Folk Healing Traditions

Research on folk healing practices is an on-going project of Science and Society program’s History of Indian Healing Traditions.

Besides the scholarly Ashtavaidya tradition of Kerala, many hereditary healers who specialized in specific maladies, such as poison therapy (vishachikitsa), children’s diseases (balachikitsa), diseases of the mind (manasika chikitsa) and bone setting, and women who specialized in childbirth related therapies, were an important part of traditional medical care. Below we present a resume of our studies of four healers from different parts of Kerala. One is a Carmalite monk from a small village near Kottayam, the second a tribal healer from Attapady in Wayanad, the third a Mannan healer from a village near Trithala in Malabar, and the fourth a Nambuthiri Brahmin from a village near Trishur. While most are not learned in text-based classical knowledge, they are immensely skilled in therapies using regional medicinal plants. Their skills and knowledge are at risk of being lost since new mandates on medical practice require certification and qualifications they do not have.

Annamma Spudich spent time in early 2000 with two such healers renowned for their knowledge of healing plants, a Carmelite monk specialist in poison therapy, and a tribal healer from Attapady in Wayanad. Between 2010 and 2012 Indudharan Menon interviewed and observed the practice of two healers, a Mannan folk healer who is a child specialist, and an erudite Nambuthiri who practices poison therapy and also heals elephants. These healers reflect the broad distribution of traditional medical knowledge in Kerala.

A Monk Vaidya

Reverend Anthony Panackal, a Carmelite monk vaidya had been practicing poison therapy in rural Kerala for 40 years when I met him. His knowledge and practice were finely tuned to the regional medicines and specific needs of the region. As with many European mission houses Carmelite monks have a long history of involvement in healthcare in India.

Brother Anthony’s poison clinic located in a small village near Kottayam consisted of a small office-consulting room, three rooms for in-patients and a small kitchen for the use of patients and their families. People from all over Kerala came for consultation to the clinic, referred by biomedical physicians unable to cure long-term ulcerations of the skin resulting from some poison bites. An intriguing aspect of the clinic was the vast collection of clear glass jars outside Reverend Anthony’s office with insects and snakes common to Kerala preserved in formaldehyde. These preserved specimens helped patients identify quickly the source of the poisons so he could decide on the necessary treatments without delay.


In rural and hilly areas of Kerala poisonous bites are a problem for people working in the fields and for children playing in the dense vegetation that surround houses. If a patient came for treatment within two hours after being bitten, Reverend Anthony explained that application of a freshly prepared “single drug remedy” to the wound could save the patient’s life and halt the accompanying muscle and skin injury. His therapies were also reputed to cure chronic skin disorders not satisfactorily treated by modern medicine.

The Poison Treatment center in Rural Kerala

There was an extensive herbal garden of medicinal plants in the center for use of in-patients. Reverend Anthony also maintained a garden of heirloom medicinal plants brought to him “for safe keeping,” by families that had maintained them for generations. For his medicinal plant work he was honored with the Nagarjuna Trophy for heritage plant preservation.

In the tradition of the healing practitioners of Kerala he believed that efficacy of his medicines depend on correct harvesting, preparation and application of medicines, and he therefore did or supervised all those activities himself. The clinic charged only nominal fees and was supported almost entirely by the Carmelite mission house.

His training with an elder monk herbalist physician started when he was a novice monk still in his teens, and for many years he learned how to diagnose and treat different poisons. One-year diploma in medicinal plant biology at the Ayurvedic medical college in Trivandrum, added to his training by apprenticeship. In a few years he was to pass on to a young monk-physician his knowledge culled from years of dedicated work, the hand written book of cherished therapies handed down to him, the clinic and the herbal gardens he so carefully cultivated.

Brother Anthony maintained that while his knowledge of herbal medicines may be extensive, his role as a vaidya was inherently tied to his role as a Carmelite monk in service to his God and to his fellow man. And in this belief he and the Ashtavaidya physicians agree, that practice of traditional medicine is an intellectual and spiritual quest and service is an important aspect of their practice.

