Inside the Friday Convention: Kashmiri Youngsters as Healers — by Mir Yasir Mukhtar

Apr 21, 2021

Mir Yasir Mukhtar presents a visual story about the age-old practice of leech therapy from his native Srinagar, with photographs taken at the onset of the current pandemic. Hirudinaria manillensis, or the Asian medicinal leech, secretes saliva and enzymes containing a wide variety of proteins that clear toxins from the human body, apart from serving as an anticoagulant, inhibitor, anti-inflammatory anesthetic and vasodilator. Hirudotherapy is more common than not in multiple parts of the world and has been classified as a medical device by the US FDA as of 2004. Mukhtar's story revolves around an 18-year-old Hirudotherapist named Danish, who if called upon with the virally acclaimed cry, "Danishaa, kalle haa phot!" (translated "Danish, my head is exploding!"), gets to work by carrying out this centuries-old Kashmiri variant of the practice.

18-year-old Danish Muzaffar bids goodbye to his mother while carrying a bedsheet and a first aid kit in his school bag. He starts his scooter and travels a few miles from his home through the alleyways of his neighborhood to reach Dargah.

Dargah Sharif (Hazratbal) is a holy shrine that lies on the northern shores of the famous Dal lake and is considered as the holiest shrine of Kashmir for its Muslim-majority population. As one of the most revered religious places in Kashmir, the shrine is blessed with the Moi-e-Muqaddas, a relic that is widely believed to contain the hair of Prophet Mohammad.

It is 7 a.m. on the clock. As Danish reaches the shrine, he leaves his bag in a corner of the market, which looks deserted at this early hour. With not too many people around, Danish paces his walk to buy a packet of cigarettes to last him for the day of work. The shopkeepers in the market haven’t arrived yet, so he walks along the shores of the Dal for some fresh air. The shores of the lake are painted with colorful boats as vegetables are laid on them for sale later in the day. The Char-Chinar tree is also reflected on the lake, while the boatmen remain visible as they cast their fishing nets into the lake’s dormant waters.

Danish sits on the banks, all the while taking intermittent puffs off a cigarette and resting for some time as people start to visit the market. He looks lost within his surroundings when all of a sudden, his cousin screams out his name, calling for him to open his stall. In response, he walks back to the market. He opens his bag and lays the sheet out and sits on the road. Along with him, some other young boys of his age follow the same procedure. The street vendors are practitioners, otherwise known as Hakeems (doctors) in the local community. He greets every young man who has laid a stall next to his. They hail from his locality and they also have learned the practice of leech therapy from their ancestors. “I have grown up watching my late grandfather who was a known practitioner in early 80’s. Being an apprentice of my grandfather, I learned this art from him and after his death I have started the practice and become one of the Hakeems in the community,” he affirms as he prepares to receive the day’s patients.

Leech therapy in Kashmir is an old tradition that has been practiced since decades. The practice remains widespread in many other parts of the world such as Iran, Ancient Egypt, India, the Arabian Peninsula, and Greece, among others. In Kashmir, it is usually done on the particular day of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of the new year on the Persian calendar. Apart from treating people on Nowruz, the practitioners gather every Friday and practice this age-old therapy. “Kashmiris believe that the significance of taking leech therapy on Nowruz heals all skin ailments such as skin diseases, dental problems, nervous system issues, inflammation, and chilblains” he says as people start to gather.

It has become a routine for every Friday when the youngsters converge at Dargah to practice leech therapy for their livelihood. “We come here every Friday hoping to serve customers who come here to heal their pains,” says 18-year-old Arsalan, another young Hakeem in this rare profession.

When placed on certain parts of the body, leeches begin their work by sucking the impure blood from a patient’s body. They have three jaws with tiny rows of teeth with which they pierce a person’s skin, inserting or injecting anticoagulants through their saliva. “Two to three leeches are placed on a single patient. After placing the leeches on our patients, we take-out the blood from the leech after use. Mostly leeches have a two to three day life span after use, some even die after sucking the impure blood from the patient,” he adds.

The leeches are imported from Uttar Pradesh and even from Pakistan. “A single leech costs Rs. 50, and we charge 60 to 70 rupees from each patient,” Danish continues.

The Hajam clan of people mostly practice this form of therapy. There are almost 15 to 16 such families in the Taibal locality, 12 kilometers from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir.

A Kashmiri man receives leech therapy on his ears in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir. Practitioners of the centuries-old alternative form of treatment use leeches to suck impure blood from the affected patient to treat various ailments. Though overshadowed by allopathic treatment over the years, people from various parts of Kashmir travel to the Hazratbal market every Friday to avail the benefits of this therapy. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

Danish takes the impure blood from a leech after it has been used on a Kashmiri man who received leech therapy. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

An elderly Kashmiri man cleans the blood from a girl’s foot after she receives leech therapy. The child clear expresses dismay at the sight of blood. Her mother waits for the elderly man to finish so she can comfort her. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

A Kashmiri man receives leech therapy on his face. With eyes closed, he waits for the Hakeem to conclude this Friday’s session. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

Danish places a bandage on a Kashmiri man after giving him leech therapy. The bandage may stay on for a whole day or even just a few hours after the leeches have absorbed all the toxins from the man’s body. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

A group of Kashmiri patients wait their turn as a woman receives leech therapy. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

Ghulam Muhammad Wali, a senior practitioner since the 80’s gives leech therapy to Kashmiri girls. Some of them maintain a focus on the process, while others are caught with a smile on their faces. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

Kashmiri boys stand after receiving leech therapy. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

A Kashmiri man receives leech therapy on his back in Srinagar. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

Blood drips from the feet of a child patient after receiving leech therapy. Photo by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

BONUS MATERIAL: LEECH THERAPY WITH BETH HOYT

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About the Contributor

Mir Yasir Mukhtar is a freelance photojournalist based in Kashmir. He is developing his craft and skillset while looking to learn and further a career in the photographic industry. Yasir has captured day-to-day events in Kashmir, specializing in people’s movement, human portraits, nature landscapes and documentary features. Yasir has recently been published by Free Press Kashmir and other publications in Kashmir.