How Adivasis of one Jharkhand village are trying to preserve ethnomedicine

By Dibyendu Chaudhuri , Parijat Ghosh, Temba Oraon, Vivek Sinha onNov. 10, 2021in Environment and Ecology

With ‘civilisation’ and ‘modernity’ having made inroads into India’s tribal areas, its heritage of traditional tribal systems of medicine is increasingly under threat

हिंदी में विशेष अनुवाद पढ़िए!

The children of Jana village in Jharkhand, with medicinal plants in their hands. Photo: Author provided

Jana village is located in the Gumla district of Jharkhand. More than 90 per cent of its population is Adivasi or tribal. As such, most aspects of life here reflect Adivasi  cultural and social mores.  

The old residents of the village recollect that their ancestors settled in the village centuries back. Earlier, they were mostly dependent on local resources for their life and livelihood.

However, with time, modern amenities started reaching Jana. It didn’t remain isolated from the new scientific and industrial developments — be it in agriculture, healthcare or lifestyle.

Though the villagers still remember their traditional practices in agriculture to some extent, the ancestral knowledge of ethnomedicine has now been limited to only a handful of elderly people.

What is Ethnomedicine?

‘Ethnomedicine’, as defined by George Foster and Barbara Anderson in their 1978 essay Medical Anthropology, is the totality of health, knowledge, values, beliefs, skills and practices of members of a society, including all the clinical and non-clinical activities that relate to their health needs. 

According to an estimate of the World Health Organization, approximately 88 per cent of people in developing countries rely chiefly on traditional medicines, mostly plant extracts, for their primary health care needs. However, like Jana, the knowledge of ethnomedicine and the natural ingredients, the plants and animals, is disappearing quickly throughout the world. 

In ethnomedicine practices, which mostly evolved in hunter-gatherer societies, ailments are seen as problematic changes that take place in the members of the group. 

Horacio Fabrega, in his article The Need for an Ethnomedical Science, argued that ethnomedicine is based on the principle that human beings are both  physiological and cultural beings.

This is the basic difference between it and modern allopathic medicine where human beings are only considered as physiological beings (except probably psychiatric diseases). As a result, the diseases had been classified differently in both these systems.

Ethnomedicine mostly used behavioural changes to diagnose. Further, cure of the disease also involved, in most of the cases, an entire village or a group of people. However, with the influence of allopathic medicine, ethnomedicine also started identifying diseases with the same name as modern medical science.

Ethnomedical practices of the Oraon tribe in Latehar documented by Raphael Ranjit Marandi and S John Britto in their article Ethnomedicinal Plants used by the Oraon Tribals of Latehar district of Jharkhand, India shows names such as typhoid, diabetes, etc, that are no doubt an effort to adjust to the mainstream understanding of diseases.   

One aspect of ethnomedicine is that it is a group-based practice starting from diagnosis to treatment. The ailments are defined by change in social behaviour of the member of a group.

A group of people gather the materials needed for the cure and prepare concoctions / decoctions and the treatment involves an elaborate process where a group of people, if not the entire village, participate and the main healer takes their help in the healing process.

How the Adivasis of Jana in Jharkhand are trying to document the knowledge of ethnomedicine. This figure shows the leaves of ‘Murjhatni’ and ‘Karam’ and how they should be used to treat common illnesses. Photo: Author provided

The other aspect is that it is based on practice of indigenous religion in which nature is worshipped. This kind of devotion and loyalty to natural objects is termed by John Wright as ‘geopiety’ in his book Human nature in Geography.

A particular place or tree is considered sacred; for example, the Oraon tribes worship a place around a Shorea robusta tree (Sal) or Nauclea parvifolia (Karam) tree.

Crisis in Ethnomedicine

Forests have been the major source of raw materials for ethnomedicine. However, ancient ethnomedicine practices had been largely affected after the forests went into the hands of forest departments.

Timber became a significant source of revenue for the state. Anything other than timber species started becoming considered as weeds. Many medicinal plants became weeds as a result of that. At the same time, massive deforestation continued for decades for mining, agriculture, industry, construction, etc.

