Winter 2004 (12.4)
How to Cure a Bad Case of Nerves
Since childhood, I've
heard so many stories about the unusual folk medicine treatment
called "Childagh" (pronounced chil-DAGH), which many
claim can reduce fear and repel the evil eye. In fact, there's
a village outside of Baku - Mashtagha - that is famous for its
cures using Childagh treatment. Many people visit these healers
who are called "Childaghchi" (pronounced chil-dagh-CHI).
I've heard of cases where Childagh was used to cure people of
nervous disorders. Some people who have been involved in serious
traffic accidents were unable to relax and sleep until they were
treated by the childaghchi. It's not just uneducated and illiterate
people who seek such treatment. Highly educated people also visit
these folk practitioners though they may not always admit it
to their friends. Of course, some people are skeptical of such
practices. But there are many Azerbaijanis who are curious about
folk medicine, as well as mystical and other parapsychological
Who are these people who practice Childagh? Some would suggest
that they are somewhat like Chinese specialists who practice
acupuncture. The basis for both treatments seems to be in stimulating
nerve paths in the body.
Alakbarli, author of article, receiving Childagh treatment from
Alamdar in Mashtagha village of Baku.
Little is known about the history of this treatment in Azerbaijan.
For example, nobody knows for sure when or where this method
of treatment appeared here. Perhaps, it came from China during
the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. Over time, it has
evolved into the practice as we know it today.
Since I am a medical historian, I decided to seek out a Childagh
healer to try to understand more about this treatment. At the
time, I really can't say that I was feeling particularly nervous
in terms of my own health or that I really needed any treatment,
though I had noticed that I had been a bit more tired than usual.
So, one day, I headed out to Mashtagha, this ancient settlement
outside of Baku not far from the sea. It took me about 30 to
40 minutes to get there by bus. This little town is known for
fortresses and various other architectural monuments that date
back to the 12th century. However, in early years of the 20th
century, these fortresses were destroyed. Not long ago, a modern
mosque was constructed in Mashtagha. It lays claim to the tallest
minaret in Azerbaijan. This important landmark can be seen in
neighboring villages. Some scientists believe that the name "Mashtagha"
derives from "maskata" - people known as "Maskuts"
or Skythians who lived here 2.5 thousand years ago.
During the era of Shirvanshahs (9th - 16th centuries), Mashtagha
was an important defense post. After the collapse of the Shirvan
state and during the period of independent Baku khanate (prior
to 1804), it was the second largest settlement in the region,
after Baku. In fact, there have been times in history when the
population of Mashtagha was even greater than Baku's. In the
18th century, the khans of Baku built summer residences and palaces
in Mashtagha. Most townsmen were merchants, sailors, craftsmen
and peasants. In addition to Azeri, some Mashtagha residents
speak Tat, a language related to Persian. In Soviet times, Mashtagha
became known for its large psychiatric clinic. In Baku folklore
and slang "a Mashtagha" meant "somebody who was
a bit crazy". With the extensive growth of Baku's population
in the 19th 20th century, Mashtagha lost its importance.
Now, this town with its population of about 18,000 is dwarfed
Upon arrival, I asked people that I met in the streets where
I might find someone who could treat me with Childagh. I had
not made any prior arrangements and was taking the chance that
I could easily find someone. People immediately volunteered the
names of various folk healers and pointed me in their direction.
I soon found myself walking down the lane towards one of those
modest Absheron homes - the usual, one-story building with a
flat roof and a little yard surrounded by a high stone wall.
I knocked on an old wooden door. It took several minutes before
anyone responded. Finally, someone came and unhooked the metal
latch. The door opened. A young guy with a rather unexpressive
face opened the door. It seemed he was tired of dealing with
so many visitors every day. He directed me: "Take off your
shoes and come in."
I stepped inside, took off my shoes and followed him into the
living room. In old times, floors used to be entirely covered
with carpets, and people walked around the house barefooted,
or just wearing socks or a type of slippers, which go by a rather
funny name - shap-shap - a name derived from the sound the slippers
make when you walk. There were no shap-shaps awaiting me at the
entrance. So I entered just wearing socks.
The room was dark. It had a low ceiling. Carpets hung from the
walls, as is the tradition - a practice, which serves both to
decorate the walls as well as to keep the house warm in winter.
Here and there, "goz munjughu" (evil eyes) were hanging
on the walls - those large amulets made of blue glass with a
white stone in its center. They are supposed to ward off the
evil eye. There were portraits of some of the Shiite imams, including
Imam Ali along with images of imams who had died in Karbala [Iraq]
many centuries ago. There was also a photo of Mecca.
The floor was covered with Oriental carpets. They looked quite
old to me with their faded colors of wool that had been dyed
from natural plants.
As it was really quite dark, it took me awhile before I could
discern a woman, perhaps in her late 60s, sitting on her knees
on the floor in a corner of the room. She wore a dark print dress
and her head was covered with a scarf (chador) of the same fabric.
A large candle was the only source of light in the room. According
to ancient rituals, Childagh practitioners don't use electric
lights when treating patients. Gradually as my eyes grew accustomed
to the darkness, I could make out the woman's rather stern brown
complexioned face with its many deep wrinkles.
There were three other visitors in the room as well - a woman
with her two children. One child had both eyes covered with a
bandage. Perhaps, the child was blind; I wasn't sure. The mother
offered a few bills to the young man who had let me in at the
door. He took the money, spit on his fingers, counted the bills
and tucked them into his pocket. Then, the mother took her children
and left. I remained alone in the presence of the Childagh healer
- just me and her son.
Left: Childagh cigarettes made of dried wormwood
leaves. Photo: Farid Alakbarli.
The woman looked
at me with her wide, hypnotic eyes and beckoned: "Come closer,
my son!" In her hands, she held what seemed to be a very
large cigar. It was lit and the burning herbs gave off a pleasant
aroma. I knew that the cigarette was not made of tobacco. It
was a special cigar, the primary tool used in this healing procedure
The situation fascinated me even though I already knew what to
expect. In medical terms, this process is known as "cauterization";
that is, "burning". The cigarette was made from the
aromatic herb called wormwood of the Absinthian species. I knew
that she would lightly touch the cigarette to certain nerve endings
over my body. Many people recognize the effectiveness of Childagh
to treat excessive fear and stress. I was eager to learn what
I could about this treatment. I explained to her that I was a
scientist and hoped that she would help me understand the healing
She readily offered to help me but asked me not to reveal her
real name. "Many people don't believe in Childagh,"
she explained. "Don't use my name or my healing power might
be diminished if people start to criticize me and speak badly
of me". So for the sake of this article, let me proceed
by giving her the name, Masma Nana (Grandmother Masma).
"How did you learn this treatment? Who was your teacher?"
She removed the chewing gum from her mouth and replied: "Childagh
is sacred knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
I was born into a family of Seyids, who are direct descendents
of Prophet Mahammad. Many people in Mashtagha village immigrated
here from Arabia. That's why our skin is darker and our hair
I wondered if her treatment differed from those of other Childaghchis.
She insisted that she alone had the "Dragon's Eye."
She got up and went over to a large old chest, opened it and
took out a small amulet with Arabic inscription. She explained
that it had been made of clay taken from the grave of Mir Movsum
Agha, the most prominent saint of the Absheron Peninsula. [Mir
Movsum is sometimes known as the "At Agha", which literally
means "Flesh Man" because of the physical condition
of his decalcified bones. During his lifetime, people came to
him for healing. He died in 1950 and recently a large mausoleum
has been erected in Shuvalan village to his memory. Hundreds
of people flock every day to visit his grave inside the mausoleum.]
Masma Nana went on. "We call this amulet 'Ajdaha gozu' (Dragon's
eye). If women make a wish it will come true if they look at
this amulet and repeat this prayer:
May there be
May there be a wall.
With nails on four sides.
This is the sword of Ali in my hands.
May Allah be my support.
Masma Nana went
on to describe that there were no other amulets like hers. She
had organized to sell photos of it, insisting that the photo
was as effective as the real thing if it were displayed on a
golden plate, a crystal teacup, or worn around someone's neck.
I asked her permission to take a photo of the amulet. She consented.
Of course, I knew that magic cannot treat or fulfill wishes.
But such amulets provide important resources from the scientific
point of view to study belief systems represented in Azerbaijani
folklore and mythology.
Masma Nana told me that the special prayers and incantations
that accompany Childagh were sacred formulas that enabled her
to treat conditions such as fear, anxiety, panic and stress-related
symptoms. "With them, we are able to ward off evil and malicious
forces. Come closer to me, I will treat you!"
"Don't be afraid, it won't hurt you!" she said calmly.
I approached and sat before her on the carpet. Her son stood
in front of her, holding a large, shining knife in his hands.
