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Traditional snakebite healers a vanishing tribe in State

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Healing touch: P. Pankajakshi Amma examining a bite-victim at her residence in Nedumangad.
Healing touch: P. Pankajakshi Amma examining a bite-victim at her residence in Nedumangad.

Sangeeth Kurian

Few opt for the job because of lack of patronage

NEDUMANGAD: In her derelict, tin-roofed abode separated from the fields by a gurgling, slushy canal in Karipur village, P. Pankajakshiamma is doing a follow-up on a patient she had treated for spider bite a few weeks ago. Feeling the 82-year-old’s pulse and examining her eyes, she declares the patient fit.

There was a time when her dwelling-cum-clinic attracted a steady stream of visitors. “Now there are months when I do not get any patients,” said Pankajakshiamma, remnant of a vanishing tribe of traditional Ayurvedic medical practitioners, popularly known as ‘Visha Vaidyans’ who specialises in toxicological treatments in the State.

But she is not complaining. “This is a service, not a profession,” she said. “Every day I pray that there should not be any snakebite victims. I do not want to watch the excruciating pain they suffer.”

Self-taught

A primary school drop-out, Pankajakshiamma picked up ‘Visha Vaidyam’ from her father and by reading Sanskrit texts on toxicology translated into Malayalam. She has also cleared a competency examination in Visha Vaidyam conducted by the State government in 1973.

Treatment methods are myriad, ranging from leeches to mantras, depending on the toxicity of bites and individual practitioners.When it comes to victims of snakebite, Pankajakshiamma relies on leeches from her nearby canal. The leeches suck off contaminated blood from a patient’s body.

Sure-fire techniques

Avanaparambu Maheswaran Namboodirippad, a Visha Vaidyan based in Vadakkancherry, Thrissur, has a sure-fire technique for identifying the species of the snake that has bitten, before the treatment begins. The 78-year-old Vaidyan administers ‘Vishahari Lehyam,’ a paste-like concoction, smudged on a betel leaf to the victim. “If the extract tastes spicy, the snake is cobra; if it is sour, it is viper; if it tastes sweet, the snake is krait. The extract will be extremely bitter if the snake is non-venomous,” he said.

Dr. V. Jyothish Kumar, an Ayurvedic doctor, recollects how his father used to name the type of snake from the descriptions, gestures and sounds of the individual who accompanies a patient.

For V.M. Vimala of Ullanur Mana in Thrissur, administration of an antidote is accompanied by the recitation of ‘Panchaksharam’ and ‘Sivakavacham,’ incantations in praise of Lord Siva.

No incentives

The challenges involved and the lack of monetary incentives now deter potential aspirants from opting for the job. “I am yet to come across someone who is truly interested in learning Visha Vaidyam,” says Pankajakshiamma.

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