement modern treatment methods.
Mark Zimmerman is with the Nick Simmons Institute in Kathmandu and has been a doctor in Nepal for the last 25 years. "The first thing we were taught in medical school is that faith heals," he explains, "whether a doctor, a surgeon, a faith healer or alternative medicine person, if I can engender your faith it will increase my chance of healing you."
Many think that faith healing is only practiced in remote parts of Nepal, but there are dhami-jhankris who are in demand even in Kathmandu. And in the heart of the capital is the Shamanistic Studies and Research Centre where both locals and foreigners flock to be healed, cleansed or spiritually awakened.
Founded by Mohan Rai in 1988, the centre aims to revive shamanism by reintroducing it to the modern world. Rai, who comes from a long line of traditional healers, believes that shamanism complements western medicine by re-introducing the spiritual element to healing.
"I am trying to explain to the world that shamanism is not primitive but can add to modern medicine," explains Rai.
Australian Laura Martino is taking a course at Rai's centre and is learning traditional drumming, organising spiritual ceremonies, and making field trips to places in Nepal with a strong tradition of shamanism.
"I didn't plan to come to Nepal, I just stumbled across faith healing," she says, "but everything has fallen into place. You can say it's a coincidence, but it's more than that."
The reason for the continued popularity of faith healers in Nepal has often been explained by the people's limited access to hospitals. Yet, the fact that faith healing is still popular and is even being studied by westerners proves that it goes far beyond that notion.
Nepal's faith healers have been successfully employed to supplement the efforts of health workers. Dhami-jhankris have been trained to administer antibiotics and refer patients who are too ill to hospitals.
In the 1980s when there was even less access to hospital care than now in remote Jumla, the people's trust in faith healers was put to good use to treat the biggest killer of children in western Nepal: acute respiratory infections. The infant mortality rate came down dramatically as a result.
Ravi Shankar, assistant professor at Manipal College of Medical Sciences in Pokhara and a leading voice for integrative medicine, believes traditional and modern forms of treatment should go hand-in-hand. "The two are very different and I believe knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each and respecting each other are important."
Despite their scientific training both Shankar and Zimmerman agree that medicine is only effective if patients believe in it. And Rai, who has worked at teaching clinics across Nepal, says he prays that science, technology, healers, and therapists can come together.
"Let's work together," he says passionately, "you do it the scientific way, but if you miss something you may be missing a lot of things. If you can't do it maybe we can."
According to shamanistic practitioner Mohan Rai, faith healers can do a lot but at the end of the day they are only medium between the patient and the spirit world. The effectiveness of treatment often depends on the mental attitude of patients, who have to will themselves to get better and put their faith in the spiritual healer.
In modern medicine the effectiveness of belief in healing is best captured in the concept of the 'Placebo Effect', where patients are given sugar pills and are told they will feel better. Doctors agree that in one-third of the cases they treat, patients are healed of their aliments even if the pill doesn't contain any active ingredients. Many patients get better because they believe they will be better.
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