The Himalayas have a great wealth of medicinal plants and traditional
medicinal knowledge. The Central Himalayan Region covers the new state
of Uttaranchal, which includes the major divisions of Kumaun and Garhwal.
This region has played a significant role in the historical processes
of Northern India and provides a mini model for understanding the Indian
civilizational processes. Through the millennia different tribes and people
- Protoaustroloids, Mundas, Kiratas, Mongoloids, Indo-Aryans, Khasas,
Sakas and others - have been coming in and leaving their signatures and
producing a mosaic of cultures. It is interesting to note that in this
region the local gods and goddesses are more powerful than the Brahmanical
gods. Such local gods perhaps go back to the prehistoric times. The cultural
groups of the Central Himalayan Region include the Kumaunis, Garhwalis,
and some tribes like Bhotias, Rajees, Tharus, Boxas, Jaunsarees, which
have their own different cultures, traditions, languages, customs, etc.
Thus the Central Himalayas provide excellent opportunities for studying
the Traditional Knowledge Systems.
The Indian Himalayan region alone supports about 18,440 species of plants
(Angiosperms: 8000 spp., Gymnosperm: 44 spp., Pteridophytes: 600 spp.,
Bryophytes: 1736 spp., Lichens: 1159 spp. and Fungi: 6900 spp.) of which
about 45% are having medicinal properties. According to Samant et al.,
out of the total species of vascular plants, 1748 spp. species are medicinal.
The people of the Himalayas are a racial mixture of various tribes. Shah
quotes in his article that the Vishnupuran, the Mahabharata,
etc., mention a number of tribes such as the Sakas, the Nagas, the Kirats,
the Hunas, and the Khasas dwelling on the border of India, which may be
referred to the portion of the Himalayas known as Kumaun. The Sakas are
pointed out to be among the earliest ruling people of the Kumaun Hills.
The Kirats, or Rajya Kirats, were a tribe of forest dwellers, whose descendents
can still be found in some interior regions like Askot. The Khasas are
numerically the most important people in the Kumaun hills, and the Kshatriya
class is still locally known as Khasias.
In this region the majority of the population speaks Pahari (Kumauni
and Garhwali) dialect but some tribal people like Bhotia, Rajis, Tharus,
etc. have their own dialects. The Himalayan people are simple, superstitious,
god fearing people with their own customs, traditions, and folklore.
What is Traditional knowledge and Himalayan Medicine System?
United Nations University proposal defines Traditional Knowledge System
(TKS) as "Traditional Knowledge or 'local knowledge' is a record of human
achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival in
often unfriendly environments. Traditional knowledge may be technical,
social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great
human experiment of survival and development." Traditional knowledge provides
the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially
Traditional Himalayan medicine is a good example of TKS, which has affected
the lives of poor people around the globe. TKS is of particular relevance
to the poor in the following sectors: agriculture, animal husbandry and
ethnic veterinary medicine, management of natural resources, primary health
care (PHC) and preventive medicine, psycho-social care, saving and lending,
community development, poverty alleviation, etc.
According to an estimate of the World Health Organization, approximately
80% of the people in developing countries depend on traditional medicine
for primary health care needs; a major portion of these involves the use
of medicinal plants (Kumar and Singh, 2001).
The Traditional Himalayan Medicine System (THMS) is a living example
of TKS where small communities fight even incurable diseases through the
traditional methods. They also cure their animals through these traditional
methods. These traditional methods are totally oral and non-documented.
They use generally herbal products like resin, bark, root, leaves, fruits
etc., minerals, animal products and tantric practices.
Concept of Himalayan Medicine System
Diseases are the bane of humankind ever since its advent on this planet.
Humans have been fighting against a variety of diseases since prehistoric
periods. Eventually humans developed an indigenous system of medicine.
For millennia human societies have been depending on plants and plant
products for various remedies. In certain areas these folk medical prescriptions
are endemic and have survived through ages from one generation to the
next through the word of mouth. They do not exist as written knowledge.
Generally these systems of medicine depend on old people's experiences.
Indigenous systems of medicine are specially conditioned by the cultural
heritage and myths.
All mythological texts celebrate the Central Himalayan Region as the
land of gods. But it is very interesting to note that this region has
the local gods like Gollu Devata, Lakiya Bhut, Nanda Devi, Bhola Nath,
etc. who were originally historical noble human beings. The local people
deified them. These local gods are more powerful than Brahmanical gods.
