The Himalayas are not just the loftiest and longest mountain range in the world; they are a treasure of medicinal plants. The ranges of the Himalayan system are grouped into two major divisions, the Cis-Himalayan and the Trans-Himalayan. The Cis-Himalayan ranges lie south of the Great Himalayan ranges. The Trans-Himalayan ranges lie to the north of the Great Himalayas. In the Western Himalaya, drastic climatic conditions have necessitated the use of indigenous traditional medical system. In Kashmir there has been a good impact of Unani system of traditional medicine. Lawrence (1967), a British settlement commissioner, in his book on the valley of Kashmir wrote, “When I have made inquiries as to various herbs which I have seen in the valley and on hill sides, I am always told that they are hot and good for cold humours, cold and good for hot humours, dry and beneficial to damp humours, damp and beneficial to dry humours.” He listed the herbs used by hakims in indigenous medicine of Kashmir.
Traditional medicine (TM), also known as complementary and alternative medicine in developed countries, is widely used and there is growing interest in it among healthcare systems all over the world. About 80% of the world’s population, particularly in developing regions, relies on TM practices to meet their healthcare needs. TM is very popular and attracts much attention from a large spectrum of health system stakeholders, not only for its accessibility and affordability for poor people, but also because of the risk of adverse effects of chemical drugs in allopathic medicine. In recognition of its importance and as a response to skepticism and disbelief from some stakeholders, in 2002 the World Health Organisation defined a strategy to address issues of policy, safety, efficacy, quality, access, and rational use of TM.
TM includes medication therapies and non-medication therapies. Whereas the latter are carried out primarily without the use of medication, the first involve the use of herbal medicines, animal parts and minerals. Among the medication therapies, herbal medicine is encountered worldwide, and its use is very ancient. Human use of plants as medicines was dated to at least the Middle Paleolithic age some 60,000 years ago. The Himalayan region in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and India is reputed to be a rich storehouse and hotspot of valuable medicine plant species.
Medicinal plants & Traditional Knowledge in Kashmir Valley
In early historic days, man had cured most of the diseases by taking some particular herbs in crude forms. All the great civilisations of the world show evidence of man’s familiarity with medicinal plants, as early as seven-thousand years ago. Works of many Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras give evidence to prove that the Greeks were no less advanced in this field. From the ancient times, the study of drugs and drug-plants has shown enormous progress, and now study of drugs has become a branch of medicine.
Most medicinal plants are gathered by hand and dried. In dried state they are called crude drugs. Air drying is done for some drugs before being transported to storage centres. Almost all drugs require treatment before they are marketed, such as shifting, reconditioning, grinding and blending, etc.
Medicinal plants have various effects on human body. We have pain soothers which may by hypnotics like chloral, anesthetics like chloroform, or narcotics like cocaine. Drugs which allay fever are called antipyretics, those which prevent infection are called antibiotics, those used in cut or torn wounds and to check bleeding are called astringents.
Today, not only the medicinal plants but also their associated traditional knowledge is threatened due to a range of both natural and anthropogenic factors. In this backdrop, urgent ethnobotanical investigations and subsequent conservation measures are required to save these resources from further loss.
Some medicinal plants commonly found in Jammu & Kashmir are as follows:
1. Berbevus arista: Its roots and bark contain alkaloids which are employed as a bitter tonic, alternative, stomachic and curative for piles. It occurs in temperate Himalayas and Nilgiris.
2. Discoriadeltoides: This is an extensive climber distributed in North-Western Himalayas from Kashmir and Punjab eastward to Nepal. The tubers yield diesgenin used in the synthesis of sex hormones and a cortisone used extensively in rheumatism and Ellagic conditions.
3. Picrorhizakurroa: A herb with a perennial root stock common in Alpine Himalayas from Kashmir to Sikkim. Root constitutes the drug, which is used as a stomachic tonic.
4. Podophyllumemodi: Small herb aqueous plant with a perennial rhizome, found in temperate Himalayas especially in H.P., U.P. and Kashmir. It is found to be effective in skin diseases and has recently attracted attention for use in certain forms of cancer.
5. RauwolfiaSerpentina: Plant grows in sub-Himalayan tract, Western Ghats and various others parts of the country. The plant has attracted attention due to its use in reducing blood pressure and also its sedative properties. It is also used in cases of insanity. Demand for roots from foreign countries is much more than the available supply from Indian forests.
6. Sanssurianlappa (Kuth): A perennial herb, its roots are commonly known as Kuth. Plant is confined to Kashmir and roots are collected in Sept – October, cut into pieces of 7.5 -10 cm and artificially dried in forests and then transported to stores in Baramullah. Kuth is described as an aromatic and stimulant and is said to be useful in cough, asthma and fever and for keeping insects out of clothes.
7. VallerineWalliche: A herb found in temperate Himalayas from Kashmir to Bhutan. Root contains active principles. It acts as a stimulant and antispasmodic and its use is indicated in nervous and hysterical symptoms.
8. Ephedrexgerandiana: It is a small xenophytic plant found in dry places and on rocks in the Himalayas. The alkaloid ephedrine possesses important properties in the treatment of Bronchial diseases.
9. Asafoetida: It is a resinous gum of a tall perennial herb, with robust carrot-shaped roots. It is grown in Iran & Afghanistan. The other species, known botanically as Ferula northex, grows abundantly in Kashmir and Western Tibet. It forms a good substitute for asafoetida. The herb is beneficial in the treatment of impotency and is an effective remedy for hysteria.
11. Rough Chaff (Achyranthesaspera): Its Indian name is Chirchita. It is an erect and stiff annual herb which grows densely up to 50 cm in length. The herbs occur in temperate and subtropical Himalayas from Kishtwar to Sikkim and Khasi hills at 1200 to 1820 metres, as well as in Bihar, Konkan, Nilgiris and Travancore hills. It is used to treat asthma, spleen enlargement, cholera, and skin problems. The ash of the herb contains a high proportion of potash and is an antacid.
12. Sage (Salvia officinalis): Sage is an evergreen woody-stemmed shrub which grows up to 60 cm high. In India, its cultivation in gardens has been tried in Jammu for its essential oil. The fresh leaves provide appreciable amounts of Vitamin A and C. It is considered very useful in cases of failing memory. The herb acts on the cortex of the brain thereby eliminating mental exhaustion and improving concentration. Tea prepared from sage leaves is beneficial in coping with stress. The herb is useful in preventing grey hair if blended in hair tonics.
Then there are plants like Danival (Coriandrumsativum), Hand (Taraxacumofficinale), Soi (Urticadioca), Banwangun (Podophyllumhexandrum), Aal (Viscum album) and meth (Trigonella- foenumgraecum) which have medicinal benefits in treating hair fall, common-cold chest infection, rheumatism, skin-diseases gastric problems, laxative, fractures and back pain, respectively.
Traditional uses of medicinal plants against different ailments have a significant role in meeting the primary healthcare needs of the local people, especially rural communities. The information on traditional uses of plants could serve as a useful source for pharmacologists, phytochemists, botanists and to those interested in the development of alternative therapies.
The writer is studying Law at Central University of Kashmir. [email protected]