Hiralal Tandilkar (50) holds aloft a pristine white rooster and whispers into the bird’s ear. The rooster nods, as roosters are wont to do.
A sigh of relief spreads through the crowd gathered on the hilltop for the annual Dussehra sacrifice.
The bird, it seems, has given its consent to being slaughtered.
Tandilkar, the bhoomka (witchdoctor) then yells: “Jai Kali Kalkattewali! (Long Live Kali of Kolkata)” and a fraction of a second later the rooster has been decapitated, blood oozing from the open wound in its neck into the waters of the Sipna river.
In a minute, the bhoomka has fallen backwards into the river with another loud yell, thrashing the mildly red waters for several minutes. Goddess Kali has entered his being and he is now good for another year.
As he rises from the river, shaking the water from his locks, he has the expression of someone with a job well done.
“Bhakti mein hi shakti hai (Only in devotion is there true strength),” he says. “We are all at the mercy of God here.”
Not quite. The bhoomkas of Melghat have been part of an experimental project for several years, ever since then Rajya Sabha MP Dr Shrikant Jichkar spotted their potential in treating Adivasis suffering from malnutrition and other basic diseases.
The Adivasis have tremendous faith in their witchdoctors, and a tremendous mistrust of modern medicine and allopathic doctors.
So Jichkar set aside part of his MP fund to train and offer incentives to witchdoctors who agreed to hand out basic drugs and perform first-aid on their followers.
For, as Tandilkar says, “real” witchdoctors do not even use traditional herbs to treat the sick. They just pray to Kali and hope that she will cure them.
Dr Jichkar’s scheme worked so well that soon local officials were roping in witchdoctors ahead of anti-malaria drives and Pulse Polio campaigns.
But then, says Hariram Malaviya, a local council member, NGOs got into the act and cut out the bhoomkas.
“The kind of money that comes from the government for Adivasi welfare became good business for them,” he says. “Most of them bought up land around Melghat and stopped treating the Adivasis. And the witchdoctors slipped back into their old ways.”
Now, the initiative has returned with renewed strength, as aanganwadi (government-run creche) teachers and local nurses are roped in, and are even helping treat children for malnutrition.
But the bhoomka remains the foundation of this rather unorthodox healthcare system.
“It is difficult to break the aastha (faith) of the people in the bhoomkas,” says Sunanda Bethe, the 24-year-old sarpanch of Kadhav village. “If we cut out the witchdoctors, the locals will not agree to the treatment at all.”
Take Gangarma Bethe (35). He is convinced that his five-month-long malarial attack was cured by the bhoomka. “I tried the dawakhana (government dispensary). But only the Devi could cure me,” he grins.
Sunanda could tell him about the medicines she slipped into his food, which eventually cured the fever.
But she doubts it would help change his mind. “We do the job, but Kali gets the credit,” she smiles.