Impact of Education on Ethno-medicine and Health Care Practices Among the Tribal People of India

Impact of Education on Ethno-Medicine and Health Care

Practices among the Tribal People of India

We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees.


Anthropology as an integrated science of man deals with biological and cultural aspects of man. Presently anthropologists are more involved in applying their knowledge and techniques for human welfare.

Ethno-medicine is a sub-field of medical anthropology and deals with the study of traditional medicines: not only those that have relevant written sources (e.g. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda), but especially those, whose knowledge and practices have been orally transmitted over the centuries.

In the scientific arena, ethno-medical studies are generally characterized by a strong anthropological approach, more than a bio-medical one. The focus of these studies is then the perception and context of use of traditional medicines, and not their bio-evaluation.


The Indian sub-continent is inhabited by 88.2 million tribal populations belonging to over 577 tribal communities that come under 227 linguistic groups. They inhibit varied geographic and climatic Zones of the country. Their vocation ranges from hunting, gathering, cave dwelling nomadic to societies with settled culture living incomplete harmony with nature.

Forests have been their dear home and totally submitted themselves to forest settings. Their relationship with the forest was symbolic in nature. They have been utilizing the resources without disturbing the delicate balance of the eco-system. Tribal thus mostly remained as stable societies and were unaffected by the social, cultural, material and economic evolutions that were taking place with the so called civilized societies. But this peaceful co-existence of the tribal has been disturbed in recent years by the interference in their habitats. Traditional communities living close to nature have, over the years acquired unique knowledge about the use of living biological resources. Modernisation, especially industrialization and urbanization has endangered the rich heritage of knowledge and expertise of age old wisdom of the traditional communities.

A study on the utilization of local tribal revealed that they hold precious knowledge on the specific use of a large number of agents of wild plant and animal origins, the use of many are hitherto unknown to the outside world.


The Rigveda, the oldest document of human knowledge mentions the use of medicinal plants in the treatment of man and animals. Ayurveda gives the account of actual beginning of the ancient medical science of India, which according to western scholars was written between 2500 to 600 B.C. Charaka and Susruta wrote around 1000 B.C. Charaka concentrates more on medicine while Susruta deals with surgery in details along with therapeutics.


 Ethno-medicine refers to “those beliefs and practices relating to disease which are the products of indigenous cultural development and are not explicitly derived from the conceptual frame work of modern medicine” (Hughes, 1968, cited from Misra et al, 2003). Various institutions are now concerned with the traditional health care system and means of traditional treatment.

The tribal people are the real custodians of the medicinal plants. Out of 45,000 species of wild plants, 7500 species are used for medicinal purposes. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been promoting a movement for ‘Saving plants for saving lives’. This is because of the growing understanding of the pivotal role medicinal plants play in providing herbal remedies to health maladies.

India is the home of several important traditional system of health care like Ayurveda. This system depends heavily on herbal products. Several millions of Indian households have been using through the ages nearly 8000 species of medicinal plants for their health care needs. Over one and half million traditional healers use a wide range of medicinal plants for treating ailments of both humans and livestock across the length and breadth of the country. Over 800 medicinal plant species are currently in use by the Indian herbal industry.

In recent times with the increased knowledge of life and culture of the tribal communities, the social scientists are taking interest in ethno-medicinal studies. Many works have been reported especially from among the rural and tribal communities of India (Choudhury, 1986; Bhadra and Tirkey, 1997; Sharma Thakur, 1997).Ray and Sharma (2005) have given a description of ethno-medicinal beliefs and practices prevalent among the Savaras, a tribal community of Andhra Pradesh.

Kumari (2006) gave an account on the concept of illness and disease and the application of folk medicine among the Saureas of Jharkhand. However, ethno-medicinal studies are relatively less in Northeast India. Guha (1986) has reported from among the Boro-Kachari tribe of Assam. A glimpse of indigenous health practices among the plain tribes of Assam is given by Sharma Thakur (1999). The socio-economic condition of some of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and their problems of health and indigenous methods of treatment has been reported by Choudhury (2000), Duarah andPathak (1997), Kohli (1999), Bhasin (1997, 1999,2002, 2003, 2005).


The Sonowal Kacharis is an endogamous group of Kachari tribe and a popular plain scheduled tribe population of Assam. Various types of locally available herbs and leaves of wild plants are used by them as medicine. Like many other communities of the region, there are few herbal specialists among the Sonowal Kachari. These specialists or medicine-men have considerable knowledge about the herbs and its medicinal use. Normally they learn about these medicinal plants and its uses from their ancestor. These medicine-men are referred by different term according to the cultural norms. Among the Sonowal Kachari’s they are called as Bez (Barua and Phukan, 1958: 334). Of course in rural Assam, they are mainly known by this term.

It has been observed in the villages that use of herbal medicine for curing certain diseases are quite known to the people and besides medicine-men, many elderly persons known about the use of herbal medicines. Some of the diseases and their indigenous methods of treatment are given below:

(1) Fever: Lime (Citrus auran tifolia) juice mixed with sugar is applied on the forehead of the patient to get relief from fever.

(2) Diarrhoea: Dry goose berry (Emblica officinalis) powder and black salt mixed with cold water is taken. Bark of Long Pepper (Pipoli tree) mixed with Misiri water is also used to cure the disease.

