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Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas: The Place of

Dargahs in Maharashtra

Article  in  Economic and political weekly · April 2009

DOI: 10.2307/40279157

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2 authors:

Bhargavi Davar Madhura Lohokare

Bapu Trust for Research on Mind & Discourse O.P. Jindal Global University


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Recovering from
Psychosocial Traumas
The Place of Dargahs in Maharashtra

Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

the supreme court intervention in the indigenous

healing sector

Near the faith healing centre, Erwadi Dargah, in Ramanathapuram

district in Tamil Nadu, private parties had set up many hutments to
house persons labelled mentally ill. On 6 August 2001, huts in which
43 people were confined, chained to their beds, caught fire, resulting
in many deaths. Remarkably, the local government awarded families
who had dumped their mentally-ill relatives in these private asylums
monetary ‘compensation’, instead of applying penalties under the
Mental Health Act.1 The Government instructed District Collectors
to examine such shelters for their licences. The Supreme Court (SC)
initiated suo motu action against the state government of Tamil
Nadu and all other states of India [vide Writ Petition Civil No.334
of 2001]. The SC asked all the state governments to implement the
Mental Health Act, 1987, and to close all shelters not covered by the
Act. It demanded to know whether mentally-ill people were treated
badly or kept in chains anywhere in the respective states. State
governments found it expedient to immediately supply information
on this last aspect, while remaining defensive or noncommittal
about other queries. Of special significance is the Saarthak petition,2
Para 9, which referred to human rights violations in ‘certain
256 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

institutions’ where the mentally-ill are kept, expressing deep concern

‘about the inadequate and inhuman conditions in which mentally ill
persons live’. Para 9 can be read as implying all private institutions as
borne out by the Annexure.3 The state responses have also reflected
this inclusion of indigenous healing institutions within the ambit
of the ‘private sector’. The state of Kerala did an extensive survey
and inspection of indigenous healing and presented its affidavit.4
While largely denying other SC remarks about state apathy, the
Punjab Government admitted to the ‘prevailing poor and inhuman
conditions of mentally ill patients in certain institutions, but not
in every such institution’.5 Proposing a 50-bed mental hospital,
the Manipur Government said: ‘Due to lack of modern treatment
facilities, people are following the traditional methods of treatment
and families are losing confidence.’6 The AP government was highly
critical: ‘In order to prevent mentally-ill persons flocking to places
such as Dargahs, Temples, Religious places and other unlicensed
places for treatment and rehabilitation, it is necessary that the state of
Andhra Pradesh has adequate rehabilitation services for the chronic
mentally-ill and persons with mental disability.’ Further, ‘Provision
of such services would go a long way in preventing society from
utilizing services at unlicensed places such as Dargahs, temples,
churches and other religious institutions which do not have proper
facilities and expertise’.7
The apex court did not consider the conflict of interest in involving
the state governments as examiners—in fact the only examiners,
of their own practices. The Erwadi-related actions taken by the
Supreme Court resulted in greater authority to mental hospitals and
the professionals and to a change in the relationship between the
professional authority and society, while not changing much within
the mental health system. Vigilance over indigenous healing increased
since the SC action. The state of Haryana sent the vigilance officers
under the MHA to visit local healing centres. In Tamil Nadu, district
committees had the mandate of ‘making periodic inspections of places
where mentally ill persons are detained and ensure the human rights
of mentally ill’. Due to the vigilance set up locally around dargahs, 50
mentally-ill people at a famous dargah in Kolar district were chased
away. Vide DME Rc. No: 22181/MS.ZA/2001, dated 10.08.2001,
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 257

issued by the Directorate of Medical Education (DMED, AP, a five-

member ‘expert’ medical committee, visited the Syed Miran Hussaini
Quadri Bagdadi Dargah and submitted a report about conditions
in the dargah. Subsequently, the licensing authority (Director, ME)
issued notice to the dargah, asking for the handover of mentally-ill
persons for medical treatment.8 The DME inspection committee
took the assistance of local police for the process. Permission from
the dargah was obtained to assess the ‘patients’ visiting the dargah.
Whether this medical evaluation procedure included the consent
of people is not known. A sizeable population needing psychiatric
treatment was identified through diagnostic procedure and referred.
The Mental Health Authority was enjoined to take suitable action
against the dargah. The AP affidavit suggested that such centres
must be ‘licensed’ facilities and should comply with the MHA—as
if dargahs were a kind of mental institution. On the question of
voluntarism and patients’ rights, the DME report’s comments on
‘free movement’ are remarkable:

Mentally ill persons staying in the Dargah without any relatives may
be handed over by the Dargah authorities either to the relatives whose
addresses they have, or to the local police station, so that appropriate
reception order may be obtained for their involuntary admission into
the mental hospital…

