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Use of gemstones for preventive and curative purposes: a survey among the traditional medicinal practitioners of the Bede Community of Bangladesh.


Bangladesh has a number of indigenous communities or tribes, who are settled in various regions of the country. Apart from one such community, the rest of the communities are land-based and even though they may move from place to place with time, their main habitat is in homes constructed on land. The sole exception is the Bede community. Also known as the 'river gypsies' or the 'boat people', the Bede people live on boats throughout the year. Bangladesh has numerous rivers and the Bede people in their boats travel throughout the year and visits various villages, which lie by the riversides. They stay for a few days by such villages and earn a living by administering their traditional medicines, selling sundry items, performing various acts of magic and jugglery, and by showing various acts with animals like snake and monkey dances. They are also very efficient in cupping in which an incision is made with the sharp tooth of the Cankilla fish (Esox cancila Hamilton, Family: Belonidae) and blood drawn through the incision with the sawed-out tip of a cow horn. This is believed by the Bede practitioners to draw out 'bad blood' or poisonous blood from persons, who sick and whose sicknesses are attributed to their blood are being 'bad' or 'poisoned'.

Very little anthropological or other information is available about the Bede community, partly because of their nomadic existence, and partly because the community as a whole is mostly distrustful of strangers (Marma, 2009; Laizu, 2011). Although their traditional medicinal practices have existed for centuries, these practices are yet to be documented. In recent years, the Government of Bangladesh has been trying to settle the scattered Bede people in various places by the sides of rivers to get an accurate estimate of their population and to provide educational and health services to the people. Some success has been obtained and one such community of about 12,000 people has been settled by the Bangshi River in Porabari village of Savar area in Dhaka district of the country. Savar is on the outskirts of Dhaka and as a result, the Bede people who have settled in the area are fast adopting the lifestyle of the mainstream population. Although they have not totally given up on their nomadic ways, they now own permanent homes and are even adopting to household electrical appliances and sending their children and youth for studies in various schools, colleges and Universities of the country. As a result, both traditional lifestyle and traditional knowledge is on the verge of disappearing and will probably do so within the next few years unless rapidly documented.

We have been conducting ethnomedicinal surveys among both mainstream traditional medicinal practitioners and tribal medicinal practitioners of the various regions of the country for the last few years (Nawaz et al., 2009; Rahmatullah et al., 2009a-c; Hasan et al., 2010; Hossan et al., 2010; Mollik et al., 2010a,b; Rahmatullah et al., 2010a-g; Jahan et al., 2011). During these ethnomedicinal surveys it was observed that the mainstream traditional medicinal practitioners as represented by the folk medicinal practitioners and the tribal medicinal practitioners rely mostly on medicinal plants for treatment of ailments. Medicinal plants were also observed to be used by them for prevention of certain ailments from occurring. During an ethnomedicinal survey of the Bede medicinal practitioners of Porabari village, it was observed that although the majority of practitioners used medicinal plants for both curative and preventive purposes, certain practitioners used other elements in the form of animal, bird, gastropod, reptile and fish parts in their treatments; still others used amulets, incantations and gemstones in their treatments. The objective of the present survey was to document the gemstone use for both preventive and curative purposes by the Bede practitioners of Porabari village in Savar area of Dhaka district, Bangladesh.

Materials and Methods

The present survey was conducted among the Bede community residing in Porabari village by the Bangshi River of Savar Municipality in Dhaka district, Bangladesh. The community, according to the community leaders comprised of about 12,000 persons. They had been settling in the area for over a decade in land given to them by the Government of Bangladesh as well as land purchased by them. A preliminary survey revealed that there were around 30 traditional medicinal practitioners currently practicing within the community. Five traditional medicinal practitioners were identified among the thirty practitioners who, besides providing other forms of traditional treatment, also prescribed gemstones for both curative and preventive purposes. These five practitioners, namely Zillur Rahman (male), Md. Khabir Uddin (male), Joigun Ojha (female), Mohammad Nurul Haque (male), and Md. Shahjahan (male) were selected for further interviews.

Interviews were conducted with the help of a semi-structured questionnaire. Interviews were open-ended, meaning that the practitioners were asked about their practices and were allowed to talk in length on anything they wished with minimal interruptions from the interviewers. Interviewers were conducted in Bengali, a language spoken by both practitioners and interviewers.

The various stones mentioned by the practitioners were purchased from them and identified at reputed jewelers of Dhaka city. Two of the stones could not be identified by the jewelers, namely shorpomoni pathor and shilajit pathor. Information about the first stone was gathered from the practitioners, and information on the second stone was obtained from Internet sources.

