Health

How Adivasis of one Jharkhand village are trying to preserve ethnomedicine

With ‘civilisation’ and ‘modernity’ having made inroads into India’s tribal areas, its heritage of traditional tribal systems of medicine is increasingly under threat

 
How Adivasis of one Jharkhand village are trying to preserve ethnomedicine. Photo: Author provided
The children of Jana village in Jharkhand, with medicinal plants in their hands. Photo: Author provided The children of Jana village in Jharkhand, with medicinal plants in their hands. Photo: Author provided

Jana village is located in the Gumla district of Jharkhand. More than 90 per cent of its population is Adivasi or tribal. As such, most aspects of life here reflect Adivasi  cultural and social mores.  

The old residents of the village recollect that their ancestors settled in the village centuries back. Earlier, they were mostly dependent on local resources for their life and livelihood.

However, with time, modern amenities started reaching Jana. It didn’t remain isolated from the new scientific and industrial developments — be it in agriculture, healthcare or lifestyle.

Though the villagers still remember their traditional practices in agriculture to some extent, the ancestral knowledge of ethnomedicine has now been limited to only a handful of elderly people.

What is Ethnomedicine?

‘Ethnomedicine’, as defined by George Foster and Barbara Anderson in their 1978 essay Medical Anthropology, is the totality of health, knowledge, values, beliefs, skills and practices of members of a society, including all the clinical and non-clinical activities that relate to their health needs. 

According to an estimate of the World Health Organization, approximately 88 per cent of people in developing countries rely chiefly on traditional medicines, mostly plant extracts, for their primary health care needs. However, like Jana, the knowledge of ethnomedicine and the natural ingredients, the plants and animals, is disappearing quickly throughout the world. 

In ethnomedicine practices, which mostly evolved in hunter-gatherer societies, ailments are seen as problematic changes that take place in the members of the group. 

Horacio Fabrega, in his article The Need for an Ethnomedical Science, argued that ethnomedicine is based on the principle that human beings are both  physiological and cultural beings.

This is the basic difference between it and modern allopathic medicine where human beings are only considered as physiological beings (except probably psychiatric diseases). As a result, the diseases had been classified differently in both these systems.

Ethnomedicine mostly used behavioural changes to diagnose. Further, cure of the disease also involved, in most of the cases, an entire village or a group of people. However, with the influence of allopathic medicine, ethnomedicine also started identifying diseases with the same name as modern medical science.

Ethnomedical practices of the Oraon tribe in Latehar documented by Raphael Ranjit Marandi and S John Britto in their article Ethnomedicinal Plants used by the Oraon Tribals of Latehar district of Jharkhand, India shows names such as typhoid, diabetes, etc, that are no doubt an effort to adjust to the mainstream understanding of diseases.   

One aspect of ethnomedicine is that it is a group-based practice starting from diagnosis to treatment. The ailments are defined by change in social behaviour of the member of a group.

A group of people gather the materials needed for the cure and prepare concoctions / decoctions and the treatment involves an elaborate process where a group of people, if not the entire village, participate and the main healer takes their help in the healing process.

How the Adivasis of Jana in Jharkhand are trying to document the knowledge of ethnomedicine. This figure shows the leaves of 'Murjhatni' and 'Karam' and how they should be used to treat common illnesses. Photo: Author provided How the Adivasis of Jana in Jharkhand are trying to document the knowledge of ethnomedicine. This figure shows the leaves of 'Murjhatni' and 'Karam' and how they should be used to treat common illnesses. Photo: Author provided 

The other aspect is that it is based on practice of indigenous religion in which nature is worshipped. This kind of devotion and loyalty to natural objects is termed by John Wright as ‘geopiety’ in his book Human nature in Geography.

A particular place or tree is considered sacred; for example, the Oraon tribes worship a place around a Shorea robusta tree (Sal) or Nauclea parvifolia (Karam) tree.

Crisis in Ethnomedicine

Forests have been the major source of raw materials for ethnomedicine. However, ancient ethnomedicine practices had been largely affected after the forests went into the hands of forest departments.

Timber became a significant source of revenue for the state. Anything other than timber species started becoming considered as weeds. Many medicinal plants became weeds as a result of that. At the same time, massive deforestation continued for decades for mining, agriculture, industry, construction, etc.