While the DME report deplores the chaining of persons in the

dargah, it notes with equanimity the arrest by the police and the
use of solitary confinement in the mental hospitals with regard
to ‘unmanageable’ patients and the unconditional use of forced
treatment. The Tamil Nadu government, while closing down
indigenous healing centres, evolved a sophisticated procedure for
physical restraint and solitary confinement.9
The said dargah’s response is the single voice of advocacy as well
as dissent. Underlining the ‘ancestral’ nature of the dargah, Syed
Mohd Qadiri emphasised the belief and faith that the dargah instilled
in its devotees. He stressed the voluntary nature of visits to the centre
and the consolation that persons got from the ‘the spiritual powers
of the saint’. The letter concludes by noting that as the dargah is
258 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

not a ‘mental hospital’ and there are no ‘patients’, the question of

handing over patients does not arise! The apex court, in an order
dated 5 February 2002, among other directives, said:

Both the Central and State Governments shall undertake a

comprehensive awareness campaign with a special rural focus to
educate people as to provisions of law relating to mental health, rights
of mentally challenged persons, the fact that chaining of mentally
challenged persons is illegal and that mental patients should be sent
to doctors and not to religious places such as temples or Dargahs.

The court ordered the construction of mental hospitals in states where

none exist. The Union Ministry, while making perfunctory responses
to concerns over the continuing abysmal situation prevailing in
the mental health sector, decided to map out all the faith-healing
centres frequented by psychiatric patients.10 Witch-hunting of such
places was fuelled by the newspapers.11 The Maharashtra Herald
remarked that thousands of people ‘obsessed by blind faith go to the
village (Erwadi)’.12 The papers presented glowing tributes to mental
hospitals: ‘…regional mental hospital is just like a carnival for the
rural patients of Maharashtra’ said one newspaper,13 subverting
the intent of the SC suo motu action. Ironically, while the caption
of the article read ‘No chains at Asia’s largest mental hospital’, the
photograph attached showed a patient lying on the floor, tightly
curled up in a small locked room with grilled iron bars like a cage. In
this instance, a legal challenge has been mounted on these institutions
from a most improbable critic, the public mental health sector, itself
under severe criticism from all quarters for poor services and human
rights violations, a sector which is most non-compliant with extant
legal prescriptions (Goel et al. 2005; NHRC 1999). In a more recent
response to the Erwadi tragedy, the Government of India (Ministry
of Health and Family Welfare) has proposed a Mental Health Care
Bill (2010). The Bill continues the custodial outlook of the mental
health sector. It retains all the involuntary commitment procedures
of the Mental Health Act, while simplifying the procedures so that
incarceration can be left to private parties: psychiatrists, NGOs and
families. Judicial regulation has been watered down considerably.
Further, the MHC Bill, 2010, sets up a ‘Competency Authority’ in
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 259

society with powers to determine the competence of a person to

execute various treatment and life choices. These developments have
been intensely contested by human rights groups. The MHC Act, if
promulgated, will result in the division of society into the ‘competent’
and the ‘incompetent’ adjudged so by medical authorities, reminiscent
of other ‘purifying processes’ on the basis of genes, race, or ethnicity
taking place worldwide.
Our paper derives from a three-year field project undertaken
in nine districts of Maharashtra with the objective of exploring
subjective meanings attached to people’s personal distress and
healing—with special reference to emotional health—as they are
mediated by indigenous healing. Indigenous mental healing includes
several traits: having a local origin, being vernacular/oral, being
unorganised, and having the function of healing people through
shamanic or faith-healing methods. Sites included mandirs, dargahs,
churches, shrines and cults. The dargahs visited during the study
period were the Hazrat Shahadval Baba Rahmatullah Aliha Dargah
Sharif (Sadal Baba, Pune); Mirawali Dargah (Ahmednagar), Mira
Saheb Dargah (Miraj); Mira Rehan Mira Saheb Dargah (Vishalgad);
Khwaja Kabir Dargah (Nandre); Sailani Baba Dargah (Sailani) and
Babu Jamaal Dargah (Nes Kumbhoj and Kolhapur). We also recorded
25 hours of visual data at various sites. We interviewed four types
of respondents—sufferers, caregivers, indigenous faith or shamanic
healers; and the medically-qualified doctors and psychiatrists serving
in the local area. Multiple data sets were compiled and analysed,
including in-depth interviewing, case studies, field observations and
focus-group discussions; 283 in-depth interviews were conducted
(43 healers, 57 service providers, 108 users, 75 carers). The sample
was selective, including those who volunteered for the study. After
initial screening, we included users who came to a local shrine for
a ‘problem’.