A Tribal Healer from Wayanad

The mountain ranges of Wayanad are rich reserves of bio-diversity of ancient lineage and many plants found there are of medicinal value. For centuries the tribal people, “adivasis,” living in and around these forested areas have used medicinal herbs as their first line of defense against diseases. Many tribal healers are renowned for extensive knowledge of regional medicinal plants, especially for the use of single drug remedies known as “ottamoolis.” Tribal knowledge has contributed significantly to region specific medical knowledge of India for centuries.

Outside a tribal forested area near the district of Palghat I met an Irula tribal healer, the headman who is the medicine man and the shaman of his tribe. Prof. V. P. K. Nambiar a retired professor of Botany and a specialist in the flora of the Western Ghat, familiar the tribal speech facilitated communication with the healer.

As the healer of his tribe, the headman was well versed in the identification and uses of the medicinal herbs in the surrounding forest. He dealt with skin diseases, ailments of the digestive system and fevers with medicines he himself prepared. While his knowledge is entirely experience based, Prof. Nambiar confirmed that the healer’s selection of medicinal plants and their corresponding illnesses overlap with the practices of Kerala Ayurvedic remedies, suggesting that indigenous folk knowledge had become part of the classical pharmacology.

He was very guarded about the sites he collects from, however he works very closely with a project to collect seedlings of endangered medicinal plants for cultivation and propagation in controlled habitats.

In addition to the medicinal herbs the tribal healer’s healing practices included rituals, chants and song therapy, which he considered sacred, and specific for diseases of the mind. There was much overlap in his practice as an herbalist, and as a practitioner of magical healing since healing plants are considered sacred and having magical properties. While he mostly deals with fevers, digestive complaints and childhood diseases, most lucrative area of his practice involves the magical remedies that he performs using herbal extracts and chants for diseases of the mind, “spirit possessions.” His descriptions of how magic and herbal healing practice overlap gave us glimpses of the basis for the reverence with which trees and plants have been held in Indian society.

This tribal healer learned his craft as a young man from an older healer and also from elders who practiced their own specific healing methods. There is no established pattern of passing on the herbal medical information from generation to generation in this tribe and he was ambivalent about teaching someone else the magical-medical knowledge he had accumulated during his lifetime. Like many healers who deal in magical-medicine he believed that the efficacy of his cures was tied to their being closely guarded secrets. However the project he participates in, to teach proper identification and propagation of plant remedies most commonly used by his people, goes part way towards passing on his knowledge of regional medicinal plants.

The culture and knowledge of these traditional healers of Kerala, like these two practitioners I interviewed, are most in danger of becoming absorbed into the changes happening in Kerala and India. Much of their knowledge is oral, regional, individually based and closely guarded as in the case of the tribal healer. Locating and accurately documenting their knowledge and culture healing is an important aspect of our work.

A Mannan folk healer from Malabar

In 2009 Indudharan Menon interviewed a Mannan folk healer in rural Malabar. In Kerala, Mannan healers are traditionally known for their ability to cure children’s diseases and are consulted by people from all layers of the society. Even the elite Brahmin Ashtavaidya physicians in some cases consult Mannans when their children fall ill. Their ancient and ancestral methods of healing include both medicines and rituals. They also function as exorcists and some Mannans supposedly practice black magic. Women of the Mannan caste generally work as washerwomen but are also known for their knowledge of midwifery. The number of Mannans practicing healing has diminished in the last few decades, and Mannans of the younger generation are no longer interested in following their traditional vocation. Moreover, most Mannans who do practice healing have abandoned many of their traditional methods and opted for Ayurvedic medicines and concepts. Nevertheless, Mannans still have a reputation in rural Kerala of being good child specialists.

Mannan M****, a 65 years old Mannan healer Indudharan Menon interviewed, lives in a village near Trithala, not far from the banks of the Nila river. His father, Mannan Aandi, was well known locally as a healer and exorcist. He followed his family tradition of healing that used rituals, incantations, amulets and homemade medicines. Mannan M**** made it a point to say that he had not spent much time learning the ancestral Mannan folk healing practices of his father and that he does not practice the kind of healing his father and ancestors did. While in his early twenties he had decided to go study with a local Naadan Vaidyan (the Malayalam name for a rural healer). Naadan Vaidyans in Kerala generally practice their ancestral methods of healing, but most of them have been influenced by Ayurveda as well. They use both Kerala-specific medicinal preparations as well as those from Ayurvedic texts, and tend to use Ayurvedic concepts while interacting with patients. By studying with a Naadan Vaidyan as an apprentice for about 6 years, Mannan M**** distanced himself from his Mannan origins and hoped to moved up, so to say, socially. He went on to learn more about the techniques of manufacturing Ayurvedic medicines with another Naadan Vaidyan. Mannan M**** said he had read Malayalam translation of works like Ashtangahrdayam (an important classical Sanskrit work on Ayurveda) and Sahasrayogam (a collection of medicinal formulae popular in Kerala). His teachers had made him learn by heart a number of verses in vernacular that give the compostion of Ayurvedic and folk medicinal formulae, a method of learning that was once an essential part of a Naadan Vaidyan's or an Ayurvedic physician's period of apprenticeship. Although in the past pediatrics was a specialty of his Mannan ancestors, it was from his Naadan Vaidyan teachers that Mannan M**** had learnt methods for treating children.

When he started practising as a healer he added the honorific title Vaidyar (physician in Malayalam) to his name. He called himself M**** Vaidyar and stopped using Mannan, his family caste name. He had a dispensary in the village market where patients came to consult him and buy medicinal plants and the medicinal compounds that he used make. Patients would buy his prepared medicines or would buy medicinal plants and prepare medicines in their homes by following his instructions. Once pharmaceutical companies opened Ayurvedic pharmacies in his village, his patients stopped buying his prepared medicines and medicinal herbs. Since a major part of his income came from the sales of his medicines, he closed his dispensary-cum-pharmacy some ten years ago. Now he visits patients in their homes, the way his father and ancestors did in the past. Although he has made a name for himself in his region as a Mannan child specialist, he is now mainly sought after for preparing rare massage oils, tonics and aphrodisiacal formulae that are not manufactured by big Ayurvedic pharmaceutical companies. Since no one in his family has followed his footsteps, it appears that the last remnants of an ancestral family tradition of healing will disappear with him.

A Nambuthiri Vishachikitsa (poison therapy) specialist and healer of elephants

Vishachikitsa, poison therapy, especially for snakebites, is practiced in Kerala by healers belonging to different castes and religions. Members of certain Nambuthiri Illams (Nambuthiri households) in Kerala are famous for their expertise in healing snakebites. Most Nambuthiris and many of the literate healers now base their practice on techniques and medicinal formulae mentioned in the Ashtangahrdayam, a Sanskrit text, and Malayalam texts like Visha Jyotsnika, Prayoga Samucchayam, Visha Narayaniyam, Lakshanamrtam and Kriya Kaumudi. Some healers practice orally transmitted ancestral techniques handed down from father to son. Since tribals living in the forest are very vulnerable to bites from snakes and poisonous insects, most tribal healers are well-versed in the use of antidotes derived from medicinal plants and other substances found in their environment. There are also some folk healers who practice their own methods of poison therapy, often claiming that they received powers and knowledge from a divine source.

In 2011 and in 2012 Indudharan Menon conducted a number of interviews with Avanaparambu Maheshwaran Nambuthiri, a 80 year old healer who practices poison therapy in a village near Trishur. He practices the tradition of his ancestors but has also learnt a lot from Sanskrit and Malayalam texts. He is a highly respected erudite scholar of Sanskrit works on Ayurveda and knows the history of poison therapy (vishachikitsa) pracitices of Kerala. He is also well known as a physician for elephants (gajavaidya) and treats elephants used for temple festivals in Kerala as well as those used in forests for transporting timber. During the interviews, he gave detailed accounts of his methods of healing snakebites and other forms of poisoning and the special medicinal formulae he uses. Some of the medicinal plants he uses, many of which are roots, can be potentially interesting for modern research in toxicology and medicine.

Further interviews and videotaping of his treating elephants will be conducted in the near future. We are analyzing his interviews and will be publishing our conclusions on the website.