(3) Dysentery: Lime (Citrus auran tifolia) juicewith hot water and little salt is used in dysentery. The juice of black Tulsi leaves (Ocimum sanctum) and Sirata (Swertiachirata) is also used for the purpose. The juice of tender leaves (three numbers) of mango (Mangifera indica), black berry (S.cuminii) and goose berry (Emblica officinalis) (equal proportions) together with honey are mixed with goat milk and is taken to cure blood dysentery. Honey together with the juice of Dubari grass (Family-Gramineae) can cure blood dysentery and need to be taken for three/ four days. They also use a kind of wild herb, locally called Manimuni (Centila asiatica).The juice of this herb mixed with sugar or honey should be taken continuously for a month to cure the disease. They also use limewater (chun pani) mixed with juice of turmeric (Purcuma domestica) leave to get relief from blood dysentery and mucous.

(4) Blood Vomiting: A table spoon of carrot (Dancus carota) juice mixed with honey can cure blood vomiting.

(5) Liver Disease: Two to three raw or ripe Papayas (Carica papaya) daily can cure liver disease. A curry prepared from the bud of banana (Musa paradisiaca) and the meat of pigeon is also used as a medicine for the purpose.

(6) Jaundice: The medicine is prepared by pounding five or six number of Silikha (Myroballum) mixing with jaggery and it can cure jaundice. A glass of sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) juice twice daily prescribed for the purpose. Boiled raw papaya (Carica papaya) is said to be good for curing the disease. Kardoi (Averrhoa carambola), Goose Berry (Emblica officinalis), Sugar cane (Saccharun officinarum), Neem leave (Azadirachta indica), a wild herb known as Duran ban (Lecas aspera), Brahmi sak (Herpestis monnieria), Purakol (Musa sapientum) are prescribed edibles for the patient.

(7) Nose Bleeding: Flower of Pomegranate (Punica granatum Linn) is crushed and 3-4 drops of juice is poured inside the nose to give immediate relief.

(8) Tonsilities: Juice is prepared by mixing one Amara seed (Sponolias mangifera), one Silikha seed (Mysoballum) and a piece of Turmeric (Purcuma domestica) and advice the patient gargles for a week regularly.

(9) Worms: Paste of five lemon seeds (Citrus aurantifolia) mixed with water and is prescribed to eat in empty stomach for a few days. The twigs of Chirata (Swertia chirata) are soaked in the water overnight and the water is prescribed to drink in empty stomach in the morning for one week regularly.

(10) Scabies: Lemon juice (Citrus aurantifolia) mixed with coconut oil is massaged for curing scabies. To remove scabies they take bath with hot water in which leaves of Neem (Azadirachta officinarum) were boiled. Twigs of Chirata (Swertia chirata) arecrushed into paste with water to be used as an ointment and applied on the skin. Chirata water is prescribed to drink in the morning in empty stomach.

(11) Pain in the Ear: Juice of Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) is boiled and put it in the ears to heal earache.

            The patient is treated with available herbs, flora and minerals. Some of these are home remedies and some are specially prescribed by herbalist or folk medicine man available in the community. The practice of ethno-medicine is a complex multi-disciplinary system constituting the use of plants, spirituality and the natural environment and has been the source of healing for people for millennia. The spiritual aspects of health and sickness have been an integral component of the ethno-medicinal practice for centuries.

Diseases due to wrath of the supernatural

Supernatural agencies
Pujas (Rituals)
Dysentery, mental diseases, cancer
Propitiated by sacrificing two red cocks, one red hen, and one egg, besides other items of feast. Arrangement is made in the forest.
Asthama, Mental
Disease, cancer
Lord of water
Jalkhai puja, worshipped by sacrificing one white duck and other items of feast, rice, salt vegetables, etc.
Accident, sudden illness
No sacrifice. Only raw items, e.g. gram, rice, powdered rice, etc. are offered to propitiate Burah-dangoria.
Ancestral spirits
Ai puja, no sacrifice is made except offering of raw articles, powdered rice, gram with betel nut and leaves.
Epidemic and natural calamities
Mother goddess
Community level worship by arranging bhur-utuwa puja. One pair of betel nut and leaf is offered from each family. One red duck is offered on behalf of the villagers. All the offered articles are placed in a boat.

Epidemic and large scale death of men and animals
Mother goddesses of forest.
A white goat is a must for the Puja besides other offering.

The tribal health care practices and system of treating diseases are based on their deep observation and belief in nature. But with the development of education and their awareness towards importance of health and health care and also with the advent of modern health care facilities, Government health measures these people are becoming more interested in taking modern medicine instead of traditional herbal medicine. 

According to the text of Vishnu Samhita, causing any harm to the plants/animals is a sin. Even purloining of parts/ products of any of these living beings is a crime. The sinner/ criminals are liable to chastisement in this life and also after death. The punishments are of diverse nature:-pecuniary, corporal, expiatory and donation of specific articles to Brahmins.


The growing disinterest in the use of the ethno-medicinal plants and its significance among the younger generation of the tribes will lead to the disappearance of this practice. Educated younger generation of the tribes should be encouraged by the Government to protect and cultivate these valuable herbal plants before they get lost due to the impact of modernization and urbanization and also due to deforestation.

The role of Anthropology is also very important in the field of saving herbal plants. By educating tribal people we can preserve all these things for future generation. It is the Government duty to take necessary steps to preserve all these things.
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