Results and discussion

A total of 29 types of stones (gemstones and other types) were observed to be used by the five Bede practitioners interviewed. The results are shown in Table 1. The stones were advised to be worn in a finger ring (usually made from silver or gold) and the healers claimed that every individual stone which they recommended possessed both preventive and curative effects for the malady that they were used for. Gemstone in its traditional definition is a precious or semi-precious stone, which is also a mineral, and is usually used to make jewelry or other adornments. However, certain rocks like lapis lazuli and organic materials such as amber, although not being minerals, are used in jewelry, and are therefore considered as gemstones. Also coral is not a mineral (which is an inanimate substance) but is the skeleton of a marine animal belonging to the phylum, Cnidaria. Pearls are created by oysters or mollusks, and are composed of the mineral, aragonite. For purposes of the present study, both corals and pearls will be treated as gemstones, because both contains minerals and are used for jewelry, even though they may have originated from animate, i.e. living matter in the first place. Traditionally, only diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald have been classified as precious, the rest being considered semi-precious. From that view point, 27 out of the 29 stones on which information was obtained can be classified as gemstones. The two exceptions were 'shorpomoni pathor' and 'shilajit pathor'.

Shorpomoni pathor is found, according to the Bede healers, when the molars of the King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah Cantor, Family: Elapidae) or the Indian cobra (Naja naja L., Family: Elapidae) are extracted to reveal a small round-shaped yellow-tinged stone under the molar tooth. Shilajit is a Sanskrit word meaning 'rock invincible' and is mainly found in the highlands of Altai, Himalaya and the Caucasus mountains in Central-Asia. Its color is yellowish brown to pitch black. For medicinal use the black variant is preferred, being the most potent. Shilajit can and has been described as 'mineral oil', 'stone oil' or 'rock sweat', as it seeps from cracks in mountains due to the warmth of the sun, mostly. In Bengali, shilajit is referred to as 'sweat of rock', and pathor means rock.

Diseases treated by the Bede healers included both physical sicknesses as well as mental disorders. The latter included thought processes in the mind, where the person thought of himself or herself to be under 'evil influences'. Successes or failures in business, to keep temperament in control, to increase determination, to be successful in life--all were classified under probable disease conditions, for disturbances in any of them could lead to deterioration of physical and mental health. As such, according to the healers, it is better wearing the stones before any disaster or diseases can occur; as such the stones fulfilled a preventive purpose. But on the other hand, if any process has already occurred leading to physical or mental ill health, that can also be remedied by wearing stones as prescribed by the healers. From that view point, every stone also had its own curative effects.

The Bede healers used several colors of coral for treatment and prevention of diseases. White coral was the only stone that was advised to be worn along with oral administration of three plant parts as treatment for leprosy. Besides leprosy, other diseases (physical or otherwise) treated by white coral included severe body ache, physical weakness, leucorrhea, genital infections, and to protect oneself from Rahu and Shani. Rahu and Shani (see footnote to Table 1 for details), according to Hindu astrologers, can have enormous destructive influences in life and cause severe physical and mental problems. There can further be problems in different aspects of life, like accidents, business failures, loss of valuables, or even academic failures. It is to be mentioned that the Bede healers, although they have adopted the Muslim religion, still practiced polytheism and animism besides obeying the various rituals like prayers and fasting of Islam. At least some notions of astrology was common to them and they claimed that they can forecast a person's approaching evils or misfortunes from the person's zodiacal signs and positions of certain planets and stars, and advise wearing of stones to ward off these misfortunes. Red coral was advised to be worn for anemia, excessive bleeding during menstruation, as well as to keep temperament cool. The latter can be, according to the healers, make a person successful in life through having good relationship with others. The healers also advised a person who quickly gets angry to wear red coral. Such cases may be considered as treatment of psychosomatic disorders.

Various colors of hessonite were advised by the healers for prevention and cure of physical weakness in males, to protect oneself from misfortunes, leucorrhea, and stomach stones or tumor. Hessonite is a calcium aluminum mineral of the garnet group with the general formula Ca3Al2Si3O12. Interestingly, white hessonite was advised to be worn for leucorrhea, a disorder characterized by presence of white thick matter in urine. White coral was also advised for leucorrhea, while red coral was advised for anemia or excessive bleeding during menstruation. The latter two disorders are connected with blood, which has the color of red. Thus it seems quite probable that the color of stone may be a determining factor as to the disease for which they were advised to be worn; in such cases, the disease may have symptoms or characteristics of that same color.

