The mystic bone-setter of Srinagar
For 38 years, a traditional healer marrying Unani practices with Sufi mysticism has been setting bones and mending fractures in the Kashmir capital
For nearly four decades, many a resident of Srinagar has relied on Ghulam Mohammad, a mystic traditional healer, to work his bone-fixing magic.
Like Ashiq Reshi, 47, a driver by profession, who visited him three months into a bout of severe cervicalgia, which presented itself as an unbearable headache. Reshi had been to a doctor and was taking three paracetamol tablets a day to manage the pain. “If I forgot to take a pill for headache for one time during the day, I had to take the day off right away from work. Such was the intensity of the headache."
We speak after his second visit to “Papa’s clinic at Ali Kadal", on a humid Sunday morning. “When I visited Papa two weeks ago, the severe headache had made my life a misery, but after my consultation with him, I stopped taking pills, and now I am as fit as an athlete," he tells me in Kashmiri.
Over the years, Ghulam Mohammad, popularly known as ‘‘Papa", has gained a loyal following, with people flocking to his Ali Kadal clinic in downtown Srinagar. Mohammed, a bone fixer, Unani practitioner and faith healer, has been treating fractures, herniated disks and dislocations since 1982, having learnt the skill from his father, a cloth merchant and part-time vaatan-gor (bone-setter).
“My father would diagnose a fracture with his hand," says Mohammed, who speaks haltingly but with intensity. “One day, an elderly lady came to visit my father. He told her, ‘Lady, you have a 3-inch fracture.’ She scoffed and went to a leading orthopaedician of the time. He did an X-ray and said ‘you have a fracture of 3 inches, and it has to be plastered’. After that incident, she revered my father."
After his father’s death, Mohammed honed his skills, learning about herbal medicine from a Srinagar-based Unani doctor, Syed Abdullah Andrabi. But he felt that was not enough. “It is important that you have a spiritual teacher in this field. I needed some heavenly help."
He found his mentor after a friend arranged a meeting with a Sufi saint, Peer Gyasuddin, who lived 60km away from Srinagar, in Baramulla district. The relationship lasted 40 years, ending only in 2016 with the death of Peer Gyasuddin, reportedly at the age of 105.
“Seventy-five per cent of what I am doing is given by Allah and His divine powers," says Mohammed.
“Sometimes patients come and they have multiple fractures, their bones are broken into three parts and doctors have prescribed surgery for them. But then I say Bismillah and join the bone together and start the process. That person comes after 15 days and is fully recovered. That is where spirituality comes in." I saw two patients at the clinic who claimed they had recovered in 20 days.
As the crowd ebbs on that busy Sunday, Mohammad turns to his last patient, Hilal Ahmad. He listens intently as Ahmad tells him he twisted his foot while playing football and hasn’t been able to walk properly since. He says he has consulted multiple doctors but the pain hasn’t subsided; the foot has been in plaster twice. As he tries to show him an X-ray, Mohammed shakes his head. “I don’t look at X-rays, I diagnose by my hand," he says.
He puts some herbal ointment on Ahmad’s foot, covers it with a piece of cloth, closes his eyes for a moment and recites a few Quranic verses. He prescribes milk-steam therapy for the foot every night and asks Ahmad to return in eight days.
“I don’t prescribe modern medicines because I am not a doctor. Most of our medicines are Unani, including some home-made herbs," says Mohammed.
Over the years, people have developed faith in Mohammad, who does not charge a fee. People donate whatever they wish to. Ahmad drops a 100-rupee note in the Hadiya (renumeration) box on his way out.
Mirza Arif, an allopathic doctor based in Delhi, says faith and belief keep traditional healers in business. “Psychologically, our mind plays a vital role in healing. Although they may cure people, there is no scientific proof about what they do. While we, on the other hand, diagnose patients on the basis of scientific research." Traditional healers also tend to be the first stop for low-income patients who cannot afford the consultation fees of a orthopaedic doctor.
“The skill that lasted for decades and saved people during the toughest times, including the 2014 Kashmir floods when all the major hospitals were shut, will not last for long," muses Mohammed. “Although I guide my son.... We can’t force our children to learn any skill if they don’t have a burning passion in their hearts." His son Javid, apprenticing under him, does not have “the spiritual capacity", rues Mohammed.
Many among the young generation, in fact, are reluctant to practise traditional healing systems since few now put their faith in it—and if they are attracted to medicine, they would prefer to become orthopaedicians rather than traditional bone-setters.
“I will tell you a secret," whispers Mohammed. “It’s neither me nor the medicine that do the work.... In reality, the spiritual secrets which Peer Gyasuddin bestowed on me make it happen."
Shoaib Shafi is a writer and independent journalist who reports from Delhi and Srinagar.