Mary-Rose Abraham: Hey, It’s October — seven long months since the pandemic officially began… though here in India, sometimes when I see the streets busy as usual and lots of people without masks, you wouldn’t guess there is a pandemic. Things were a lot different under lockdown in May when we did this really interesting interview with G. Hariramamurthi on folk medicine. 

Gayathri Vaidyanathan: Yeah, I really enjoyed chatting with him as well! He’s a professor emeritus at the University of Transdisciplinary Health Sciences Technology in Bangalore. And he’s the star here today on Chatroom, on Scrolls & Leaves. This is a bonus episode — it’s tied in to Episode 2, Healing Plants. I’m Gayathri …

MRA: … and I’m Mary-Rose… And hey, could you please rate and review us on Apple podcasts or wherever else you get your podcasts? It’ll help others find this show. 

GV: Okay, cool. So what is folk medicine exactly? 

MRA: Folk healing is the most ancient form of medicine, and practiced all over the world. And let me tell you what it’s not… it’s not a system of medicine, like ayurveda which is organized and codified.

G. Hariramamurthi: From the time the humankind learned to cook and store food for their nutrition, they have been practicing what we today call as folk healing tradition.

GV: So food doubled as medicine. Plants, herbs, and spices were not just kitchen staples. They were also important ingredients in treatments for something as serious as malaria all the way down to a bee sting, or a common cold. 

GH: Whenever I had fever, my grandmother will give me only rice porridge. All other things will be stopped. So, what does it indicate? I should have enough energy, but not overload my digestive system and help my natural innate power of fighting a disease called fever should be facilitated through consuming rice porridge, which we call as kanji.

MRA: Today, treatments are based on  a range of natural resources — minerals, animal parts, metals — but especially plants. Hari says India’s healers use 6,500 medicinal plants. 

GV: Wow, that’s incredible. How many folk healers are there in India?

MRA: Somewhere between 1 to 2 million. They’re the only healthcare available in much of India. Hari helps them document their methods . He’s traveled to more than 12,000 villages over nearly three decades, all over India, from Kanyakumari to Himachal Pradesh. He’s been using folk medicine himself during the pandemic.

GH: So, in terms of prevention, they know what are the herbs that they can use to prevent and take care of eye care and nasal care and oral care. For example, I use gingelly oil, sesame oil. A tablespoon of sesame oil, I don’t swallow. I put it in my mouth and keep. It is called mouth pulling or we call it as gargling. So that is a very simple practice that I do every day in the night before I go to sleep. So it is believed that the virus will not disturb me throughout the night. I mean, it’s a belief. I don’t, as I talk, I don’t have an evidence to claim a patent on behalf of any of these healers that you know, they know about the value of this particular sesame oil.  But ayurvedic literatures also recommend this. 

Or people who want to block or prevent the entry through the nasal route use drop of coconut oil in each of the nostrils. And they do it, I do the sesame oil morning and evening morning when I get up. Even before I brush my teeth, I do the gargling or what we call as mouth pulling using sesame oil and also nostrils, one drop of coconut oil. 

In terms of preventing through the eye, we use something called triphala. It is a medicated powder consisting of three ingredients which we take one spoon and boil the water prepare a decoction, filtrate nicely and wash the eyes. But I think across India they may be practicing several other non-herbal practices like salt water gargling morning and evening suppose they can’t afford to use the, sesame oil for gargling. They will use saltwater for gargling. They also use herbal tea. They use ginger, they use pepper. 

In the night, my home we prepared what we call as golden milk. That is milk diluted with equal quantity of water, boil with a pinch of turmeric and half pinch of pepper powder and boiled and I take it and this is to kind of prevent chances for coughing and related

respiratory health care. And for all these fortunately, even though they are known as grandma’s practices at home or common home-based practices, which we are using today for prevention of corona-related infection. This has been part of our culture. I’ve used many of these what I’ve narrated from my childhood. 

MRA: For a lot of healers, medicinal plants are sort of the core item with which they treat. Can you talk about the role of medicinal plants, like how many are used and how they access them or find them?

GH: So, each of these healers use locally available medicinal plants. And there is an understanding among these people, that whatever the local ecosystem that we call is a cluster of villages in a given region and all the health condition that will occur in that region can be treated with locally available plants. Now, I will give you an example which you can understand easily. Neem is used across all the arid regions which is hot and the health conditions that occur in the arid region, fever, can be healed by using bark of a neem tree. But suppose you go to another region, they will not use the neem bark. They will use something else. I’m just giving you another example, the plant which we know as Tinospora cordifolia. It is known as Guduchi. In Tamil, this is called Guduchi. It is used for treatment of fever. So, for fever alone, these communities that I have related to, they use more than 200 medicinal plants and their parts. So like this

These ethnic communities use around 6,500 medicinal plants in India. These are documented in botanical publications which we call as floristic reportings right from the times of Britishers. I have seen. They are learned in botany the subject of plant science and the taxonomies that I know they have told me all this are listed by those people. And anthropologist is another knowledge group that today we know of, they have also documented in anthropological research. 