However, like the extinction of plant and animal species, the practitioners of ethnomedicine appear to be at a greater risk of extinction than even forests and other biomes. Knowledge of the use of plants and other species is disappearing faster than those species themselves.

Loss of indigenous knowledge also has a significant impact on the development of modern medicine. Charles Anyinam, in his article Ecology and Ethnomedicine, wrote that folklore over the years had proved to be an invaluable guide in the present day screening of drugs.

Many important modern drugs (such as digitoxin, reserpine, tubocurarine, ephedrine, to name a few) have been discovered by following leads from folklore.

As NR Farnsworth, in his article The Role of Ethnopharmacology in Drug Development, points out, about 74 per cent of the 121 biological active plant-derived compounds currently in use worldwide, have been discovered through follow-up research to verify the authenticity of information concerning the folk or ethnomedical uses of the plants.

For centuries, healers and indigenous people have been collecting medicines from local plants and animals without creating any imbalance in the population dynamics of the species because of the low level of harvest.

Commoditisation of plant medicine and animal parts was an insignificant aspect of the practice of ethnomedicine. In the last few decades, however, there has been a marked increase in the sale of herbal remedies.

This led to large-scale harvesting of medicinal plants, factory-like production of herbal drugs, and animal poaching in many parts of developing countries. In our country, Patanjali Ayurved was able to declare its annual turnover of 2016–17 to be an estimated Rs 10,216 crore ($1.4 billion) within a decade of its inception. This is destroying the population balance of the medicinal plant and animal species to a great extent. 

Jana’s struggle

Jana is a village located on the fringes of a forest and the villagers consider the jungle as part of their life. Earlier, they were dependent on this forest for biomass to use on their agricultural land and for food, fodder as well as fuel.

However, gradually, with modern amenities, these dependencies are getting reduced. An elderly villager, Mahadev Oraon, around 65-70 years, shared that the people of Jana had a rich knowledge of the forest, which was also a source of medicine for them. He added that there were many people in the village who had knowledge about healing, using plants or animal parts from forests.

However, the ethnomedicine practices in Jana has also undergone many changes. Currently, most locals prefer allopathic medicines. They also mostly use allopathic names while mentioning diseases. The entire practice of ethnomedicine, on the other hand, has become dependent only on the healer rather than a group of people.

The community, especially local women, expressed the need for documenting the knowledge of ethnomedical practices for future generations. They feared that all this knowledge from their ancestors would disappear with their generation.

The villagers have documented 29 different types of concoction and decoction preparation methods using various parts of around fifty plants. The residents of Jana also still depend on ethnomedicines for treating their livestock.

Ethnomedicinal plants used by the Oraontribals of village Jana, Gumla, Jharkhand 

S.No.

Local Name

English and Scientific Name*

Usage

1.

Murjhatni

 Nyctanthesarbortristis

Boil the leaves or bark of Murjhatni or Karam in one litre water till the water is half litre left. Drink this water about 50 gms in the morning and evening in an empty stomach for curing Malaria.

2.

Karam

Naucleaparvifolia

3.

Raktfar/Raktfal

Ardisiasolanacea

Minutely crush 250 gms of the bark of the tree and make a paste with one glass of water. Apply the paste in the affected area. It relieves from pain within 3 days. For treating piles, take half kilogram of the bark and boil it with 2 litres of water till one litre is left. Filter the water and drink it around 100 gms daily in an empty stomach twice a day.

4.

Kujri

Celastruspaniculatus

Oil extracted from the tree can be used in massaging for relieving pain. In case of a new incidence of Tuberculosis, take one spoon of oil daily in an empty stomach.

5.

Babool

Vachellianilotica

Wash the roots (total 1 kg) of these four plants and crush them minutely and then boil with 2 litres of water. Cool the solution and then filter it. Daily drink the solution in an empty stomach to cure from Safed Dhat disease.

6.

Jahan Juhi

 

7.

MahadevJata

Asperagus racemose

8.

KuttaGaanth

 

9.