story of the origin and role of pirs as healers

Dargahs retain a distant relationship with formal Islam and a close

relationship with the function of healing. Formal Islam frowns upon
what it sees as expressions of abandonment, such as shamanism,
260 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

ecstatic trancing, drumming, music and possession found in these

places. Ozturk and Goskel wrote that the Turkish government
outlawed magical religion in 1925. The writers observed a
discrepancy in what the Koran actually says and how it is interpreted
in folk practice. The ‘Koran does not approve it either, and does
not attribute supernatural powers to mankind’ (Ozturk and Goskel
1964: 350). Attacks (even life-threatening ones) by the religious
purists on Sufi pirs is not unknown in the history of Sufism and of
Islam. All dargahs are syncretistic and local, and cater to a wide
diversity of people from different caste and religious backgrounds
in the locality.
Dargahs are local healing sites with ritual healing practices dating
back to five or more centuries (Bihari 1962). A pir’s journey from
West Asia, seeking the subcontinent, and carrying the teachings of
Prophet Mohammed or his descendants are a part of the healing myth
and origin of a dargah. Some pirs of Maharashtra are associated with
the world-famous patron–saint of Ajmer, Khwaja Gharib Nawaz
Moinuddin Chishti. Mirawali Dargah is dedicated to a pir, Mirawali
Baba, who is said to have come to India at the time of the Mughal
invasion. The name of Sadal Baba dargah in Pune reads as Hazrat
Shahadaval Baba Rahmatullah Aliha Dargah Sharif, the history of
which goes back almost 800 years to medieval India. Shahdaval Baba
was said to have belonged to Medina, the Holy City. He travelled
through Afghanistan and entered the subcontinent with Mohammad
Ghori’s army when the latter attacked India in the year 1192. After
reaching India, the Baba went to Ajmer and became Moinuddin
Chishti’s disciple and then came to this area. The mujawars of the
Shamna Mira Dargah consider themselves descendants of the pir.
The Khwaja Kabir Dargah is dedicated to two pir brothers—Khwaja
and Kabir—who are depicted as coming to India with the specific
mandate of ridding the people of and protecting them from evil spirits
and black magic. Local legend has it that Malik Rahen, the Sufi pir
of Vishalgad, near Kohlapur, came to India from Iran.
The ‘sacred’ plays a crucial role in the healing process
(Kakar 1982). Healing is a central theme of Sufi life. Mirawali Baba
settled down in Ahmednagar and soon his healing powers started
attracting scores of sufferers to this area. Large numbers of people
come here to get cured of mental illness. Sadal Baba received his
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 261

healing powers in Ajmer. Kabir Baba at Khwaja Kabir was said to

have performed healing miracles. Shamna Mira of Miraj grew up
aspiring to serve the people just as his parents did. Sailani Baba is
believed to have come with a mission to heal and protect devotees
from evil influences and injustice.
Many a dargah served as shelter for wandering, homeless,
destitute people. In western medicine, wandering is considered a
psychotic symptom, but wandering sufferers and healers are welcome
at the local healing centres. Sadal Baba, under Moinuddin’s Chishti’s
tutelage, served the poor. At Mirawali Dargah, Ahmednagar, there is
a sizable population of homeless persons, fed by the mujawar (head
priest in the dargah) and the management. The living conditions
in one of the far-flung dargahs were unacceptably squalid, with a
population of about 5000 sufferers staying in shanties on forest land
surrounding the dargah. Such places are a human rights disaster
and swift and sensitive interventions are required. The dargahs are
not provided with any kind of infrastructure, civic services or other
amenities by the government.

why people approach the local healing centres

Across varied cultural settings, a significant proportion of the

population accesses local healing systems, spiritual or secular, in the
context of mental health problems (Amarsingham 1980; Harding
1975; Kapferer 1991; Ngoma 2003; Nichter 1981; Ruiz and Langrod
1973; Somasundaram 1973; Skultans 1987, 1991; Satija 1982).
Health service seekers traverse between these seemingly contradictory
systems in their search for healing (Asuni 1979; Kapur 1979). In the
Indian context, 74.7 per cent of psychiatric patients had consulted
a traditional healer before coming to the hospital. Of these, 33.3
per cent had consulted one place only, while 17.3 per cent had
gone to more than 10 such places. Thirty per cent of the patients
in the above study expressed satisfaction and noted improvements
in their condition; 45 per cent have voiced disappointment; 25 per
cent suggest that they will advise others to go to traditional healers
(Gujarat Mental Health Mission, 2003). Goldberg and Huxley in
1992 cited data from a famous WHO multi-centre study in the
262 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