Carnelian is a brownish-red mineral of the variety of silica mineral chalcedony, the latter being one of the microcrystalline group falling within the Quartz family. It is one of the birthstones listed in the ancient Arabic, Hebrew, Italian and Roman tables, and is considered a Zodiac birthstone for the signs of Leo and Virgo. Hakeek is a type of carnelian found in Turkey and Iran. This stone is regarded by the Muslims as to bring good luck and ward off disasters in life. Suleimani hakeek is a special type of hakeek, which when cut and polished resembles an eye, for which it is also known as the Cyclops agate or the Eye agate. The stone is considered to have mystical properties and special powers for bringing fortunes to a person when worn on the finger.

Tiger's eye stone was advised by three Bede healers to be worn for physical disorders or to improve temperament and determination. This stone is considered as a chatoyant, which is an optical reflectance effect, i.e. showing a band of bright reflected light caused by aligned inclusions in the stone. The stone belongs to the quartz group of stones and is in most cases a metamorphic rock. The stone is an example of pseudomorphous replacement (a mineral that has the crystalline form of another mineral rather than the form normally characteristic of its own composition) of crocidolite by silica.

Moonstone has the chemical formula (Na,K)AlSi3O8, which means it is a sodium potassium aluminum silicate. This stone was advised to be worn by all five healers interviewed. Its major effect seems to enable a person to maintain coolness of mind or temperament. The stone has a whitish color; white color usually denotes a certain degree of serenity and peace, which indicates that the stone is to be worn to attain a certain degree of mental serenity.

Emerald, ruby, and sapphire all are considered as precious gemstones. Emerald is a variety of the mineral beryl [Be3Al2(SiO3)6] and has a green color, caused by presence of trace amounts of the elements, chromium or vanadium. Green color is considered to give a soothing effect to the eyes and nerves; one of the uses of the stone, as mentioned by one Bede healer, was to decrease animosity. Ruby is a variety of the mineral corundum (aluminum oxide), where the red color is caused by the presence of the element chromium. Ruby is considered by the Hindu astrologers to instill vitality and strength in the person wearing it. One of the uses of ruby, as mentioned by the Bede healers was to prevent or get rid of weakness. A second use was for diabetes, a disease known to sap the strength of the person having the disease. Sapphire is a blue gemstone and is another variety of the mineral, corundum. It can have other color due to presence of trace elements like iron, titanium, or chromium. Blue sapphire is considered by Hindu astrologers to release mental tension and depression. Yellow sapphire, on the other hand, is considered to attract wealth and bring prosperity. Notably, the Bede healers advised wearing the yellow sapphire for achieving success in business.

Topaz is a silicate mineral most often found in igneous rocks of felsic (relating to an igneous rock that contains a group of light-colored silicate minerals, including feldspar, feldspathoid, quartz, and muscovite) composition. Blue topaz, in particular, is supposed to stimulate the throat chakra (chakra, according to Hindu philosophy is a center of distribution of energy throughout the body). The healers advised persons to wear it both to prevent and cure any type of diseases, suggesting that this stone is considered to be very special among the healers. Amethyst is considered a semi-precious stone, whose color ranges from purple to reddish violet and can also be found in milky to green color. The stone has a long history of usage; ancient Egyptians used the stone to guard against guilty and fearful feelings. The stone is also used as a protection from witchcraft. The Bede healers advised wearing the cabochon shape of amethyst, which means a stone that has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted. The resulting stone has a convex top with a flat bottom.

A pearl is a hard object produced within the mantle of a living shelled mollusk. A pearl is made up of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form. Pearl is thought to inhibit boisterous behavior, and the healers advised wearing it to keep a cool head and temperament. Usually river pearls in Bangladesh are white in color; the healers also advised wearing pearl as treatment for leucorrhea.

Taken together, at least some of the uses of the various gemstones may be related to their color which coincided with some symptoms of the disease. Quite obviously, the use of stones to prevent or cure diseases is an esoteric form of treatment. The various diseases treated or supposedly prevented included both physical disorders, as well as other forms of disturbances in life, which can lead to mental stress, which by itself can lead to occurrences of physical sickness or psychosomatic disorders. There are no rational explanations behind the property of stones; the theories dealing with the healing properties of stones mostly involves planets, stars, zodiacal signs and the supposed influences of these on a person's life. However, gem therapy goes back to ancient times and is also mentioned in the ancient Ayurvedic texts of India. Ayurveda is the oldest form of traditional medicine still practiced in the Indian sub-continent and gem therapy forms an important component of this traditional form of medicine (Klemens, 2002; Pal, 2002; Shakeel et al., 2011). Besides India, gem therapy is also still practiced in Pakistan, another country within the Indian sub-continent (Ishaque et al., 2009). Wearing of gemstones is in wide practice in Bangladesh (another country within the Indian sub-continent), not in the folk medicinal system, but among the population as a whole; the Muslims usually wear one or other form of carnelian or agate, while Hindus are prone to wearing varieties of gemstones depending on their planetary signs, as determined by Hindu astrologers. The Bedes have been observed in the present study to practice gem therapy. Since this practice is ancient, it remains for science to determine whether there can be a rational basis behind the use of gemstones, or this practice is merely causing a soothing effect on the mind and intensification of a person's belief that the person will be cured from actual or presumed disturbances of physical, mental and financial nature. Even if it is the latter, the stones must be considered to have therapeutic effects; most diseases are to a certain extent psychosomatic and any progression or regression of a disease depends to a certain extent on the person's level of confidence and state of mind. If gemstones can be found to cause a diseased or stressed person to attain a higher level of confidence in achieving a cure, then gem therapy no doubt will have proved its value.


