Goud family's "fishy" asthma cure popular despite rationalist critiques

The faithful come in droves for it, rationalists scoff at it, Andhra Pradesh lokayukta this month asked the state to keep off it, and the high court said get on with it. We dive deep into ‘miracle’ cure for asthma practised by the Goud family of Hyderabad for 165 years

dinesh-akula

Dinesh Akula | August 9, 2013


A woman gets the fish prasadam during the event, held on June 8-9.
A woman gets the fish prasadam during the event, held on June 8-9.

The story could be apocryphal but has been passed down the generations, so we will go the whole nine yards, as they say. The year was 1845, and Hyderabad was ruled by the 4th Nizam, Nasir Ud Daula. On a warm and sunny day at almost this time of the year – sometime just before monsoon – a holy man in his late sixties met Veeranna Goud near Doodhbowli, a couple of kilometres from the historic Charminar, and discussed what was to become the Goud family’s passion for the next five generations, and counting.

Having made his wealth by vending toddy, Veeranna was also known for his charity work. According to family folklore, the ‘holy man’ told Veeranna about his magic powers to cure different ailments. Impressed with Veeranna’s charity, the man is said to have passed on a secret: the knowledge of preparing a herbal paste that could purportedly cure asthma if administered with a specific fish on a specific, auspicious day of the year.

The ‘magic formula’ came with a warning, though: the treatment would lose its power if any attempt is made to commercialise it; it was to be administered free, and given to those who come for it every year.
Before leaving, the man is said to have blessed a well in Veeranna Goud’s compound. The water of the well is used till date to make the medicine.

Fast-forward 168 years, and on June 8 this year Harinath, Vishwanath and their family members administered the ‘fish medicine’, now called ‘fish prasadam’ – a yellow herbal paste, or the secret potion, is put inside a live fish; ergo the name – to about 1.05 lakh people who had come to their ancestral home in Doodhbowli on Mrigasira, the day that marks the beginning of monsoon according to the Hindu calendar. While people came from as far as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra and other parts of India, the family said many had come from even abroad.

One Goud brother claimed former president Rajendra Prasad had also tried their medicine once.
For vegetarians, the ‘medicine’ is mixed with banana.

While controversy has never been an alien word for the Bathini Goud for years, so far as administering this annual ritual is concerned, it was particularly difficult this year. Having carried on with the tradition for 167 years, Harinath Goud and family members sat near the same ‘holy’ well and held a long discussion on the possibility of winding up the tradition.

It has been a long fight over the last two decades and more with doctors, scientists and other activists over the authenticity of the ‘medicine’ to cure asthma, family members said. They had steadfastly refused to give away contents of the paste, which protesters claim contains steroid. Medical authorities even took samples for test but could not get the courts to ban the practice.

In between, the Goud family renamed the ‘fish medicine’ as ‘fish prasadam’ to avoid further complications.

THE OPPOSITION
But as the Gouds thought the forces opposing the ‘prasadam’ have given up, a bolt from the blue came from the lokayukta.

Fighting against the practice for a while, the NGO Balala Kakkula Sangham filed a petition in lokayukta. The NGO’s president, Achyutha Rao, said the Goud family was playing with sentiments of thousands asthma patients since the ‘medicine’ has no power to cure.

The lokayukta, justice B Subhashan Reddy, subsequently passed an order that said: “Neither is there any law made by any legislative body nor is there a subordinate legislation. The government on its own, without any legal sanction, cannot sponsor any event like the instant one.”

Specifying that both high court and civil court’s verdicts have stated that there is no public purpose in conducting the fish prasadam meetings, justice Reddy said only “simple and blind belief” makes people gather at a place with the “fond hope that fish with some unknown substance thrust into their mouths cures asthma or prevents (its) onset”.

“At best such beliefs are superstitious, as it is held authoritatively both by the high court and civil court that there is no scientific proof about asthma-curing substance being administered by Bathini Harinath Goud,” the lokayukta observed.

Directing the state government to step away, justice Reddy said, “It is not understandable why (the) Andhra Pradesh government has taken upon itself to sponsor the fish medicine meetings...involving so many departments and spending lots of amount...which amounts to (the) state sponsoring superstition.”
The complainant had also said that ‘fish prasadam’ is violation of child rights.

But the lokayukta stopped short of restraining the Gouds from holding the event, saying, “As of now, there is no law restraining or restricting the kind of exercise being made by Bathini Harinath Goud. So long as people have faith in the substance being administered by Bathini Harinath Goud, the show goes on. But it cannot be as an agent of the government.”

The lokayukta also directed the Hyderabad district collector to recover '2.69 lakh from the organisers – the amount spent by the government for organisation of the event at Hyderabad’s Exhibition Grounds – and asked the government to not offer any concession or help from next year.
 
THE BREATHER
Shocked by the lokayukta’s orders, the Goud family moved high court, which stayed the lokayukta order hours before the ritual was to begin on June 8. The Goud family eventually managed to organise the event with government’s help.

The government, meanwhile, has maintained a neutral stand, stating that it will abide by court orders. Like other years, the government provided space for the event along with security and drinking water facilities at the venue this year as well, while the fishery department provided the required fish.

Harinath Goud categorically stated that it would be very difficult for the family to continue the age-old tradition without government support. “We do this service for free. We are very weak financially; how can we foot the bill for arrangements and the venue?” he asked.

THE DEBATE
But what makes people believe in the fish prasadam? While medical experts say asthma has no cure, when thousands from across the country turn up to swallow a live fish, even the most critical tend to wonder about the powers of the ‘medicine’/prasadam.

Most doctors label the treatment “illogical”. Calling it “nothing more than faith healing”, Dr Ramesh Rao said the psychological state of patients compels them to believe they can be, and are being, cured. “After all, a man who can’t breathe is quite desperate,” he said.

Experts at Asthma Bronchitis Foundation of India and National Chest Institute are also sceptical of the cure, stressing that they doubt whether there is any scientific basis for this alleged cure.

A representative from Jana Vignan Vedika, the organisation that filed most petitions against the fish ‘treatment’ doubts the presence of steroid given as a one-time dose with an effect that lasts longer. But the presence of steroids was ruled out when tests of the ‘prasadam’ were conducted at many places, including the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology.

But notwithstanding the legal tangles, and the stampede that occurred last year, thousands still turned up on June 8 and 9 for the prasadam.

Raj Bahadur, who had come from Delhi, said the prasadam is working for him. He said he is suffering from asthma for the last 10 years and is coming to Hyderabad since 2011 and this is his third dose. “I feel comfortable,” he said.

Interestingly, a medico surgeon, Dr Papri Sengupta from Kolkata, who was here, believes in the prasadam and its cure. She said she had come last year, too, along with her daughter.

Another “satisfied” patient, Sheela Rawat, said: “It was hard to follow the diet the first time I took the fish. But I am 75 percent cured now. Most patients find an improvement in their health in the first year itself, though there isn’t any fixed pattern to the recovery.” 

(This story appeared in the  June 16-31 issue of the print magazine)

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