THE STRANGER'S approach, heralded by a man blowing long, menacing blasts on his horn, brought the villagers rushing into the temple square. But when the shaman himself appeared on the slope above the village, draped in a flaming red cloth, they let loose a flood of excited, happy chatter. Now their troubles would be over.

The man in red, preceded by his horn- blower, swiftly descended towards the temple. The village drummer added his own rousing beat to the call of the horn, and as the compelling rhythm took hold, the shaman began to move in time with the drum. The pace grew faster, his head jerked uncontrollably in all directions, strange shouts came up from deep inside his chest. His dancing became wild, convulsive. "Now he is possessed," the villagers whispered. He gradually slowed down, and then was still.

"Who are you?" a Brahmin priest asked. The crowd waited anxiously for the god who had entered the shaman's body to identify himself. "I am Durga. I am here for your protection and welfare." The rest was gibberish -- it soon became clear that the goddess Durga was angry because the villagers had neglected her. They shook their heads guiltily as the shaman spoke in Durga's voice of their failure to pay due homage to her. He enumerated the ills that had befallen them. Disease. Poor crops. Dying cattle. What must they do, the Brahmin asked, to appease Durga?

Everyone knew what the answer would be. The shaman would suggest a goat sacrifice, the village elders would order a collection, and the Harijans, who could ill afford it, would be expected to make a contribution. At the edge of the crowd, where the untouchables stood for once next to the Brahmins -- but without making bodily contact -- there was a slight commotion. "It's a farce," Vijay muttered, evidently intending to be heard only by his fellow untouchables, but several Brahmins looked up.

The shaman, unperturbed, announced that he would stay the night and would answer their questions the following day. His companion, the horn-blower, spent the afternoon chatting to the villagers, exchanging jokes and gossip. By the evening, his master would know everything he needed to know.

Next morning, the ceremony in front of the temple was repeated, this time with generous offerings of sweet rice, clarified butter and other delicacies laid out in front of the shaman. Everyone who could afford it put down some coins and so did some who couldn't. The drums played, the shaman chanted the mantras, his body trembled, his eyes rolled. The goddess Durga again possessed his body, dancing. Most of the questions the villagers put to him were about the diseases that afflicted them. He displayed an uncanny knowledge of their ailments.

"Well," he began his patter, "this old lady wants to know the reason for her misfortune and illness. She has been in the grip on an evil spirit. All illness comes from the gods, and only they can cure it. Well, I am Durga, you know Durga, how powerful she is, the destroyer, the protector, purest of pure.

"Old lady, listen to me, some unfriendly men came to you a while back, isn't that so, but they talked to you very sweetly, didn't they (she nodded), yes, very sweetly, they brought you some vegetables, am I right -- Oh, old lady, tell me, am I right?"

There was more in this vein, in minute detail. The woman confirmed it all, showing amazement at his knowledge. The vegetables had been curses, he said, and had been intended to destroy her. "But I am Durga, I will take care of it." The shaman prescribed a goat sacrifice, and promised her a complete recovery within eight days. He dispatched other complaints in the same brisk manner, and then got down to more important business.

He danced more wildly than ever, but when he spoke, his words were quite distinct. Durga was very angry. "Some of you don't believe in my existence because you are ignorant," he said, staring fixedly at Vijay. "This can bring great harm to the village," he continued, addressing the Brahmins now. "You will be punished. All right, you make a big fire, now, here, and I'll jump right into it -- then you'll see whether I am farce or reality."

The Brahmins, distressed, begged for forgiveness, and began moving towards Vijay. He ran quickly down the hill to the Harijan settlement, out of harm's way.

He was of no importance, the Brahmins assured the shaman. Just an ignorant untouchable. No need to jump into the fire. They were all staunch devotees of Durga.

The shaman, easily mollified, left the village laden with gifts. But disease came from gods, he reminded them and, if they wanted to avoid it, they must cherish Durga. The purest of pure. The powerful. The destroyer.

And the protector.

The man they call "doctor" is a handsome 22-year-old, with an open, honest face, who has practiced medicine since he was 16. When he left school, Prakash was apprenticed to his uncle, who taught him the tricks of the trade. It wasn't long before the uncle began to see him as a threat.

His uncle was the only medical practitioner in town, and villagers often walked a whole day to see him, slept outside his house, and took another day to return home. If a patient was too ill to walk or be carried, Prakash was sent to attend to him in the village. When he arrived, other villagers would take advantage of his visit to bring their afflictions to him. Some of his ptients died, but others, who had given up all hope of a cure, recovered. If a sick person died, that was God's will, and no one could have done anything about it. If he got better, Prakash got the credit. His reputation grew, and when patients came to town they often wanted to see Prakash rather than his uncle.

Prakash, who had been paid 150 rupees a month (justtunder $20), asked for a raise, and was promptly slapped down by his uncle, who added cooking, sweeping and laundering to his medical duties. The lowly chores were calculated to diminish his standing with the patients. Prakash rebelled, and came to our village to see if he could establish his own practice.

The prospects were discouraging. He found that the village already had an "ayurvedic doctor," a practitioner in native medicine, trained and maintained by the govenrment who provided his services free. Then, in the next village down the hill, there was a private physician practicing what passes for "Western" medicine.

But the village elders swept his doubts away. The ayurvedic doctor was seldom at his post, they told him, and stayed in town most of the time. The "Western" physician, a heavy drinker, was held in low regard. The field, they assured him, was wide open.