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Syeda Seraj, Md. Monjur-E-Khudha, Sadia Afrin Aporna, Md. Shamiul Hasan Khan, Farhana Islam, Farhana Israt Jahan, Sadia Moin Mou, Zubaida Khatun, Mohammed Rahmatullah

Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Development Alternative, Dhanmondi, Dhaka-1205, Bangladesh.

Corresponding Author: Mohammed Rahmatullah Pro-Vice Chancellor University of Development Alternative House No. 78, Road No. 11A (new) Dhanmondi R/A, Dhaka-1205 Bangladesh

Phone: 88-01715032621; Fax: 88-02-8157339

Table 1: Gemstones used by the Bede traditional healers of
Porabari village for treatment and prevention of physical
sicknesses and mental stresses.

Serial   Type of stone                   English name of stone
Number   (local name)                    (where available)

1        Dudhraj, Dudh probal, Dudh      White coral (color of milk)

2        Purbal pathor                   Coral (white color with red

3        Pola                            Coral of unspecified color
                                         but may be black or yellow

4        Rokto probal, Rokto pola        Red coral

5        Ashto probal                    Coral having an orange color
                                         mixed with yellow

6        Gomez                           Hessonite (honey yellow or
                                         orange color)

7        Shada Gomez                     White hessonite

8        Kalo Gomez                      Black hessonite

9        Akik                            Carnelian, Akik, Hakeek

10       Kalo akhi pathor, Kalo hakik    Black carnelian

11       Suleimani hakik                 Suleimani hakeek, Cyclops
                                         agate, Eye agate (a special
                                         type of carnelian, highly
                                         prized by the Muslims)

12       Tiger                           Tiger's-eye

13       Moni-stock, Moni-ston           Moonstone

14       Panna                           Emerald

15       Chuni                           Ruby

16       Ruby star                       Star ruby

17       Neelam, Padma neela, Neela      Blue sapphire
         pathor, Neela

18       Pokhraj                         Yellow sapphire

19       Shada pathor                    Unidentified (white color)

20       Tomez                           Topaz

21       Kona                            Amethyst (cabochon cut)

22       Ganga                           Unidentified

23       Kechra                          Unidentified

24       Shakti kamona pathor            Unidentified

25       Mukto                           Pearl

26       Shorpomoni pathor               Stone collected from
                                         underneath a poisonous
                                         snake's fangs; small round
                                         bead like stone, faint
                                         yellowish in color

27       Monmiloni pathor                Unidentified stone

28       Shilajit pathor                 Shilajit3 (Mineral pitch)

29       Shamchu tara                    Unidentified stone

Number   Ailment(s) treated

1        Severe body ache, physical weakness, leucorrhea. (Kaviraj 1)
         Leprosy. At the time the stone is worn, the patient must
         also partake of a combination of bark of Terminalia arjuna,
         leaf of Aloe vera, and root of Glycyrrhiza glabra. Eggs and
         milk are also forbidden to be eaten during this period.
         (Kaviraj 1) Dhatu rogh (term used by Kavirajes for genital
         diseases, which occurs from bathing in contaminated water
         bodies, symptoms being infections in genital regions, and
         tremendous urge for urinating while bathing in ponds or
         other water bodies where the lower part of the body is
         submerged within water), meho (Kaviraj term--usually denotes
         diabetes). (Kaviraj 2)

         To protect oneself from Rahu (1) and Shani (2) (the two
         terms essentially means that a person falling under their
         influences will have misfortunes happening to him or her).
         (Kaviraj 3)

