is a highly significant story related to Jivaka, physician to Lord
Buddha and his followers. Jivaka spent full seven years of intensive
study under his guru, at the university of Takshashila, where he
earned a name for effecting amazing cures. As a final test his guru
gave him a spade and sent him out to search, within a radius of
several miles, for any plant devoid of medicinal value. Jivaka passed
the test with flying colours when he came back and said he could find
no such plant!
medical systems, among them the ancient science of Ayurveda, have
always been aware of the medicinal value of plants. To cite but one
example, for at least 2500 years before the West recognised the
medicinal properties of the rauwolfia root that Indian medicine men
had been using it to calm violently disturbed patients. They called
it snakeroot and used it to treat, apart from `moon madness' or
lunacy, a whole range of afflictions, from snakebite to cholera. In
the 1940's Indian scientists isolated the active substances from
rauwolfia and discovered its added benefit as a remedy for high blood
thousands of years, Indian plants have been attracting attention in
foreign countries. Dioscorides mentions many, including datura smoke
for treating asthma, nux vomica for paralysis and indigestion, croton
as a purgative. Pliny complained of the heavy drain on Roman gold to
buy costly Indian drugs (and spices). Some Indian plants or their
extracts have already been adopted by modern medicine, including
psyllium husk (isabgol) for bowel problems. Many other plants that
have been used exclusively in folk medicine now have allopaths
hunting for them. These include herbs like Cassia fistula which shows
antibiotic activity. A keen search for contraceptives for men has led
to research on likely plant material such as bamboo shoots, betel
leaf and papaya seed.
Madagascar periwinkle with its pink/white flowers is a hardy
perennial that grows without fuss in countless Indian gardens. So
persistent is the flowering that the shrub has come to be known as
sadabahar, meaning `ever bloom'. In the 1950's, the periwinkle
yielded some alkaloids, particularly useful in the treatment of
leukaemia. Great piles of crushed periwinkle leaves are now exported
from India to the U.S. to be ground and processed into anti cancer
drugs. It takes 12 tons of leaves to extract one ounce of the active
ingredient, hence the bulk.
has an impressive list of medicinal plants, almost all of them
native to the soil. Towering above the rest is the neem (margosa).
All parts of this ubiquitous tree are bitter and are used in
medicine. A decoction of neem leaves helps fevers, particularly
malarial fevers, liver problems such as hepatitis, boils and all
kinds of skin diseases. Extract of neem is a powerful insecticide,
poisonous to insects and parasites.
amla (emblica officinalis) has been hailed as a nugget of Vit. C in
heat stable form. One amla fruit is said to pack more Vit. C than a
dozen oranges. It is great for treating respiratory complaints and
for rejuvenation of both body and the hair. According to Charka,
august physician of yore and father of ayurveda, a regular intake of
amla or amla based preparations is a sure method of stalling the
joins with two other plants haritaki and bibhitaki to make the super
combination known as triphala (three-fruit-combine). Whether used
externally or internally, the benefits conferred by triphala are
legion. The most significant being rejuvenation of the membrane of
the intestinal tract.
small thorny tree known as bel (Aegle marmelos) yields a fruit that
is a panacea for digestive disorders. The bamboo has, on the inside
of its stem a white, powder deposit known as tavashir which has
marked decongestant properties, particularly useful as a local
application in tonsillitis. The large, handsome evergreen camphor
tree is the traditional (as opposed to synthetic) source of camphor.
Used extensively in ritual worship, camphor is a favoured ingredient
of liniments and medicinal oils because it liquefies obstinate body
secretions and causes them to flow. Gugul (Commiphora mukul), a small
tree which grows in arid regions, produces a resin with marked
anti-inflammatory properties, making it perhaps the best medicine
going for arthritis. It also helps scrape away fat from the body.
is the resin collected from the living rhizome and root of the small
tree Ferula foetida. There are few remedies superior to asafoetida
for relieving colic and abdominal distension. The fragrant
sandalwood comes from a small tree (Santalum album). Used as paste or
powder, it calms skin eruptions. Taken internally it cools the body
and mind, while helping to improve the concentration. Tagara
(Valeriana wallichii) has long been used as a sedative and
anti-spasmodic. Being a natural tranquillizer, it is particularly
useful in the treatment of hysteria and epilepsy.
oil, universally disliked but dependable, is a product of the castor
plant, also known as eranda (Ricinis communis). The plant grows wild
in India. So does berberis (Berberis aristata), used to control
jaundice and inflammations ranging from gastro-enteritis to
conjunctivitis. A special boon for those suffering from piles.
Berberis is a native of hilly areas.
hibiscus shrub has great cooling properties. Crushed leaves of
hibiscus, applied to the scalp in summer, prevent dandruff and lend
lustre to the hair. Dried and powdered henna leaves, made into a
paste, soothe rashes, particularly eczema. The paste applied before a
regular shampoo makes the hair soft and silky. The dried and powdered
rhizome of the turmeric plant is a powerful antiseptic for external
wounds as well as intestinal infections. And be it said to its
everlasting glory, a level teaspoon of turmeric in a glass of hot
milk, taken at bedtime, can and does stave off an attack of flu.
Laced with honey, this combination even helps a case of trauma. The
grass known as cuscus (vetiver) purifies the blood and helps reduce
fever, while soothing both vomiting and diarrhoea.
it is not possible to list all the benefits that accrue from the
tulsi plant (Holy basil). We shall, however, make an attempt. It
protects the throat, skin, digestive and respiratory tracts. Combined
with ginger juice, black pepper and honey, it cures catarrh. It is a
tonic for the heart and has been found effective n the first stages
of many cancers. Tulsi purifies the air and is an insect repellnt.
No wonder the word `tulsi' itself means `matchless'.
dwelling on the virtues of tulsi, we can't possibly forget fenugreek
(methi). A powerful tonic for the digestive, respiratory and nervous
systems, it is an all-round pick up for the human organism. Highly
effective in the treatment of both diabetes and high blood pressure,
fenugreek also holds promise for certain types of arthritis. As if
this were not enough, a hair cleaner made from soaked and ground
seeds of fenugreek, prevents premature hair loss.
relieves respiratory congestion, mint and coriander are digestives.
Drumstick leaves help high blood pressure, the fruit tones up the
heart and circulatory system. The ripe fruit of the tamarind
stimulates the appetite and digestion. Garlic lowers both blood
cholesterol and blood pressure, and ginger is definitely
anti-catarrh, beside being a safe and sure digestive. Aloe, the
succulent that requires little persuasion to grow, contains
allantoin, a substance known for its healing properties. Thus aloe is
applied externally to burns, rashes, inflammations and other painful
conditions, with excellent results. Highly prized aloe now forms part
of many brands of face creams and moisturisers worldwide.
we are touching only the fringe of the subject. The average Indian
grandma/housewife is familiar with medicinal plants growing in her
own kitchen garden or neighbourhood. Hundreds of herbs and plants are
in regular use by medical practitioners. Even so, hundreds more lie
unidentified and unexplored, their virtues described in ancient texts
but known only to a few.
not only has a host of medicinal plants, it also has a host of do's
and dont's laid down for collecting the required portions - leaves,
roots, fruit etc. of these plants. How a herb is grown and gathered
affects its qualities. Thus plants collected for medicinal use should
have no impurities nearby and the location should be far away from a
graveyard or cremation ground. Likewise there should be no termite
mounds in the vicinity. On no account is an insect infested plant to
be picked. And, significantly, plant material is to be gathered at
its freshest, that is, early in the morning for purpose of Alternative Medicine in India