Herbs for Your Troubles

Herbal doctors in Jharkhand face an uncertain future as the forests shrink and people gravitate towards conventional medicine.

Squatting on his stoop outside his hut in Turka village, about 15 kilometers from Fatehpur in Jharkhand, Govind Hamram is grinding several herbs into a rough paste. “This medicine is for tumours,” he says, not fully taking his focus away from his task. The 60-year old is a third-generation herbal doctor, but quite possibly the last practising a dying art as the forests get eaten into and younger generations drift towards modern jobs.
Jharkhand literally means “land of forests”. Nearly half of the relatively young state is covered in forestland, teeming with a wealth of medicinal plants. The state also has more than 40 percent of India’s mineral resources, which is mostly why it remains woefully underdeveloped. Stuck between the ever-expanding mining and agriculture industries, the state’s forests battle to stay intact and preserve their rich biodiversity.
Among the many Adivasi communities that have lived around the forests of Fatehpur district for generations, traditional healers, popularly known as “Vaidyas” or “Bhagats,” have foraged in the woods for the herbs, plants and roots that fuel their work. The traditional herbal medicinal system unique to Jharkhand, called Hodopathy, is typically passed down orally, practical experience or as family tradition. While the Santal community, to which Hamram belongs, forms the largest ethnic group in the state, each tribe or village tends to have its own healers who follow their own methods and formulae.
“It takes five hours on the stove when I make a tonic or a paste,” says Hamram. “Searching and gathering the herbs takes the most time.” Newer and more complex diseases and conditions test the bounds of their skills, but they retain the steadfast faith in their practice. Hamram claims his concoctions treat a whole host of problems from gastric ulcers, jaundice and blood pressure issues to tumours and cancer. “I have medicine for piles. Recovery is guaranteed! There is no need for any operation!” he proclaims proudly.
Traditional healers have typically gained popularity as tales of their successes or failures spread mostly through word of mouth. Hamram has had patients come all the way from West Bengal, at least 30 kilometers away. Even as he competes with Ayurvedic or allopathic systems of medicine, he does not expect to earn big money from his cures. He barely even charges his patients fixed rates, often accepting as little as 100-150 rupees.
What he has noticed, and possibly a growing problem going forward for his ilk, is fewer people coming to see him for his cures. “More people used to come when my father was alive,” he says, adding that people are not even sure if there are still herbal medicines available.
There are fewer practitioners among younger generations. Hamram himself has not taught his children, who have their own jobs in government and business. When he passes on, he will take his knowledge of the forest and its ways with him and the world loses another page of traditional wisdom. We are seeing the effects of this already as children are barely able to identify what were once common plants and herbs.
The other issue is the Forest Department’s mandate to protect the forest at all costs, likely forcing communities out.
"Our ancestors have lived here for centuries. If you don't allow us to go into the jungle now, how can we survive? We used to gather these herbs for ages. How can we just detach from this?” demands Hamram, lamenting that the central government makes decisions unilaterally from New Delhi without understanding the issues at a local level.
The jungle is ours!"
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