The Himalayan people believe that unhappiness of such local gods is the
cause of all disease. In their medical system they use magico-religious
therapies and natural therapies against diseases.
In magico-religious therapies they practice Jagar, Thau-dham,
Bhabhuti, Tantra-mantra, etc. to placate the local gods
and supernatural powers. And in natural therapies, like in Ayurveda, they
use herbal products. According to the mode of application, the natural
therapies have three categories:
1. Herbal products used in systematized system of medicine like Ayurveda,
2. Herbal products used in ethno-medicine or indigenous medicine like
HMS based on oral tradition.
3. Herbal products used in modern medicine, based on active chemical principles
of the herbal products.
The Himalayan people believe that diseases are caused by unhappiness
of local gods. Thus they treat diseases through some magico-therapies.
Mostly the magico-religious physicians are called Pujari, who are
the mystic-priest of a village. The Himalayan people use some native medicine
but if a person does not recover from an affliction, his relatives approach
the mystic-priest (Pujari). The Pujari tells them whether
the patient is under the spell of an evil spirit or has incurred the anger
of the local god, or whether he is suffering from some sort of illness.
In the latter case, the patient is taken to a village herbal physician
for treatment. If the Pujari decides that the patient is under
the spell of an evil spirit, he recommends some other mystic-priest who,
with the help of hymns, drives the spirit away. Before leaving the patient,
the spirit may ask for some rice and pulses or for the sacrifice of a
cock, pig, goat, or some colored cloth. The rice and pulse are left on
road crossings. It is believed that the spirit will leave the patient
after getting the articles demanded. Finally the Pujari puts some
ash marks on patient's, forehead which is locally called as Bhabhuti.
If the Pujari says the patient is under the anger of the local
god, he recommends a magico-religious ceremony known as Jagar to
placate the god.
Jagar is always held at night. A large room in the patient's house
is cleaned and provided with articles of worship such as fruit, cereals,
milk, curd, ghee, sweet, etc. It is decorated with various flowers and
branches of some special trees. The Jagaria, who is the hymn chanter
and conductor of the ceremony, the Dangaria (the dancer who acts
as a medium for the appearance of the god), and the relatives and friends
are seated in ceremonial room. A crude drum (nagara) and a metallic
plate (thali) are played, the Jagaria chants hymns, and
the Dangaria begins to dance. When the dance and the music reach
their climax, the patient's household god speaks through the medium of
the Dangaria. The relatives ask the god-in-medium the cause of
his anger. He tells the cause, which may be, among other reasons, that
the patient did not worship him properly or that he did not give him a
sufficient share from his earnings. As a penalty the god may demand a
simple Khichari (a mixture of uncooked rice, pulses, chillies,
and salt); a sacrifice of a goat, pig, cock, or coconut; a continuous
Jagar for 20 days or so; or simple worship at home or in a particular
temple. Everyone has to fulfill the demands of the god because failure
to do so may result in serious consequences not only to the patient but
also to his family. One may witness such a magico-religious ceremony in
any village of the Himalayas, even among the educated classes. About 50%
of the patients are cured by it. These medical systems are psycho-somatic
in nature and need to be properly investigated.
The use of plants for treatment in India dates back to prehistoric times.
This indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants and therapies was composed
verbally and passed orally from generation to generation. Much later,
some of this information was systematized in treatise forms like Atharveda,
Yajurveda, Charak Samhita, Sushrut Samhita, etc.
These systematized systems of knowledge about medicinal plants and therapies
are included under Ayurveda - the Indian Traditional Medicine System.
We are trying to compare the traditional Himalayan materia medica
with that used by Ayurved.
Despite the development of rural health services, village people still
use herbal native medicines to a large extent for treatment of common
ailments like cough, cold and fever, headache and body-ache, constipation,
dysentery, burns, cuts and scalds, boils and ulcers, skin diseases and
respiratory troubles, etc.
The Himalayas have a wide range of herbal products as this region supports
about 18,440 species of plants.
The herbal medicines are prescribed by the household ladies, elder persons,
Pujari, Ojhas (physicians practicing witchcraft.) etc., and by traditional
The Indian household ladies use herbal drugs for most of the ordinary
ailments of infants and children. The herbal drugs are mostly available
to them from their kitchen stock, kitchen garden or village fields and
from the village bazaar.
