Note: This article is for informational purposes only. This is not an attempt to suggest any kind of cure and medication. This information in this article is based on the experience and traditional medicinal knowledge of Adivasis. Please consult your doctor before consuming these medicines.
Translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita
The Paliyar community in Tamil Nadu has been living in the dense forests of Tamil Nadu for generations now. Our ancestors had extensive knowledge about forest resources and even today, we consume food procured from the forests. Many herbs and plants are also used as medicines for a variety of different illnesses.
Due to lack of medical facilities near many Paliyar villages to this date, many tribals depend on these traditional medicines for cures. Living in and near forests, injuries and insect bites are common, and these herbs and plants are the only resources for immediate treatment.
Even the diet of the Paliyar tribals includes vegetables and fruits which are medicinal. There is a saying in my community that “Food is medicine” and we religiously put this to practice by ensuring that our diet is rich in different vitamins and minerals necessary for the body. This has kept the tribals fit and Paliyars are known for their good health, well into old age, too. The Paliyars have also preserved the forests in which they reside, which are rich in a variety of such plants and trees.
While there are countless herbs, plants and food items whose knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation in the Paliyar communities, here are 13 such herbs and plants that are used:
Commonly known as the Chinese chaste tree, five-leaved chaste tree, or horseshoe vitex, this is one of the common locally available herbs. The leaves of this plant are usually used to relieve headache. These Nocchi leaves are plucked, thoroughly cleaned and boiled in water. After the water boils, the Nocchi leaf extract mixes with the boiling water. At this point, the extract is cooled until it is lukewarm. When we take a bath in this cooled water, body fatigue, heavy headedness and headaches are relieved.
There are two locally available types of Aloe- Food Aloe (சோற்றுக் கற்றாழை) and Red Aloe. Aloe vera is most commonly used while taking baths by rubbing the Aloe gel on the head and the body.
During pregnancy, Paliyar women peel the outer layer of the plant, clean the gel and consume it. Aloe has a very bitter taste. Sometimes in pregnancies, the body temperature of women often runs high with risks of dehydration, so women are encouraged to eat the flesh of the Aloe plant to lower their body temperature. This is consumed after brushing teeth in the morning on an empty stomach to relieve body heat.
Aloe is also known for its therapeutic properties and is used as an active ingredient in many medications and cosmetic products such facial creams and shampoos.
Wild Cape Gooseberry can be seen everywhere in the Dindugul district of Kodaikanal. These gooseberries are a rich source of Vitamin C and A and are known to boost immunity and help control high blood pressure.
They also help with digestion and have anti-inflammatory properties and are frequently consumed by the Paliyar tribals.
The Paliyar tribals take the leaves of the ginger plant and dry them, powder them and store them. While living in the forest, during the monsoon sore throats are common. To prevent falling sick, the Paliyar tribals boiled the ginger powder in water and consumed it every day.
The Paliyars discovered very early on that ginger has medicinal properties. Ginger is known for its remedial properties for cough, and it is also said to be beneficial for the skin, hair, stomach and eyes. The tribals grate this ginger and put it in tea, boil it well and drink it. Tea with ginger is also a common beverage across India.
When children have a dry cough, ginger skin is peeled and the ginger is crushed and 1-2 drops of the ginger juice is given to children. This remedy has been passed down from my great-great-grandparents.
Fenugreek is usually used when we have a fever or constipation. The remedy for these is to drink the Fenugreek-soaked water on an empty stomach in the morning. It is also known to relieve body heat.
In addition, Fenugreek leaves are also known to be beneficial for the body. These leaves are retrieved from the forest and cleaned and chopped finely and consumed. These leaves are also said to reduce blood sugar levels. The leaves and seeds are used as an antidiabetic remedy for both types I and II diabetes. The seeds also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Turkey berry is called Sundakkai in Tamil and has many medicinal qualities. It is widely available in the forests and can also be seen on the side of the road in Tamil Nadu.
These berries are known to help with a bad cold and the Paliyars also use it for breathlessness and asthma. They also have antifungal and antibacterial properties and also help keep kidney problems at bay.
Turkey berries are very bitter. In order to improve their taste, we grind them on a stone mortar and remove the seeds and cook them in tamarind curry. We also sun dry it, fry it and consume it. Sometimes, the berry is also cut in half and then cooked and consumed.
