The wisdom of indigenous healers

  • 30/07/1992

The wisdom of indigenous healers SOMEWHERE in the Ayodhya hills of Bengal's Purulia district, a scorpion stung the wits out of me. My adivasi companion, Sukhchand, still in his teens, rubbed a poultice made up of some leaves on the bite and it brought instant relief. I had occasion to remember Sukhchand decades later when I suffered another scorpion bite many years later in Delhi. Only this time I did not know what left me more dazzled -- the sting of the scorpion or the Novocaine which the doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences injected into me. There are millions of Sukhchands in India, many of whom have taken their knowledge with them to the grave.

Medicinal Plants of India brings the reader some wisdom of these unsung prophets of healing. Geographically, the work covers the plant resources of India, including Sikkim, and includes plants used in western, Ayurvedic and Unani medicine. In all, 1,844 species are listed, with names given in English, Hindi, Sanskrit as well as in regional languages and dialects. About 1076 genera of plants, 185 families of phanerogams and 31 species of pteridophytes are dealt with. Indigenous species or cultivated medicinal plants (like onion and garlic) are included.

Certainly herbal resources have played a vital role in Indian medicine from the earliest times and this country, like China, has been a rich source of traditional medicinal practices. The first known written record of the use of herbs and herbal combinations for curing ailments in India is the Rig Veda, which is believed to have been written between 3500 and 1800 BC. A more comprehensive account on the collection and use of plant-based drugs in medicament and commerce is found in later scriptures like the Atharva Veda.

The Unani system of medicine, which originated in Greece around 400 BC, came to India through physicians. It was largely herb-based, and shared many features with earlier Indian systems.

The Siddha system of medicine is believed to have originated directly from Dhanwantari, or Shiva, the physician of the gods, and passed on from him through his wife Parvati to a number of teachers. It was most widely practised in south India.

There are many herbs which are common to all the three systems. With the advent of the British, traditional systems gradually lost patronage and favour with urban communities and this trend became manifest even in rural areas. This had serious repercussions on the growth of indigenous medical systems.

Today, there is an increasing awareness about the uses of herbs in curing and a recognition that many societies which live in remote areas are rich repositories of traditional knowledge in medicine. And that is why these well-researched and profusely illustrated volumes are most welcome. They are a part of the laudable effort to document India's biodiversity as well as the uses of such diversity. They list many indigenous species which are hardly known.

Sukhchand, if he knew English, would perhaps have been delighted to read this book. The authors say its purpose is mainly "to indicate to the inquisitive researcher in economic botany, phytochemistry, or pharmacology the prospective sources of herbal medicines." A useful medicinal index gives the species for the treatment of ailments ranging from those of the abdomen to yaws. The method of preparation, administration or dosage are generally not indicated, however. The authors justify this by arguing that they do not want to encourage self-medication.

While they cannot be faulted for this, Sukhchand and his ancestors did precisely that for generations. Perhaps some medical anthropologist will now take up Jain and DeFillip's book and document the dosages and methods of preparation using Sukhchand's knowledge. Will the anthropologist be from Stanford University? The authors have had to go to USA to print their book -- maybe for better reproduction of the plant illustrations. This transfer of knowledge is precisely what President George Bush seeks in order to monopolise the biodiversity of the world.

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