year 1991, including pathways to care in European, American and

Southeast Asian countries. They noted that in Pakistan, India and
Indonesia, people accessed a wide variety of pathways with different
types of native or faith healers (Goldberg and Huxley 1992: 30).
A study (Kapur 1979) carried out in western India showed that a
majority of respondents did not wish for help for ‘possession’, but
among those who did, a mantarvadi (healer working magic) was
the healer of choice. Forty-eight per cent of men and women had
consulted both doctor and indigenous healer, while 18 per cent and
19 per cent of men and women respectively had consulted only an
indigenous healer.
We have described in another paper14 how people approach the
local healing sites with a clear expectation of being cured of their
problems. The relationship is perceived as successful because of the
shared cosmology of health and well-being. Jain in 2006 observed
that while the health care system was at the periphery of a notion
of ‘community’ among villagers, the shamanic healer (bhagat), and
objects of local healing—bhut, chaitan, churel, devi, devta (ghost,
satan, female devil, goddess, god) were central. The literature and our
study also suggest that people choose to go to local healing centres
for expressly psychosocial problems.
Approximately one-fourth of the people living with afflictions who
we interviewed were from dargahs. Poverty was commonly observed.
More than half the users interviewed by us were extremely poor, on
BPL cards, earning in kind, earning less than Rs. 3000 a month or
having no earnings whatsoever. But nearly one-fourth had earnings
of more than Rs 5000 per month and many had a personal vehicle.
Most users reported having a ‘roof above their heads’, using LPG and
having access to a municipal tap in their homes. One-third of the users
interviewed, however, were precariously housed. Homelessness was
evident in a small sub-group of people attending the THCs. Nearly
one-fourth of the users interviewed were unemployed. Women, when
asked about their occupation, routinely reported family occupation or
husband’s occupation. Many users, male and female, were involved
in petty trade or occupations in the unorganised sector. Half the
users (50.48 per cent) interviewed by us were educated till at least
Class X. There even were professionals, albeit a small percentage.
One person we interviewed was a doctor. The data also suggests that
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 263

indigenous healing centres are popularly frequented by deprived caste

groups. The dargahs attracted the poorer and marginalised sections
of society, even though here too we interviewed people who came
from the more privileged classes and castes. A content analysis of
our in-depth interviews with the afflicted persons about the reasons
for visiting dargahs is presented in Table 10.1.
People access local healers for a cure to what is primarily
experienced as a ‘problem’. The definition of a ‘problem’ may
describe an important life event or process which has suddenly
disrupted mundane life. But it is not presented as a ‘symptom’ located
at a specific site of the body. The manifestation can be called psycho-
social-spiritual: there are physical, psycho-physical, psychological,
psycho-social as well as spiritual dimensions, which are individualised
and diverse. This is a crucial pointer towards how communities frame
their well-being and health: There is no artificial division between the
‘health problem’ and one’s emotions, relationships, socio-economic
context, and life experiences surrounding it. Aches and pains in
different parts of the body, particularly head and joints, spasms,
clicking, fatigue, fits, immobility, weakness, and ‘head burning’ were
commonly reported, as were giddiness, lightness in the head, stomach
problems and fevers. An individualised expression of the ‘problem’
was the rule, rather than the exception (scratching in left foot; feel
like someone is strangulating him; sometimes a snake has wrapped
him in its coils; something wriggling in his stomach; the limbs were
joined together). We also interviewed people who had a specific
disability or lack (e.g., alcoholism, childlessness or disability caused
by polio). Women talked about various reproductive health problems.
Users had a wide-ranging vocabulary of their mental states. In our
larger study, mental health and psychosomatic experiences figured
very high among the list of problems reported. Problems ranged from
what would in modern terms be called psychotic (seeing visions,
strange behaviour, someone whispering in the ears, couldn’t keep
clothes on, wandering, suicidal) to a more diverse range of emotional
states (sadness, worry, fears, lack of concentration, sleeplessness,
anger and tension).
Many people came to the dargahs to be ‘cured’ of karni
(witchcraft) problems and other existential, psychological or spiritual
questions manifested as mental disturbance. Not only is witchcraft/
Table 10.1 Reasons for visiting the centre
User code Physical Mental Socio-economic Cultural
Sangli_01 [M] KKhwaja body swelling and pain Childlessness Karni done on wife
Sangli_02 [M] dizzy, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t felt scared Evil influence; karni
eat because of stomachache done by relatives
Sangli_03 [F] Used to feel giddy; very feeling tired, used to husband died of alcoholism, driven mad through
often eyes used to hurt, babble strangely, dowry harassment, driven witchcraft
bodyache thought of committing out of the home, children
suicide many times dying [recurrent theme]
Sangli_04 [M] continuous nausea; karni
breathlessness; could not
eat or drink anything;
would feel ill instantly
Sangli_05 [M] neck hurts; limbs feel weak, can’t sleep at night; the Dreams of Baba;
wobbly; fever; bladder and effect of pills wears pradakshina helped
stomach not clean off; Baba wakes her up
Sangli_06 [F] Shamna bodyache; pricking couldn’t do anything
Mira sensation; swelling in legs
dargah, and face; limbs were joined
Miraj together; couldn’t see at all
Sangli_07 [M] fever, cough, cold all the No medicine helped;
time; body pain; couldn’t Only ash and water
eat or digest food from here helped.
Sangli_08 [M] since 14, stomachache, ‘lahari’; tension;light- to get release from
headache; couldn’t digest headedness witchcraft
food; swelling of body
Kolhapur_11 Babu Had an accident; head Daughter [MA, B Ed] was Baba’s miracle. Mujawars
[M] Jamaal sustained fracture; became about to be married; some prayed and did pradi-
Dargah unconscious; after 5 months, people broke up the kshina. After 13 days, the
when on duty in the factory, alliance problem was resolved.
became blind and started Ate angara and felt
feeling giddy; went into better, could come back
coma; there was a blood clot; home; had a check-up
operation was done and was declared ‘clear’.
Kolhapur_12 Angry, unhappy, sad Economic problems; Left home and stayed
[M] since whole life failures in life; family here for many years.
seemed ruined. conflict;, wife left him Dreamed of Baba. Stayed
at the Dargah in
Kumbhoj as well. Lived
like a beggar, praying to
God. Two visions of
Baba, went to Kumbhoj
to live for 2 days.
Someone came at 2:00
a.m. in the night and
offered water. ‘These are
Baba’s miracles.’ Wife
Kolhapur_13 Felt like two needles were Felt scared if I looked Had strayed.
[M] piercing forehead at anybody.
Kolhapur_14 3rd, 4th and 5th discs of Daughter got divorced The operation was
[M] spinal cord had slipped; immediately after marriage; necessary but a vision of
admitted to hospital case dragged on in court the Baba one night made
for many days—she could everything all right.
not be remarried till the With Baba’s blessings,
divorce was finalised the case was won and
daughter was remarried.

