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Non-Literate Traditional Knowledge Systems with Special Reference to Himalayan Folklore
by D.P. Agrawal

For Shruti Seminar, IGNCA, New Delhi 19-23 November 2000

Countries with cultural continuity and ancient traditions have a rich legacy of folk science and Traditional Knowledge Systems.  Only in countries such as North America and Australia, where the native populations have almost vanished, has the continuity of folk traditions been disrupted.  In Western nations with large colonies in the Old World, such knowledge systems were looked down upon.  It is this prejudice which denies the importance of folk science and ridicules it as superstition.

The so-called Western Sciences seldom realize that Traditional Knowledge Systems preserve the wisdom gained through millennia of experience, direct observation, and word of mouth.  Development projects based on new technologies are pushing these Traditional Knowledge Systems towards extinction.  This traditional wisdom of humankind needs to be preserved and used for our own survival. Emphasizing the importance of Traditional Knowledge Systems, the United Nations University’s proposal says, "Traditional knowledge or 'local knowledge' is a record of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival in often unfriendly environment. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical, social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development."

Traditional Knowledge Systems and Science

We find today that science and folk-knowledge are considered to be contrasting categories.  As pointed out by Nader (1996), the process of contrasting Western Science with folk-knowledge systems extends to the demarcation of knowledge systems in different categories of science/religion, rational/magical, and so on.  But we need to assert that these hegemonic categories imposed by Western Science are contrived and artificial.

Our experts trained in the West go to non-literate cultures and assume that they are 'knowledge blanks' which need to be filled with the knowledge of science and technology.  Our young development officers flaunt their 'scientific' knowledge to the primitive rural/tribal people.   But cultures are never 'blanks.'  Ramkrishnan (2000), the renowned ecologist, humbly admitted that the ecological management practices used by the tribes of the northeastern states in India are far superior to anything he could teach them.  The plants, which the tribes cultivated and gained benefits from, have now disappeared.   He says that we are realizing their importance and gradually documenting them.  A good example in this regard is the alder (Alnus nepalensis), which has been cultivated in the jhum (shifting cultivation) fields by the Khonoma farmers in Nagaland for centuries.  It has multiple uses to the farmers as it is a nitrogen-fixing tree which helps  retain the soil’s fertility.  Its leaves are used as fodder and fertilizer while the trunk is utilized as timber.

But in the Kumaun and Garhwal region, the government has ignored traditional knowledge.  Where oak trees grew in abundance naturally, the state forest department started cultivating pine trees for commercial exploitation of resin while completely ignoring the traditional importance of oak trees.  This act has disturbed the ecosystem of the region.

Documentation of traditional knowledge requires close participatory research with native communities, as they help in identifying and preserving traditional knowledge in various ways.  For example, there are certain trees and plants such as the tulsi (Ocimun religiosum), which are considered sacred and worshipped by the natives.  The reason for this devotion may be that such socially valued trees are of great use.  As a result, they have been preserved in the name of religion.

Let me briefly give some examples from Kumaun.  There are numerous references where the appearance of particular birds and the flowering blossoms of particular plants are taken as markers of new seasons. The effects of the direction in which wind blows are predicted by these people.  Snowfall on wheat fields is considered good for the crop. Accurate time is fixed through the observation of stars.  In the Nanda folklore (Anthu), the curses and blessings on the pine and the oak are in fact descriptions of ecological properties of these trees.  Depending upon on which part of the tree - top, middle or bottom - the crow makes its nest, the local folklore predicts the severity of the coming winter snowfall.  In the Kumauni folk medicine, the semen of a local fish (Schizothorax) is used for leucoderma.  The Defense Research Laboratory at Pithoragarh in Uttaranchal, has developed some potent medicines for leucoderma by using traditional medicinal herbs (Agrawal 1997).

Both copper and iron technologies in the Central Himalayas are very ancient.  Even today, Tamtas make copper jars and other objects.  We have found ancient remains of old copper workings.  The discovery of anthropomorphs from the Pithoragarh district indicates that this technology may go back to II millennium BC.  The rust-free iron pots and pans made by traditional ironsmiths of Kumaun were in great demand until a few decades back. Copper smithy also has an old tradition in Kumaun and is still popular although copper is now imported from the plains (Agrawal & Kharakwal 1998; Atkinson 1980-81).  We strongly feel that these ancient folk technologies should be documented and used for ecology-sustainable development of Uttaranchal.

The local shepherds travel for hundreds of kilometers in the hills and high altitude meadows without ever getting lost.  They could navigate through observing stars.  They also possessed the skill to calculate time.  The whole territory is in some way mapped in their brains and the geographical features which look all similar to untrained eye became landmarks for them.  These skills need to be documented and understood.

