Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Indian health traditions: October 08, 2000
A green pharmacy
Darshan Shankar, D. K. Ved and Dr. U. G. Geetha
Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, Bangalore.Indian people had an incredible knowledge of phyto-medicine driven apparently by a tremendous passion for the study of medicinal plants. This is evident both in the living folk traditions in the rural communities as well as the scholarly traditions of the codified knowledge systems - i.e., Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Tibetan. Indians obviously care for medicinal plants because they know so much about them and have done so much work on their applications. Probably, no other medical culture in the world has so extensive, detailed and deep an understanding about the medicinal value of plants.
History of medicinal plants use:
The traditional definition of medicinal plants is given in Ashtaanga Hrdaya (600 AD) Sutra sthana Ch. 9 - verse 10 as:
"There is nothing in this universe, which is non-medicinal, which cannot be made use of for many purposes and by many modes."
This definition rightly suggests that "in principle" all plants have a potential medicinal value, although in practice a plant is referred to as medicinal when it is so used by some system of medicine.
There is evidence since early Vedic period (Atharva Veda) of plants being used for a wide range of medicinal purposes. They have in fact been used in a continuous unbroken tradition for over four millennia. The table below gives the approximate number of medicinal plants recorded in various traditional texts written across the millennia.
Medicinal plant use, is still a living tradition. This is borne out by the fact that there exist around a million traditional, village-based carriers of herbal medicine traditions in the form of traditional birth attendants, visha vaidyas, bonesetters, herbal healers and wandering monks. Apart from these specialised carriers, there are millions of women and elders who have traditional knowledge of herbal home-remedies and of food and nutrition. As per recent statistics published by the Health Ministry, Government of India, there are 6,00,000 licensed and registered traditional physicians in India today.
At the folk level, in every ecosystem from the trans-Himalayas to the coast, local communities have keenly studied the medicinal plants found in their locality. Every 100 km or so throughout the length and breadth of the country, one can observe variation in ethnic names and use of local bio-diversity indicating the intimate and independent appraisal that local communities have made of their local resources. Striking illustrations of eco-system knowledge can be seen in the case of medicinal plants known to the Thakur Tribals of coastal Maharashtra and the multiple regional uses of the same species.
There is a verse in "Caraka" that explains how local communities understood and explored nature's gift of medicinal plants to every eco-system:
"Yasmin deshe tu yo jaatah tasmin tajjoshadham hitam".
"Nature is so (benevolently) organized that it has provided every mico-environment, the natural resources (in the form of plants, animals and minerals) necessary for the typical health needs of the people living in that environment".
It was perhaps this confidence in local eco-system resources and nature's benevolence that inspired local communities to discover the medical uses of local plant resources.
The Indian System of medicine today uses across the various systems i.e. folk and codified around 8,000 species of plants. The maximum numbers of medicinal plants are utilized by the folk traditions, followed by Ayurveda, Siddha, Uanani, Homeopathy, Tibetan and Modern respectively.
Several species of plants overlap the systems as seen in the chart.
In terms of life forms, medicinal plants are equally distributed across habits viz., trees, shrubs and herbs. Roughly, one third of the known medicinal plants are trees and equal proportion shrubs and the remaining one-third herbs, epiphytes, grasses and climbers. Very small proportions of the medicinal plants are lower plants like lichens, ferns, and algae. The majority of medicinal plants are higher flowering plants.
Preliminary analysis of the distribution pattern shows that medicinal plants are distributed across diverse habitats and landscape elements. Around 70 per cent of India's medicinal plants are found in the tropical zone, mostly in the forests of the Western and Eastern Ghats, the Vindhyas, Chotta Nagpur plateau, Aravalis, the Terai region in the foothills of the Himalayas and the North East. Less than 30 per cent of these medicinal plants are confined to the temperate and colder zones although species of great medicinal value occur in some of these habitats. A quick analysis of the available data shows that the proportion of medicinal plants recorded in the dry and moist deciduous tropical forests is higher as compared to those recorded in the tropical evergreen forests.
The knowledge of the Indian people about plants and plant products is not based on the application of Western categories of knowledge and approaches to studying natural products, like chemistry and pharmacology. It is based on sophisticated, indigenous knowledge category called "Dravya Guna Shastra".
Given below are some of the basic biological parameters on which plants are studied.
Rasa (taste), Vipaka (metabolic property), Guna (qualities) Prabhava (biological effect), Virya (potency)
Parameters for admission of a plant into Ayurvedic Materia Medica:
1. Nomenclature Scheme: (habit, habitat, morphological features, etc.)
2. Parts used (leaf, flower, fruit, seed, gum, resin, latex, root, bark, etc.)
3. Methods of purification
5. Effect on physiological systems (Dosha karma)
6. Effect on body tissues (dhatu karma)
7. Effect on organs
8. Effect on excretory system
9. Qualities (Guna)
10. Metabolic activity (Veerya)
11. Post-digestive effect (Vipak)
12. Drug computation class (Gana)
13. Drug therapeutic class (Yoga)
14. Processing strategies (Kalpana)
15. Specific products and their applications
On the basis of such schemes of study as outlined above the pharmaceutical and therapeutic applications of thousands of plants have been worked out. The outcome of this approach has resulted in around 25,000 brilliantly designed plant drug formulations, in the codified tradition, in a variety of dosage forms. Although the traditional processing technology is pre-industrial, the range of methods of processing plants and principles of drug design are sophisticated (see chart).
