The indigenous tribes of the state of Chhattisgarh in central India have had their share of natural challenges when they lived largely self-sufficient lives, relying on forests for most of their needs. But they look at that period as one of peace and prosperity compared to the current set of man-made difficulties. These troubles first sprung up when the State and private companies were charmed by the rich mineral reserve in the area and started development projects like roads, railways and mines on a war footing. These interested parties then started having violent confrontations with Maoists, the rebel guerrillas in the forests whose stated aim is to fight the violent exploitation and forced displacement of tribals by the government and the corporations. In all these, the tribes often get slotted as victims who need saving or Palaeolithic forest dwellers in need of civilizing. This piece recalls the knowledge and the respect for ecology that has enabled the Indigenous Peoples of Chhattisgarh to practice medicine from a time long before there were health centres to the present day, when people still place immense faith in their homegrown systems.
The bone doctor
In Khamdongdi village situated in Kanker district, one can find the house of the vaidyaraj, a man venerably known by his patients as the bone-setting doctor. His clientele includes not just villagers but officials and city dwellers from the state capital Raipur and beyond. Sundays are the busiest time for the vaidyaraj. His clinic-house, I am informed, is full of patients from morning till midnight. But even on a weekday, when I am visiting, there is news that a patient from Raipur is on his way.
Eighty-five-year old Sundar Singh Kavde, the village’s own orthopedic, stopped his practice after his son died, and patients had slowly started moving to other doctors. The son is spoken of as a legend. Bone surgeons from hospitals were said to visit him when he was alive, and to ask their own patients to come here if the case was complicated. I am shown a chart hung on the wall, naming the various bones in the human body. “The doctor would use this chart to explain to the doctors. The only difficulty came in fixing an injury to the spine, because you cannot bandage it properly, and the ointment doesn’t seep into the wound as well.” So how many people ended up getting cured? “The people who complained of not having recovered did not have restraint, and would have alcohol though they had been asked to abstain.” Within the campus of the house and the clinic, there is a half-constructed structure. The current doctor’s son had started building it so the patients and their relatives could stay there.
But one day Sundar Singh, the father, had a dream in which his ancestors advised him to resume his practice–and he did. In the hut that is his clinic, there are some roots and leaves from the jungle. He grinds the roots using a mortar and a pestle. With the advent of a mixer, he started putting the ground medicines into it so it could turn out as fine paste. A makeshift switchboard for the electric grinder is tied to one of the wooden poles that holds the thatched roof in place. A partition creates another room, which has an earthen choolha, so if a patient or their family needs to stay overnight they can cook their food.
After he has bandaged the patient’s leg, Sundar Singh comes to this other room and sits on a plastic chair, “My father, grandfather, everyone did this work. It is in our DNA. Earlier we were treating animals more frequently. Now with motors on the road, it’s people.” He gets herbs and roots from the mountains. I had heard that at some places, despite the Forest Rights Act protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples over forest produce, forest officials had been preventing villagers from accessing them. Singh hasn’t faced that problem so far: “People in the government come here to get treated. If they stop me, who will cure them?” Precious medicines do get lost, Singh adds, when there are forest fires due to recklessness. Local reporter Tameshwar Sinha speaks with awe of a deputy forest ranger, quite an exception compared to corrupt government officials, according to Sinha, who had got burnt himself while trying to quell a forest fire.
Doctor Sundar Singh also reads books on Ayurveda to aid his learning. “At times our gods enter our dreams and guide us when we are not treating a problem in the required way.” He also gets some medicinal leaves, etc., from the market. “First we used to quickly get what we were looking for in the forests. Now we have to find them.” Since construction and militarization on a big scale started in the state, it has lost a lot of its forest cover.
What about the fee? “We never ask for money. What people are required to get are some gauze (earlier leaves and bark were used) and some oil that we recommend. Besides that, sometimes people come with an offering, say, a coconut. Even if they don’t have anything it’s fine.”
The vaidya nods when I ask if he ever has to visit a doctor. “Yes, we also get fever, typhoid . . . Then we have to go. But because they know me, often they come here and see me. But this one time I did not feel better even after injections. So I just went into the forest and got the medicinal plants I needed and they worked.”
When local doctors like Singh go to the forest, they take what they need for the time being, saving the rest for others and for the generations to come. They agree that people, including some of their own, have now been lured to sell these resources for greed, depleting what is there without replenishing it.
I ask Brijesh Sahu, the patient, why he came to the village all the way from the city of Raipur. He says, “Hospitals are expensive and there are no guarantees. Here one is almost completely sure of results if they also eat, drink and abstain as prescribed by the doctor.”
The vaidyaraj shrugs, “Sure, if someone has extra money, like thirty-forty thousand rupees, they can go for an operation. Here we have had some people come here even after they had surgeries but still could not recover completely.”
A farmer and a healer
The second visit I make is to Mane Singh Kavde’s farm in Kanker’s Bewarti village, another herbal doctor. Before we meet him, we are asked to wait outside a closed poultry shop. A while later we head to his farm, which has vegetables, fruits and trees growing. We find Kavde in the greenhouse and start talking to him but the heat pushes us out where we spread a gunny sack on the ground and begin the conversation.
