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Himalayan Medicine System
Mosaic of cultures
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. 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. 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
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
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
Concept of Himalayan
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, 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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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.
of the traditional Himalayan medicines
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