Friday, December 18, 2009

Tribal medicine in the 21st century

While the cities boast of hospitals with the latest technology and procedures from the west, rural India boasts of ancient tribal remedies which can cure just about anything that can afflict you

Eisha Sarkar

Posted on Times Wellness on Monday, December 14, 2009

"Medicine is medicine, there's no other name for it," Janu Bhai Thakrey responds as we watch him chop a piece of wood into two-centimetre-thick slices. He turns to his 'patient' from Surat and tells her, "Grind these, boil them in water for half an hour. Then filter the water and drink it twice a day. Your cancer will become better." The patient notes down the prescription on a yellow chit as others wait impatiently for their turn.


Thakrey is just one of the bhagats (tribal healers) that The Dangs, Gujarat boasts off. Sitting in his own 'clinic' (a shabby corner storage room at the back of a run-down chai joint in Ahwa) he doles out ancient tribal remedies - fruits, shoots and roots - to the throng of patients from all over Gujarat and even beyond.

Nature cure in its purest form
The Dangs is Gujarat's densest forest that extends into Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Besides Valsadi teak, the forest produces an array of medicinal trees such as:
1. Solanum indicum: Roots are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, stimulant. The root is used against bronchites, itch and for bodyaches, for asthma and to cure wounds while the seeds are used to treat toothache.
2. Embelia ribes: The dried fruits are anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-diuretic and anti-astringent.
3. Tylophora indica: The leaves and roots have emetic, cathartic, laxative, expectorant, diaphoretic and purgative properties. It has also been used for the treatment of allergies, cold, dysentery, hay fever and arthritis. It has reputation as an alterative and as a blood purifier, often used in rheumatism. Root or leaf powder is used in diarrhoea, dysentery and intermittent fever.
4. Nordostachys jatamansi: The roots or rhizomes are used for medicinal purpose. Jatamamsi can be used both, internally as well as externally. The paste prepared in cold water is beneficial to reduce the burning sensation. It also imparts fair complexion to the skin and alleviates the pain and swelling. It also effectively relieves the symptoms like vertigo, seizures, etc.
5. Coleus forskohlii: It is found to be effective in skin conditions as eczema and psoriasis. It can aid in weight loss due to its ability to breakdown stored fat as well as inhibit the synthesis of adipose tissue, additionally, it increases thyroid hormone production and release thereby increasing metabolism. Ophthalmic preparation of the chief alkaloid forskolin to the eyes lowers eye pressure thus reducing the risk of glaucoma.

Wave Theory and black magic
While naturopathy is the most important healing technique in all of The Dangs, the bhagats also use black magic to heal those who can't be cured by the herbs. During the annual food festival called Kurmari, thousands of tribal healers assemble during the full moon night to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. As tribal men sway to the beats of drums and pipes and chain dance around a pole, the bhagats compete with each other and exchange their knowledge of herbs and black magic. Tribals from all over The Dangs come to witness the competitions. Those looking for cures to serious ailments often come with goats, chickens and calves for sacrifice.

"The tribals believe in the Wave Theory. When you come in contact with another person there is an exchange of waves. This exchange could be positive or negative. When someone abuses you, the impact is different from when someone speaks to you with love and affection. Healing processes here too have two different roles. On one side, they can help make you feel better. On the other hand, they can weaken your immune system and make you ill," says Anil Patel, a filmmaker who has been documenting the lives of the tribals in The Dangs.

"Rather die than go to a hospital"
"The tribals are humanists and find all their cures in nature. In the whole district, there's only one civil hospital in Ahwa. Most people here are familiar with basic natural remedies. They know what to do in case of cuts, bruises and a mild case of fever. For more complex diseases such as malaria and typhoid they go to the bhagat. Only in very, very serious cases do they think of leaving the forest to go to the hospital. In many cases they'd rather die than get treated in a 'closed' hospital," says Patel.

Urban diseases such as diabetes, coronary artery disease and cancer are rare among the tribal population. The average life expectancy is around 80 (in Mumbai it is 56.8) and the most common diseases are malaria (only during the monsoon) and skin disorders such as acne and eczema.

Prevention may be cure in urban India, but here the cure is nature and the faith that tribals have in its power to tackle all human problems.