THE STORY OF LAKSHMIKUTTY AMMA, TRIBAL HEALER, POET & ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST, AS IT WAS TOLD TO ZUZANA ZWIEBEL BY HER OWN WORDS AND PAINTED WITH PHOTOGRAPHS BY A.J. JOJI.
Joji was born in 1969 in Sasthamkotta in Kollam district, Kerala. He is an accomplished photographer who began his public life with the Left progressive activities. Later he got actively involved with Odessa film movement. Since 1991 Joji turned his attention to photography as a full time activity with particular interest in recording the social, cultural and political landscape of Kerala.
Joji was the official photographer and documentationist of the prestigious IFFK (International Film Festival of Kerala) for many years. He was also the Head of Photography department for the third edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2016. Among his other professional pursuits Joji had a short stint in videography for TV channels apart from his ongoing assignments as still photographer for Malayalam feature films both in art house and mainstream genres. He also shoots extensively for editorial content in the print media. He lives in Ernakulam, Kerala, India.
Aaruthal in URU art harbour is his first photography art exhibition curated by Riyas Komu.
The older woman enters the dark room of a small hut with palm leaves roof. The light coming from the backdoors illuminates her silhouette and her dynamic moves are frozen in time. She holds few tree branches on her left shoulder, later she will burn them in the fire, but now she just let them on the floor. In other hand she carries a small cotton bag with medical plants on which she concentrate all her attention. Plants must be processed in certain time not to lose their healing power.
She is called Vanamuthassi (Grandmother of the jungle in Malayalam), but her real name is Lakshmikutty Amma (Amma means Mother). On her shoulders is much bigger responsibility than it looks for the first sight, her mission is to preserve the healing traditions of her tribe Kaani, settled in the deep forest of Kallar in Thiruvananthapuram district in Kerala.
This a 75 year old tribal woman is one of the last ethnic medical practitioners, who can prepare around 500 medicines from her memory. Apart of that, she is also a poet, teacher at Kerala Folklore Academy and environmental activist, who got noticed by those outside her forest, when she received the ‘Naattu Vaidya Rathna’ award for her achievement and contributions towards the medical field from the Kerala government in 1995. Since then she has visited many places, met many people outside the forest, but she says: “I belong here. My heredity exists here!”
It is early morning, Lakshmikutty Amma got up before dawn and waited in the forest the sunrise to touch the plants with the first twilight. Silently, she let the plants to drink a dew nectar and chants little prayer with her inner voice before she touches them. She plucks only few leaves or take small part of the roots from each plant. She never takes more than is needed for healing. One day, every green stem of the plant will be connected with the veins of human body and this divine respect to every form of the life will freely flow in the blood through tissues and bone marrows to the heart of the person, where healing will begin.
One day, every green stem of the plant will be connected with the veins of human body and this divine respect to every form of the life will freely flow in the blood through tissues and bone marrows to the heart of the person, where healing will begin.
It was her mother Kunjidevi, who told her never takes more from the nature than is needed for healing. Her mother was a midwife and local tribal healer. She used to take her daughter from early age to the forest to help her with collecting the plants and the herbs, showed her process of preparing medicines and made her part of the healing rituals. Lakshmikutty learned from her, that every plant needs to be collected and handled in methods exclusive to the particular plant and the same ailments might require different treatment procedures depending on many factors.
She looks at the three large framed photographs hanged above the wardrove and automatically touches the chest, the forehead and the lips with the finger tips in silent memory of her husband and two sons. The color of photographs has faded down, but the memories stayed.
There is no bigger pain for mother than losing her kids. She had three sons and lost two of them. Her only surviving son is working as chief ticket examiner for the railways. The elder son was killed by a wild elephant and the younger one died due to snake poisoning, because that time there was not road to take him to the nearby hospital. After this accident she learnt anything she could about the snake poisoning.
Her husband Mathan, accompanied her since childhood. As kids, they used to walk together 10 kilometers to school every day. She married him at the age of 16 and they stayed together till his last days 4 years ago. He was with her in all her decisions and achievements. He believed in her, and used to telling her, that she was a strong woman, who could achieve everything she wanted also without him.
Her persistence made her the only tribal girl from her area to attend school in the 1950s. In one interview she said: “I still wonder how I went to school. I was persistent that I go to school and my father finally had to agree.” She studied only until class 8 as her school did not have higher education, but a school library became her university and window to other worlds. She read everything she could and soon she was writing her own poetry and short stories. From her memory she can still recite classical Malayalam poets (many of them have later visited her as her patients).