Balloon vine is called Mudakattan in Tamil, because it is an excellent medicine for Rheumatoid arthritis (Mudakku vali in Tamil). We pluck the fresh leaves of this plant, make rasam from it and consume it, especially when we’re down with fever. Balloon vine is found on the side of the road in many parts of Tamil Nadu.
This vine is known to have antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, and is also used as a mosquito repellent and to aid hair growth.
Brahmi leaves or greens are said to increase our memory power. The Paliyars have been consuming these leaves for a long time. These leaves are first cleaned, fried with onions, mustard seeds, cumin (jeera), and garlic and then consumed. Brahmi leaves can also be cleaned and eaten like a salad. In my community, they are eaten on an empty stomach every morning and evening, or three times a day. This helps in enhancing memory, improves intelligence and keeps the brain refreshed and keeps the body active.
My ancestors discovered and passed on the knowledge that the Indian spinach variety, also called Malabar spinach, helps keep our skin shiny and looking young. This spinach can be fried and consumed, but we believe that it should not be eaten or cooked on the same day when it was picked or harvested, as it is known to cause diarrhoea. We have to air dry it for one day and then it can be cooked the next day.
The Paliyars consume this spinach to cure constipation. However, Malabar Spinach is known to induce a good sleep, relieve inflammation, treat mouth ulcers and aid skin health.
Black nightshade, known as Manathakkali keerai in Tamil, can be found in many places, but it is especially found in freshly cut forests and fire-prone areas. It is used to treat colds in young children. Parents pick these greens, clean them thoroughly and squeeze them to extract the juice in an iron pot. A few drops of this juice is given to children on their tongues.
Black nightshade is also said to be good for healing stomach and mouth ulcers. The Paliyar tribals wake up in the morning, brush their teeth and chew this spinach in their mouth and swallow the juice. It is also cooked and eaten. This plant also has fruits, which can be boiled and consumed. The stem is also edible, but it should be cleaned thoroughly, boiled with cumin (jeera) and consumed as a soup. This will help clean the stomach and keep the intestinal organs healthy.
It is also a remedy for headache, liver and skin diseases.
Known as Talanaru in Tamil, the Tree Heather plant was used by the Paliyar tribe to clean their bodies. Before discovering this plant’s uses, my ancestors of the Paliyar tribe used to bathe in rivers and streams using clay available on the river bed and use it to bathe their bodies.
There is a story about the way that the Paliyars discovered the use of this tree fibre. It is said that the children of the tribe took the fibre from the tree to the river nearby to play with it by banging it against the rocks on the riverside. While the boys were playing, one of the elders of the Paliyar tribe who was bathing there, watched the fibre create a foam when the fibre was dipped in water and rubbed against the rock.
He then cut down a part of this fibre from the briar tree and repeated the process. He discovered that the fibre was foaming at the head end. When he thought about what he could use it for, he decided that instead of using clay, he could rub the foam from this plant on his head and body while bathing. He discovered that it was very refreshing.
After using this to bathe, he realized that his hair was growing well and was thick, there were no greys, no hair damage or even lice on his head. He shared this discovery to his family, relatives and friends. Since then, my Paliyar people have been using this head fibre. This has helped them keep hair loss and baldness on the head at bay.
Popularly known as “Shikakai” this plant is found in large numbers in dense forests along rivers and streams. Shikakai does not have a tree and grows on vines. The thorns on this vine look like hooks. My Paliyar people would pick Shikakai from the vine and put them on a large rock to dry them well and then store them. Later, when they were bathing, they used the dried red Shikakai by tapping them on a rock and rubbing the powder on their heads.
When they rubbed and bathed with this Shikakai powder on their head, they found that their hair was growing to be very thick and lice and dandruff were at bay. They have been using Shikakai since then and even today tribals use it without having to face any side effects. Shikakai is also used to treat cuts and wounds and skin problems.
Nowadays, many herbal products in the market are laced with chemicals. In order to benefit completely from herbs, we need to consume them and use them in their natural form. It is important to encourage people to do so and to help increase public knowledge about natural solutions to many of the ailments we suffer from today.
Do you know of any more herbs and plants with medicinal uses that you have used?
Note: This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.