2        Severe body ache, rheumatic pain. (Kaviraj 1)

3        Severe pain, wet dream. (Kaviraj 1) To rise in status in
         workplace. (Kaviraj 5)

4        Anemia. (Kaviraj 1) Excessive bleeding during menstruation.
         (Kaviraj 2) To keep temperament cool. (Kaviraj 3)

5        Debility, dizziness, restlessness, heart palpitations, body
         fever, wasting away of body. (Kaviraj 1)

6        Physical weakness in males. (Kaviraj 1) To protect oneself
         from Rahu (1) and Shani (2) (the two terms essentially means
         that a person falling under their influences will have
         misfortunes happening to him or her), for improvement of
         living. (Kaviraj 3)

7        Leucorrhea. (Kaviraj 1)

8        Stomach stones, stomach tumor (ring containing the stone can
         be worn for any length of time but usually worn for 1-2
         months on the ring finger of the left hand). Symptoms of the
         above diseases include left abdominal pain.

9        Any type of diseases, wet dreams. (Kaviraj 1) To prevent the
         evil influences of Saturn (Bengali: Shani, see footnote to
         Table), to fulfill one's desires. (Kaviraj 4)

10       Any type of pain. (Kaviraj 1) To keep brain cool.
         (Kaviraj 2)

11       To keep brain cool. (Kaviraj 2)

12       Rheumatism, physical weakness, to increase determination.
         Note that the stone will cause the user to be very angry at
         times. People under the zodiacal sign of Libra can use this
         stone; people under the sign of Leo cannot. (Kaviraj 1) To
         keep temper under control. (Kaviraj 2) To increase
         determination. Usually it is meant to be worn by leaders or
         powerful men, who have to exist with various types of
         dangers in their lives. (Kaviraj 5)

13       Meho (Kaviraj term- usuallydenotes diabetes), rheumatic
         pain, dizziness, to keep temperament cool, physical
         weakness. (Kaviraj 1) To keep head cool. (Kaviraj 2) To keep
         temperament cool. (Kaviraj 3) To keep temperament cool, to
         destroy effects of consumed poisoned fruits, when such
         fruits are poisoned by an enemy). (Kaviraj 4) To maintain
         coolness of mind. (Kaviraj 5)

14       To increase memory. (Kaviraj 1) To decrease animosity shown
         by other persons. (Kaviraj 2) To improve one's business.
         (Kaviraj 5)

15       Meho (Kaviraj term--usually denotes diabetes), weakness,
         tremors. (Kaviraj 1)

16       To do well in business. Intended for persons of Libra.
         (Kaviraj 2)

17       Severe body ache, sexual weakness in male or female, to keep
         temperament cool. (Kaviraj 1) To increase learning, memory,
         and strength. (Kaviraj 1) To profit in business ventures.
         (Kaviraj 2) Gonorrhea (symptoms: lower abdominal pain, urine
         coming out in slow spurts or incomplete urination), burning
         sensations during urination. (Kaviraj 4) To improve in
         business. (Kaviraj 5)

18       Headache. (Kaviraj 2) To be successful in business, to be
         successful in marriage. (Kaviraj 5)

19       Leucorrhea. (Kaviraj 1)

20       Any type of diseases. Must be worn with a serious intention
         of curing the disease, i.e. the stone should not be worn
         carelessly. (Kaviraj 1)

21       Wet dream in males, meho (Kaviraj term--usually denotes
         diabetes) in both male and female. Should be worn on the
         ring finger (Bengali: anamika) of the right hand. (Kaviraj

22       Severe pain. (Kaviraj 1)

23       To increase memory, to get rid of enemies, leprosy (Kaviraj
         term--shet kushti, symptoms--fingers and flesh fall by
         themselves). (Kaviraj 1)

24       To increase strength, to be successful in any intended work.
         (Kaviraj 1)

25       To keep head cool. (Kaviraj 2) Leucorrhea, to keep
         temperament cool. (Kaviraj 3) To improve brain power, to
         keep brain cool. (Kaviraj 5)

26       To protect from Rahu (1) and Shani (2). The two terms
         essentially means that a person falling under their
         influences will have misfortunes happening to him or her.
         (Kaviraj 2) To be able to talk fluently, to fulfill one's
         desires. (Kaviraj 3)

27       To fulfill one's desires, to move obstacles from any
         intended act, to stop stuttering. (Kaviraj 3)

28       To increase libido in males. (Kaviraj 5)

29       To cure mental restlessness. (Kaviraj 5)
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Title Annotation:Original Articles
Author:Seraj, Syeda; Monjur-E-Khudha; Aporna, Sadia Afrin; Khan, Shamiul Hasan; Islam, Farhana; Jahan, Farh
Publication:American-Eurasian Journal of Sustainable Agriculture
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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