Meant to celebrate the rebirth of nature, Nowruz marks the beginning of the Persian New Year. While the spring festival incidentally signifies the day when the sun crosses the celestial equator, the day celebrates the rejuvenation and renewal of life too.
Historically a national festival of Iran, the day has a great traditional and cultural significance in the valley of Kashmir.
Apart from observing the day as a mark of the onset of spring, Kashmiri people, in particular the Shia community celebrate the occasion with religious fervor. Attributing the day with different Islamic feats, people of the faith greet each other, visit relatives and friends, wear new clothing and organize gala feasts on the occasion.
Though March 21 is also observed throughout the world as World Plantation Day, in Kashmir, many people on this very day take to the age old tradition of Leech Therapy.
A traditional procedure where the blood suckers turn healers.
On this day, people in numbers visit the practioners of leech therapy, as it is belived to be more effective on this particular day, as per the common belief in the valley.
People standing in queue waiting for their turn to go through the procedure is a common sight at many places in the valley. At Dargah Hazratbal, scores of people throng to the practioners to get the therapy done.
“Once during my childhood, my grandfather had taken me to the therapists at Hazratbal, to cure my acne. Now it is for the second time, I intend to visit the place to go through the procedure again, almost 15 year later,” says Muafiq Bhat from Harwan Srinagar, who wants to get his foot-sore cured.
Leeches have been used in medicine for over 2,500 years. They were more popular in earlier times because it was widely thought that most diseases were caused by excess of blood, or impurities in it. Leeches were used medicinally but only for the bloodletting. As recently as the 19th century, leeches were used to treat everything from tonsillitis to hemorrhoids.
They are widely used in medicine for drawing of blood from the swollen area and also to reduce fluid pressures in damaged tissues of the body.
Though the practice of leech therapy is very old, the tradition is still a common practice in Kashmir, particularly on Nowruz.
According to Dr Parvez, a medical officer with Indian System of Medicine, people taking to leech therapy particularly on Nowruz is scientifically a coincidence, as the common belief of the people that the therapy is most effective on this particular day is not scientifically proven yet.
But the trend in Kashmir plays an important role in the age old practice, particularly in this period of the year.
Traditionally, Leeches are used to cure frostbite, skin diseases and other blood infections, as it is widely believed that they suck out the impure blood from the body, explains Dr Parvez.
“I have also gone through the procedure during my youth. I often used to develop frostbites during winters in my teen age. My father used to take me for leech therapy on Nowruz. After few therapies, I was totally cured from the bites,” says Tariq Ahmad, a Lecturer in the department of School Education.
“Initially I thought it would be painful, but after I went through the procedure, I felt it was quite comfortable and soothing, as the therapy purifies the blood from toxins, having a relieving effect on the body,” believes Tariq Ahmad.
Earlier, people used to collect the indigenous variety of leeches from local water streams and rivulets, but now, people related with the trade get them from outside Kashmir.
“I have been practicing this therapy for many years now,” says a leech therapy practioner from Tailbal Nalla area in the outskirts of Srinagar.
“Though, very less number of people visit us for the purpose throughout the year, there is a great rush of patients seeking the therapy on the eve of Nowruz and we prepare for the occasion days ahead. For this purpose, we get leeches from the leech farms outside the valley,” he says.
“Transported in special earthen pots, these healers are exclusively used the day of Nowruz. Leeches are most energetic during this period. They suck to their optimum during these days,” says the practioner.
While the world celebrates the March 21 in different contexts, people in this Himalayan region of Kashmir also mark the day as an occasion to cure diseases, particularly related to blood, and cure their bodies from skin and orthopedic discomforts.