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 Fish Medicine: Swallowing Faith

 
Fish Medicine: Swallowing Faith
Dr Sreedevi Yadavalli
 
The ailment:Asthma

The treatment: An alternative, even traditional form of medicine, administered by the members of a family of practitioners called the Bathini Gouds, on a particular day called Mrigasira Karthi, which heralds the monsoons and falls on 8th June this year.

The location:
Hyderabad’s Industrial Exhibition Grounds, an open ground huge enough to cater to the masses of people expected to come in from all over the country seeking the miracle cure – the actual number eluded my research – it was “lakhs” according to Bathini Harinath Goud, “half a million” according to the 2003 BBC and CNN reports, and “28,000” according to the State Fisheries Department’s information for 2008.

By speaking about the Fisheries Department, we build up to the almost improbable sounding next two pieces of information.
 
A ball of the herbal medicine – a yellowish paste – is placed inside a live murrel fish, and thrust into the patient’s throat to be swallowed entirely, without a water chaser. The small live fish supposedly clears the phlegm as it wriggles down the gullet.
The medication: Herbal medicine handed down the family tree by Veeranna Goud who was first handed the secret ‘formula’ by a ‘holy man’ in the year 1845. For the past 160 years, five generations of Bathini Gouds have ensured that the formula remained a closely guarded secret.

The administration: A ball of the herbal medicine – a yellowish paste – is placed inside a live murrel fish, and thrust into the patient’s throat to be swallowed entirely, without a water chaser. The small live fish supposedly clears the phlegm as it wriggles down the gullet. Nevertheless, following this, the patient must go on a strictly recommended 45-day diet of 25 different foods, so as to be cured of asthma. This process needs to be repeated for four consecutive years.

What You read that right – swallow a live fish. Gulp!
I just had to interview these Goud brothers to find out more, and caught up with Bathini Harinath Goud, an elderly man, the third of five brothers among the fourth generation of practitioners, who spoke in chaste Telugu.
  • Your fish medicine certainly has a very uniquely intriguing manner of administration.
    Please call it fish prasadam (food that has been first offered to god). After all, it was handed to our family by a holy man. As part of the legacy, we practice strict religious prayers before administering the prasadam.

    Also, since we face criticism from the pharma companies about the use of the word ‘medicine’, we’ve decided to do away with the word.
Once, PC Alexander, Indira Gandhi’s (Principal) Secretary, offered to fly us five brothers out to various states so we could cure asthmatics all across the country, but we refused because we are bound by our vow to our guru.
  • Haven’t you been deterred by all the criticism?
    We welcome criticism. It actually attracts more publicity for us, and we are happy if we can cure more and more people with our prasadam. Our greatest publicity is actually word-of- mouth, coming from our patients who come from all corners of the country to take the recommended dosage – every Mrigasira Karti for four consecutive years – to be cured of their asthma, and there have been no side-effects reported for the past 160 years.

    What people have realized is that despite all the criticism, no laboratory in the country has ever been able to establish anything wrong with our medication. Even the High Court has ruled in our favour.
(The Andhra Pradesh High Court Division Bench, in January 2006, declined to interfere and pass orders regarding the administration of the fish medicine. They reasoned that since the treatment had no medicinal value as established by the petitioners, and laboratory analyses had reported the samples as not harmful, so “if people flock to have a substance out of faith, the courts cannot interfere.”)
 
  • Since, you do not practice your traditional fish medicine healing for any monetary gain (it is free, with the Fisheries Department charging Rs 10/- per live murrel fish), what is your family’s source of income?
    Traditionally, our forefathers were toddy (a palm wine) tappers. Being uneducated, we faced many hardships in the earlier days, because our forefather’s vow to the holy man was not to use the medicine for any commercial gain.

    To fulfill the vow, we had to invest our own money in making the medicine. My father, Shankar Goud, had to once sell our house to raise funds for the preparation of the medication. Due to God’s grace, we are considerably better off now. Our children are educated and earning – my son is in Australia. We own some houses and earn revenue through leasing them. But every year, we continue to honour our legacy, and the five families of Bathini brothers’ pool in money to prepare the herbal medication.
     
  • What is the expense involved?
    I cannot comment on that, but I must say that my family only invests in the preparation of the herbal medication. Other logistics are taken care of by the State Government and a few NGOs – after all, it isn’t easy to organize the event on the mammoth scale that is required to cater to the lakhs of people who seek our cure.

     
  • But according to newspaper reports, there was a noticeable decline in the number of people who sought fish medicine last year.
    Not true at all. On the contrary, there was an increase. We normally administer the medicine for twenty four hours at the venue, but we had to stretch that to another three days to accommodate everyone, especially those who had come in from other states.
     
  • What would you attribute the success of your medicine to?
    To divine grace. After all, our family was the chosen one to execute this divine work. We have been meticulously following all the instructions as ordained by the holy man who first chose our forefather for this task.

    Currently, twenty-two of our family members know the formula. We all follow the dictum as ordained by the holy man who we consider our guru – we do not practice for commercial gain; we do not reveal the formula to outsiders; we do not practice any place else, or on any other date apart from the Mrigasira Karthi day.

    All these years, we have never advertised, nor have we promoted ourselves or our cure in any way, but the fame of our remedy has spread far and wide. In fact, we’ve had to deal with a good number of imitators in other cities who claim to offer the “genuine” Hyderabad Fish Medicine, and they even sell it for a fee!
     
  • Weren’t you ever tempted to break any of those stipulations? By your own admission, the going was financially tough on your family, so you could have sought commercial gains, or your son could practice it in Australia...
    Absolutely not! We cannot break our vow, for it will negate the efficacy of our cure, as told by our guru. Of course, many people have approached us offering huge sums of money in exchange for the secret formula, but we never compromised.

    Once, PC Alexander, Indira Gandhi’s (Principal) Secretary, offered to fly us five brothers out to various states so we could cure asthmatics all across the country, but we refused because we are bound by our vow to our guru.

    The practice of our traditional medicine is like a penance for us. We prepare it every year on the appointed day, offer it to God first of all, take some of the prasadam ourselves, and only then administer it to our patients.

    
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