Let It Bleed: The Ancient Art of Bloodletting

Dec 13, 2013 at 9:52 AM ET

In the garden of Jama Masjid, a mosque in Old Delhi, India, a young venesectionist named Iqbal wields a razor blade and is slicing expertly at the flesh of a patient, whose arms and legs are wrapped tight with tourniquets. A few feet away, a middle-aged arthritis sufferer grins manically as he springs from the ground up onto a knee-high brick platform and back down over and over in testimony of the doctor’s method. As blood spills from the patient’s limbs, another doctor, Mohammad Gyas, explains: “The darker the blood, the longer you have to bleed.”

Would you ever try bloodletting?

The ancient practice of venesection, more commonly known as bloodletting, when complemented with strict dietary regimes, is said to cure everything from heart pain and arthritis to cancer and diabetes. A typical treatment regimen runs for six weeks and costs about $1.60 per session.

Gyas was trained as a venesectionist by his grandfather and has passed his knowledge on to his son, the man currently with a razor blade slicing up eager participants. Gyas suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which has prevented him from practicing bloodletting since 2008, but he’s overseen every treatment at this same place every day since 1980. None of these men are licensed doctors.

As Iqbal operates, a half-dozen assistants scramble among the patients. Some pour water over the blade and wounds as Iqbal flushes out the unwanted blood. Others apply a mixture of medicinal spices to wounds as the bleeding slows, and the rest apply tourniquets to patients waiting their turn. A third doctor is on hand giving tetanus shots.

Over the course of his career, Gyas has saved every razor blade he’s ever used, 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 razors and preemptively tackling any natural suspicion: “How could you doubt my treatment working?” There are no blemishes, nicks or other untoward signs of a history of personal bloodletting on either Gyas’ skin or his son’s.

But their reluctance to participate doesn’t seem to matter to their patients, who travel from far-flung parts of India, Japan and the United States to be “cured.”

Many of them swear by the treatments. When coupled with a legume-rich diet that disallows booze and smoking, the vast majority of treatments might feel beneficial.

But there is at least no denying the psychological efficacy of the treatment.

The chronic arthritis-sufferer who has only recently stopped jumping up and down is trying eagerly to find my eyes. When I look in his direction, he is overjoyed.

“Look at me now,” he exclaims in broken English, bouncing around gratefully like a talentless ballerina. “I can move everything. There’s no pain.”