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27-31 August 2019
Poznań, Poland
Europe/Warsaw timezone
programme last update: 23 August 2019
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Contribution Paper

Poznań, Poland - Morasko Kampus, room: 3.20

Healer, snake charmer or trickster: A portrait from Chhattisgarh, central India


  • Dr. Helen MACDONALD

Primary authors


Almost without exception, somewhere in the healing landscape in the agricultural plain of Chhattisgarh, central India, lays the baigā-guniyā (a Chhattisgarhi phrase to encompass all village healers). When the occasion arises, the baigā handles the mechanics of the rituals of deities on behalf of the village and their shrines are regarded as his special province. His role complements the role of the Brahman priest as each ritual specialist holds his own sphere of ritual activity in the religious life of the community. More important to his role of propitiating village deities, is the baigā’s role as diagnostician and curer. His familiar village deities warn him of future disease and other misfortunes, and his knowledge of special prayer and rituals cure illness. This paper tracks Sukalu Patel, a locally renowned baigā, an ordinary farmer who has control over snakes and other supernatural entities. I came to know of Sukalu through Tularam Sahu who was suffering from the effects of jādū-ṭonā (black magic). In his healing performances Sukalu aims to reveal witchcraft objects from the afflicted body; a healer’s technique that the local rationalist society wants to reveal as a fraudulent trick. By demonstrating that his performance has underlying aesthetic continuities, this paper suggests that Chhattisgarhi ‘modes of seeing’ lies between what is certain and what is questionable. These visual modalities contribute to an intellectual conversation about ‘modalities of unbelief’ that undermines the very opposition between medicine and placebo, doctor and quack, expertise and gimmickry, and truth and falsehood.