Medicinal Plant’s Traditional Healers Use
Allium sativum, Cinnamomum tamala, Curcuma longa, Piper nigrum, Hypericum Laxum, Lycopodium clavatum, Swertia chirayita…the names may sound exotic, but they actually are scientific names of very common plants, some of which you have definitely seen, and used.Most of us have no idea that these plants possess tremendous medicinal value.
Significantly, these florae are abundant in the natural ambience of Meghalaya and traditional healers of the region have been using these plants for centuries with effective results. Each traditional healer has his or her own method of healing. In fact, medicinal plants have properties that can cure a variety of illnesses and skilled healers can make use of these properties to good effect.
In addition to using widely available medicinal plants for common illnesses, traditional healers are also adept at using some rare plants for setting bones, restoring eyesight and even rooting out certain cancers. In many instances, they have been credited with the cure of some diseases that modern medicine had given up on.
What do Traditional Healers Use Medicinal Plants for?
Herbs, shrubs, trees – medicinal plants come in all shapes and sizes. Medications may be prepared from a single plant or a combination of multiple plants. The various parts of plants used to prepare herbal medications are leaves, roots, fruits, seeds or barks.
Here is a listing of a few of the medicinal plant’s traditional healers use:
1. Scientific name: Acorus calamus
Local name: Bat Rynniaw (Herb)
Parts used: Leaves, roots
Treatment for: Paralysis, epilepsy, stomach problems
2. Scientific name: Kaempferia galangal
Local name: Sying Shmoh (Aromatic ginger)
Parts used: Rhizomes
Treatment for: Blood vomiting, poisoning, mouth ulcers
3. Scientific name: Gaultheria fragrantissima
Local name: Lathynriat (wintergreen)
Parts used: Leaves, stems
Treatment for: Rheumatism, paralysis, migraines, pneumonia
4. Scientific name: Centella asiatica
Local name: Khlieng Syiar (pennywort)
Parts used: Entire plant
Treatment for: Blood purification, blood dysentery
5. Scientific name: Piper longum
Local name: Sohmarit Khlaw (long pepper)
Parts used: Fruits
Treatment for: Cough and cold
6. Scientific name: Potentilla fulgens
Local name: Lynniang (Himalayan Cinquefoil)
Parts used: Roots
Treatment for: High blood pressure, diabetes, pyorrhea
7. Scientific name: Swertia chirata
Local name: Charyta
Treatment for: Malaria
8. Scientific name: Calendula officinalis
Local name: Tiew myngor (marigold)
Parts used: Leaves, flowers
Treatment for: Cuts and wounds
9. Scientific name: Nepenthes khasiana
Local name: Tiew myngor (marigold)
Parts used: Young pitchers, roots
Treatment for: Urinary problems, earache
10. Scientific name: Zingiber rubens
Local name: Sying makhir (medicinal ginger)
Parts used: Rhizomes
Treatment for: Toothache, bodyache
Wealth of the Forest, Health of the People
Northeast India’s natural and spectacular forest wealth is one of the three biodiversity hotspots in the country. Meghalaya, being a part of NE India, has one of the richest and most extensive bio-diverse, nurturing species highly endemic to the region, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The existence of 101 Sacred Groves – forest fragments protected by religious communities – has also helped preserve these rare species, many of which have medicinal properties, in pristine conditions.
Meghalaya, particularly the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, has drawn and continues to draw, many eminent botanists to study its florae. Naturalists like William Roxburgh, F. Buchanan-Hamilton, J.D.Hooker, N.Wallich and others have lent their names to many species. Interestingly, Hooker, in 1906, stated that Khasi hills had the richest florae in India, and probably in Asia. The peculiar undulating topography, altitude, soil and mostly temperate climate of this region make its vegetation geography interesting, supporting a mix of Indian sub-continental and Asiatic flora.
Meghalaya’s Department of Forests has recorded over 850 medicinal plants in use by many traditional healers in the state. About 75% of the state’s population regularly uses 377 species of medicinal plants to take care of their primary and intermediate health needs.