However, like the extinction of plant and animal species, the practitioners of ethnomedicine appear to be at a greater risk of extinction than even forests and other biomes. Knowledge of the use of plants and other species is disappearing faster than those species themselves.

Loss of indigenous knowledge also has a significant impact on the development of modern medicine. Charles Anyinam, in his article Ecology and Ethnomedicine, wrote that folklore over the years had proved to be an invaluable guide in the present day screening of drugs.

Many important modern drugs (such as digitoxin, reserpine, tubocurarine, ephedrine, to name a few) have been discovered by following leads from folklore.

As NR Farnsworth, in his article The Role of Ethnopharmacology in Drug Development, points out, about 74 per cent of the 121 biological active plant-derived compounds currently in use worldwide, have been discovered through follow-up research to verify the authenticity of information concerning the folk or ethnomedical uses of the plants.

For centuries, healers and indigenous people have been collecting medicines from local plants and animals without creating any imbalance in the population dynamics of the species because of the low level of harvest.

Commoditisation of plant medicine and animal parts was an insignificant aspect of the practice of ethnomedicine. In the last few decades, however, there has been a marked increase in the sale of herbal remedies.

This led to large-scale harvesting of medicinal plants, factory-like production of herbal drugs, and animal poaching in many parts of developing countries. In our country, Patanjali Ayurved was able to declare its annual turnover of 2016–17 to be an estimated Rs 10,216 crore ($1.4 billion) within a decade of its inception. This is destroying the population balance of the medicinal plant and animal species to a great extent. 

Jana’s struggle

Jana is a village located on the fringes of a forest and the villagers consider the jungle as part of their life. Earlier, they were dependent on this forest for biomass to use on their agricultural land and for food, fodder as well as fuel.

However, gradually, with modern amenities, these dependencies are getting reduced. An elderly villager, Mahadev Oraon, around 65-70 years, shared that the people of Jana had a rich knowledge of the forest, which was also a source of medicine for them. He added that there were many people in the village who had knowledge about healing, using plants or animal parts from forests.

However, the ethnomedicine practices in Jana has also undergone many changes. Currently, most locals prefer allopathic medicines. They also mostly use allopathic names while mentioning diseases. The entire practice of ethnomedicine, on the other hand, has become dependent only on the healer rather than a group of people.

The community, especially local women, expressed the need for documenting the knowledge of ethnomedical practices for future generations. They feared that all this knowledge from their ancestors would disappear with their generation.

The villagers have documented 29 different types of concoction and decoction preparation methods using various parts of around fifty plants. The residents of Jana also still depend on ethnomedicines for treating their livestock.

