Alternative routes to holistic treatment of ailments

Modern and traditional medicine systems should together contribute to holistic treatment of diseases and illnesses

Shipra Mathur | October 28, 2014


Vardaram and his patients in village Dudhalia of Kumbalgarh, Rajasthan
GN Photo

She was struggling hard for life. On the verge of death, she was being supported by the rescue team whose members kept rubbing her limbs intermittently to warm her up. Doses of steroids were proving ineffective. This abandoned female monkey suffering from prolonged fever was being treated at the ICU ward of SG animal care centre, Delhi. Sensing urgency, Ambika Shukla, an animal rights activist and caretaker at the centre, rushed in with Herbo Veg 30, known as corpse reviver in homeopathy. She pushed the little white balls into the simian’s clenched mouth every 10 minutes while the veterinarians kept up their efforts. After a long spell of high tension, she opened her eyes. Sigh of relief for all. That day, I had witnessed what prayers and medicines together could do. None of those caring and treating the monkey was ready to give up and it’s difficult to assess which formula worked better. Each stream of treatment surely has its own power and limitations, yet, in this case, both worked together to save a life.

The national zoological park of Delhi is also using ayurvedic concoctions to treat maggot infections and other ailments in animals where allopathy fails to deliver. It might appear unusual but it is a common practice in rural India to use alternative and traditional remedies to treat humans and animals alike.

Like the tribe in Hollywood director James Cameron’s Avatar, villagers live in perfect harmony with nature and follow its diktats. As we meander through the Aravalli hills in southern  Rajasthan or Thar desert in the state’s western side, treasure troves of medicine welcome us. But only a trained practitioner possesses an innate power to appreciate this wealth of preventive and curative medicines. Salar, White Musli, Mirchia Kand, Gadalimba and hundreds others reveal their qualities only to those who connect with their essence. Hence their knowledge remains a closely guarded secret by herbal healers.

Ratan Kumar from Ramnagar village in Dudu tehsil of Jaipur has perfected the calculation for naadi (vein) throbs per minute, which he uses deftly to diagnose the disease. Treating a dozen illnesses with his herbal preparations, he is also an expert bone-setter. When he treated a family member of former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, the patient, who had a displaced bone, was back to being normal in just 13 days. The dose he prepares contains a perfect measure of calcium, which speeds up recovery but requires intense monitoring.

Interestingly, these practitioners are not trained by any academic institution but have grown up experimenting and learning in the nature’s lab or have perfected traditional methods of cure passed on to them as legacy by their ancestors. The vast and diverse knowledge is all by word of mouth, hence it remains only in practice, not on paper. As modern science would only go by evidence or logic, many community organisations in Rajasthan have adopted means and methods to identify, authenticate, certify and train these healers. Organisations such as Jagaran Jan Vikas Samiti and Rashtriya Guni Mission in Udaipur started this drive in the 1990s and have categorised these healers on the basis of their field of expertise and knowledge.

With self-prepared herbal combinations, they have mastered treatments of asthma, skin infection, epilepsy, ulcer, fracture and bone displacement, piles, seasonal infections and fever, malaria, kidney stones, jaundice, neurological diseases, diabetes, migraine, snake bite, hormonal disturbance, sexual debility, mental illness and a whole range of general and critical diseases.

When Margaret Alva became the governor of Rajasthan in May 2012, her knee was troubling her. Though she followed a strict regimen of yoga, acute pain would make her restless. It aggravated with the passage of time in the Raj Bhawan as she became busy with her official engagements and travelled more often. It was then that some well-wishers suggested herbal oil therapy. Pratapi Bai and a few others with knowledge of such treatment – all of them tribal people from Bedala village, 3 km from Udaipur – treated Alva for four days, following which she could walk comfortably. She continued to use the oil made of 25 herbs with proven efficacy of 20 years.

Alva was so enamoured by her experience that she would mention it in her public speeches and even referred the healers to her acquaintances.

These healers – mainly from Meena, Saharia, Bheel, Kalbelia, Nat, Raika, Bhopas, Banjara and Gadia-Lohar tribes – are scattered across Rajasthan. They enjoy respect among local communities and have emerged from the shackles of anonymity by treating celebrity patients. Tired of allopathic medications, people often come to them with hope and leave satisfied. Community organisations are spearheading the task of spreading their work to the world. To gain further authenticity, these organisations are also attempting a joint certification by the Indira Gandhi National Open University and the Quality Council of India.

Dr Ram Kishore Deswal from Jagaran Samiti says it was quite a job to document their knowledge and test these healers on the parameters or references of ayurveda texts and scientific tools so that they could get the status they deserve. This also serves to differentiate between them and neem-hakeems (or quacks). Forums like Rashtriya Guni Manch are also relevant in empowering people like Dr Deswal to disseminate the knowledge of miraculous herbs and formulations.

One such herb was Lakshmanpana that Dr Deswal found being used in Tamil Nadu for treating cancer patients. The Leh-based Defence Institute of High Altitude Research recently found the “wonder herb” Rhodiola – locally known as Solo – that is used to regulate the immune system, help people adapt to the harsh mountain environment and protect them from radioactive, especially gamma, rays.

These knowledge curators have gone further to preserve traditional wisdom by linking this activity for economic and social uplift.
Trained ayurvedic practitioner Dr Jiya Lal works with a team of village-level community workers in Jhadol, Gogunda and Badgaon of Mewar region to propagate the concept of home clinics among these healers, who charge very little for treatment and guide people about preventive methods. Community organisations are also bringing these clinics and their medicinal formulae on gram panchayat records. A kit of 10-15 basic medicinal plants for ‘ghar bageechee’ (kitchen garden) with 72-hour training to educate people about basic remedies is an intelligent way to conserve age-old herbal practices. Healers with home clinics have been attending to patients coming from other parts of the region or state and their monthly income now ranges from '5,000 to '15,000.

Around 80 such clinics exist in the villages of Rajasthan and hundreds others are run by trained tribal practitioners in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Odisha through network partners. In a country that has barely one doctor for every 1,700 patients and where more than 70 percent of rural population accesses only one-third of available beds and most of them have to walk more than 5 kilometres to avail in-patient facilities, there is a pressing need to find alternatives to fill this gap. Free medicine scheme has its own perils, including over-medication. Also, allopathic drugs act instantly but have their share of side-effects. Allopathic doctors are also pushing surgical procedures, of which, according to Jaipur-based ayurveda practitioner and researcher Dr BB Jaju, 95 percent cases can be treated through non-surgical methods of dietary management or alternative medicine.

Practitioners of alternative medicine have been able to command knowledge to address our body, mind and soul 360 degrees but they have either been secretive about it or have not been able to systematically document the widespread knowledge. For this reason, big claims by herbalists to treat certain types of cancers, psoriasis and other critical illnesses must be challenged and observed closely, keeping aside all prejudices. Preferential budgetary provisions for research will make their task easy, too.

Bangalore-based oncologist and surgeon Dr Vishal Rao shares the same sentiment. Half of the cancer patients, he says, opt for herbal care after surgeries and their conviction changes their lives forever. Dr Rao, who espouses holistic treatment, has also been trying to build a forum where modern and complementary medicines can share more – bond more and trust more.

Most trained doctors and traditional herbal healers confess to having very basic knowledge of herbs through texts and teachers while they accept the existence of a wide array of herbs with abilities to tackle diseases, disorders and death. This opulent world of wellness and cure is still beyond the reach of all. It’s time all magic is revealed and healers get their act together to nourish us all.

This story appeared in the October 16-31, 2014 issue

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