Unravelling the story of how he became the accidental doctor, Kavde says that while DNA is definitely responsible for the transfer of medicinal knowledge within the family, it usually skips a generation. But in any case, he says, this way each village ends up having its own surgeon. “Apart from that knowledge and what is communicated by my ancestors in dreams, I started doing my own research. Our body is a part of nature and therefore when we take in something natural the body readily accepts it. Illness is nothing but a lack of natural elements.”
He talks of disease caused by eating what we like, not what we need. “We realize the extent of the damage only after it is done. Our resistance is going down and the size of the capsules we swallow is growing. Our ancestors ate naturally grown greens. But our government is interested in metals, not food.” He is referring to the growing number of mining sites in the state. He calls vikas, or development, a synonym of materialism, condemning the sort of food “development” that is sold to buyers, “The kind of food we are putting into our body these days is like putting iron into a grinder that is made to crush pulses.”
Kavde was a trader running a profitable business, until he fell sick and had to find and prepare his own medicines for his recovery. “In modern medicine, they give you fifty medicines for one disease. Nature is such that one thing here can treat fifty ills.” The medicines he gives are supposed to do a speedy job of killing the virus, while the discomfort caused by the malady takes a few days to end.
To introduce us to some of the medicinal properties of the vegetation growing around him, he first offers us some tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon Roxb.) fruits. He explains that the tendu are supposed to boost immunity for the next six months. He then plucks a few leaves off the garud tree– named after the mythological bird—which is supposed to be an antidote to snakebites. “But the patient has to be brought within an hour. It becomes a challenge if the heart shuts down.” Talking of the tree’s potency, he states that if a snake rests under the tree for too long, it would die. Around another tree is a creeper called giloy, or Tinospora cardifalia (Wild.), which is used for tying the bandage in case of a bone injury. Mane Singh distinguishes trees by their sex and uses their products accordingly. “If a tree has a thick bark, it is male. Women’s hearts are full of kindness, and so the bark of female trees would be soft, and can be chewed.”
With government subsidies and his own knowledge and hard work, Kavde’s farming practice has been flourishing. It did receive a slight setback, though, at a time when he was inundated with requests for appointments from patients. He recalls an obese, ill young man who was too sick to walk. “I prayed to my ancestral pen (god) powers and gave him twenty milliliters of a plant juice. By the time his family took out a stretcher to take him back after the treatment, he was fit enough to walk.” Others sitting around, my young guides in the village, discuss the case of the two-year-old who had holes in her heart, and was getting better with Kavde’s treatment. “But then,” Kavde recollects regretfully, “the family discovered that I knew about their same gotra (clan) marriage, and were embarrassed to visit me any more, as such marriages are against the rules of our community. It was a pity that feeling uncomfortable about it they stopped the child’s treatment.”
The biggest challenge for the “natural” doctor came when he had his first HIV patient. The nurse who came to see him about it had to get over her sense of shame, because of societal stigma around the affliction, before she could tell the vaidya that she had been diagnosed as HIV positive. It was Kavde’s first case and he did not know much about it. The woman kept asking him if she would get well. “I prayed for guidance and the medicines I was able to give her transformed her. Her pale face looked radiant on the next visit.”
With his popularity growing, Kavde has had to allot fixed dates and times for his practice, which he sees as knowledge sharing and not a commercial enterprise. Then he was able to have time once again to devote to his crops. But as a farmer some of his concerns continue. “Farmers are forced to sell some crops to traders at rates even lower than the minimum support price. Subsidies are not there for everything. It was better earlier when we could barter goods amongst ourselves. Now it is more difficult to afford because to buy something our neighbor is producing we have to approach the trader and pay him a higher rate. That’s why the development song rings hollow. Let the delegates visiting from other countries come to the villages, not the big cities, to see the ground realities. We were more developed earlier because there was more prosperity amongst people. Now the only thing actually getting developed is capitalism.”
Both doctors, Sundar Singh and Mane Singh, adhere to the pledge which says a doctor’s first duty is to treat and heal the patients. Today hospitals in bigger cities and the fraudulent work done by quacks have also made sections of the population suspicious about indigenous medicines. Yet when this knowledge is appropriated, patented and packaged by pharmaceutical companies and sold at high prices, the public puts its trust in the drugs. While the healers I met were concerned about this development as it limits access and corrupts the natural composition of the herbs, personally they have no urge to be competitive because healing is not a commercial enterprise for them. “Here,” Mane Singh says, “we share our knowledge with the community. It has been transferred to us from our elders to benefit people, not for profit making.” Perhaps this is why youth groups like KBKS, Koya Bhoomkal Kranti Sena, receive higher education as well as local trainings, and attend inter-state tribal meets, to educate themselves and fellow tribals about their rights, so that they both preserve their own traditions and resist vested interest groups from taking advantage of their knowledge and resources.