The Revival of Spiritual Healing in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan

by Danuta Penkala-Gawęcka

D. Penkala-Gawęcka[1] My anthropological research in Bishkek between 2011-2013 focused on people’s health-seeking strategies and choices, and means of protection against illness. City dwellers can choose between many options, ranging from offers provided by state and private medical institutions, through treatments from the margins of biomedicine, like acupuncture or leech therapy, to methods rooted in local traditional healing. Moreover, various home remedies usually serve as a first resort in case of affliction.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a visible revival of ‘traditional’ Kyrgyz methods of spiritual healing can be observed. They are based on a belief in the presence and activity of spirits, ancestor spirits in particular, who not only assist healers but in fact perform treatment themselves. This kind of healing has preserved traditional features, with special importance given to what is known as the ‘initiation illness’ of the future healer, which is believed to mark the call of spirits who want a chosen person to accept their gift. It is noticeable that healing séances consist both of ritual actions originating from pre-Muslim times, and Islamic prayers and invocations.

Additionally, such practitioners use various new methods and techniques, for example the so-called extrasensory treatment grounded in the notion of ‘bioenergy’ that can be applied in healing. It is a kind of complementary therapy that became widely known in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and still enjoys popularity. I met a healer who combined this method with traditional procedures and with bee sting therapy. Healers often deal not only with health disorders, but also with other problems like business failure or family conflict. They may refer to their clairvoyant abilities or make use of divination.

Visiting mazars – the shrines of saints and ancestors or other sacred places often marked by a lonely tree, unusual rocks or a spring, is an important part of the recovery process. Healing at such places is considered more effective due to the attendance of mighty spirits, and a healer’s guidance helps get their assistance. Moreover, pilgrimages to mazars are a crucial element in the development of the spiritual healer. Whereas ‘orthodox’ or ‘purist’ Islam is strongly against the practices of spiritual healing, for many believers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan the veneration of saints and remembering of the dead are essential components of what is locally perceived as ‘Muslimness’ and at the same time a part of what is called ‘Kyrgyzness’ or ‘Kazakhness’, respectively.

What were the reasons for the evident revival of spiritual healing in Kyrgyzstan, which I had earlier also observed in Kazakhstan? In the 1990s the revival was obviously influenced by the policy of the newly independent Central Asian states, which strived to rehabilitate cultures of the titular nations in search for legitimacy. ‘Folk’ medicine, including spiritual healing, was treated as a valuable part of national traditions, a significant cultural heritage. The dramatic deterioration of the health care system in post-Soviet countries also prompted the shift to traditional methods of treatment. As a result, those methods got official recognition and healers were encouraged to undergo a process of professionalisation at the Centre of Traditional Medicine ‘Beyish’ in Bishkek. This process has, however, been interrupted in the last decade, which is itself reflective of a gradual change in the attitude of the authorities and the medical establishment towards folk healing. Although healers work and compete freely in the market, the reorganisation of the former ‘Beyish’ into the Academy of Experimental and Traditional Medicine in 2011, with the aim to base it on ‘scientific grounds’, suggests that only some chosen ‘traditional’ methods of treatment can expect official support.

Nevertheless, these circumstances do not diminish the popularity of spiritual healing. Both common people and medical officials to whom I spoke emphasised an increase in the popularity of healers in recent years in comparison with the 1990s. Many such practitioners work in Bishkek, in different city districts. Sometimes they are found by means of newspaper advertisements, but more often through networks of relatives and friends. Among the patients there are not only Kyrgyz, but also people of other ethnic origins, including Russians. It is noticeable that some reputable healers draw many people, even from distant regions of the country.

My research revealed that a common distrust in the qualifications and moral standards of medical professionals is one of the main reasons spiritual healers are so popular. According to widespread belief ‘all good doctors died or left the country’. Indeed, there is a lack of physicians caused mainly by their massive emigration to Kazakhstan and Russia. The epidemiological situation in the country remains difficult in many aspects and corruption is a widespread phenomenon; despite substantial reforms the current state of the health care system still leaves a lot to be desired. While this is definitely conducive to the revival of spiritual healing, it should be examined in the wider context of the overall revaluation of local traditions.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Danuta Penkala-Gawęcka is Associate Professor at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. She has conducted research in several Central Asian countries and published on medical pluralism, healing and religion in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Her latest book is entitled Complementary Medicine in Kazakhstan: The Force of Tradition and the Pressure of Globalization (in Polish). She recently carried out research on health-seeking strategies in Bishkek.