Tribal tales: healers and their traditional medicines

While working with the Munda community in 1996 on a US Demographic Innovation Fellowship, I realized that they were not following Western medicine but were following their own system of medical care,” explains Basavi Kiro, hodopathy practitioner for 15 years. “No matter what they were suffering from, whether it was minor headaches, stomach aches or pregnancy-related issues, they used herbal medicines prescribed by their local vaidya (medicine practitioner). traditional medicine),” she says, while describing what brought her to hodopathy, a system of traditional medicine. practiced by the tribal communities of Jharkhand, including Munda and Oraon, to which Kiro belongs. “I organized a tribal meeting under this scholarship and realized that it was vast knowledge. Not just those in Jharkhand, every tribal group has this knowledge,” she adds.

Indeed, from the Bodhs of Ladakh and the Santhals of central and eastern India to the tribes of northeastern and southern India, a thread that binds them all, apart from their friendship with the forest , is traditional healing. The nickname may be different, such as Sowa-Rigpa for the tribes of Ladakh, Siddha for those of southern India, or the unique hodopathy of Jharkhand, but traditional healing as a practice is an intrinsic aspect of the way of life. tribal.

Amid the lack of institutionalized learning, knowledge is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next. “My grandfather was a tribal healer. I learned everything from him,” says Guleshwar Soren, a Santhal, who came to Jamshedpur to attend Samvaad, a five-day tribal conclave organized by the Tata Steel Foundation. The ninth edition of Samvaad, which started on November 15, welcomed several healers from Indian and foreign tribes.

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“From our farmlands to the surrounding forests, the land is full of herbs, which we use to prepare medicine,” says Ram Chandra Murmu, another healer from the same tribe, who went on to describe the dire state of the medical infrastructure in his village. Asked how a disease is diagnosed, he replies: “By looking at the patient’s face, taking her pulse and monitoring her eating and breathing habits.

Interestingly, many of these healers are not paid in cash but in kind. “It depends on the patient’s wishes. Sometimes we get rice or chicken, sometimes something else,” says Soren, adding that he is uneducated but sees around 25-30 patients a day.

When Annet Nangendo, a Ugandan tribal healer, traveled to India to attend the tribal conclave, she was amazed at the commonalities between African and Indian traditional healing. “The plants we use are not very different, nor are the underlying explanations. We also share a common passion and interest in our traditional healing system,” she says.

A question of legitimacy
Although he claims that a large number of people believe in traditional medicines, Dr. Kiro accepts that the lack of empirical evidence diminishes people’s belief. “We have the knowledge and the experience, but we’re not visible,” she says. Soren and Murmu echo the same.

The experience was somewhat different for Tsewang Norboo and Nawang Tsering, tribal healers from the Bodh tribe of Ladakh. The Centre’s growing push in popularizing Sowa-Rigpa, the Tibetan healing system also practiced in India’s Himalayan belt, has given it a boost, they say. In 2020, the National Institute of Sowa-Rigpa was established under the Union Ministry of Ayush in Leh, Ladakh. “The mandate of the institute is to preserve and promote the Sowa-Rigpa system of medicine,” Ayush’s ministry said.

“Although knowledge is usually passed down from generation to generation, so are those who want to learn it,” says Norboo. Although government pressure may have made things easier, the drug manufacturing process is anything but. “Herbs are largely found in high altitude mountains. So we camp there for four to five days, pick the herbs and then make the medicine,” they say.

Speaking of Sowa-Rigpa’s acceptance among the villagers, Tsering comments, “Western medicine is quick and effective but has side effects. Our medicine, even if it doesn’t work, has no side effects. People accept this, which makes it popular.

“Traditional medicine is accepted in Uganda,” says Nangendo. “This is getting a new impetus from the government,” she adds. Amid the third wave of Covid-19 last year, the Ugandan government approved Covidex, a locally made herbal medicine, a move the World Health Organization has called concerning.

Interestingly, according to the world health body, “Traditional medicine has been the reliable, acceptable, affordable and accessible source of health care for African people for centuries. Even today, 80% of the continent’s population depends on traditional medicine for their basic health needs.

At your doorstep
To popularize “the usefulness of commonly available and frequently used herbal medicines”, the National Herbal Medicine Council of the Ayush Ministry “intends to establish a herb garden of various kinds”. Several state governments also have similar programs, such as Chhattisgarh, which has a council dedicated to local traditions and medicinal plants of the Chhattisgarh tribe.

“Under the home herb garden program, we have built about three lakh herb gardens,” says Nirmal Kumar Awasthi, who runs an NGO. According to him, tribal people are employed here to build such gardens, which not only generate a source of income directly in their village, but also help protect plants that are disappearing in the wild.

Having worked closely with tribal healing traditions, he says these have a distinct difference to Ayurveda. “Most Ayurvedic medicines are in the form of tablets, syrups and mostly packaged, hence preservatives are added to them. Tribal healers, on the other hand, first examine the patient and then prepare the medicine fresh for five to seven days, after which a new batch is prepared.


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