Table 10.1 (contd...)

User code Physical Mental Socio-economic Cultural

Kolhapur_15 Developed backache and Working in a pin factory for
[M] after some time couldn’t about 12 to 13 hours a day
get up or sit; loss of semen
through urine
Pune_01 [F] Feeling fatigue Feels worried all the Unmarried sisters; brother’s
time wife had two abortions; spent
Rs 1.5 lakh on marriage;
violence and dowry
harassment; desertion;
husband remarried;
remarriage; similar problems,
including desertion.
Pune_02 [F] Weakness
Pune_03 [F] Feel worried and Problems and tensions in Witchcraft by relatives.
fearful about family the house [recurring theme];
no work; living on daughter’s
support; many mouths to
feed in the house.
Pune_04 [M] Feel ill; limbs hang loose; feel choked, like
giddiness; sensation of someone is strangu-
being wrapped in the coils lating him; can’t sleep
of a snake; no appetite, the whole night
hence weakness
Buldhana_01 Stomach bloated up; body Very scared
[M] was burning; suffering from
cancer of the throat
Buldhana_02 Scratching in left foot; Losses in business Witchcraft
[F] breathlessness, entire left
side in pain; fever; clicking
in neck
Buldana_03 [F] spasms and pain in back Mind not focused; Witchcraft through
could not concentrate food
on job and work
Buldhana_04 Dysmenhorrea; bleeding ‘Mooth mari’ [a type of
[F] would not stop for 20 days working witchcraft];
during menstruation; karni and bleeding
couldn’t digest anything; started together.
suddenly felt a jolt and
vomited horribly, it was
nearly fatal.
Buldhana_05 Vomits with blood; Strange behaviour; Would not feed child. ‘Mooth marli’; suffering
[F] giddiness couldn’t keep clothes from karni for 36 years.
on, would eat faeces;
was wandering here
and there.
Source: Fieldwork

268 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

possession by evil spirits not mental illness, but mental illness,

physical health problems, and a host of other thraas (troubles)
are the consequence of witchcraft and spirit possession. Of the 95
responses received from all users (n=103), 85 per cent said that all
mental illness happens due to witchcraft or black magic. Jealousy or
suspicion (which psychiatry may characterise as ‘paranoia’) is a major
interpersonal theme of witchcraft afflictions. Differences in caste,
religion and gender, and sexual taboos (for example homosexuality
or prostitution) find linguistic expression as psycho-social, spiritual
or moral suffering and as witchcraft. Our study clearly showed a
pattern that for medical problems, health care was sought; and for
psycho-social-spiritual problems, including witchcraft and possession
by evil spirits, local healers were sought (Ozturk and Goskel 1964).
It was difficult to differentiate the purely psychological, physical, or
the spiritual in the manifestations of the suffering.

ritual as healing

Healing is a process that takes place via an individual’s world of

experience and the meaning that they attach to it. In a comparative
study, Glik (1988) demonstrates how locally-contextual symbols
pervade all facets of healing—in the mythologies of the healing
ideologies, the persona of the healer, family-like nature of the group
of sufferers and the rituals themselves. Since in any healing context,
empowerment of the sufferer constitutes a crucial milestone in
the healing process, language assumes unprecedented importance
(McGuire 1983: 234). Dyadic categories, light and darkness, higher
and lower worlds, purity and impurity, wellness and illness, good/
evil, death/rebirth, devi/pischach (deity/demon) are integral to
the language, providing people with surrogates to express their
emotions and feelings. The rhetoric used in the sessions creates a
predisposition in the person to be healed, akin to placebo, a process
central to mental healing. In this way, the ritual language not only
creates in the person an awareness of a ‘larger’ purpose for her
healing, but also assures her of the help given by transcendental
as well social factors. Csordas’ account of a healing ritual within
the Pentecostal church describes the healer as directing the person
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 269

