India's Street Doctors Will Bleed the Sickness Right Out of You

They'll cut you open with razor blades and fill the gutters with your blood.

Veteran bloodletter Mohammad Gyas watches as his son slices open the tourniquet-bound hands and feet of the sick with single-use razor blades in the gardens of Jama Masjid, a mosque in Old Delhi. A few metres away, a middle-aged arthritis sufferer leaps energetically onto a brick platform. Springing back down again, grinning, he explains his recovery is the result of a traditional treatment for which he is patiently waiting in line to top up. Or rather, bleed out, because in India doctors are letting blood in the streets. The "bad blood" spilled into gutters that runs along the side of the platform is being washed from the patient’s limbs with jugs of water.

The ancient bloodletting practice, combined with strict dietary regimes, is said to cure everything from heart pain and arthritis to cancer and diabetes. "The darker the blood, the longer you have to bleed," Gyas tells me. A typical treatment regime runs for six weeks. Gyas’s son is working with half-a-dozen assistants who wrap the tourniquets, wash water over the blade wounds to flush out blood and treat the cuts with a mixture of spices. A doctor is on hand, giving tetanus injections.

Gyas was trained as a venesectionist by his grandfather and has passed on his skills to his son. He has been practicing and overseeing treatments at the same place every day since 1980. During that time he has saved every single razor blade, which he proudly displays in 20 plastic drums. “This many years, this many people, this many blades,” he says, pointing proudly to his hoard of blades.  “How could you doubt my treatment working?”

Gyas suffers from Parkinon’s disease, which has prevented him from doing any of the work himself since 2008. Neither he nor his son sported any nicks or cuts on their own limbs. Their doctors' reluctance to participate doesn’t matter to the duo’s patients, though, who travel from far-flung parts of India, even voyaging from other countries, including Japan and the United States, to be "cured". Many of them swear by the treatments – maybe they work, or maybe the no-booze, no-smoking, legume-rich diet works.

Either way, there's an incredible environment of positivity. “Look at me now,” Gyas’s longtime arthritis patient exclaims in broken English, bouncing gratefully like a graceless ballerina, “I can move everything. There’s no pain.”

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