So, just to conclude, that the importance of these medicinal plants for our traditional communities is so important because the knowledge and medicinal plants are available in every village. Across India we have six lakh villages. So each and every village and the communities who live there, they know, and they have easy access to this knowledge and the resource across India. But every village doesn’t have a doctor. Every village doesn’t have, you know, similar health facilities that we call as primary health centers sub center, you know, community level, hospitals, secondary, tertiary care that we now refer to.

So even today, I would say two-thirds of India don’t have institutional care in their villages. But these plants are there. People which we call as traditional healers are there. And much more importantly the women who are part of the household, they know many of these plants for their own healthcare and for the children that they cater to and the elderly people. These are people who may not be able to travel to you know the nearest town because that is where you will find the hospital. That is where you will find the health center.

As against this, around 2,200 to 2,500 plants are documented in our textual documents of ayurveda, siddha, unani, Sowa-Rigpa, which is practiced by Tibetans across this side of the Indian Himalayan ranges as well as the Tibetans on the other side of the Himalaya. And also in homeopathy.

And let us not forget in allopathy also, they use at least I know I have heard at least about 200 medicinal plants. I have heard from people. Because I’m not a science student, nor am I a medical practitioner, I have not learned medicine. I have learned medicine from my grandmother. And it is because of interest I have been working with these healers and trying to document them and promote them for essentially primary health care.

I will give you another example. You imagine you are in a village in the night while walking from wherever you are from one point say, from a bus stand where you got down to your home, you get bitten by a snake in the night. What will you do? But the traditional communities, households, know the locally available plants. They will use it to immediately give if not the successful management of a poisonous bite. The first response is to prevent its spread and this can save a human life. And the alternative to this is to travel 10, 15, 20 kilometers and at that point of time, no more buses will come. And our communities all of them don’t have a motor vehicle, even two wheeler or even cycle. So how do we expect them to go to the nearest hospital and get a antidote or what we call as anti-venomous injection? So, this is one important example I could think of to save the lives of people you have readily available. Plants and the knowledge, both in their villages.

GV: Have you heard people say where is the proof that these treatments can actually work? And how do you sort of respond to that?

GH: See it is a frequently asked question to many healers. But fortunately, in our culture, the healers on recognizing their place of dwelling, where they live, as a caregiver. So they know their parents have referred to a number of lives being saved and number of people with pain being relieved. So this is an experiential knowledge shared across generations and also benefiting communities across generations. So, the social legitimacy is what is keeping the folk healing traditions in many parts of the world alive. Because the knowledge system that we refer to as allopathy is, I don’t exactly know, not known to our country before the Britishers came. This I can tell with confidence, because my mother’s uncle told me this he was a physician practicing allopathy and his teacher was a Britisher.

So the youngest knowledge system in the area of health knowledge, I suppose is allopathy and that knowledge is only for last 200 years. But of course, it has become the mainstream knowledge system of the world because it’s linked with pharmaceutical industry. And the knowledge itself is costly even in India to acquire, even with the meritorious performance in my you know, pre university education. It costs a lot more money and this knowledge system is practiced for livelihood of these physicians. Whereas, the knowledge system that I am referring to as folk healers originated, existed, continued, survived. Britishers could not contribute to its extinction, erosion. We have managed to keep it alive. For that matter, even ayurveda the codified knowledge system never got supported by the Britishers who ruled us for nearly 200-plus years, but it is living tradition and the world is seeking for you know, benefits to heal people from this knowledge system.

So, the knowledge that we are talking in terms of folk healing traditions, is based on our culture. Whereas allopathy is not part of our culture. Number one, so, the faith healing, you know, where does it come from? It comes from my recognition of this knowledge from my grandmother’s knowledge and wisdom and I have experienced it as a young child. So, I don’t have to give an evidence to somebody if he has an issue with my safety and efficacy is my first response, because I know this knowledge system. It is benefiting me. But of course, we live in a contemporary world, where one knowledge system dominates over all other knowledge systems that are traditionally passed on from one generation to another. 