in prayer to positive aspects of every stage in the afflicted person’s

life, while distracting the person’s attention from traumatic
events through visualisation of Jesus Christ. It gives the power
back to the person and her relatives to do something about it
(Csordas 1983).
Psychosocially-relevant practices in the dargahs play upon various
ritual dimensions of the embodied and psychological, both at the
individual level and at the level of social groups. The Sufi form of
spiritual practice involves intense personal and group expression
of bhakti (ecstatic worship) and union with god through song,
drumming, music and verse (Bihari 1962). Expression of intense
emotion, crying, ecstasy and altered states of perceptions which in
normal life may be seen as violent mood swings, mania, or symptoms
of other mental illnesses, have a very high value in the shrine. Union
[with god or spirit] bringing about ecstasy or separation causing
agony, is freely expressed: A person may cry for hours or maintain
a blissful emotional state for hours, preoccupied with his or her own
emotions. Sufi poetry describing this process is vivid: ‘every pore of
the body… a tongue (Bihari 1962: 66); ‘feel His fragrance coming and
invigorating me’ (Bihari 1962: 66); not eating and ‘being reduced to
bones by austerities’ (Bihari 1962: 68); unseen voices reprimanding
(Bihari 1962: 68); being inhabited by beings other than self; divine
visions (Bihari 1962: 75); etc. Deprivation of food and sleep is
common and because it is accepted as evidence of surrender, it does
not elicit censure. Abuse of god for abandoning a devotee may come
across as great anger or great grief or even as madness.
The conferment of a vision by the pir is a valued state, and a
person so graced is validated. In narrations of this experience, it
may be characterised as a ‘blissful’ experience, involving higher
skin sensitivity and conductance, an emotional state of euphoria,
lightness, forgetfulness of self, feeling disembodied and expansive,
etc. While the initial vision may result in seriously-altered states of
perception, it is not anthologised as a hallucination, and individual
interpretation of the vision is accepted. This is usually an embodied,
a tactile or a multi-sensory phenomenon in which the pir touches
or embraces the devotee. It is believed that ‘the pursuers of the path
should laugh less and weep more’ (Bihari 1962: 79), as a certain
emotional fulfilment is sought in negative emotions. Sufis like to
270 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

live close to death—they are enjoined never to forget death (Bihari

1962: 79), again, a spiritual question close to many people living
with a mental illness.
All the healers that we interviewed in the dargahs mentioned that
they were only a ‘servant’ of the pir, refusing to ‘take credit’ for the
healing. Several of the healers we interviewed had gone through a
‘purification’ process themselves, particularly the individual female
mediums of the Khwaja Kabir Dargah in Nandre. They had initially
approached the dargahs for their own healing and, after being healed,
became healers themselves. They are often visited by the Baba, and are
possessed by him. They described these experiences as ones that make
them ‘happy’ and ‘contented’, and give them ‘mental satisfaction’.
Chanting or vocalisation of some kind is associated with the experience.
The possession experience made some of them pleasantly tired, as there
was some physical pain due to the frantic body movements. Another
healer felt energised after the sanchar (divine trance). One healer said,
‘If I don’t get hajeri (deity possession), I feel dull.’ Another compared
the experience to going into a state of deep sleep and coming out feeling
refreshed. Some healers in the dargahs had had a vision or a dream
from the pir, and consider it their personal calling to serve the ailing.
None of the healers whom we interviewed believed that they were a
kind of a doctor, but some said that they were ‘doctors of the soul’.
Some male healers even talked about offering ‘maternal love’ to the
devotees, and most claimed to use their intuitive faculties more than
linguistic or logical faculties. Some healers were trained in Koranic
methods, such as aayats (couplets from the Koran). For most, their
work (no one saw it as a ‘profession’) was a customary practice, and
included ancestral worship.
What we witness in faith healing is mundane life mixing with a
quest for the psycho-spiritual, using everyday spaces and language.
Forty days is the magic number and people tend to stay at the dargah,
or in its vicinity, for this number of days. Having a specified ritual
time builds faith, and heightens efforts towards as well as faith in
one’s own recovery.

My depression went, self-confidence grew. I regained faith in my

own recovery. I had left all hope of getting well. Here, hopes grew.
I believed I would get well. (Male user, Ahmednagar)
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 271

I was brought in an auto, but went back on my own two legs. Hence,
I felt good about it. (Male user, Ahmednagar)

