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Svetlana Suktueva, About Traditional Medicine

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Terbish, Baasanjav 


Svetlana talks about medicinal diet, animal blood, an antidote made from a sheep’s skin, herbal therapy, the medicinal properties of melted butter, medicinal water and a place called Single Poplar where people perform various rituals. This is her story: Kalmyk folk medicine originates from the Tibetan. It is based on three principles, including 1) acupuncture, 2) burn-off and 3) bloodletting. The Kalmyks have traditionally been nomads and received everything from their livestock, including food, clothes and materials for their dwellings. Mutton is used in dietary medicine. The Kalmyks kept four kinds of sheep. In dietary medicine people usually use merino’s meat. I heard this from many people, including my grandmother. In the past, the Kalmyks treated many ailments with mutton soup. People still do. For old people, it is healthy to have this soup at least once a week. We, Kalmyks, are nomads and grow up eating meat, whereas the Russians grow up on vegetables. Let me tell you about a healing method called ‘shilin shim’ (lit. ‘juice from a bottle’). In my native village of Khar-Buluk there lived an elderly woman who was often sick, felt sleepy and had low blood pressure. My grandmother filled a 3-litre jar with fatty mutton, closed the jar and hung the jar over a pot of boiling water. When the meat in the jar absorbed some steam, she took the meat out and squeezed around 200 grams of juice out of it, then added butter and gave the mutton juice to that old woman. After drinking it, the woman recovered. I also witnessed how blood was used in healing. The blood of a sheep born in May – such sheep feed on juicy grass – has to be dried, before using it. Other animals whose blood is used for medicinal purposes are wolves, hares and saiga antelopes. Boiled water with a saiga horn is good for fever. I also witnessed people mix sheep’s blood with butter and smear it on sores to cure scrofula. Whilst modern medicine is powerful and there are many good doctors, traditional medicine is also helpful. Once I saw an antidote made from a sheep’s skin. In Khar-Buluk we had an old neighbor named Zhamsar Khalinginov who was a hunter. One day he went hunting and was bitten by a poisonous tarantula. His leg swelled up and he had a fever. The tumor on his leg started to spread to other parts of his body. In our village there was only one paramedic who at that time happened to be away in Elista. This was in May, a time when sheep get their wool sheared off. My grandmother and the hunter’s wife boiled water in a big pot, salted it and put a sheep’s skin into it. Afterwards, they squeezed the water out of the skin and wrapped it around the hunter’s leg, while covering the patient with a warm blanket. The sheep’s skin was changed regularly. The next morning a doctor arrived and said that that method worked as an antidote and that the effect of the poison had been stopped. Had the hunter not been treated on time, he would have died of the fever. Camel’s wool is used for rheumatism and the inflammation of joints. The Kalmyks have known about the medicinal properties of this wool for long time. The skin of a black sheep or cow is used for the treatment of burns. First the skin has to be burnt, and ashes applied to the burn. In my childhood, I helped my mother who worked as a milkmaid on a farm. One day I sprained the muscle in one of my legs and could not walk. My grandmother soaked the skin of a black sheep in salty water and wrapped my leg with it. Then she poured chigyan (sour milk) on top of it. In a couple of days my leg healed. I also witnessed the use of dairy products in healing. Melted butter is a powerful medicine. Those Kalmyks who managed to take with them melted butter when they were exiled to Siberia (in 1943), later returned to Kalmykia healthier than others. My grandmother told me that a spoonful of butter given to children replaced their daily ration. She herself always had melted butter at hand. She would fill a black bottle with hot butter, wrap the bottle with a black cloth, and keep it underground for three years during which period the butter turns into creamy white substance. She used such butter to cure burns and tumors. When my mother’s nipple got sore, my grandmother treated her breasts with such butter. This butter is also good for women after giving birth. If women had watery milk, they were given tea mixed with butter. My grandmother always had two bottles: one to hand and the other getting matured underground. People came to see her to ask for her butter. A mix of water with milk, called ‘kimr’, is good for fever. The ratio of water to milk has to be 7 to 1. The mix has to be boiled, before drinking. The Kalmyks ate cottage cheese and other dairy products from childhood which is good for bones and teeth. In the past, old people did not know what a toothache was. One can talk a lot about treatment with water. In Khar-Buluk village we have good water. We have a place where a single poplar tree grows where people come to pray. Recently seven stupas have been built around that tree which was planted by the lama Purdash bagsh. Khar-Buluk is where people from the Bogdakhn clan live. Not far from the tree there is a spring. The name Khar-Buluk (meaning ‘a spring’ in Kalmyk) derives its name from the springs of that place. When the Kalmyks returned from Siberia, there were many springs in that place. Gradually they became polluted and dried up. Today we only have two springs left with good water. I will tell you about phytotherapy (healing with plants) now. In the Kalmyk steppe there grow 357 varieties of plants, flowers that can be used in healing. The most useful plant is the sagebrush. One who inhales it, remembers his/her native place. The sagebrush is good for inflammations, fever, and its smell drives away insects and cockroaches. A carpet infested with moths can be treated with this plant as well. It can be also used as a tea. In Kalmykia we had a doctor named Semyon Rafaelovich Zalkind who travelled to nomadic settlements, collected folk healing knowledge, and healed people using various plants. The topic of healing with plants is very wide and unstudied and many young people could do their PhDs on this topic. People should study folk medicine more. There is one spring by that Single poplar tree. The story has it that 180 years ago the lama Purdash bagsh brought poplar seeds from Tibet and planted them there. After a tree popped up there, one day a spring also appeared nearby. To the left of that spring soon appeared another spring. One of them had sour water and the other sweet water (later, one of the springs dried up). Today people take water from the remaining spring usually in May. In our house we always had water from that spring that we used to treat toothaches, headaches and general weakness. One Kalmyk girl from Khar-Buluk got married to a Russian man named Steklov Mark Isaakievich who was a good doctor. One day he took water from that spring to a laboratory in St Petersburg for analysis. Upon his return, he said that the water was exceptionally powerful and asked us to keep the spring in purity. Today pupils from the local school look after the spring, pick up the rubbish around it. I personally think that livestock should be banned from grazing there. Today young people go the Single Poplar tree often. One guy, who is my close relative, got married recently. Today, I hear, he and his wife are going there. It is place where people perform rituals to appease the masters of land, or before setting off on a long journey, or before going to the army, or before a wedding. I also heard that people who do not have sons, or no children at all, go to that place to pray, especially after seven stupas have been erected.



Healing, rituals

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Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation Project, University of Cambridge

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Sponsored by Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin