Health across the Himalayas
Why Chinese acupuncture therapy is just what the doctor ordered in India
By Sudeshna Sarkar  ·  2017-03-31  ·   Source: | NO. 14 APRIL 6, 2017
Mrigendranath Gantait, President of the Acupuncture Association of India, meets with Jing Ying, Associate Counselor of the Shanghai Municipal Foreign Affairs Office, in Shanghai on October 19, 2016 (Courtesy Dr. Mrigendranath Gantait)

It was the hand of destiny, says Raman Kapur, a veteran acupuncturist in India's capital New Delhi, which pushed him to learn the ancient healing art. As a young doctor who was studying for his master's degree entrance examination, Kapur was prodded by his sister and brother-in-law, both doctors in Adelaide, Australia, to do something new instead of following the conventional path in modern medicine.

"Why don't you study acupuncture?" they asked him. "It has caught on like a forest fire in Australia."

Kapur had never heard of acupuncture before. It was the early 1980s, when the mobile phone had not yet been invented, and acupuncture was an unknown phenomenon in India. Still, a long conversation with an Australian doctor who had been doing acupuncture for three years convinced him, and as luck would have it, there was a six-month waiting period for his exam results, which coincided perfectly with the six-month acupuncture course offered by Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. So he headed for China to enroll for the course and gain some new experience.

When he came back, excited with his new skill, he found that on the basis of his exam results, he had been directed to study dermatology, a subject he was not keen on. So the die was cast, and he decided to become an acupuncturist instead.

How a buzz was created

"I started from scratch," said the 60-year-old, who today is president of the Indian Society of Medical Acupuncturists. "I had just two beds in one room in my house, and for the first three months, there would be no more than one patient a day. But I cured an asthmatic patient, who spread the word, creating awareness about acupuncture, and then patients started coming in by word of mouth."

Besides giving him a flourishing practice with a patients' list that includes the who's who of India—presidents, ministers and governors—acupuncture has played a special role in his family life.

His wife, Sunita Kapur, who obtained her degree in medicine from one of the most prestigious medical colleges in India, had an accident and broke her tailbone. "The pain was intense," the 53-year-old said. "My orthopedic friends could not treat me and gave me painkilling injections, prescribing bed rest for six months. So my acupuncturist husband asked me to undergo acupuncture. After he treated me, I not only felt better, but after 10 days, I was back to work in my hospital."

That, she said, developed her interest in acupuncture, whereas earlier she had no faith in it. "I now believe that the system works," she said. Her faith deepened after her elder son contracted amblyopia, a sight disorder, which left him blind in one eye.

It was like history repeating itself. Ophthalmologists said it was incurable and the boy would never regain vision in that eye. So the Kapurs turned to acupuncture once again, and their son, now 32, is fully cured.

So Sunita Kapur decided to start learning acupuncture, and after initiation by her husband, she went to Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine for basic and then advanced courses in acupuncture. Today, the couple run the Kapur Acupuncture clinic, and over the past 15 years, they have taught acupuncture to almost 300 doctors. Sunita Kapur's specialty is treating infertility with acupuncture, which she learned in Texas.

"Sixty to 70 percent of my patients come with infertility problems, and I get very good results with acupuncture," she said. "So many hormonal imbalances in the body can be treated with acupuncture. You can combine it with Ayurvedic drugs."

Like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurveda is a traditional Indian holistic healing system which uses curative herbs. Ironically, TCM herbs are banned in India, since the Indian Government wants to promote its indigenous medicinal systems. Also, acupuncture can only be practiced by doctors.

Co-existing with yoga

The Kapurs belong to a band of allopathic doctors-cum-acupuncturists who are lobbying the provincial and central governments in India, as well as the media, to change the rules and allow extensive use of acupuncture to deliver affordable medical service in India, create a flow of medical cooperation with China and foster closer relations between the two neighbors.

"Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Kunming [in southwest China's Yunnan Province] to open a yoga college," Raman Kapur said, referring to the inauguration of the China-India Yoga College on the campus of Yunnan Minzu University in 2015, as one of two dozen agreements reached between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Modi. "If the Chinese can be open enough to have a yoga college in Kunming, why should Mr. Modi not be keen to open an acupuncture college in New Delhi? We should call it acupuncture diplomacy. The two countries can come closer through traditional healing. That is my dream. That is what I am pushing for."

Indian acupuncture associations are calling for closer ties with China so that more experts can come from China to teach more doctors in India. "We should also have more people learning acupuncture in India," Raman Kapur said. "Acupuncture is still done mostly in the private sector, and we don't yet have a full four-year acupuncture degree course in India. But we are [lobbying] the government for … [this], so that we can have more acupuncture practitioners. Then we can start doing more research work in India."

Acupuncture attained another milestone in recognition in India last month, when President Pranab Mukherjee signed a bill that made acupuncture legal in Maharashtra, the Indian state that is home to Mumbai, India's financial capital and the location of Bollywood.

The signing came after Maharashtra's Minister for Medical Education, Vinod Tawde, presented the bill to the state legislative assembly in 2015. "Acupuncture has a 2,500-year history," Tawde told the assembly. "There have been instances where luminaries or senior leaders benefited from the therapy, but it did not have any recognition."

Acupuncture came to India in 1959 through a historical link that goes back to World War II and the team of Indian doctors who were sent to China to provide humanitarian assistance during the Japanese invasion. The Acupuncture Association of India (AAI) was founded in 1977, after which nearly two decades elapsed before West Bengal in 1996 became the first state in India to legalize the therapy.

Pioneering acupuncture in India

Mrigendranath Gantait, President of AAI, is one of the earliest acupuncturists in India, having learned the therapy from the first Indian doctor to undergo training in China, Bejoy Kumar Basu. Basu was part of the Indian Medical Mission that served in China in 1938-43, during which he saw acupuncture being practiced and its benefits. Drawn by the therapy, he returned in 1958 after the war had ended and the People's Republic of China had been founded, to learn it.

When Basu returned to India, his students were the first to become aware of the possibilities of this little-known branch of healing. Gantait, then a third-year medical student, was one of them.

"A senior student of our college was taking acupuncture treatment for bronchial asthma from Dr. Basu, and we came to know about acupuncture therapy from him," Gantait reminisced. "Seeing our interest, Dr. Basu began to teach us acupuncture therapy at his clinic in Kolkata. This teaching was free, as Dr. Basu wanted to spread acupuncture in our country."

Since there was no book on acupuncture in English at that time, Gantait remembers his teacher dictating from hand-written notes he had jotted down while learning acupuncture in China in 1958-59. After the introduction, Basu took Gantait to China in 1978 to get a postgraduate certificate in acupuncture from Nanjing University.

Subsequently, Gantait helped set up the first government acupuncture clinic in Kolkata, where he served as founder director from 1996 to 2010. In this time, he also established acupuncture clinics in all 18 state district hospitals and 10 lower-level hospitals in West Bengal. In addition, he played a substantial role in persuading the West Bengal Government to give legal recognition to acupuncture through the West Bengal Acupuncture System of Therapy Act in 1996.

Gantait's tryst with acupuncture, which began in 1971, continues four decades later even after his retirement, as he now runs a private practice and participates in acupuncture camps as a social service.

"As a doctor of modern medicine, I realize well how acupuncture therapy can become a boon to the medical care system," Gantait said. "In many ailments where modern medicine cannot do much, acupuncture can give better benefits without producing adverse side effects."

Activists say acupuncture has great scope in India. "The cost of treatment is very low, so that a vast number of people from low-income groups can get relief at an affordable cost. Acupuncture is effective and has no adverse side effects, which are seen in allopathic drugs," Gantait said.

Raman Kapur estimates that an acupuncture clinic costs less than 100,000 rupees ($1,412) to set up, while an allopathic clinic requires several million rupees to buy just one diagnostic machine, such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. "In an acupuncture clinic, all you need are the needles, and they can be reused," he explained. "But in an allopathic clinic, the expensive MRI machine is something that just provides evidence of disease; it's not the therapy itself. But acupuncture is therapy."

Greeted at the grassroots

Besides its curative effects, acupuncture can also build a bond between India and China. "Acupuncture is a bridge of friendship between the peoples of India and China," Gantait said. "In 1973, another visit by Basu to China to learn acupuncture anesthesia was the beginning of a thaw in the frozen India-China relationship after the border conflict between the two countries in 1962. Some media called this visit 'acupuncture diplomacy' in comparison to the 'ping-pong diplomacy' in Sino-U.S. friendship."

The therapy is not just about improving ties between governments, but creating amity between the peoples of both countries. Once, China meant nothing to Baneshwar Hazra, a rickshaw puller in Kolkata, who earned a precarious living by carrying passengers in a tricycle cab. Then the 38-year-old developed Buerger's disease, which blocked the blood vessels in his feet and caused gangrene. Doctors said the feet would have to be amputated at the ankle.

It was like a death sentence to Hazra, since it would also mean loss of his livelihood. As a last-ditch measure, he visited Gantait's acupuncture clinic, where, much to his amazement, he was cured.

"Whenever any patient takes acupuncture treatment, he comes to know that the therapy comes from China. Thus, patients benefiting by acupuncture therapy form a mental attachment with China," Gantait said. "That reinforces friendship between the peoples of India and China."

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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