People who do not recover in the ritual time intensify their efforts
at recovery. Others, with a complex set of problems, particularly
incurable medical conditions such as cancer, use as many resources as
they can find to seek solace and cure. Typically, the rituals are simple,
and may include making ritual offerings to the pir; making wishes
(mannat mangna); tying sacred threads, lemons, bangles or other
artifacts for wish-fulfilment; drinking holy water; eating holy ash;
bathing and personal cleansing; lighting incense; circumambulation
(pradakshina); seva (selfless service) at the dargah; wearing locked
chains around one’s ankles or hands in the pir’s name (baba ki bedi);
petitioning the pir (arzi); trancing, mediumship, undertaking physical
ordeals, and exorcism from spirit possession and witchcraft.
Dargahs allow for the acting out of emotions, which is seen in
psychotherapy as ‘cathartic’. The healing propensity of the local
traditions is attributed to several factors like arousal of faith,
complete emotional commitment of the sufferer, affirmation of
shared beliefs, the symbolism entailed in healing rituals and their
dramatic quality having effects akin to therapeutic techniques
like placebo, catharsis and suggestion. (Kleinman and Sung 1979;
Kleinman 1980; Jadhav 1995; Helman 2001). The healing process
has also been seen as symbolically representing values, emotions,
social relationships and normative codes, which are a part of the
participants’ phenomenological world as well as their external social
environment (Brown 2001; Glik 1988; Csordas 1983; McGuire
1983). The value of shamanic practices of possession and trancing
are seen by some writers as a form of psychodrama, another post-
modern therapeutic technique (Casson 2004).
Healing in these centres is achieved by involving the sufferer’s body
in the healing process since, for a sufferer, a physical experience is the
most immediate and concrete means of experiencing the divine power
(Csordas 1983; Seligman 2005). Various other physiological responses
of the participants like possession, trancing, fainting, tingling
sensation, buzzing in the ears and burning, denote the affirmation
that the divine power is indeed being manifested, convincing them of
their healing experience. An extraordinary variety of repetitive, swift,
272 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

jerky, involuntary body movements are seen in possession and trance,

for e.g., twitching, twisting, trembling, shaking, head banging, slow
body rotation, crouching, running, somersaulting, swaying, heaving,
turning from side to side, body-thrashing, jumping, rapid movements
of hands and legs. Such bodily sensations may be seen as trauma or
stress-discharge responses according to some neuroscientists (Levine
1997). Facial muscles move and distort into various involuntary
movements, such as eye-ball rolling, grimacing, etc. The use of
the vocal chords and the abdomen to exhale forcefully or to make
repetitive, mumbling, moaning, groaning, screaming, guttural sounds
which may or not be words is very common. Possession and trance
states that we have studied and filmed in the many dargahs we visited
are indicative of the emotional absorption of users and their altered
states of embodiment, perception and experience. Most women we
interviewed who were possessed reported feeling warm, light, fresh,
peaceful and relaxed after the experience. While possession by evil
spirits is shamed by the community, deity possession is revered.
Women journey from evil spirit possession to deity possession,
becoming healers themselves, oracular or mediumistic.
In our interviews with users of indigenous healing, people
reported benefits. Various dimensions of well-being (feeling peaceful,
contented, gaining in confidence, hope returning, getting more will
power, wanting to get on in life, body healed, reduction of conflict,
improvement in domestic and financial situations, social status) were
reported. The afflicted visiting the centres have been doing so for
long periods of time, sometimes even after the problem is resolved.
Many visited for five years and more—long enough to warrant
the label of ‘chronic’ patients within the modern medical system.
However, such sufferers are not so labelled in the centres, and often
become local anchors, taking up responsibilities for the upkeep of
the centres. We interpret this as a different experience of well-being
with respect to time and self-history: the ‘early intervention’ and
treatment schedule of modern medicine makes health and sickness a
determinate temporal event. There is also acceptance, and surrender,
and the realisation that not everything needs intervention. People
reported that they visited the shrine to ‘stay well’.
Exploring the link between religion and health, Lee and
Newberg (2005) conclude that being religious offers positive health
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 273

and mental health benefits in the areas of disease incidence and

prevalence, disease and surgical outcomes, and general well-being
in the specific area of depression (also see, Azhar etal. 1994; Valla
and Prince 1989; Raghuram, et al. 2002; and Razali et al. 2002.
Recent advances in psycho-biology and in cultural healing practices
(Jilek 1989; Winkelman 2000; Csordas 1983; West 2000; Krippner
1989; Koenig and Cohen 2002; Seligman 2005) describe the
positive, recovery-oriented, neuro-endocrinal changes effected by
certain ritual, embodied practices routinely found in the dargahs,
including possession, trancing, alternative states of consciousness
and meditative (non-cognitive psycho-physical) states. Some people
with psychosocial disabilities have found that a connection with the
sacred within oneself showed the path towards self-recovery and its
maintenance. This pathway also gave the necessary strengths and
capacities required to lead others to their own recovery (Statsny and
Lehmann 2007; Minkowitz and Dhanda 2006).
The research indicates that psychosocial realities for many
individuals do include a person-centric relationship with some
notion of the transcendental. The transcendental concept to which
a person relates psychosocially and spiritually may be god, a guru,
sant, pir, or even a revolutionary notion of utopia. The healing at the
dargahs suggests that rather than any structured system of religion,
theology, or the primacy of (any kind of) Word or Scripture, a chaotic
and spontaneous approach to an intensely personal, embodied and
multi-sensory experience of transcendence, including shamanic and
primal practices and experiences, may bring psycho-spiritual relief
in everyday life to a vast number of people.