Ancient Indian Geological Observations

There are numerous examples of accurate geological observations transmitted through legends and myths.  The geological history of the Kashmir Valley is recorded in the Nilmata-Purana.  Similarly, the braiding of the Satluj is recorded in the story of Vashishta trying to commit suicide.  The regression of the sea (>20,000 yrs. BP) is recorded in the legend of Parashuram who threw his parasu to push back the sea.  Their models were personalized but the observations were correct.  In Nader's words, "The complimentarity of the literal and the figurative help us to realize that the distinction between myth and science is not structural, but procedural.... Myths in a broader, paradigmatic sense are condensed expressions of root metaphors that reflect the genius of particular knowledge traditions."

Traditional Knowledge Systems in the West

Ancient people in the Western hemisphere have similar folk knowledge traditions as well.  Reporting on the navigational skills of the atoll dwellers of western Caribbean islands of Micronesia, Goodenough says, "Several things stand out about Carolinian navigational knowledge.  It has all the features of a practical science.  It contains a massive amount of discrete information, which, in the absence of writing and reference books, has to be committed to memory.  The information is highly organized in a systematic way; the different ways of organizing it provide much redundancy as an aid to recall.  It involves highly abstract thinking: the compass as a set of imaginary points at equal intervals around the horizon, named for the stars and abstracted from their perceived motions, but not identical with them; the use of 'drags' as imaginary divisions of one's course of travel; the use of imaginary places as points of reference to calculate 'drags'; and schematic mapping in the form of 'trigger fish'" (in Nader 1996).

The same Polynesians have taught marine biologists the biology of fish populations. Johannes says, "The native fisherman searches with his eyes and ears and he is... more in touch with his prey and their surroundings than his modern, mechanized counterpart." Johannes admitted that he had "gained more new (to marine science) information during sixteen months of fieldwork... than... during the previous fifteen years".  He explains, "This is because of my access to a store of unrecorded knowledge gathered by highly motivated observers over a period of centuries (in Nader 1996)."

Bielawski finds that the most significant difference between the Western Arctic and the Inuit sciences is that in the latter systems, humans are placed in the space of nature and are inseparable from nature. One has to remember that the Inuit knowledge is formed through 'doing', 'hearing' and 'seeing' - all interactive and personalized forms of knowledge transmission.


Even if we compare the Traditional Knowledge Systems with modern science, we see that the former knowledge systems can also be very demanding on human mental faculties.  Folk knowledge was generated through millennia of hands-on experimentation, observation, and trial and error methods, all the while being a more eco-friendly system of knowledge, in which humans are part of nature.  As a result, in this system, there is no exploitation of nature but a symbiotic relationship with it.

India is replete with a variety of folklore and traditional knowledge systems.  Perhaps they are better preserved in the isolation of the Himalayan region.  These knowledge systems need to be studied, documented, preserved, and used for the benefit of humankind before they are lost due to the onslaught of western science and development projects based on them.  Especially, for eco-friendly and sustainable development of Uttaranchal, these Traditional Knowledge Systems would prove very valuable.  As far as I know, except in ethnobotany, tribal iron technology and water harvesting, not much work has been done to study folk knowledge systems in India.

We are not trying to idealize folk science.  Undoubtedly, humans have learnt and evolved with time.  But so-called science should not silence and kill these ancient knowledge systems.  Nader reminds us, "We need not idealize non-Western science to make the point that there are different types of knowledge that provide valid truths of use to human kind. If a dominant science silences that knowledge, we all lose."


Agrawal, D.P. 1990. Legends as models of science. Bulletin of the Deccan college post-Graduate & Research Institute, 49: 41-42.

Agrawal, D.P. 1997. Traditional Knowledge Systems and Western Science. Current Science 73 (9): 731-733.

Agrawal, D.P. 1999. Early Indian iron technology, Himalayan contacts and Gangetic urbanisation. In Proc. The Fourth International Conference on the beginning of the use on Metals and Alloys (BUMA-IV). Matsue, Japan. The Japan Institute of Metals. Pp.53-58.

Agrawal, D.P. and J.S. Kharakwal. 1998. Central Himalayas: an Archaeological, Linguistic and Culural Synthesis. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Agrawal, D.P., D.S. Pokharia, A.N. Upreti. 1997. Central Himalayan Folklore (Jagars)., in an Inter-Disciplinary Perspective, (ed.) Khanduri B. M. & Nautiyal Vinod, Him Kanti: Archaeology, Art and History. Delhi: Book India Publishing Co. Pp. 173-183.

Atkinson, E.T. 1980-81. The Himalayan Gazetteer. Vols.1,2,3. New Delhi: Cosmo Publication. (First published in 1884).

Budd, Paul and Timothy Taylor. 1995. The faerie smith meets the bronze industry: magic versus science in the interpretation of prehistoric metal-making. World Archaeology 27(1): 133-143.

Nader, L. (Ed.). 1996. Naked Science: Anthroplogical Enquiry into Boundaries, Power & Knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Ramakrishnan, P. S. 2000. Farmers can only teach traditional knowledge. Down to Earth 31th August 2000.