Ethnomedicinal plants used by the Oraontribals of village Jana, Gumla, Jharkhand 

S.No.Local NameEnglish and Scientific Name*Usage
1.Murjhatni Nyctanthes arbortristisBoil the leaves or bark of Murjhatni or Karam in one litre water till the water is half litre left. Drink this water about 50 gms in the morning and evening in an empty stomach for curing Malaria.
2.KaramNauclea parvifolia
3.Raktfar/RaktfalArdisia solanaceaMinutely crush 250 gms of the bark of the tree and make a paste with one glass of water. Apply the paste in the affected area. It relieves from pain within 3 days. For treating piles, take half kilogram of the bark and boil it with 2 litres of water till one litre is left. Filter the water and drink it around 100 gms daily in an empty stomach twice a day.
4.KujriCelastrusp aniculatusOil extracted from the tree can be used in massaging for relieving pain. In case of a new incidence of Tuberculosis, take one spoon of oil daily in an empty stomach.
5.BaboolVachellia niloticaWash the roots (total 1 kg) of these four plants and crush them minutely and then boil with 2 litres of water. Cool the solution and then filter it. Daily drink the solution in an empty stomach to cure from Safed Dhat disease.
6.Jahan Juhi
7.MahadevJataAsparagus racemose
9.PutriCroton oblongofoliusRoots of Putri plant and MuhkalJari are grinded together and made into a paste mixing with water. The paste is to be used where there is a poisonous bite. Or, drink the filtered water to stop the effect of poison.
11.Jur BulaUsed in making Handiya along with Ranu. It helps in curing stomach problems and piles.
12.PiarBuchanania cochinchinensisExcreta of Rabbit and Pier leaves are grinded and mixed well to make balls of the size of tamarind seeds. These are to be eaten to cure loose motion.
13.AmlaGooseberry Phyllanthus emblicaDry the fruit of Aonla and make powder. Eat the powder daily with plain water in an empty stomach. This cures gastric and improves eyesight.
14.Kanwat (Karonda)Carissa carandasThis helps in repelling snake from homes.
15.SudarshanCrinum latifoliumExtract the sap of the leaf and put 4-5 drops in the ear. This helps in reducing sudden pain in ears
16.KatahalJackfruit Artocarpus integrifoliaChar the peels of ripe Jackfruit and make a paste with Karanj oil. Applying the paste helps in measles and pox.
17.DhaturaJimsonweed Datura stramoniumRoots of Dhatura are to be cooked in mustard oil. Using 4 drops daily twice helps in diseases related to ears.
18.SindhwarDiospyros melanoxylonThis is used in the preservation of potato seeds. It prevents insects from damaging the seeds.
19.JamunIndian Blackberry Syzygium cuminiExtract juice from ripe fruit of Jamun and keep it for 30 minutes in sunlight. Store it in a bottle and use 2-3 spoons in the empty stomach. It helps in Gastric. Jamun seeds also are useful in Diabetes.
20.GhatoClerodendrum infortunatum L.Crushed leaves help in preservation of pulses. It protects from insects.
21.ArharPegion Pea Cajanus cajanIt helps in removing intoxication from weed (ganja, Bhaang). Grind the leaves and mix with one glass of water and then drinking it removes intoxication. The broth of Arhar dal also removes weed intoxication.
22.PipalFicus religiosaGrind the bark of pipal tree and mix with plain water and then filter it. The filtered water can be used in curing loose motion in goats and cows. In humans, pipal helps in curing stomach ache. Nail sized balls are to be made with fresh pipal leaves mixing with old jaggery which is eaten twice a day in empty stomach to cure stomach ache.
23.KaranjPongamia pinnataLots of medicines are made from Karanj oil which cures many diseases like itching, pox, blisters etc. It also acts as insect repellent.
24.MahakaalTrichosanthes tricuspidataThe roots of Mahakaal are mixed with water or cooked in oil. The concoction is used in massaging wherever there is pain, especially joint pain.
25.GulgulaPortulaca quadrifidaThese four types of leaves are grinded, mixed in a glass of water with rock sugar. The mixture is drunk in the morning in an empty stomach to cure piles.
27.BaryariSida acuta
28.AmrudGuava Psidium guajava
29.GendaMarigold Calendula officinalisBoth the leaves are grinded well and made into a paste. 50 gms of the paste is applied on the body in case of fever and then removed after sometime. It helps in curing fever.
30.ChintiSaagPolygonum plebjum
31.KhaprailSaagTrienthema monogynaThis saag is cooked by enclosing in Sakhua (Sal) leaf. Eating it during fever helps in preventing head spinning.