Putri

Croton oblongofolius

Roots of Putri plant and MuhkalJari are grinded together and made into a paste mixing with water. The paste is to be used where there is a poisonous bite. Or, drink the filtered water to stop the effect of poison.

10.

MuhkalJari

 

11.

Jur Bula

 

Used in making Handiya along with Ranu. It helps in curing stomach problems and piles.

12.

Piar

Buchananiacochinchinensis

Excreta of Rabbit and Pier leaves are grinded and mixed well to make balls of the size of tamarind seeds. These are to be eaten to cure loose motion.

13.

Amla

Gooseberry

Phyllanthusemblica

Dry the fruit of Aonla and make powder. Eat the powder daily with plain water in an empty stomach. This cures gastric and improves eyesight.

14.

Kanwat (Karonda)

Carissa carandas

This helps in repelling snake from homes.

15.

Sudarshan

Crinum latifolium

Extract the sap of the leaf and put 4-5 drops in the ear. This helps in reducing sudden pain in ears

16.

Katahal

Jackfruit

Artocarpusintegrifolia

Char the peels of ripe Jackfruit and make a paste with Karanj oil. Applying the paste helps in measles and pox.

17.

Dhatura

Jimsonweed

Datura stramonium

Roots of Dhatura are to be cooked in mustard oil. Using 4 drops daily twice helps in diseases related to ears.

18.

Sindhwar

Diospyrosmelanoxylon

This is used in the preservation of potato seeds. It prevents insects from damaging the seeds.

19.

Jamun

Indian Blackberry

Syzygiumcumini

Extract juice from ripe fruit of Jamun and keep it for 30 minutes in sunlight. Store it in a bottle and use 2-3 spoons in the empty stomach. It helps in Gastric. Jamun seeds also are useful in Diabetes.

20.

Ghato

Clerodendruminfortunatum L.

Crushed leaves help in preservation of pulses. It protects from insects.

21.

Arhar

Pegion Pea

Cajanuscajan

It helps in removing intoxication from weed (ganja, Bhaang). Grind the leaves and mix with one glass of water and then drinking it removes intoxication. The broth of Arhar dal also removes weed intoxication.

22.

Pipal

Ficusreligiosa

Grind the bark of pipal tree and mix with plain water and then filter it. The filtered water can be used in curing loose motion in goats and cows. In humans, pipal helps in curing stomach ache. Nail sized balls are to be made with fresh pipal leaves mixing with old jaggery which is eaten twice a day in empty stomach to cure stomach ache.

23.

Karanj

Pongamiapinnata

Lots of medicines are made from Karanj oil which cures many diseases like itching, pox, blisters etc. It also acts as insect repellent.

24.

Mahakaal

Trichosanthestricuspidata

The roots of Mahakaal are mixed with water or cooked in oil. The concoction is used in massaging wherever there is pain, especially joint pain.

25.

Gulgula

Portulacaquadrifida

These four types of leaves are grinded, mixed in a glass of water with rock sugar. The mixture is drunk in the morning in an empty stomach to cure piles.

26.

Puskanjilata

 

27.

Baryari

Sidaacuta

28.

Amrud

Guava

Psidiumguajava

29.

Genda

Marigold

Calendula officinalis

Both the leaves are grinded well and made into a paste. 50 gms of the paste is applied on the body in case of fever and then removed after sometime. It helps in curing fever.

30.

ChintiSaag

Polygonumplebjum

31.

KhaprailSaag

Trienthemamonogyna

This saag is cooked by enclosing in Sakhua (Sal) leaf. Eating it during fever helps in preventing head spinning.

32.

DaalSaag

 

Daalsaag and rock sugar are grinded together and mixed with water. It cures Safed dhaat disease

33.

DoodhGhaas

Euphorbia hirta

The roots of doodhghaas are grinded and applied on wounds of animals. These are wounds where worms have been developed. The paste is applied on the wound and left in the sun to dry. This heals the wound quickly.

34.

Kela

Banana

Musa × paradisiaca

Kelapatti is charred and then mixed with honey. Licking this paste helps to cure cold in children

35.

BijliKand

 

Grinding Bijlikandpatta with water and making a paste and applying the paste helps in sprain or any pain.

36.

Nimbu

Lemon

Citrus × limon

Drinking the juice of lemon in a glass of water daily helps in melting the body fat.

