How can we better understand healing rituals in ethnic communities?
A Tangam (Adi) man performing a sacrificial ritual called Lenget to heal joint pains and body aches for his father in Upper Siang District, Arunachal Pradesh, India.

The origins of healing rituals in tribal societies can be traced back to ancient times when these communities relied on their innate knowledge of local flora and fauna for treating ailments. Over generations, this knowledge evolved into a holistic approach that embraced a strong belief in the interconnectedness of nature, humans, and the divine (Smith, 2008). Since time immemorial, healing rituals have been practised in tribal societies, representing an integral part of their cultural and social fabric.

These rituals encompass a deeper connection between mind, body, and spirit, transcending conventional medical practices. While the application of ethnomedicinal knowledge is evident in these practices, it is essential to recognize that healing goes beyond tangible remedies and is rooted in the profound belief systems of these communities. The healing rituals in tribal societies have a unique approach to well-being and the interplay between traditional knowledge and faith.

Interplay of Belief Systems

Healing rituals within tribal societies are intricately intertwined with their belief systems, focusing on spiritual forces, ancestral connections, and a higher divine presence. These communities perceive illness as an outcome of disharmony existing between the individual and the cosmic equilibrium. As a result, their approaches to healing are centred around the restoration of this equilibrium, aiming to attain holistic well-being that encompasses the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects (Johnson, 2013).

In the context of the Tangam community, a lesser-known ethnic group residing in Arunachal Pradesh, a distinct belief system governs their understanding of health and illness. According to their worldview, any ailments or bodily discomforts are attributed to supernatural influences. To address these afflictions, the Tangam community employs ritualistic remedies that have been passed down through generations.

For instance, ailments such as body aches, headaches, and joint pains are attributed to a specific deity known as Apo Nachung, believed to reside within the attic of their dwellings. On the other hand, dysentery and diarrhoea are attributed to a malevolent spirit named Nyipo. This spirit, dreaded within the Tangam society, is associated with causing harm and distress to individuals.

Additionally, the Tangam community holds the belief that instances of unnatural deaths are linked to the transformation of benevolent spirits into malevolent entities, necessitating appeasement rituals.

This intricate interplay of belief systems and healing practices underscores the profound influence of spirituality and ancestral connections on the way the Tangam people perceive and address physical and spiritual well-being.

A shamanic tradition

The essence of shamanic practices within oral societies underscores the delicate interplay between the tangible and intangible realms. Here, shamans assume the role of intermediaries, facilitating healing, purifying energies, and harmonising forces that extend far beyond the realm of the physical. Within animist ethnic societies, where written language is absent and oral traditions prevail, shamans hold a significant role as repositories of accumulated wisdom.

These revered individuals possess a unique connection to the spirit world, serving as intermediaries bridging the gap between the mundane realm and the supernatural domain. Notably, in such oral societies, shamans are pivotal figures in orchestrating healing rituals, assuming responsibility for the intricate process.

The realm of shamanic healing entails elaborate ceremonies, encompassing elements like chanting, dancing, and the utilisation of sacred herbs to expel negative energies and reinstate harmonious balance (Brown, 2016). A central aspect of shamanic healing is purification. This critical facet revolves around the expulsion of malevolent forces and the cultivation of healing energies through purificatory and appeasement rituals.

These rituals often incorporate practices such as animal sacrifices, offerings, and libations. The purifying agents in the purification rituals are ginger, rice, traditional alcoholic beverages, as well as sacred plants and artefacts. These elements symbolise the cleansing of impurities and the act of propitiating both deities and sentient beings.

The purification rituals hold the purpose of appeasing unsatisfied spirits that possess the potential to manifest as either malevolent or benevolent entities. By engaging in acts of appeasement and dispersion, shamanic practitioners aim to pacify these spirits. This is facilitated through the use of purificatory agents, the construction of altars, chants, incantations and animal sacrifices.

Community role in healing performances

Tribal healing rituals demonstrate a profound communal aspect, underlining the collective nature of well-being. In moments of illness or adversity, the entire community engages, solidifying the interconnectedness between individuals. During such times, community members gather to provide support in ritual performances and channel collective energy, all contributing to the process of healing. The shared faith in the effectiveness of these rituals amplifies their impact, creating a synergy between belief and action.

Moreover, these healing rituals extend to encompass community-wide participation aimed at preventing the onset of various epidemics. Notably, even in recent times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, ethnic groups have turned to community rituals to safeguard against the malevolent forces believed to be responsible for the outbreak. Surprisingly, these communities have managed to maintain a relatively healthier state during the pandemic.

Although this knowledge surpasses the boundaries of scientific explanation, its significance warrants documentation and further investigation. It serves as a testament to the intricate relationship between collective belief, community participation, and health outcomes. The anecdotal success of these practices during the pandemic highlights the potential benefits that could be gained from studying and understanding these rituals in a more systematic and scientific manner.

Contemporary challenges 

In recent times, the traditional healing practices of tribal societies have faced challenges due to modernisation, globalisation, and a shift toward Western medicine. These changes have led to the erosion of indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage. However, efforts to preserve and promote these healing rituals are underway, driven by the recognition of their unique value in maintaining holistic health. (UNESCO, 2021). In our efforts to protect and comprehend the array of healing practices, we not only preserve cultural diversity but also glean valuable insights into the human journey and the comprehensive nature of well-being.

The perception of tribal healing as primarily rooted in ethnomedicinal knowledge is, in fact, a misconception. Contrary to this notion, tribal healing practices are deeply intertwined with their belief systems that revolve around the natural world and the supernatural realm. As a result, these cultural practices, accumulated over time and passed down through generations, are currently facing threats and require safeguarding.

Regardless of the circumstances, the healing rituals within tribal societies stand as a resilient embodiment of traditional wisdom and belief structures. These practices go beyond mere medicinal remedies, serving as a testament to the intricate interconnectedness between the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.

While ethnomedicinal knowledge undoubtedly holds a crucial place in these healing traditions, it is the profound belief systems that truly infuse these rituals with their potent efficacy.

Views expressed are personal and do not reflect EastMojo’s stance.

About the Author:

Kaling Dabi manages the Centre of Excellence for Culture at Anamaya: Tribal Health Collaborative. He has authored numerous ethnolinguistic books and edited dictionaries that shed light on endangered languages and lesser-known ethnic groups in the enchanting region of Arunachal Pradesh.

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