Forest Wealth in Danger
Despite the wealth of documented medicinal plants, a disturbing trend of acute shortage of herbs is now felt, and was recently expressed by a group of traditional healers. The real fear is that many plant species are endangered. The famous carnivorous pitcher plant, ‘tiew rakot’ or Nepenthes khasiana, endemic to Meghalaya, is among flora mentioned in the IUCN Red Data book of endangered species. The reason may be over-exploitation, forest fires, the pressure of population that diminishes plant habitat or destruction by other activities like mining, pollution from industries, or even clandestine trade of such exotic species.
Need for Recognition of Traditional Healing
The efficacy of traditional medicine often goes unrecognized despite many instances of serious illnesses being cured by traditional healers. A very recent case that was reported is of a 58-year old woman in Shillong who was cured of bipolar disorder and memory loss with the use of herbs. Her recovery started within 13 days of her taking the herbal medicines. The healer who treated her is reputed with having helped cure 24 types of illness using herbs.
The knowledge of healing is often, naturally, handed down to the next generation in the same family with healers being very reluctant to part with their knowledge to outsiders. It takes a lot of coaxing and trust building to get them to reveal their secrets. Some, like Kong Ribha Khyriem of Umtyrniut near Mawphlang, talked to us willingly about herbal cures, but without revealing many details.
Challenges Faced by Traditional Healers
Every traditional healer now faces the stark challenge of depleting raw materials from their natural habitats, the forests. Many healers now desire to grow their own plants for uninterrupted supply but few can afford such a venture and are forced to rely solely on forest sources, an activity which is both painstaking and time-consuming as well. Kong Ribha Khyriem is one fortunate healer whose late father had the far-sightedness of creating an exclusive medicinal plants garden on a hillside not far from their residence.
The major challenge of preservation of the natural habitat of the plants and their propagation can easily be overcome if government agencies, NGOs, business houses and individuals collaborate. Medicinal plants can be grown in dedicated spaces, even under controlled environments. This will create a resource pool and ensure the effectual promotion of herbal medicine as an alternative (and affordable) method of cure.
Documentation is another challenge. There is an urgent need to document traditional methods of healing, scientifically identify and map medicinal plants to pass on the rich traditional knowledge to future generations. Some headway has already been made in this direction although the process is far from complete.
Fortunately, there is growing awareness about the value of medicinal and aromatic plants. The Government of India’s National Medicinal Plants Board is now a part of the AYUSH Mission, the system of medicine that comprises Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy. This is very significant because it has opened the avenue for traditional medicine to develop in a structured manner. Under the direction of the Central Government, the Meghalaya Government has also formed its own State Medicinal Plants Board to actively engage in developmental work in this area. Some herbal nurseries have been established, and provision has been made for activities such as cultivation, training, awareness programs, and assistance to traditional healers to set up herbal gardens, by involving local governments at the grassroots level.
With active governmental support, the future of traditional medicine is bright. Increasingly more and more people are taking an interest in herbs and plants for cures that elude modern medicine and for the relative safety of herbal medicine. Another reason for this is the affordability and negligible side effects of herbal medication. Herbal treatment draws people to Meghalaya from many parts of India and even from many countries around the world. This is a form of traditional health tourism and has the potential to make a positive effect on the local economy.
Future of Traditional Healing
The value of medicinal plants and their uses transcends the singular curing of illnesses. These plants can be infused into everyday food and drink, creating healthier food options and adding to the value of the food. For instance, herbal teas where herbs are added to normal tea leaves. This enhances the beverage’s taste and simultaneously infuses the beverage with the health benefits of herbs. Similar ways of using plants to add value to familiar items of food and drink, need to be explored.
At Zizira we direct our efforts to explore to several such hidden treasures that will benefit our customers. We learn constantly when we work with tribal folk who are well versed in the art of healing with herbs. Their methods are affordable and have hardly any side-effects. We will bring you stories from these unsung heroes.
Perhaps you also have an anecdote to share, or maybe you would like to know more of what we do? Then visit us. Do connect with us, we’d be delighted to hear from you.