37.

Adrak

Ginger

Zingiberofficinale

Roots of Adrak, Tulsi, Madar, Black pepper and Harra are mixed together and fried in ghee till the mixture is light yellow in color. This mixture cures cough if used thrice in a day.

38.

Tulsi

Holi Basil

Ocimumtenuiflorum

39.

Madar

Calotropis gigantean

40.

Sahjan

Drumsticks

MoringaOleifera

Leaves of Sahjan are boiled in water. Drinking a glass of this water in an empty stomach helps in curing high blood pressure problems.

41.

Bandarlauri (Sonarkhi)

Cassia fistula

 

Leaves of this plant are used in ripening fruits.

42.

Ban Kapas

Thespesia lampas

Seeds of ban kapas cures cough and blisters in the throat. Black pepper and ban kapas together are grinded well and cooked in ghee.

43.

Amla

Gooseberry

Phyllanthusemblica

Powder is made from the pulp of Amla fruit. Consuming this powder helps in keeping the stomach clear and also increases eyesight.

44.

Harra

Terminalia chebula

Barks of these three plants are mixed and boiled with water. Drinking it twice a day in an empty stomach helps in curing diabetes. Harra, Bahera and Amla are used in making triphalachurna.

45.

Dhautha

Datura stramonium

46.

Bahera

Terminalia bellirica

47.

Biri Leaf

Bauhinia racemose

Fruit of biri plant and roots of ruchmuchia plant are grinded and mixed in water. It is used as fish bait and cure itching, pox in animals.

48.

RuchMuchia

Caesariagraveolens

49.

Saliya

Boswelliaserrata

The stem of Saliya plant is an insect repellent and used mainly in paddy.

50.

GaiKaapurani

 

Roots of this plant are cooked in ghee. It cures haemolytic diseases.

51.

Putus

Lantana camara

Juice of putus leaves if applied on a wound helps in preventing tetanus.

52.

Sakhua

Sal
Shorearobusta

Brushing daily with the stem of sakhua helps in keeping the stomach fit and keeps the teeth strong as well.

53.

Tevad

 

Roots of both the plants are grinded and mixed in water. It is then filtered. Consuming it in an empty stomach helps in curing gastric problems.

54.

Koinaar

Bauhinia purpurea

55.

Aam

Mangiferaindica

Bark of mango trees is grinded and mixed with water. The paste when applied on the body helps in curing Loo.

56.

Rangoni (Bhijri)

 Solanum indicum

Seeds of rangoni help in curing toothache.

57.

Chakondi

Senna Tora

Drinking the water boiled with leaves or seeds of chakondi helps in controlling diabetes.

58.

Kundru

Cocciniagrandis

Juice of Kundru leaves helps in relieving ear pain. Putting 4-5 drops in the ear cures the pain.

59.

Bhusar

 

Juice of Bhusar leaf when applied on a wound helps in quick healing and controlling spread of tetanus.

60.

Sarifa

Custard Apple

Annona squamosal

Seeds of sharifa fruit help in controlling lice in the head. Sarifa seeds along with neem seeds give quick relief.

61.

DoobGhas

Cynodondactylon

Doobghas helps in curing half-headache. It has a religious angle in curing half headache.

62.

Imli

Tamarind

Tamarindusindica

Bark of tamarind trees or the fruit is mixed with water and the paste is applied on the body. It helps in protecting and curing loo effects.

63.

GhoraKanta

Tribulusterrestris

If a person has consumed poison, drinking the filter of the mixture of water and roots of ghorakanta helps in vomiting the poison instantly. Saag of ghorakanta eaten with salt helps in addressing anaemic problems.

64.

CharaiGodwa Patti

 

In case of snake bite, drinking grind of charaigodwapatti mixed with water helps in curing the poison. Powder of charaiGodwa Patti eaten with tea is very beneficial for health.

*For some species we could not yet identify the botanical name 

Acknowledgement: The authors are grateful to Soumik Banerjee and Bibhubanta Barad for their help in identifying botanical names of some unfamiliar species

Temba Oraon is a resident of Jana village. The other three co-authors are members of PRADAN, a civil society organisation

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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