In the folk system a guestimate suggests that over 50,000 herbal drug formulations have been developed by the 4600 odd ethnic communities of India across her diverse ecosystems for a very wide range of applications. The value of folk knowledge can be dramatically illustrated from a single example of Phyllanthus niruri, which is used by village communities in Southern India for treatment of jaundice. The application of this plant for treatment of Viral Hepatitis B has been validated and patented by an American Noble prizewinner. During the last 200 years, there are several examples of the global contribution of local folk knowledge. It is well known for instance that quinine extracted from the cinchona bark was used traditionally by natives of Peru for cure of malarial fevers. The table below gives some examples of folk uses of plants.
According to an all India Ethnobotanical Survey conducted by the Ministry of Environment (1985-90), there are 6000 species of medicinal plants in India which can be used by traditional practitioners in tribal areas and other village communities.
In the local tradition, the internal fleshy mucilaginous jelly of the aloe plant known locally as korphad kumari etc., is used externally on burns and wounds and orally for any gynaecological disorder.
In Karnataka, a decoction of the bark of the Astonia scholaris a flowering branch is used in virtually every household at the onset of the monsoon to prevent malarial fevers.
The neck of the turtle is sometimes used for the treatment of a pro-lapsed rectum or uterus. Adatoda Vassica or Adusi Vasa, as it is locally known, is a common treatment for coughs and to stop bleeding in the case of piles or dysentry.
Boerhavia diffusa (punarnava) is commonly used in the treatment of oedema as it has diuretic properties. It is also used to combat anaemia, particularly during pregnancy.
The nomenclature of medicinal plants is itself very rich. One can illustrate this with the example of "Guduchi" i.e. Tinospora cordifolia. It has 52 meaningful names. See the box below which gives the list of the Sanskrit names and some of their meanings. Such examples suggest the passion with which the Indian people have indulged in the study of medicinal plants.
The plant name Guduchi which comes from the Sanskrit root gudu rakshane (that which protects) has the following synonyms: amruthavalli, (a weak-stemmed plant which acts as an elixir), mandali (Circular), kundali (stem gets entangled with twiners), naagakumaari (stem has a twining nature like that of a young snake), tantrika (spreading nature of the plant, looks after the health of the body), madhuparni (honey - like leaves), chadmika (thick foilage which forms a canopy), vatsaadani (leaves eaten by calves), shyaama (smoky due), dhaara (young stems have slight longitudal grooves), chakralakshana (wheel - like appearance of cross section), vishalya (no thorns or other irritant appendages, removes diseases), chinna, chinnaruha, chinnad bhava, chinnangi (these four names indicate the capacity of the cut bits of stem to withstand or endure severe adverse conditions and to produce buds to develop new plants), abdikaahvaya (reservoir of water), amrutha (person using the plant would live long and be healthy), soma (powerful action of the plant as an elixir), rasaayani, vayastha, jeevanti (three names indicate rejuvenating nature of the plant), jvaranaasini, jvaraari (two names indicate the specific use of the plant in fevers), bhishapriya, bhishakjita (favourite of the physicians or that which has won the favour of physicians), vara (best among medicines), soumya (benevolent in action), chandrahassa (crescent moonlike smile), devanirmita (created by God), amruthasambhava (originated from nectar), surakritha (created by God).
The depth of study of plants is clearly reflected in their manifold applications. It is not uncommon to see several "hundred" applications of a particular plant used or in various formulations for different purposes. This can be illustrated by the example of a very common plant called amla (Emblica officinalis).
There are nearly 180 formulations of Amla. These formulations are used in a wide range of disorder e.g., eye disorders like conjunctivitis, vision disorders; hyperacidity, rheumatic disorders, abdominal disorders, jaundice, hiccough, breathing disorders, fever, cough, ear disorders, good for hair growth and texture, skin disorders, intoxication due to alcohol and gynaecological disorders.
Banwari, Panchavati, 1992
Bhav Prakash Nighantu, Chowkhamba Prakashan, Varanasi
Camp Reports, FRLGHT, 1995, 1996, 1997.
Charak Samhita, Chowkhamba Prakashan, Varanasi
D. K. Ved, et al, Medicinal Plants of India, FRLHT, 1998
M. Gadgil and V. D. Vartak, Sacred Groves of Maharashtra
Raj Nighantu, Chowkhamba Prakashan, Varanasi
R. P. Palekar, Study of LHT of the Thakur Tribals of Raigad District, 1994.
Sushrut Samhita, Chowkhamba Prakashan, Varanasi
VHAI Report of State of India's Health,1992.
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