While I was working among the Munda community in 1996 as a part of an American fellowship on population innovation, I realised they did not take Western medicine but followed their own medical care system,” says Basavi Kiro, a hodopathy practitioner for 15 years. “Whatever they suffered from, whether a minor headache, stomach ache or pregnancy-related issues, they used herbal medicines prescribed by their local vaidya (traditional medicine practitioner),” she says, while describing what brought her to hodopathy, a traditional medicine system practised by the tribal communities of Jharkhand, which include Munda and Oraon, to which Kiro belongs. “I organised a tribal meeting under this fellowship and realised this was a vast knowledge. Not just those from Jharkhand, every tribal group possesses this knowledge,” she adds.
Indeed, from the Bodhs of Ladakh and Santhals of central and eastern India to the tribes of northeast and southern India, a thread that binds them all, apart from their amity with the forest, is traditional healing. The moniker might be different, such as Sowa-Rigpa for the tribes from Ladakh, Siddha for those from southern India, or Jharkhand’s very own hodopathy, but traditional healing as a practice is an intrinsic aspect of the tribal way of life.
Amid the lack of institutionalised learning, knowledge is traditionally passed 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 organised by Tata Steel Foundation. The ninth edition of Samvaad, which began on November 15, hosted several healers across tribes both from India and abroad.
“From our farmlands to the surrounding forests, the land is abundant with herbs, which we use to prepare medicines,” says Ram Chandra Murmu, another healer from the same tribe, who went on to describe the abysmal state of his village’s medical infrastructure. Asked about how a disease is diagnosed, he replies: “By looking at the patient’s face, feeling her pulse, and monitoring eating and breathing patterns.”
Interestingly, many such healers are paid not in cash but in kind. “It depends on the patient’s wish. Sometimes, we get rice or chicken, sometimes something else,” Soren says, adding that he is uneducated but gets close to 25 to 30 patients a day.
When Annet Nangendo, a tribal healer from Uganda, visited India to attend the tribal conclave, she was amazed by the commonalities between African and Indian traditional healing. “The plants we use are not very different, and so are the underlying explanations. We also share a common passion and interest in our traditional healing system,” she says.
A question of legitimacy
Despite claiming that a large number of people believe in traditional medicines, Dr Kiro accepts that the lack of empirical proof diminishes people’s belief. “We have the knowledge and experience, yet are not visible,” she says. Soren and Murmu echo the same.
The experience has been somewhat different for Tsewang Norboo and Nawang Tsering, tribal healers from Ladakh’s Bodh tribe. The Centre’s growing impetus into popularisation of Sowa-Rigpa, the Tibetan healing system also practised in India’s Himalayan belt, has given it a push, 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,” the ministry of Ayush says.
“Although the knowledge is generally passed through generations, those who want to learn it too,” says Norboo. Although the government’s push might have made things easier, the process of making medicines is anything but that. “Herbs are largely found in high-altitude mountains. So we camp there for four to five days, pick the herbs and then make the medicines,” they say.
Speaking of the acceptance of Sowa-Rigpa among their village folk, Tsering comments, “Western medicine is fast and effective but has side effects. Our medicine, even if it doesn’t work, is devoid of any side effects. People accept that, rendering it popular.”
“Traditional medicine finds acceptance in Uganda,” says Nangendo. “It gets a further push by the government backing,” 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 Organisation termed as concerning.
Interestingly, according to the world health body, “Traditional medicine has been the trusted, acceptable, affordable and accessible source of health care for African populations for centuries. Still today, 80% of the continent’s population relies on traditional medicine for their basic health needs.”
At your doorstep
To popularise “the usefulness of commonly available and frequently used medicinal plants”, the National Medicinal Plants Board under the Ayush ministry “intends to establish an herbal garden of various types”. Several state governments, too, have similar schemes, such as Chhattisgarh, which has a dedicated Chhattisgarh Tribal Local Traditions and Medicinal Plants Board.
“Under the home herbal garden scheme, we have constructed about three lakh herbal gardens,” says Nirmal Kumar Awasthi, who runs an NGO. According to him, tribal people get employed here to build such gardens, which not only generate a source of income right in their village but also help protect plants that are disappearing in nature.
Having worked closely with tribal healing traditions, he says these have a stark difference from Ayurveda. “Most Ayurveda medicines come as tablets, syrups and largely packaged, hence, have preservatives added to them. The tribal healers, on the other hand, first examine the patient, then make the medicine fresh for five to seven days after which a fresh batch is made.”