Dr. Chilshu Chandran

India is home to many myths and rituals that are based purely on superstitions and almost never on scientific evidence. Warding off negative energies with lemon and chilies, the popular tradition of mynah chronicle, and applying kajal on a baby’s forehead are just a few of these beliefs and practices. Despite being the land of many ancient luminaries such as Aryabhatta, India is also a land where unfounded beliefs often eclipse knowledge and scientific evidence. Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of our population still trusts black threads over white pills. 

Cultural taboos refer to unwritten societal norms that define certain actions or behavior as socially unacceptable within a specific cultural context. These taboos vary significantly across diverse communities and even within a single tribe. These hold immense significance in shaping the health-seeking behavior of the community and may deter individuals from following recommended health practices. 

As a part of a research project that I was involved in, I had a first-hand interaction with various tribal communities in Kerala, where superstitions are often prioritized over medicine. On one of my visits to a tribal community, I met a mother who placed her faith in the power of rituals over treatment. She narrated how her child had suffered from a series of high fever episodes in the past week, attributing the misery to the effects of an evil eye. In search of a remedy, she approached a local priest who advised her to tie a black thread around the child’s neck to ward off the evil. She firmly believed that her child’s suffering was a punishment from God and that performing rituals was the only way to free the child from this curse. An enquiry about her reluctance to seek medical attention for her child, was met with disdain. The unshakeable belief of the mother on threads over pills prevented her from approaching the nearest health facility, leading to further deterioration of the child’s health.

This encounter had a profound impact on me, prompting me to ponder over the rationale and basis of this behaviour. For a public health professional, will it be enough to merely inform her that the practice cannot heal her child and that she should instead trust the scientifically proven option of medication? Unfortunately, a countless number of mothers subscribe to similar practices, having a mindset driven by delusion and ignorance. The colour of thread may vary, but the underlying mindset remains the same

Substance abuse was another such behavior observed in the tribal communities. These practices were often ingrained as familial traditions from an early age. The consumption of locally brewed alcoholic beverages such as toddy and betel chewing was diligently followed by women within these communities. The shift towards the consumption of commercially available liquor and tobacco is having a detrimental effect on the health of the individual. Specific communities also believe in their adherence to a tradition that prohibits them from eating food cooked by outsiders. They think that doing so will attract misfortune and affect their health.

Despite the countless efforts of Anganwadis to promote a balanced diet, these communities have never followed this concept, and the practice of consuming mere kanji (rice gruel) as the staple food still prevails in society. These practices show their unwavering faith in tradition.

Menstrual taboos have been rooted in these communities for ages. These are manifested in various forms, from restrictions on physical activity and social interaction to prohibitions on certain foods or practices. A customary practice that girls dutifully observe upon reaching menarche is secluding oneself outside the house during menstruation. The women are expected to stay at valapura (outhouse) and are restricted from consuming certain foods and drinks or entering religious places as a cultural imposition. The severity of these practices increases if they coincide with days of religious significance, such as Amavasya (lunar phase of the new moon) or temple days. 

Nevertheless, despite the remarkable progress made in medical sciences, from tackling pandemics to endemics, certain beliefs still hinder the efficacy of medical aid. These traces of customs that once served a purpose in the past now create impediments in the modern era. These irrational beliefs, devoid of scientific validation, curb the pace of India’s progress toward development. An enlightened society can challenge these age-old superstitions to support the evolution of a progressive society. 

It is important for a health system to be conscious of cultural taboos and to present medical and scientific best practices without disrespecting the beliefs that define the culture. An empathetic and respectful approach can bridge the cultural divide and foster a more collaborative healthcare system. The IEC (Information Education and Communication) efforts must be transformed into behavioral change communication to achieve the desired results. The system must design tribal-centric education programs tailored to curbing harmful superstitions and highlighting their harmful effects. It is high time that we acknowledge the adage, “all that glitters is not gold,” and accept that some traditions and customs have outlived their usefulness.

“Pictures are taken with consent from the field.” (Location- Wayanad, a district in Kerala)

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