The use of rhizome of Curcuma domestica (Haldi) for cuts, bums
and scalds; the fruits of Piper nigrum (black pepper, Kali- mirch
or gol-mirch) for coughs and colds; the fruits of Trachyspermum ammi
(ajawain); and resin of Ferula spp. (heeng) for stomach troubles
and whooping cough; the seeds of Sesamum indicum (Til) for ulcers
and boils, etc., all are well known to Indian elderly housewives.
The use of infusions of the leaves of Ocimum sanctum (Tulsi) for
coughs and colds and mild fever, fomentation with the hot leaves of Ricinus
communis (Erand) and Aloe barbadensis (Geekuar) for relieving
inflammations, swellings of joints and sprains, and many other home remedies
are learnt traditionally in the home.
In the villages the elderly persons, Pujari, Ojhas, and priests, etc.,
know quite a few herbal drugs, which grow near at hand and try them effectively
without any hesitation against several common ailments and diseases. Their
services are entirely free.
Traditional herbalists are professionals. They are mostly illiterate
but have considerable knowledge of the herbal drugs and their uses. They
keep stocks of crude drugs for sale and prescribe these for common ailments.
The traditional herbalists maintain a small shop.
There is another kind of herbalist, who is a wanderer. Among these there
are two categories: those who administer a ground mixture of herbal drugs,
and those who prescribe and also supply the herbal drugs as such.
The first category of herbalists keep their crude drugs in glass jars
and often display them at the roadside. Mostly they procure their drugs
from established crude drug markets of Northern India. They administer
drugs mainly for venereal ailments, and also as tonics and aphrodisiacs.
The most common herbal drugs seen with them are the tuberous roots of
Orchis spp. (Salam panja or Salam gatta), the roots of Asparagus
spp. (Satawar), Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha), the fruits of
Tribulus terrestris (Chota gokhru), and Pedalium murex (Bara
gokhru), seeds of Mucuna pruriens (Kiwanch), Entadapursaetha
(Chian, gila), stems of Tinospora cordifolia (Giloya), the tubers
of Pueraria tuberosa (Vidari kanda), and others.
The second category of herbalists administers the herbal drugs directly
without pounding; they keep only a limited number of crude drugs for day-
to-day requirements. The drugs, which they commonly keep, are fruits of
Terminalia chebula (Harra), T. belerica (Bahera), Emblica
officinalis (Awanla), Helicteres isora (Marorphali), bark of
Symplocos sp. (Pathani lodhra), roots of Withania somnifera
(Aswagandha nagori), and seeds and oleoresins of various plants.
In the hills, the herbalists are often seen also with crude drugs procured
from the alpine regions, like Rheum spp. (Dolu), Aconitum heterophyllum
(Atis), Picrorhiza kurooa (Karu), Angelica glauca (Chora
or gandrayan), Nardostachys jatamansi (Mansi), and the aromatic
leaves of Allium govanianum and other Allium spp. (Uambu),
and many others.
Materia Medica of Himalayan Medicine System
The materia medica of Himalayan Medicines is very vast compared to that
of other indigenous systems of medicine. Table 1 gives the traditional
herbal medicines used in the Himalayan Medicine System. It may be noted
however that its only a partial list of medicinal plants and we are collecting
more data on them.
Table 1. Materia medica of the traditional Himalayan medicines
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The Himalayan people have a close relationship with nature. They use
both psycho-somatic treatment which depends on propitiating the gods/spirits
and the herbal and mineral medicine. The Himalayan medicine system (HMS)
is not at all systematized and depends upon an oral tradition. The persons,
prescribing these medicines, use the traditional knowledge. Some of the
Himalayan medicines were known widely and were even exported. For example,
Kuth (Saussurea costus) was exported to east as is mentioned in
Atharvaveda. It was also exported to China. Thus HMS is a vast
treasure of herbal medicine which needs to be exhaustively studied and
used for the economic regeneration of the local people, as also for the
medical benefit of the world at large. We feel that the materia medica
of Ayurveda and even the Chinese medicine system may have borrowed heavily
from the HMS. There are effective medicines in HMS even for incurable
diseases. Table 1 gives a partial list of such herbal plants and the their
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