The village wanted the prestige of having its own doctor, but it was slow to take advantage of his presence. A sick person first sought the help of the gods who had sent the disease, or tried the potions his forefathers had used, or went down the hill to the doctor whose experience outweighted his liking for drink. If the ayurvedic doctor was away, his "compounder" -- who makes up the prescriptions -- dispensed free medicine and advice to anyone who wanted it. Prakash sat on his porch, waiting for patients who never came.

He had borrowed heavily to purchase his stock of Western-type medicines, he told me, and he was worried about his debts. His table was adorned with a set of instruments designed to impress his patients -- a pair of scissors, tweezers, a hot-water bottle, a mortar and pestle. He sported a ball-point pen in his breast pocket, but the ink pot and two books on the table gave the place an air of learning. The painted sign on the wall proclaimed him in English to be "Dr. P.O. Raja, B.I.M.S. and R.M.P."

He showed no trace of embarrassment when I asked him about the sign. Of course he was a doctor, he explained with a disarming smile. A doctor was a person who cured the sick. He didn't know what the initials stood for, he had copied them from a sign he had seen outside another doctor's house. Anyway, he said, the villagers didn't know English. Nor, for that matter, does he.

I was sitting on his porch one morning as he was telling me, not for the first time, that he was ready to give up, when a young woman was brought to him on the back of a mule. The patient had come from a distant village and had already seen several shamans who had been unable to exorcise the evil spirit which had got into her. It took the form of a swelling in her stomach.

Everybody knew that she had an incurable tumor, but Prakash -- who shared this assumption -- was too desperate for a patient to let her go. He gave her every medicine he had -- injections, antibiotics, penicillin, laxatives and finally, an enema. He emptied her stomach of all its contents, and it worked. The stomach obstructions which had produced the swelling disappeared.

Now everybody knew that the woman who had a deadly lump inside her when she came to see him had been miraculously relieved of it by the new doctor. The next day Prakash had three patients, and the day after that, five. He decided to stay.

The 8-year old girl stared without fear at the fire heating the poker with which she was going to be branded. The iron was held in the flame until it became red hot, a wet rag was placed on her stomach, and an old man beat a quick tattoo on her diaphragm with the metal rod. She whimpered briefly, but stifled the sound because other children were watching.

That was the treatment for a stomachache which had refused to yield to native remedies. For more serious ailments the wet rag is dispensed with, and a thin layer of ash is spread over the affected part of the body before the poker taps it. In some cases, I was told, the red-hot iron is applied directly to the skin. When I expressed disbelief, a man bared his chest to display the scar which, he said, had saved his life.

The ayurvedic doctor, who had received five years' training in native medicine at a government college, had no objection to the practice. It was a common village remedy, he said, and in some cases could be helpful, though its effects were short-lived. His own cures, on the other hand, were more likely to last. They were derived, he proudly explained, from a tradition that went back thousands of years, and had been adapted to modern needs by scientists working under government sponsorship.

Ayurvedic treatment -- the word means "life knowledge" -- depended for its success, he told me, on the slow and gradual buildup of medicine in the body over a long period. But the villagers never stayed with it long enough, he complained, because they didn't have the patience. Or they didn't come to him early enough, because they wanted to try their own remedies first.

Was that, I asked a villager with a large oozing wound in his calf, why he hadn't gone to the physician in time? He didn't answer, and limped away up the hill after the practitioner had painted half his leg a bright orange. When I caught up with him, he recalled how it all began with an insect bite. He had scratched it, the wound became septic, and now it was getting worse instead of better. He had gone to the ayurvedic doctor straight away, but he wasn't there. "He's never here," other villagers chimed in. "He comes from the city," somebody explained, "so he goes back to the city."

The was quite untrue, the physician assured me. He went away only n official business, to collect medicines or to report on his work to the health authorities. In any case, most diseases started in the stomach and were caused by the hill peoples's unhealthy diet. "They eat too much rice." He could do nothing about that, whether he was in the village or not.

Ayurvedic medicine, he explained, recognized two kinds of food, hot and cold. Rice, being a cold grain, tended to slow down the body's circulation. But the hills were colder than the plains, so the highlanders needed a brisk circulation.

Prakash, who estabnitials lished his "Western" clinic within aminute's walk of the ayurvedic one, does not regard his neighbor as a rival. "Who is going to take ayurvedic medicines for months on end if they can get quick relief from me." The villages have learned that his pills and injections will swiftly stop a bad pain or a high fever.

But Prakash says quite frankly -- to me, at any rate -- that ayurvedic medicine is more effective. It attacks the cause of the disease, he explains, and in time defeats it. His own medicines deal mostly with symptoms, and for the most part provide only temporary relief. "But that's what my patients want, so I give it to them."

What they want most of all is injections, and Prakash has a wide assortment of these to suit all occasions. The elaborate procedure, the filling of the syringe, the introduction of the shiny needle into the body, even the sting, constitute a ritual they recognize. It is akin to magic.

Prakash is a stickler for hygiene, and every morning he puts his syringe into boiling water for several minutes. That is part of his own ritual. But he uses the same needle for several injections without sterilizing it.

The ayurvedic doctor has nothing that can compete with that, but he doesn't mind. He welcomes Praksh's presence in the village, and watches without envy his growing clientele. His own salary does not depend on the number of patients he treats, and he doesn't begrudge Prakash for his earnings.

He almost seems to prefer it if the patients go to Prakash rather than come to him. Perhaps he hopes that, as Prakash's popularity grows, his own absences will be noticed less. That, at least, is what some villagers say.