Healing with herbs & chants

Jaintias have deep knowledge of traditional healthcare & there’s a need to preserve it

By Omarlin Kyndiah

Indigenous knowledge has no single definition; however, it may be defined as knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society that provides the infrastructure for agriculture, healthcare, food preparation, environmental conservation and other life processes at the local level. It is part of the identity of indigenous tribes. It has been regarded as an important commodity in global health development.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its recommendations on Health for All Declaration (1978) highlighted the need to include local people, their traditions and practices in primary healthcare.
WHO defines traditional medicine as ‘the health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant, animal and mineral-based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises, applied singularly or in combination to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses or maintain well-being’.
Herbal medicine in traditional medical practice is an important resource that can be mobilised for the attainment of the common goal of health for all. These herbal medicines have contributed significantly to man’s struggle against diseases. In recent years, interest in the use of herbal medicines has increased. Herbal medicines are used in most countries within the state healthcare system or in communities and private practices outside the state system.
Traditional knowledge is unique to a given culture or society and the Jaintias who adhere to the traditional belief is no exception to this knowledge, particularly in healthcare.
The Jaintias have a rich variety of traditional healing system. One common practice is known as Prem. For instance, Prem ya ka Tiar is where an elderly with extraordinary folk knowledge uses ginger and chants a spiritual song or mantra. The chanting goes like this, “Ko Syiem Synchar Biskorom Blai, ko jaid ko Thakur ko chanbnein ko chankhyndaw, lurmiet luchai soodong i pyrthai…” This practice is used to cure intestinal gas, belching, bloating and flatulence. There are different types of Prem for different ailments.
Back in the old days, when one would travel by train outside the state, parents would gave Syin Prem to be used during our journey for healing different ailments like diarrhoea, fever, toothache etc.
Let me narrate a story. When I was a child, I would often have ringworm all over my neck and the infection worsened during winter. No matter how frequently I visited a dermatologist and applied the prescribed antifungal cream, there was no sign of cure.
In the winter of 1986, my maternal uncle, Khroo Kyndiah, took me to my home town Jowai where we went to a traditional healer by the name Waheh Kento Sumer, who is no more. Early in the morning, he took us to the paddy field at Dulong Poh Hali, Jowai. Here, he picked from the soil a tiny red insect and with chanting he rubbed the insect all around my neck. I was advised to plaster my neck with a cloth for a week. After a week, the rashes which had become dry just fell off my neck and since then I never had the problem.
Then in our hills we often hear of a tree called Deiñ Kaiñ — a type of tree that causes skin allergy. If one happens to be at the proximity of the tree, one will experience rashes all over the body. We were warned by our elders not to even point a finger at the tree because it would cause rash or skin allergy. My friend’s father, late Rev. PL Wann, while at Sutnga, was supposedly under the influence of the Deiñ Kaiñ while strolling around. In a few minutes, he experienced unbearable rashes and his right arm was swollen. When he reached Shillong, luckily one student hailing from Kyndong Tuber (6 km from 8th Mile in Jaintia Hills) came to heal him. He pressed the palm with his finger nails. Within a week the swelling and the rashes disappeared.
Snakebite is a major public health problem in many developing countries. Farmers are particularly vulnerable to snakes. There are more than 3,000 known species of snakes of which around 300 are poisonous. In India, out of 216 species, approximately 53 are poisonous. Traditional healers of snakebite are a vanishing breed. In Jowai, Waheh Tingboi Thma of Loomkyrwiang is a famous healer who has saved many lives over the years. Unlike traditional healing methods, such as local incision, herb ingestion, application of snake stones and tattooing, Thma’s healing processes involve some rites and rituals.
Since man first learned to make fire 1.7-2 million years ago, burns and scalds have been one of the most common injuries. Folk medicine is their only remedy. A remedy for burn wound healing is practised till date by the Pnar. One of the prominent traditional healers of burn injuries and boils was Litis Kyndiah.
The process of healing is called Slu iñ diñ, where the healer would use mustard oil and chant on it, which will be used as an ointment and applied on the burn wound. In Shillong, this practice is still in operation by Waheh Duhai Rangad and Ka Durka Passah, both members of Sein Raij Niamtre Shillong. This traditional healing is a complex issue involving rituals and is prevalent among members of the Niamtre community.
However, the advent of western culture has had a great impact on the traditional healing system. Today, the survival of indigenous/traditional knowledge is at stake because of rapidly changing natural environments and fast-pacing economic, political and cultural changes on a global scale. Traditional knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation, often in oral form or by way of examples, whereas written sources may not exist at all or only in local languages. Thus, it is imperative to preserve the knowledge held by our forefathers. It is in this context that traditional knowledge should be afforded effective protection.
Throughout the world, indigenous people and local communities have developed a wealth of traditional knowledge which they wish to protect and promote. Yet, few have used the intellectual property system to do so. Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (2007) is an important reference in this regard: “Indigenous people have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their science, technologies and culture, including human and genetics resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of properties of flora and fauna, oral traditions, literature, designs, sports, and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expression. It’s further declared that, “In conjunction with the indigenous people, states shall take effective measures to recognise and protect the exercise of their rights.”
In recognition of the value and preservation and promotion for traditional knowledge system, Sein Raij Niamtre Shillong had instituted the Jaintia Indigenous Knowledge Centre (A Centre of Herbal Health Care & Other Traditional Knowledge and Spiritual Healing), which was inaugurated in 2019 on the occasion of its 56th year anniversary.
The Centre has been proposed with the objective to promote, preserve and document the indigenous and traditional knowledge, to meet the primary healthcare requirement of the communities and promote other indigenous system of health knowledge and spiritual healing practices.
An African proverb says, “When an elder dies, a library burns down.” This clearly sums up the importance of traditional knowledge preservation and cultural continuity.

(The author is the general secretary, Sein Raij Niamtre Shillong)

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