Did you know that Eastern Himalaya is a rich source of folk-medicine?
A recent study by Chhetri et al have emphasised the urgency of preserving and patenting the fast disappearing Nepali and Lepcha folk medicine systems of the Darjeeling hills. The study has found out that out of a total of 281 species of plants belonging to 229 genera and 108 different families used in the Darjeeling Himalayan region in folk-medicine, 164 (58%) species of plants show hitherto unreported ethno-medicinal uses. Only a few families viz. Asteraceae (with 14 genera and 16 species), Zingiberaceae (with 9 genera and 13 species), Ericaceae (with 3 genera and 10 species) and Rutaceae (with 5 genera and 9 species) are dominant in terms of total number of medicinal plants.
For medicinal recipes they generally prepare infusion or decoction (by soaking in hot water or boiling), extract or juice (by crushing fresh plant parts with or without water), or paste or powder (by grinding the fresh or dried plant parts). The researchers have established that Darjeeling hills are not only rich in the medicinal plant biodiversity, but also in the traditions of folk-medicine. Among the three major traditional medicine systems, the Tibetan system ( Aamchi ) practiced by the Bhutia people is well documented and well established. A medicinal institute teaching this system of medicine (Chagpori Tibetan Medicinal Institute) has also been established at Takdah, Darjeeling district. But the Nepali jadibuti and the Lepcha herbal system are in need of immediate attention, so that the traditional knowledge of these systems may be preserved. These lesser known folk medicine systems require full documentation and the haphazard information has to be systematised. The doses of different herbal medicines have to be standardized. The whole array of processes involved in their cultivation, collection, and preparation of crude drugs have to be scientifically systematized.
We have to take into account the fact that the medicinal plants used in the local health traditions are gradually becoming extinct due to developmental activities, population explosion and other anthropogenic reasons. In order to contain this trend, domestication of wild medicinal plants is of utmost importance. Farmers should be involved in the cultivation of medicinal plants at least in their barren and fallow land. This would augment their income and in turn help in the conservation of the species. Appropriate research should be carried out to develop agro-techniques for the cultivation of medicinal plants on a priority basis. Besides cultivation, information dissemination, awareness building and popularizing the cure and prevention folk system would go a long way to provide an alternative medicinal system.
This folk knowledge needs to be safeguarded through documentation, and preserved through patenting. Cures for diseases like cancer, AIDS, etc. may lie hidden in the treasure of these Himalayan folklores. A concerted effort by all concerned including scientists, farmers, financers and leaders is urgently required to preserve and use this precious legacy of ethnomedicine.