Several concerns are raised by the legal interventions into the local
healing sector. Of primary concern is the fact that these institutions
are facing an immediate threat from, and the prospect of closure
under the impact of the so-called ‘modern’ mental health institutions.
Secondly, the mental health authorities at various departmental levels
have absolutely no knowledge cover or evidence base for their witch-
hunt. Third, given their poor track record in establishing a human
274 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

rights-compliant health service, they do not possess the necessary

credentials in mounting a challenge to the local healing sector.
Finally, in this process, the local healing community, comprising
institutional authorities, healers, users and communities, has not
ever been a part of, or even a passive listener in, these normative
processes. Our workshops with the local healers showed that there
is little awareness among them about the recent legal frameworks
coming to bear on their work with so much force. In the absence of
data from local contexts, there is no reason to abandon the value of
such centres in psychosocial recovery and empowerment. Available
evidence endorses the positive aspects of healing and recovery
through holistic methods in the shrines that offer social and safe
spaces for experiencing life at moments of vulnerability and crisis.
Our study has shown that having a greater number of, or having
more professionalised mental health services, may not necessarily
change the significance of this established pathway to care.
Seeing the dargahs as social healing institutions does not
necessarily erase the looming questions about human rights. Just
as human rights violations can happen in all kinds of community
spaces, such as schools, hospitals and offices, they can happen in
the faith healing sector also. The push of the neoliberal economic
development process has its impact on such centres, where the
powerful management can predate upon the poor, homeless and
deprived people living on the philanthropy of the centres because they
have no other livelihood option. Common law and extant human
rights laws have a big role to play in bringing human rights sensitivity
into the faith healing sector. In the healers’ workshops that we did
at the end of our project (2007), the faith healers acknowledged this
and talked about establishing a collective that will develop good
practices. The need for such initiatives is indeed immense.


Financial support for this study (2003–2006) was provided by the

IDPAD/ICSSR. The Bapu Trust, Pune, housed the program and
provided appreciable administrative and library support. Deepra
Dandekar, the project co-coordinator, and Deepak Salunke were
Recovering from Psychosocial Traumas 275

other team members, whose contributions are deeply appreciated.

Mira Oke, P Joglekar and Sadhana Natu provided ethical and
technical advisory inputs for which we are very grateful.


1 Writ 562 of 2001, Saarthak and Achal Bhagat versus Union of

India, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Ministry of
Health, Disabilities Commissioner and other state Governments.
2 The Mental Health Act, 1987 is a penal Act regulating mental
institutions. It provides the necessary powers to state machinery
(government, hospital, families and police) to detain mentally-ill
people involuntarily in specified institutions.
3 Times of India, 8 July 2001, ‘Story of the shackled in Hyderabad’,
featuring Syed Meeran Hussaini Quadri Bagdad in Hyderabad;
ibid., ‘Nine chained in Patiala too’; Hindustan Times, 19 August
2001, ‘Erwadi waiting to happen near Delhi’ featuring the Shastriji
Dharamshala run by a vaidya at Faridabad near Delhi,.
4 15 March 2001, Affidavit filed by Health Secretary, Government
of Kerala.
5 28 February 2002, Affidavit filed by the Principal Secretary, Health
and Family Welfare Department of Punjab, Chandigarh
6 26 February 2002, Affidavit filed Chief Secretary, Government of
7 18 March 2002, Affidavit filed by Jt Commissioner and Incharge
Special Officer, Legal Cell, Government of AP.
8 18 March 2002, Affidavit filed by Jt Commissioner and Incharge
Special Officer, Legal Cell, Government of AP.
9 ‘Solitary confinement’ or the ‘cage beds’ are small 6x6 cage-like
rooms, walled on three sides and grilled on the fourth. They are
bare cells with no bedding, fans, toilets, or anything. Persons
restrained here often are reduced to living naked for days or even
months. Food is passed through a small hole in the grill. The persons
entombed here are forced to urinate and defecate in the open and
are at the mercy of the staff for better hygiene. All private and
public institutions have cage beds. The existence of such ‘facilities’
has been challenged before the Supreme Court.
10 11 August 2001, Saturday, ‘Faith healing centres for mentally ill to
be monitored’, The Hindu.
276 Bhargavi V. Davar and Madhura Lohokare

11 10 August 2001, ‘Another Yerwadi is right next door: Temple town

in Rajasthan offers kill-or-cure treatment for mentally disabled’,
The Indian Express, New Delhi.
12 9 August 2001, Thursday, Maharashtra Herald, ‘Ban misuse of
faith healing: Those shielding asylum owners should be charged.’
13 8 August 2001, ‘No chains at Asia’s largest mental hospital’,
Wednesday, Pune Times. At the point of writing this article, a public
interest litigation is pending before the Bombay High court against
the said hospital.
14 M. Lohokare and B. V. Davar (2008; under review) ‘Client–provider
relationships in indigenous healing traditions: Two case studies’.

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