Nepalis have a deep faith in herbs, and home remedy constitutes an essential part of our folk health tradition. Ichchha, the wish, a poem by Bal Krishna Sama, shows the depth of our faith in what we call jadi-buti. One of the touching lines of the poem is, “I wish the herbs of Nepal Himalaya be in my mouth, while I fall in bed counting my last days.” Himalayan herbs often get special mention while speaking of Nepal's glorious traditions. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli also did not miss to remember the Himalayan herbs and the richness of Nepal’s herbal tradition in his exclusive interview with Zee News. The PM has reiterated the importance of herbs and home remedies, pointing to the second wave of the pandemic. His recent suggestion of rinsing with salt water, gargling with the decoction of guava leaves, steaming, drinking turmeric water, and drinking herbal tea is the most common home remedy for the common cold and flu and may help manage the symptoms of COVID-19. The herb-based folk health tradition was the main reason behind his claim that Nepalis have higher immunity power than others. In addition to home remedies, we also have our family health tradition. It is customary to give jwanoko jhol, the soup of thyme seed, to the pregnant woman and lito, traditional baby food, to babies. Community Understanding Communities have their own understanding of what to eat and what not to eat based on the kind and condition of the illnesses. Many of the food practices are associated with seasons and festive occasions. Such understanding may help keep people healthy. Family plays an important role in maintaining the health of the family members, in seeking appropriate care in case of illness, and in providing home-based care and support to the patients before, during and even after consulting medical practitioners. When the foundation is firm, the whole building stands strong and strengthening family health traditions and home remedies can significantly contribute to good health. Many of the minor ailments can be cured easily by home remedies. Home remedy serves as an option when there is no choice. The importance and use of herbs increased when COVID-19 hit the nation. At the beginning of the epidemic, people used various herbs relying on their folk knowledge, often seeking advice from knowledgeable persons or traditional healers. The notice of the Department of Ayurveda and Alternative Medicine affirmed that the herbs such as gurjo (Tinospora cordifolia), asuro (Justicia Adhatoda), holy basil, and turmeric can help boost the immune system. Even though herbs and home remedies continue as our folk health tradition, herbal literacy is fast decreasing. Last time while I was in the field, a young student said, “Disease cannot be cured by eating jhar-paat (weeds)”. His statement has truth, herbs work, not weeds! Unrecognized herbs are something like weeds. Those who do not recognize snakes have to consider all types of snakes deadly, just like those who do not identify wild mushrooms have to consider all wild mushrooms as dangerous. Eating wild mushrooms without recognizing the non-poisonous ones can be fatal. Many young people cannot distinguish between edible and non-edible wild mushrooms like Babari and Tulsi, Bakaino and Neem and Maobadi Jhar and Titepati. Like a Nepali proverb, jaannelai srikhanda najaannelai knupako bid, a growing number of young people who cannot recognize the herbs of day-to-day use are now in a situation to treat jadi-buti as jhar-paat. While the Prime Minister emphasizes herbs and home remedies, the folk health knowledge and home-based traditions are eroding. If his love of herbs and home remedies is true, then what is stopping him from running a herbal literacy campaign? Every household could be provided with seeds and saplings of herbs that have proven efficacy in certain conditions. Those who did not have enough land could be supported to plant such herbs in their flowerpots and flying nursery. The most useful herbs could be given a space in home gardens, schools, temples, public spaces and parks. School premises could be used to plant herbs and provide practical herbal education to the students. The premises of Ayurveda hospitals could be developed as herbal gardens and used as a site to exchange and enhance local herbal knowledge. We have a large number of traditional healers who do not have formal education in medicine but are well experienced in healing practices. Known as Dhami-Jhankri, Guruva, Lama, Amchi, and Vaidya, Janne-Manchhe in the village, these healers use locally available herbs. These healers have been providing healthcare services to the villagers as community health volunteers, without any support from the state. The medicinal herbs they use and the therapeutic procedure they follow needs research attention. An institute of folk medicine can be established to document, research and validate traditional healing practices, and build traditional healers' capacities. Safeguarding and promotion of folk health tradition are of vital importance as it serves as health security to the poor and underserved populations. In the absence of proper communication, at the beginning of the pandemic, people used various types of herbs indiscriminately. It was also pointed out that the indiscriminate use of herbs could do more harm than good, referring to the news of side effects from overconsumption of gurjo. One of the reasons for the confusion over types and quantity/doses of herbs was the lack of timely communication from the Department of Ayurveda. If the traditional healers with sound herbal knowledge could be selected, trained and mobilized as grassroots level staff or as health volunteers like those of Female Community Health Volunteers, the Department of Ayurveda could have been better connected and communicated with the communities. The traditional healers could have contributed to the timely flow of accurate information. They could have helped enhance herbal literacy and increase herbal awareness at the local level. This would have also provided an opportunity to exchange knowledge between the Department and the traditional healers. Traditional medicine plays an important role in health maintenance, prevention, health promotion and healthy lifestyles. Unfortunately, traditional medicine gets emphasis in occasional speeches and not in programmatic actions. Traditional medicine is said to be an integral part of the health system, but in practice, these traditions are deprived of the state's support. Though the constitution of Nepal calls for the protection and promotion of traditional medicine such as Ayurveda, naturopathy and homoeopathy, so far, no such laudable efforts have been made to this end. The world today has recognized the great potential of traditional medicine for healthy living. Here in Nepal, we have not yet given importance to our traditional medicine and folk health traditions.
(An independent researcher, Subedi holds a Doctorate Degree from the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)