For Kaani tribe, the jungle was always a temple, where nature itself was worshipped. This power of nature is demonstrated in Lord Shiva, whose temple is built behind Lakshmikutty’s house. As every woman, she is his form of Shakti, female avatar through which the healing comes to the earth. In that silent space of the Shiva temple she finds the power and courage to treat difficult cases, uncurable diseases and snake poisings. It is the inner voice of transformative universal energy, which leads her through the healing process.
While in her mind she chants a little healing prayer, she wipes her hands into the red nadan (scarf) covering her shoulders and touches a chain of small rudrakshas on her neck. She believes, that they should be worn only by the elderly people in sannyasa (phase of life spent in the spiritual hermitage), not by young women, who need the powerful vitality of mundane life. “The world needs strong loving healing and fertile female power – Shakti!”, she is positive about it.
Twice a week she performs puja for Lord Shiva in the temple and waits there for auspicious days to start the healing. When she treats patients after the snake poisoning, she asks them to go through the strict diet and after to stay with her in silence and solitude for two days. During that time, she wakes up very early morning, collects the plants, process them and treat the patients with small dosages. Almost without the words she leads them through the cleaning process. In the silence she teaches them to listen to the nature and the body itself.
She lit a fire. The first acrid cloud of a smoke from the ember in the corner of the room evanesces its power and the pieces of the wood brought from the jungle are slowly burnt under the copper pot filled with the extracts of the plants.
Only Lakshmikutty Amma knows the recipe. She uses more than 150 plants - herbs, flowers, leaves, stems, roots, barks, flowers, pollens - and combine them into the unique 500 medicines for different treatments and diseases. All her knowledge on herbal treatment, was passed on her as a Kanni tribe legacy. And neither Lakshmikutty nor her mother made any written record of the medicinal plants and their uses, all was passed in oral tradition. Only recently she shared her exclusive knowledge of the usage of rare medical plants like Amrithppala, Kattumull (Wild jasmine) with modern science.
Before 1995 people was coming to visit her from far off places after hearing about her from those, who had been already cured by her. After she received the awards the number has increased rapidly. She is getting visitors from different parts of world. But she laughs: “Coming here to visit me, it does not help, if people do not follow my diet and prescriptions.”
Her treatments are not connected with any Indian traditional medicine styles such as ayurveda or naturopathy, she strictly follow Kanni tribe tradition and listen to the voice of nature. She believes, that the body, mind and soul of the patient must be ready for the healing process, that is why she is prescribing minimum 41 days long strict diet (in fact one can argue, that this diet is contradicting many rules of ayurvedic practices).
The 41 days long diet is strict, but very simple – one has to eat pure vegetarian meals (she, herself, is eating also non-vegetarian food, but for healing process she insists on vegetarian diet). The vegetarian food must be cooked without oil, spices or any strong aromatic ingrediencies such as pickles, tamarind or fruits such as mangos. Body must be cleaned before she starts medication, otherwise her medicines would not be effective. She says, that only 60% percent of the visitors are ready to follow the diet. The rest 40% gives up it after few days. “Self-discipline is missing!”, she remarks with bit of kind sarcasm in her voice.
Sometimes she sends people to visit also other doctors or vaidiyas, especially those who suffered injuries of bones and muscles. There are two therapists not far from her house, who often treat patients according to her advices. But, she herself, do not practice any massage or special exercises as a part of her treatment.
Lakshmikutty Amma brings light into the darkness with her healing practices, she might lighten only one candle, but as ancient wisdom says: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single one, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” But until today, there is no one, who would carry that light and learn the healing tradition from her. She hopes that one of her nephews will join her one day…
Respect to the nature, human kindness and divine thoughts are the main ingrediencies for each and every healing - remedy hidden inside of every person.
Apart of healing practices Lakshmikutty Amma is famous for her kind, sometimes bit sarcastic, sense of humour. When she is asked, how one can become a healthy person. She laughs and says: “Give up the food! Do not eat more than is needed and move! Move and exercise your body as much as you can – the energy must flow!” and after a while she adds: ”Do not stare into those mobiles and computers too much – it is not good!”
She believes, that many people who come to visit her, do not need any of her medicines, they only need to hear few nice words. Her advice is simple: “Respect to the nature, human kindness and divine thoughts are the main ingrediencies for each and every healing - remedy hidden inside of every person.”
Portrait of A.J. Joji by Abhijith Pulparambathu
Riyas Komu is one of the prominent political artists in the contemporary times. His works question the existing disturbances in the social order. Komu's works include sculptures, installations, paintings, video etc.
URU art harbour is a cultural hub situated at Kochi. URU seeks to be a space for collaboration and a continual hub for artistic, cultural, and intellectual exploration. Founded by Riyas Komu and Zoya Riyas.
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