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Traditional Himalayan Medicine System

Traditional Himalayan Medicine System and its Materia Medica
by Lalit Tiwari

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.

Himalayan People

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 the poor.

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.

Himalayan Therapies

In magico-religious therapies they practice JagarThau-dhamBhabhutiTantra-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, Siddha.
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.

Magico-religious Therapies:

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.

Natural therapies

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 AtharvedaYajurvedaCharak SamhitaSushrut 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.

Aconitum atrox
Rhododendron arboreum

The herbal medicines are prescribed by the household ladies, elder persons, Pujari, Ojhas (physicians practicing witchcraft.) etc., and by traditional herbalists.

Household ladies

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.

Elderly persons

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

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 ofTerminalia 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 medicinal uses.

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