Now, take an example of what we call as malaria. The healers, who used the plant material, cinchona bark. If I remember correctly in the country, South American country called Peru, from whom the allopathy learnt and converted it into codeine tablet. Even today cinchona bark is used for malaria. Quinone is used for malaria. So what more evidence are we looking at because the birth of allopathy is in traditional knowledge. It didn’t come from the sky. So, what is that evidence that the 200-year-old knowledge system is wanting to know to believe in my knowledge system, whether it is folk or codified knowledge system, would be a second level of reply.

The third level of replay, I would give, the allopathy will not be able to understand the epistemological foundations of the principles that govern the learning and practice of traditional wisdom. For example, we talk about panchamahabhuta. Five, buthas would be elements.

Now these are like sun, to air, to water, earth. And you have wind. These five essential principles are present in my body, in your body, in the body of plants, animals, everything. So the principles of learning and practicing ayurveda or Siddha is based on this five panchamahabhutas. Now, if I have an imbalance in my body because it consists of these five essential principles and interacts with these essential principles. 

How do I explain to somebody who understands only malarial parasite and Corona virus that this works on protecting, without getting an opportunity to fund research? The large part of R&D is spent by pharmaceutical companies, including the vaccine that you will see in next 12 months to 18 months and there will be billions if not trillions, which will be collected because they are investing billions if not trillions, they need to get back. 

But how did we exist in history? Smallpox happened in India. Did everybody die? There was something called immunity. There was something called immunity booster the traditional wisdom had and the evidence that we are talking we can give in any amount, any quantity to the society of allopathic practitioner, provided they are willing to invest in investigations as per our understanding of panchamahabuta tattva.

I will give you the example of pepper has a component called piperin. The long pepper is used today in biomedicine which helps in enhancing the biomedicine active principles to be used in lesser quantity to produce the benefit of say 250 milligrams of medicine is to be used. If you have this you don’t need to use that. Now, this is a knowledge which has been derived from traditional knowledge. Correct?

But in the traditional medicine, this is used, long pepper is used, in ayurveda, in Siddha extracted in a milk-based decoction. Somebody did research without milk and declared it, it is not working and producing that result. That is because the essential principle that this has to be boiled in milk was not attempted by the biomedical scientists. But how can he say that it was not able to produce that result because he used water. So, that is the subtle knowledge dimensions that biomedicine will miss. Therefore, we need to use the knowledge and principles that govern the traditional systems of medicine. Even in research, which we say the whole systems approach instead of the approach where you are looking at micro level, microscopic understanding of nature, the partial understanding of nature. 

It is difficult to produce evidence just to convince somebody that I’m using this warm water and protecting myself against coronavirus because I don’t have money and I don’t have to prove it to you. I’m using it because I want to protect myself against coronavirus. And I know I can’t eliminate neither malarial parasite nor coronavirus. I know how to co-exist with coronavirus. I know how to coexist with this, isn’t it? So I think it is difficult. It’s politics of knowledge. I don’t want to get into that because even one full day it might take and still we will not cover the logical understanding and trying to convey. It is divergent knowledge system. One is looking at whole elephant. I’m not belittling the scientific knowledge. Please don’t get me wrong. It requires the knowledge of cell, parts of the cell for this human pursuit to further develop, but the evidence of this knowledge cannot be proved by another knowledge system. Both are different in understanding nature. One understand all the five essential elements of nature and its relationship to the life and its functioning and the end of that life. And in another you are looking at parasites, bacteria, virus as disease causing, and treatment with antivirals, antibiotic, antibacterials. 

MRA: Can I ask you, it seems in India that people usually make a choose, whether they would like allopathy, or traditional medicine or folk medicine, or a mix of a bunch of treatments.

GH: Mary-Rose, integrative medicine is the future of humankind. 

MRA: Is that for India, or all over the world?

GH: All over the world. There will be more Ebola to Nipah to dengue to whatever the current corona virus to are waiting to happen. I’m not itching they should happen. But we know the recent history, it has been happening in regular intervals and the current whatever the scientific community that is rooted in the Western part of the world. I’m referring to the Europe and the US, where the dominant science is not ayurveda or Siddha. They will have to collaborate with traditional systems of medicine to solve the problems of humanity, and animals and plants, because at least all these three are very close to our existence, isn’t it? All their diseases and health conditions and health and well being can be better in short by a integrative approach than a unipolar approach. 

GV: This is Chatroom. You were listening to G. Hariramamurthi talking about The Most Ancient Medicine … Folk Healing. 

MRA: Visit for the transcript. And we’re just getting started so we’d greatly appreciate your help if you could tell others about our podcast. Thanks and stay tuned for our next Chatroom. 


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