Tapping Gujarat Hill Station's Herbal Wealth

Saputara (Gujarat): Their knowledge is ages old and they are said to possess herbal remedies for problems like diabetes, asthma, infertility and joint pain. The Gujarat government is now set to tap the traditional knowledge of tribal healers of this hill station to promote health tourism.

In Saputara, known as the 'abode of serpents', in Gujarat's Dang district, the traditional healers are mainly from the Bhil tribe. They are known far and wide for their effective snake bite cures. The picturesque hill station is also home to a large array of medicinal herbs.

"Around 520 out of the 1,100 medicinal herbs listed in the pharmacopia of AYUSH (the Indian government's traditional medicine department) are found in Saputara," according to S.K. Nanda, the district in charge officer who has spent around three decades in the area.

Covered with a canopy of mist, the hill station, located in the Sahyadri hills, boasts of many essential herbs used in Ayurveda concoctions.

"Among the major listed herbs found here are amla, harde, bherda, satavari, aswagandha, sarpagandha and tubers and roots which are crucial for ailments of chronic nature," Nanda told IANS.

Many people from far off come to the traditional healers, known as Bhagats, for relief, said Nanda. "The knowledge of the Bhagats is being documented," Nanda said, adding that the state government was planning to tap the region's health tourism potential.

He said the government is providing a platform to traditional healers by giving them the opportunity to examine patients at state-run centres and also prescribe herbal drugs. "They are also being encouraged to grow the rare medicinal herbs that are found deep in the jungle. All this would help in conservation and also popularising the traditional, cheap and easy drug delivery that has no repercussions on the health of patients," Nanda said.

According to Nanda, in 1981 when he was the district development officer of Dang, he had started a pharmacy where the medicinal herbs found locally would be collected and processed into formulations. "It is a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice)-compliant factory that is helping the local tribals earn money for collecting the herbs and also earn wages for employment in the factory. The Bhagats are also able to prescribe the herbal formulations for simple ailments," he said.

Around 2,000 families of Saputara stand to benefit if the region is made into a health tourism hub, he said. "They would benefit from cultivation of the herbs and also be roped into production, marketing and selling at local markets," he said.

Nanda said that many tourists, both domestic and overseas, visit the traditional healers and get cured. "We have started keeping records," he said, adding that Wall Street Journal had written an article in 2006 on the traditional cures.

The Bhagats also have cures for "injury mitigation through non-invasive methods" for kidney stones, lactation problems for mothers, and also for epilepsy, infertility, thyroid and cholesterol.

According to Dayabhai Patel, a driver with the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Ltd, the prized safed muesli herb, widely used as an herbal medicine to boost male sexual vitality, is found in the mountains of Saputara. "The muesli herb grows during the monsoon on the hills. The tribals pick it and sell it for more than Rs.1, 200 a kg," he said.

There is another herb that the tribals use to make instant curd. "Just a few drops of the plant juice are enough to turn a glass of milk into sweet tasting curd," Patel told IANS.

Deepak Acharya, director of Abhumka Herbal Pvt Ltd, who has worked among the tribal healers and documented their knowledge, said: "The Saputara forest is home to many rare and important medicinal plants such as Kalihari, Beejasar, Keokand, Hariyakand, Mathrukand and Jaljamni. Kalihari is widely used by local healers in gynecological problems and Beejasar for blood related problems.
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