Revisiting The Traditional Folk Medicine And Its Benefits

Asim Mudgal
Asim Mudgal
Asim Mudgal is an aspiring writer creating space for self-development and inclusivity.

Earlier this month, an announcement was made about the Global Center for Traditional Medicine (GCTM) in Jamnagar, Gujarat, in association with WHO (World Health Organization). The project aims at bringing medicinal changes through traditional roots in curing diseases. 

From the time when indigenous tribal communities began living or co-existing with the environment, they have been using herbal medicine. In most of the communities in rural areas, folk medicine is used for common diseases like small injuries, skin diseases, fevers, dehydration, ulcers, diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease, neurotic disorders, etc. Eventually, the term "folk medicine" or "folk treatment" is driven by its usage by a group of folk people. Accordingly, the WHO defines traditional medicine as the total sum of the knowledge, skills, and practices indigenous to and different cultures have used over time to maintain health and prevent, diagnose, and treat physical and mental illness.

Indian Folk Medicine 

Photo by Lisa Hobbs on Unsplash

"India is known for its traditional medicinal systems—Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani. Medical systems are mentioned even in the ancient Vedas and other scriptures. The Ayurvedic concept appeared and developed between 2500 and 500 BC in India.

Ayurvedic medicine practises have been traditional for ages, followed by Yoga. The culturally embedded phenomenon has adapted through the long-gained tribal ecological knowledge about plants. For example, in West Bengal, the latex of Jatropha curcas L., locally called Bherenda, is used to treat bleeding gums. The medicinal attributes of many plants are in their leaves, which are used as an alternative, tonic diuretic, and blood purifier. Further, Brahmi is used as a brain tonic to decrease fatigue and depression. Talking ahead, on the list is Sowa-Rigpa (Traditional healing or Science of Healing), which says the body constitutes five elements (Prithvi, Jal, Agni, Vayu, and Akash), and each element should remain balanced and taken care of. It is practised widely in the Himalayan regions of Leh-Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling, Lahaul & Spiti. Likewise, the Siddha System is commonly followed in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Further, the Siddha, a traditional technique that has derived its name from the great Siddha Agastiyar, is potentially therapeutic and helps in treating all types of skin problems, particularly psoriasis, STDs, urinary tract infections, diseases of the liver, and gastrointestinal tract. Additionally, it helps to cure general debility, postpartum anaemia, diarrhoea, general fever, arthritis, and allergic disorders. 

The Mishing community of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh has developed traditional ways to fight malaria and other water-borne diseases. Further, the use of herbs like Centella Asiatica, Houttuynia cordata, Phyllanthus Emblica, and Terminalia citrina had been in practise as protective medicine and was sold in vegetable shops. Because of its better cultural acceptability, compatibility with the human body, and fewer side effects, herbal medicine is still the mainstay of about 75–80% of the world population, primarily in developing countries, for primary health care (Kamraj 2000). Further, the snake charmers from the "Nath" community, mainly the community of Khetawas, Jhajjar District, Haryana, India, use traditional herbal medicinal plants to prepare drugs to treat snakebites. Accordingly, approx. 40% of approved pharmaceutical products have been derived from natural substances, which is why WHO is emphasising the conservation of biodiversity followed by the policy of sustainability. The WHO added that the discovery of aspirin drew on traditional medicine formulations using the bark of the willow tree; the contraceptive pill from the roots of wild yam plants; and child cancer treatments have been based on the rosy periwinkle. The Nobel-prize winning research on artemisinin for malaria control started with a review of ancient Chinese medicine texts. Even though homoeopathy came to India in the 18th century, it was completely assimilated into the Indian culture and got enriched like any other traditional system. Hence, it is considered part of the Indian system of medicine. Another medical system that is practised in certain regions like Leh, Dharamshala, and Sikkim is the Amchi medicine system, which is considered similar to Tibetan medicine, which again shows certain similarities in concepts and approaches to Ayurveda. 

Regarding the medical heritage of India, Max Neuburger's History of Medicine (translated by Ernest Playfair) says that "the medicine of the Indians, owing to its wealth of knowledge, depth of speculation, and systematic construction, takes an outstanding position in the history of oriental medicine."

The Global Center for Traditional Medicine (GCTM)

Traditional medicine is used by approximately 80% of the world's population, and 170 of the 194 WHO member states reported using it.

India is the largest producer of folk medicine. Adding to that, in India, around 25,000 effective plant-based formulations are used in traditional and folk medicine. The Indian government has planned to invest 250 million USD in collaboration with WHO. The initiative started with an agreement in 2016 that was worth harnessing to use the potentiality of traditional medicine. Hermann Bass's essay on Outlines of the History of Medicine and the Medical Profession (translated by H. E. Handerson) cites that Indian medicine if we accept Egyptian, Babylonian, and Jewish, is the oldest in the world. To sum up the judgement of Indian medicine, one must assign to it, at all events, a superiority over the Egyptian and Jewish. Indeed, it may claim the first rank among those examples of medical cultures which have not experienced a continuous development.