I didn't understand why he needed a knife, as I had never heard
of Childagh being performed with a knife. I'll admit I became
a bit suspicious. But everything became clear when Masma Nana
took a freshly rolled cigarette from her pocket. This cigarette
was filled with dry wormwood leaves. Her son took it, cut off
the tip with his knife, and lit it. The fragrant smell soon dispersed
through the room.
Masma Nana asked me to lift up my shirt and roll up my sleeves.
Then, her brown wrinkled face took on the appearance of a ritualized
mask much like you would expect of a shaman in some rainforest.
She pressed the cigarette directly against my skin, at specific
points on my forehead, arms, elbows, chest, stomach and feet.
Her movements were extremely quick. She pressed the cigarette
against my skin for a mere split second. I felt only a slight
During the entire process, she was totally focused, serious and
silent except for the ritualistic prayers that she repeated -
none of which I understood. They sounded to me like nonsense
words - a combination of meaningless syllables. I don't know
what language she was using. It wasn't Arabic, Persian or Azeri
- all of which I know. Perhaps, I'm wrong. Maybe, it really was
an unknown secret language.
And that was it! It was all over in about 3 to 5 minutes. I asked
how much I owed for the treatment. She told me "one Shirvan"
(10,000 manats). It was a very reasonable charge - about $2.
I paid her son and left.
Just recently as I was working on this article, I decided to
go again to Mastagha and see what else I could learn about Childagh
practitioners. I quickly found another one, who I learned is
the most famous one in all of Mashtagha.
Eldar Alamdar lives in the similar two-storied house, one of
the rooms has been allocated for the treatment of men; the other,
for women. I entered the room for men. It was a small modest
room. Its floor was covered with carpets. There was a table with
the wormwood cigarettes.
Alamdar says that his family has been practicing Childagh for
four generations. The men treat men and women treat women. All
members of the family are Childagchi with the exception of a
cousin by the name of Aghasalim Childagh who sings "meykhana"
I asked Eldar how many Childagchi live in Mashtagha. He noted
that there were many people who claimed to be Childagh practitioners
but that they really don't know all the secrets of this art,
which is held by his family. None of these people are real Childagchi,
according to Eldar.
Eldar does not believe that Childagh originated in China. He
considers it to be sacred knowledge, related to Islam and Koran.
He told me that many medical doctors send their patients to him
to treat for stress and nervousness.
Only people who really don't know the power of Childagh think
that it can only be used to deal with cases of fear and stress
according to Eldar. He is convinced that this treatment tones
up entire organism and facilitates more energy. Eldar tried to
convince me that Childagh is even better than acupuncture.
I wanted to compare Eldar's treatment with the earlier treatment
that Masma Nana had given me. I asked Eldear how much it would
cost me. He appeared offended by my question.
"We never ask a specific sum as we serve God. Money is not
important for us. Everyone donates as much as he wants. You don't
even have to pay at all, if you are not satisfied with the results
of the treatment."
I told Eldar that I was a medical researcher and had come to
learn more about his method. Then, I sat down on the nearby bench
and Eldar quickly performed the Childagh treatment on me, touching
certain points on my skin with a special cigarette. There were
no differences with the séance of Masma nana.
I offered 10,000 to him. However, Eldar categorically refused
my money. "Hide your money!" he insisted. "It
would be a shame to take it. You're a scientist, a researcher.
Scholars are divine people. They serve the Truth and increase
knowledge in the world. How can I take money from you?"
All my attempts to pay him failed. In the end, I thanked him
and left. Despite how skeptical I had been about such practices
having any therapeutic value, I noticed that my mood did change
and, indeed, I was feeling much more energetic. It led me to
believe that Childagh really had the possibility of producing
therapeutic results despite the fact that I cannot explain it
scientifically. I'm convinced that something really does work
with Childagh and it's not just auto-suggestive. Its power is
definitely related to a specific form of reflex therapy or reflexology.
Future investigations may determine what mechanism really is
at work in this treatment that folks claim is so effective.
Dr. Farid Alakbarli
works at the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku, serving as Chair
of the Department of Information and Translation. He holds doctorates
in Historical Sciences and biology. His specialty is History
of Medicine, which he researches from medieval Azerbaijani manuscripts
in the Arabic script. Search "Farid Alakbarov" at AZER.com
AZERI.org for more than 30 articles published
in Azerbaijan International. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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