All of us know at least one woman suffering from menstrual pain or menstrual disorders. So much so, that we have come to think of it as normal.
Some of us know those who suffer from the side-effects of cancer medication. This too, we accept as part and parcel of cancer treatment.
Most of us would find it hard to believe that problems like gangrene, paralysis, arthritis, fracture and cancer can be healed without surgery or strong drugs.
For centuries, traditional healers in India have quietly treated, no “Healed”, thousands of people. They usually do it at no cost. The number of such healers in India even today, is more than a million.
Who are the traditional healers of India?
Typically, a traditional healer is one who has acquired from his/her father or a Guru the methods of treating diseases common to their region or of a particular specialization. While any certified medical degree is acquired in a matter of 5-10 years, traditional healers often learn under the guidance of their Guru or ancestor for decades before actually administering medicines. The well known Vaidya from Shimoga, Shri Narayana Murthy2, who sees around 2000 patients a day especially for cancer, says that he trained for 40 years, and the knowledge he has acquired has been handed down from generations spanning 800 years!
Known as “Folk Healers” in the Ministry of AYUSH, and called by region specific names such as “Nati Vaidya” in Karnataka, “Vaidyan” in Kerala, “Cittarakal” practitioners of Siddha Medicine in Tamil Nadu, the “Hakims” who practice Unani, Maibas and Maibis of Manipur3 and so on. In fact, it is likely that every State in India has its own unique traditional healing system, which uses plant species and methods that are native to its region. The extent of combined knowledge of these systems is vast. A count of the plants used for medicinal purposes shows that the Ayurvedic texts cite some 400, while the documentation of folk practice and ethno-botany reveals about 6000 species in use across the country! 1
The government’s efforts regarding local healing practices
In as recent as 2014, the Government of India started a new ministry called Ministry of AYUSH. Earlier, AYUSH was a department under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. AYUSH stands for the various non-allopathic systems of medicine practiced in India, viz., Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha & Sowa Rigpa, and Homeopathy. While Ayurveda and Yoga have its origin in India since prehistoric times, Naturopathy and Homeopathy came from Europe & North America, and thrived in India. The Mughals brought with them the Persian medicine “Unani”. Recently, Tibetan Medicine Sowa Rigpa has also been added to the list of India’s official medical systems. Thus, almost every form of natural & indigenous medicine came to India, flourished here and continues to be in use among the people of India.
Unlike these relatively popular codified medical systems, there is another world of healing systems which have been clubbed together and called local healing traditions (LHTs). According to recent data (GoI 2005) there are nearly 7.1 lakh registered qualified AYUSH practitioners in India, of which about 2 lakh are non-institutionally qualified. 4
The practitioners of LHTs are who we loosely call Folk Healers. In many regions, LHTs are not really derived from popular codified medical systems, and in fact seem to have existed even before the likes of Ayurveda came into being. For example, in Manipur, the herbal book called Puyas is a written record handed down to posterity by the forefathers of the Meeteis, written in traditional script with or without the author name maintained during the King’s time 3. Similarly, Kerala had a well developed medical tradition prior to the arrival of Ayurveda in the 6th and 7th century, which later got integrated into Ayurveda. Thus, “Kerala Ayurveda” continues to have its own unique set of treatments which are exclusive to the region, such as the Panchakarma practices of Pizhichil, Nhavarakizhi, Sirovasti, etc 5. Therefore, clubbing these LHTs into one big head does not do justice to their uniqueness.
Nor is it fair to simply take from the folk healers their medicinal knowledge and integrate it into the formal systems, with little or no recognition to the practitioners. Today, the little work that is happening towards LHTs are usually to dig out information about the plants that they use, study it in research laboratories to see its potential use in existing formal systems of medicine, and then, “train” the Folk Healers to modify their practices in the assumption that modern medicine knows better. How can it be that an outsider trains a Folk Healer when they know nothing about the Healer’s methods of treatment?
Healing Tree Network – recognizing folk healers
Our latest initiative, Healing Tree Network (HTN), aims to bring to the fore the Healers themselves. We aim to build a network of traditional practitioners of India’s vast indigenous sciences, not just for the sake of the obvious health benefits to citizens, but also for the simple joy of realizing, knowing and documenting this treasure house of wisdom and knowledge. In addition, we will also document the local preventive & curative mechanisms for ailments in different communities, with a special focus on menstrual and reproductive health.
We plan to cover all 29 States and 7 Union Territories of India over a span of 2 years, and lay the foundation for a nation-wide network of indigenous healers. As the work of the Healers themselves is voluntary, our initiative will also be a volunteer-driven effort. And we look forward to crowd-source information from people across India. All information gathered will be directly from the healers, with their profile and details on the HTN website.
We begin our journey in August 2016, with Karnataka to meet Naati Vaidyas across the State.
If you have information about the local healers in your native place, do write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ritu Priya. The Status and role of Ayush and local health traditions in public health. IIAS Journal, 2012.
- Video: Sri Narsipura Subbaiah Narayana Murthy, A Medicine Man in Shimoga, by Numan Khan Shimoga. Report Courtesy by: http://thinkindia.hubpages.com/hub/CA…
- S. Ningombam, S. P. Devi, P. K. Singh, A. Pinokiyo & Bisheswori Thonga. Documentation and Assessment on Knowledge of Ethno-Medicinal Practitioners: A Case Study on Local Meetei Healers of Manipur. IOSR Journal of Pharmacy and Biological Sciences (IOSR-JPBS)
- V Sujatha, Leena Abraham. Medicine, State and Society. Economic and Political Weekly, April 18, 2009.
- Leena Abraham. Medicine as Culture: Indigenous Medicine in Cosmopolitan Mumbai. Economic and Political Weekly, April 18, 2009.
Pic courtesy: The featured photo belongs to Matsya Crafts – www.www.matsyacrafts.com https://matsyaonline.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/warli-painting-tree-of-life-575-each-16×11-5/