Exploring the Use of Plants in Traditional Indian Medicine

While we generally think of knowledge in a singular sense— limited to textbooks and scholarly learning— there isn’t just one specific type of knowledge, but rather several different types, as described in detail by Elissa Sloane Perry and Aja Couchois Duncan (Perry and Duncan). Of relevance is the concept of foundational knowledge, which includes indigenous and ancestral know-how (Perry and Duncan). The value of indigenous knowledge is apparent even in the medical realm as we continue to search for ways to address the many conditions that result from dysregulation in the human body.

One aspect of traditional healing in India is Ayurveda, which is built upon the notion of achieving energy balance in the body and has long since drawn on plant-based and other forms of natural medicine [1]. Documentation of medicinal plants is complicated by extensive variation in India, the sheer number of plants (of which there are tens of thousands), and the fact that medicines often consist of multiple plants [1]. One plant that may be familiar is turmeric, which, beyond its centrality to Indian cooking, is used for purposes including wound coverage [1]. In fact, when I was younger, my grandma cut herself while washing a mug in the sink and almost immediately packed turmeric powder from the kitchen over the wound.

Medicinal plants are also utilized by tribal groups in India, whom no doubt represent a treasure trove of untapped knowledge. In the Reang tribe, which inhabits the state of Tripura in the northeast part of India, medicinal plants are of great importance to human health [2]. Shil interviewed what they refer to as traditional practitioners and reported that 125 species of plants are used in treating 42 conditions [2]. Medicinal preparation involved six different practices, the most prevalent of which included the formation of a paste and decoctions, where the plants are mixed with water before being filtered [2]. Additionally, researchers reported that plants such as aegle marmelos, which is utilized in treating fever and body pain, and curcuma caesia, which is used to treat malarial fever, were characterized by high fidelity: a measurement of the agreement among individual practitioners regarding the role of a medicinal plant [2]. A second study focused on the tribal people inhabiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, where the majority are Nicobarese [3]. The Nicobarese, according to Chander et al. have an intimate relationship with plants for a number of purposes, including their medicinal value [3]. While examining six plants from Car Nicobar Island,Chander et al. found that D. andamanica and M. andamanica, both of which are native to the area, are characterized by some antimicrobial properties and that M. andamanica is notably antimalarial. The antimalarial properties may in fact be rooted in plant compounds such as alkaloids, which were noted in all plant extracts, flavonoids, and sterols [3].

Interestingly, the usage of medicinal plants is not limited to treating the human body. Rather, a study conducted by Usha et al. in the Shervaroy Hill mountain range (Eastern Ghats), which is inhabited by Malayalis, reported that plants are also utilized in addressing animal diseases such as mastitis (inflammation of the mammary gland) and arthritis [4]. In fact, the paper noted that aloe vera is a treatment strategy for mastitis [4].

An understanding of where this vast traditional knowledge comes from is as valuable as the knowledge itself as we seek to preserve it. In a study by Upadhya et al. focusing upon the Belgaum area in the northwest part of the state of Karnataka, it was reported that transmission of traditional knowledge is oral and is generally passed down in the Belgaum area in the northwest part of the state of Karnataka [5]. The study also noted specialization in conditions treated by healers [5], which rises against the perception of such medical knowledge as rudimentary compared to contemporary medicine. Moreover, the process of acquiring medicinal plants carries with it spiritual aspects such as prayer [5].

While factors such as urbanization have affected the preservation of traditional medical knowledge [2], human activities such as deforestation have also posed significant threats, especially as it relates to the availability of medicinal plants in the wild [5]. Though indigenous knowledge may not be characterized by the same experiment-driven methodology as generalized knowing (Sloane and Perry), there is not only cultural value in maintaining a vast body of incredibly diverse knowledge but also medical relevance. A deeper understanding of plants used in traditional medicine across the world may offer novel avenues through which to address disease.


1. Rupani, R., & Chavez, A. (2018). Medicinal plants with traditional use: Ethnobotany in the Indian subcontinent. Clinics in Dermatology, 36(3), 306–309. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clindermatol.2018.03.005

2. Shil, S., Dutta Choudhury, M., & Das, S. (2014). Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants used by the Reang tribe of Tripura state of India. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 152(1), 135–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2013.12.037

3. Chander, M. P., Pillai, C. R., Sunish, I. P., & Vijayachari, P. (2016). Antimicrobial and antimalarial properties of medicinal plants used by the indigenous tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India. Microbial Pathogenesis, 96, 85–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.micpath.2016.04.017

4. Usha, S., Rajasekaran, C., & Siva, R. (2015). Ethnoveterinary medicine of the Shervaroy Hills of Eastern Ghats, India as alternative medicine for animals. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 6(1), 118– 125. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcme.2014.11.013

5. Upadhya, V., Hegde, H. V., Bhat, S., & Kholkute, S. D. (2014). Noncodified traditional medicine practices from Belgaum Region in Southern India: Present scenario. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 10, 49. https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-10-49

6. Multiple Ways of Knowing: Expanding How We Know. (2017, April 27). Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/multiple-ways-knowing-expandingknow/

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