32.DaalSaagDaalsaag and rock sugar are grinded together and mixed with water. It cures Safed dhaat disease
33.DoodhGhaasEuphorbia hirtaThe roots of doodhghaas are grinded and applied on wounds of animals. These are wounds where worms have been developed. The paste is applied on the wound and left in the sun to dry. This heals the wound quickly.
34.KelaBanana Musa × paradisiacaKelapatti is charred and then mixed with honey. Licking this paste helps to cure cold in children
35.BijliKandGrinding Bijlikandpatta with water and making a paste and applying the paste helps in sprain or any pain.
36.NimbuLemon Citrus × limonDrinking the juice of lemon in a glass of water daily helps in melting the body fat.
37.AdrakGinger Zingiber officinaleRoots of Adrak, Tulsi, Madar, Black pepper and Harra are mixed together and fried in ghee till the mixture is light yellow in color. This mixture cures cough if used thrice in a day.
38.TulsiHoli Basil Ocimum tenuiflorum
39.MadarCalotropis gigantea
40.SahjanDrumsticks Moringa oleiferaLeaves of Sahjan are boiled in water. Drinking a glass of this water in an empty stomach helps in curing high blood pressure problems.
41.Bandarlauri (Sonarkhi)Cassia fistulaLeaves of this plant are used in ripening fruits.
42.Ban KapasThespesia lampasSeeds of ban kapas cures cough and blisters in the throat. Black pepper and ban kapas together are grinded well and cooked in ghee.
43.AmlaGooseberry Phyllanthus emblicaPowder is made from the pulp of Amla fruit. Consuming this powder helps in keeping the stomach clear and also increases eyesight.
44.HarraTerminalia chebulaBarks of these three plants are mixed and boiled with water. Drinking it twice a day in an empty stomach helps in curing diabetes. Harra, Bahera and Amla are used in making triphalachurna.
45.DhauthaDatura stramonium
46.BaheraTerminalia bellirica
47.Biri LeafBauhinia racemosaFruit of biri plant and roots of ruchmuchia plant are grinded and mixed in water. It is used as fish bait and cure itching, pox in animals.
48.RuchMuchiaCaesaria graveolens
49.SaliyaBoswellia serrata
The stem of Saliya plant is an insect repellent and used mainly in paddy.
50.GaiKaapuraniRoots of this plant are cooked in ghee. It cures haemolytic diseases.
51.PutusLantana camaraJuice of putus leaves if applied on a wound helps in preventing tetanus.
Shorea robusta
Brushing daily with the stem of sakhua helps in keeping the stomach fit and keeps the teeth strong as well.
53.TevadRoots of both the plants are grinded and mixed in water. It is then filtered. Consuming it in an empty stomach helps in curing gastric problems.
54.KoinaarBauhinia purpurea
55.AamMangifera indicaBark of mango trees is grinded and mixed with water. The paste when applied on the body helps in curing Loo.
56.Rangoni (Bhijri) Solanum indicumSeeds of rangoni help in curing toothache.
57.ChakondiSenna ToraDrinking the water boiled with leaves or seeds of chakondi helps in controlling diabetes.
58.KundruCoccinia grandisJuice of Kundru leaves helps in relieving ear pain. Putting 4-5 drops in the ear cures the pain.
59.BhusarJuice of Bhusar leaf when applied on a wound helps in quick healing and controlling spread of tetanus.
60.SarifaCustard Apple Annona squamosaSeeds of sharifa fruit help in controlling lice in the head. Sarifa seeds along with neem seeds give quick relief.
61.DoobGhasCynodon dactylonDoobghas helps in curing half-headache. It has a religious angle in curing half headache.
62.ImliTamarind Tamarindus indicaBark of tamarind trees or the fruit is mixed with water and the paste is applied on the body. It helps in protecting and curing loo effects.
63.GhoraKantaTribulus terrestrisIf a person has consumed poison, drinking the filter of the mixture of water and roots of ghorakanta helps in vomiting the poison instantly. Saag of ghorakanta eaten with salt helps in addressing anaemic problems.
64.CharaiGodwa PattiIn case of snake bite, drinking grind of charaigodwapatti mixed with water helps in curing the poison. Powder of charaiGodwa Patti eaten with tea is very beneficial for health.

*For some species authors could not yet identify the botanical name 

Acknowledgement: The authors are grateful to Soumik Banerjee and Bibhubanta Barad for their help in identifying botanical names of some unfamiliar species

Temba Oraon is a resident of Jana village. The other three co-authors are members of PRADAN, a civil society organisation

First published by Down to Earth on 22 Dec. 2020

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