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Tribal Medicine: the Untapped Treasure

Tribal Medicine: the Untapped Treasure
by Lalit Tiwari & D.P. Agrawal

In recent years, uncontrolled exploitation by Multinationals has resulted in the loss of the rich biodiversity of India, which has an immense wealth of about 45,000 species of wild plants of which 7500 species are used for medicinal purposes. The tribal people are the real custodians of medicinal plants. Dr. Vedavathy (2002) has recently reported the results of a study carried out between 1994-1998 in Andhra Pradesh. From the Chittoor district alone they have documented more than a thousand therapies and 500 medicinal plants. The predominant tribal populations in the district comprise the yanadiyerukalanakkala and the irula tribes.

The Herbal Folklore Research Center (HFRC) with a small multi-disciplinary team comprising an ethno-botanist, a social anthropologist, two trained taxonomists, an Ayurvedic doctor and four field assistants, made enthno-botanical surveys during 1994-1998 in the Chittoor district, in Andhra Pradesh. The surveys were carried out with a non-random purposive sample of the rural population. ‘Snowball and judgmental’ selection methods were used to identify community members who are knowledgeable in medicinal plant identification and usage. Vedavathy noticed that there is a strong belief among the tribal people that the efficacy of the therapy is lost if it is revealed to strangers, who have no faith in nature and their medicine.

The tribal people divide the diseases into two categories:

(1) Related to the body;
(2) Related to mind and divine powers.

The bodily ailments are treated using herbal medicines, coupled with animal parts, and psychosomatic diseases using magico-religious practices coupled with herbal medicines.

We will now discuss some of the remedies for main ailments:

Fever: If the ailment is followed by fever the first precaution is to avoid intake of solid food. During the survey the team documented six types of antipyretic agents such as the decoction of root tubers of (shatavari), Asparagus racemosus Willd or Cyprus rotundus used by the Yanadi tribe. The Sugalis used the garlic bulb (Allium sativum Linn), and dry ginger. And the Nakkala tribe used the decoction of garlic mixed with Andrographis paniculata and Morinda tinctoria root.

Headache: For headache the tribals use either dry ginger or sandal wood paste as topical application on the forehead and for pain in the scalp region they bandage either leaves of Delonix elata Gamble or Vitex negundo Linn. For chronic cases they make a paste of Achyranthes aspera Linn, earthworm and Ocimum basilicum Linn seeds mixed with a pinch of camphor, which is applied on the head and forehead. If the headache is followed by fever and eye infection the juice made by pounding ginger, garlic and onion is given to drink.

Indigestion: Trachyspermum ammi (Linn.) seed powder with a pinch of rock salt is given for indigestion and for chronic cases Cassia senna Linn leaf powder mixed with a pinch of salt are given on empty stomach.

Eye Infection: The primary treatment is to foment the affected eye. If the infection is very painful, the juice of lime or onion or fresh turmeric is dropped in the eyes.

Liver disorders: A paste made from cooked Cuscuta reflexa Roxb plant is applied topically on the stomach for liver disorders.

Cough and cold: The parts of plant such as fruits of Pongamia pinnata Pirre, leaves of Datura metel Linn, roots of Solanum surattense are used for cold, cough and bronchitis.

Sexual potency: The tribes have many drugs for sexual potency. They use snails, pigeons and sparrows along with food and herbal drugs such as Mucuna pruritaAsparagus racemosus roots.

Toothache: The latex of Calotropis procera, bark of Acacia sp, roots of Achyranthes aspera Linn are applied for toothache and infection. For brushing they use neem or Pongamia sticks.

For easy delivery: Birth of child is an important event in their life. The people of the hamlet take active part. They never go to hospital for delivery. The people generally possess the knowledge about delivery. During the process the birth attendant massages the abdomen and navel region using castor oil or root paste of Achyranthes aspera Linn. Herbal decoction made of ginger, coriander, fennel, black pepper and mustard seeds mixed in equal proportions are given to the laboring mother to hasten the pains. To remove the dead body from the womb the Nakkla community mix the decoction of bamboo leaves, asafetida, salt and some ganji (rice gruel). Yanadi and Yerukala communities have many therapies such as leaf decoction of jammi (Prosopis cineraria Druce) or garlic mixed with millets and black pepper for the expulsion of dead body from the womb. A wick dipped in the root paste of Boerhaavia diffusa Linn or castor oil or soap nut juice is inserted in the vagina to hasten the process. After delivery a decoction or extract prepared from root of Tephrosia purpurea is given to clean the uterus and to ensure complete discharge of the placenta. The tribes have many post-natal therapies. For the newborn baby the Yanadis administer the paste made from dried stomach of porcupine. The dried stomach that looks like a stone is rubbed with mother’s milk and given to baby to lick. This medicine is continued up to one year with gradual increase in dosage.

Cut and fractures: The Yanadis use warmed banyan leaves to bandage the affected part for cuts and for bone setting and for fractures the leaves of Dodonaea viscose Linn. And for inflammation, before applying any medicine they wash the affected area either with cow’s urine or with their own urine.

Pain: The tribals give fomentation (heat therapy) to the affected area for relief using hot water rinsing or steam, or fomentation with fried salt along with topical application of castor oil for any pain.

Snakebite: They resort to mantras and magic before giving herbal treatment for snakebite and the victim is given the roots of Aristolochia indica Linn or bark of Alangium salviifolium. The indigenous people believe that man and nature are interdependent. The medicines given during the treatment and the food regimen they follow are marvelous and give quick relief. The belief that the misuse of nature results in punishment and curse becomes a boon to preserve the snakes and other minor animals.

During epidemics the tribals resort to many magico-religious practices and combined herbal treatment and strict food regimen.

Conclusion: There is a need for documentation of all the tribal health practices. The deforestation really affects the life of the tribals who are really the forest children. Their health, wealth and culture depend on the forest.


S.Vedavathy. 2002. Tribal medicine – the real alternative. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 1(1): 25-31.