This is a story of how an elderly lady in the village of Andhra Pradesh had tears in her eyes when after 20 years of globalisation, I gave her seeds of an indegenous millet variety. For the happy old lady, the seeds brought back smells and tastes of her childhood and a hope that all is not lost. For me, her tears signified a triumph in converting a barren piece of land that had no water, into a space that conserves rare, threatened and medicinal indigenous plants.
The roots of my project work as an Ayurvedic physician began at Rishi Valley, a residential school in rural Andhra Pradesh. While there, many a morning, I would stare at a 7-acre plot of land (about 3km away from school), that was virtually a wasteland. Mother Earth looked formidable as it was rocky soil, barren undulated land, and completely dry.
The region was completely drought-prone and there was no source of water around. It was exposed on all sides, with a state highway running along one side. The land needed a substantial amount of good soil and more importantly, someone who could tend it with loving care. One of the toughest jobs was finding people to work and for this I had to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of Telugu.
During my graduation years I had worked with NGOs and lived in villages, when I observed a steady lack of respect and understanding of traditional knowledge systems in medicine and agriculture resulting in the lack of biodiversity. With the arrival of brightly coloured small satchels of shampoos into the little village shops, I noticed an increased intrusion of media into traditional lifestyles advocating instant gratification, excesses and quick-fix cures. There was also an indifference to good health and dependence on strong medications for immediate results.
While visiting forests near villages I observed that sightings of large trees whose produce was an important ingredient of Ayurvedic formulations was speedily becoming rare. Due to over-harvesting of herbs and indiscriminate felling in many forests, herb conservation and propagation was severely jeopardised; obtaining fresh and genuine herbs was getting to be a big challenge. Most sadly, traditional knowledge about health, hygiene and diet had all but disappeared.
Working the Land
The initial few months with the land was very tough. Just when I was beginning to think that mother earth was rather unfriendly, we stuck water and the land started breathing. We tilled the land, put in organic manure and some fertile soil over it. With some difficulty, I finally managed to get a working couple to be stationed there.
For phase 1, we start planting some fast-growing trees at strategic places by studying the land contours, fall and flow of rain water and strong wind directions. Accordingly, wind-arresting trees were planted and fencing was erected and reinforced with agava species. Our border plants included adathoda vasika, nirgundi as well as fever nut and thorny shikakai which are not eaten by cattle.
Simultaneously, we started a nursery where apart from highly medicinal indigenous plants and herbs, several flowering, fragrant plants were also grown. I would go on long walks in the surrounding area and collect rare and endangered species to carefully re-plant them at the herb garden. The few existing trees were left untouched.
During the first three years, we were experimenting with planting and replanting various plants, discovering which ones would dry/perish for different reasons. We needed to understand Nature and how she works, her likes and dislikes. By the fourth year, we started connecting with the air, water and soil in such a way that a remarkable change took place, and the survival rate of our plants suddenly increased as if Mother Nature finally approved of us.
The garden flourished richly. The number of species grew to 300. The sightings of bees, birds and butterflies, even snakes (cobras and pythons) had significantly increased. New varieties of plants had begun growing on their own. The garden was indeed looking like an oasis and a healthy ecosystem had been formed.
Nurturing Community Bonds
As the scope of our work steadily increased, the people of village became more interested in our project and a number of new initiatives were launched, many at their behest. They wanted to know the formulations of remedies and medicines I was preparing from locally available herbs since they were proving to be effective. Soon the garden became a conference room for conducting seminars/meetings with the marginal farmers and daily wage earners in the area.
Sadly, over the last generation many of these preparations have given way to foods with little or no nutritional value, advertised heavily in the media and made available in abundant quantities even in remotest areas. It was heartening for us, therefore when we could identify some wildly growing highly nutritious vegetables (‘weeds’) and soon these ‘made a comeback’ in the market, contributing to better nutritional intake in many households.
We began by distributing native seeds (90 varieties from our seed bank, some rarely found elsewhere) and saplings (20 varieties from our nursery) to people of the village, free of cost. It was here that the elderly lady whom I mentioned in the beginning, had tears in her eyes. For nutrition, we distributed saplings of trees such as drumstick, papaya, custard apple, coconut and mango. Medicinal plants such as guduchi, vasa, tulasi, shatavari, amala and seeds of ‘green’ vegetables (amaranthus species, bathua, chakrapanthi, avasi dantaku etc.) as well as gourds (ridge, ash, bottle) along with a few local grains were shared.
Nurturing Health & Nutrition
More enthusiastic groups of people, (largely women) began interacting with me on a regular basis. Simultaneously, I started meeting elderly people and naati vaidyas (traditional doctors) from the villages and compiling information pertaining to their traditional knowledge pool. I had already been going to some village schools for regular health check-ups and inspection of students. Periodic de-worming and pre and post natal care as espoused by Ayurveda were some other components of this programme.
Groups of grass-root level women health workers from villages (Aanganwadi teachers/educated house wives/young girls) were trained in issues of health, hygiene and nutrition with an Ayurvedic perspective. Here village schools played an important role. We used the school space to create small herb gardens and taught students about plants/hygiene/Yoga/gardening and home remedies.
Apart from information about the medicinal properties of herbs used as spices in kitchen masala box, we began providing an Ayurvedic kit. It comprised of about 8 medicines in the form of tablets made by us, inspired by a traditional ‘Grandma’s Pouch’. These medicines were used to treat commonly occurring ailments such as colds, coughs, light fevers, indigestion and constipation. Some complex medicines such as Ghanavati, Tailam, Churnas, Lepa and kashayams were also prepared and dispensed on a regular basis for curative purposes.
We gained the confidence of the farmers and village folk as our remedies began to show results. For instance, a cynical lady farmer developed black spots and dryness on her palms, a reaction to some pesticide that she had been using. She was treated with tablets and kashayam made from neem. Seven days of treatment not only showed complete recovery but also a change in her mindset. With many such results, the Ayurveda garden became very popular, as it was educative, directly useful and emphasized the preservation of natural flora.
The success of an intensive community-based project depends on a number of factors – the support of a funding authority, trusted workers, deep understanding of the community, their needs and issues, regular interaction etc. But the most crucial factor in this case is: the absence of any parallel programme of ‘modern’ medicine. Similar to modern industrial farming techniques, modern ‘allopathic mindset’ overempahzises quick-fix solutions over preventive and long-term benefits. Often people practising these are cynical and contemptuous of traditional methods, its holistic approach and its ‘slow’ healing ways.
Some of the valuable insights we developed during the course of this project are,
a) Unless definite and urgent steps are taken, the pool of ‘traditional wisdom’ embodied in Ayurveda will be lost irretrievably.
b) Herbal Remedies provide effective and inexpensive cures for many common ailments
c) ‘Stress related’ diseases are probably as prevalent in rural areas as in cities and that Yoga is an effective treatment for these.
d) It is practicable to initiate a program using Ayurveda and Yoga to help maintain health and prevent illness in rural areas.
Cultural and biological diversity are among the greatest gifts that Nature has bestowed upon humanity, and a holistic mindset needs to be cultivated while doing everything possible to look after and preserve our valuable indigenous wisdom. We need to make Ayurveda a health system for the common man, as it has been for centuries in our country.
I am thankful to Mrs. Niramal Joshi- Ayurvedacharya par excellence, who has a deep impact on my life and work and Late Shri Vinayak Dixit from Kshetra Mahabaleshwar who showed me the holistic and intelligent ways of Nature and introduced many plants in deep forests to me; and finally Shri Parachure, personal physician to Jiddu Krishnamurti has been a guiding force in my life.