Traditional healers are the acclaimed people in a tribal community who provide health care to the local people. Their putative knowledge of natural resources embodying plant and animal sources and mineral substances along with conventional social, ethical, religious, magico-religious and cultural, practices is well-recognized by the indigenous community. It is this competence of the healers that that they work as medical practitioners in the region and help in social, physical and mental well-being of the people in the society.
Traditional healers: A valuable resource
Traditional healers serve as important resourceful persons for the ethnobotanical information of the tribal region. They not only have knowledge about the occurrence and morphological description of the plants, but also about their medicinal uses, socio-cultural significance and correlation to the local communities. Their traditional medical knowledge ranges from medicines, food, nutrition, daily routines, customs, and rituals to traditions of the community. They are immensely skilled in using indigenous medicinal plants for various treatments and therapies.
They are identified as proper knowledgeable informants in the area. They are mostly one or a few elderly people in the village or tribe who are familiar with the local flora and their medicinal uses. Generally, they are called ‘medicinemen’ or ‘Kaviraj’. But they may be known by varied names in different tribes such as ‘Gaita’ by Gonds of central India, ‘Amchis’ by Ladakhis, and ‘Plathis’ by Kani tribe of Western Ghats of Kerala, India.
Primary health care providers
Traditional healers are primary health care providers in the region. They have an in-depth knowledge about the medicinal and pharmacological properties of the plants. They are well-acquainted with native plant remedies and the strength and purity of therapeutic drugs. Many serious diseases and common ailments are extensively been treated by traditional healers worldwide. For instance, in North East India, traditional healers use a large number of herbs to treat malaria and jaundice, which are commonly prevalent there (Shankar et al., 2012).
The traditional knowledge and services of traditional healers in a local community encompasses but is not limited to:
- administration of daily food and nutrition
- treatment of common ailments and illnesses
- reproductive health procedures
- management of serious and chronic diseases
- addressing all kinds of public health requirements
The existence of tribal healers is responsible for upgradation of health maintenance and disease management among the tribal people. Moreover, it propounds an alternate source of modern-day medical treatment (Suwankhong et al., 2011). The vast knowledge possessed by these traditional healers, or medicine-men, midwives, and other local specialists is incomparable to any other source and is extremely valuable. It may be even unknown to conventional science. Their knowledge of traditional plants can potentially be used and further developed for futuristic research in medicine, pharmacology and toxicology. They use the rich diversity of their region to treat a wide range of ailments. They have profound connections with their land and environment on which they are dependent to maintain their cultural and healing practices. They collect and cultivate medicinal plants and develop herbal medicines and formulations. Most of their treatment therapies and healing practices develop from a combination of traditional practices and their experiences. In modern times, their health practices should amalgamate contemporary medicine and systems too to ensure better health and well-being of the community (Threethambal et al., 2002).
Service providers beyond health care
Sometimes, different types of healers are identified in a community performing varied functions, e.g. in rural Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, three classes of traditional health practitioners are recognized (Zuma et al., 2016): 1) Isangoma (the diviner); 2) Inyanga (the one who focuses practices traditional medical remedies) and 3) Umthandazi (the faith healer).
Traditional healers serve multiple roles beyond health care. To quote a few:
- They are custodians of traditional customs and traditions of the community.
- They educate people about culture and practices.
- They act as mentors for future generations to follow.
- They perform the role of mediators.
- They use practices and methods to serve as counselors and psychotherapists.
- They may provide emotional, mental and spiritual support to people in addition to physical support.
- They maintain herbal or medicinal gardens for plant conservation.
Role as conservationists
For many generations, traditional healers in a tribe provide primary health care to the people. It is critical for the living and survival of the people of the community. They share this repository of knowledge with their descendants so as to ensure its perseverance and for the benefit of the mankind. It is also important for maintaining the quality of life of populations that depend on these environments. The traditional healers earn their livelihood through their traditional knowledge of the environment they live in.
Apart from this, they also help in biodiversity conservation. Vegetation of an area is bound to undergo change in time and space. The availability and accessibility status of many of the useful and medicinal plants changes owing to multi-factorial changes in environment, society, economy, etc. At the regional level, the traditional healers help in conservation of the native vegetation and biodiversity.
The traditional healers have a deep knowledge about the indigenous plants of the region. They help in protecting the flora, conservation of biodiversity and environment. They also play a major role in sustainable development. The vast traditional knowledge about biodiversity of a region possessed by the indigenous people is transmitted generations after generations. It is very essential for the conservation of species.
Now-a-days, due to various anthropogenic activities, many plant and animal species are under threat of extinction. According to Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019), about one million important floral and faunal species world over have become threatened and are fast disappearing. In view of this loss, it becomes imperative to preserve the biodiversity. It has been seen that the traditional people and local communities of a region manage their area and all its resources well preventing its degradation, minimising the loss of biodiversity and ensuring sustainable use of resources. It is an established fact that the overall welfare of human society is closely related to the well-being of its surroundings. It is therefore important to maintain the health of natural ecosystems that support human beings.
An increased awareness of potential benefits of indigenous and medicinally important plants can help in controlling human activities and keeping a check on further loss to the environment. It is important to recognize the role of traditional healers as conservationists of traditional knowledge and biodiversity. More emphasis should be laid to facilitate knowledge sharing in ways that can benefit both societies and environment.
About the Author
Dr. Pooja Gupta, has a Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Delhi. She is working as an Assistant Professor at the Ramjas College of the University of Delhi. A gold medalist from the University of Delhi, she has a great love for plants and wants to inculcate interest in the younger generation towards the plant world. She loves to write and create awareness on the importance of plants and sensitize the young minds towards their conservation and sustainable use.