Indigenous knowledge and science of nature

by Pavel Partha | Published: 00:00, Jun 11,2020


Medicinal vegetables. — Pavel Partha

THE novel coronavirus situation once again has brought to light the importance of indigenous knowledge and the spirit of nature though this knowledge and strength still remains ‘unrecognised’. There have been several reasons for this non-recognition of indigenous knowledge and the science of nature. Perhaps the historical conflict between academic knowledge and that of indigenous knowledge is the main issue of this, or maybe the issue of structural social discrimination has become more prominent. However, people in rural areas have practised indigenous knowledge-based approaches or treatment to cure and protect themselves from different diseases since time immemorial. They have developed different practices and knowledge to protect or to cure themselves from past pandemic situations such as cholera, kala azar, plague and even from chicken pox.

Historically, some ethnic societies use rural subaltern practice of lockdown, isolation, quarantine and symptom-based treatment to tackle any new disease or even pandemic threats. It is to mention that these methods have been the discovery of indigenous knowledge during pandemics or any difficult situation. People in ancient times developed these practices through a collective approach and till today some societies and people in the world practise this knowledge. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, we also follow the stated steps such as lockdown, quarantine, isolation and symptom-based treatment globally. But still the present pandemic situation does not recognise or articulate the local traditional practices related to combating crisis in mainstream policies.


Local knowledge to combat diseases

THERE has been accusation that people in Bangladesh do not maintain lockdown protocols and follow the quarantine system. But the truth is that some ethnic communities have been maintained lockdown and followed the system of quarantine in their traditional way since March 2020. The words ‘lockdown’ and ‘quarantine’, which have been widely disseminated during this pandemic season, are known to such societies in their own way. They have been following such a system that protect them from any new disease or pandemic situation. However, indigenous knowledge should be considered a collective work to combat any pandemic and critical situation. Symptom-based treatment is the main formula of indigenous knowledge. The Chakma the Talik, the Marma Baidya, the Mandi Khamal, Manipuri Meiba-Meipa and even the rural kaviraji (traditional healing system) emphasised symptom-based treatment. While giving treatment, indigenous knowledge always considers illness, history of illness, multiple relations in society and the surrounding ecosystem and local genetic resources.

The indigenous knowledge-based treatment has been neglected many times after being dubbed as only ‘home-made herbal remedies’; yet it has been the indigenous knowledge which provided the human race with the way to live as well as medicines for thousands of years. Thus, it has been seen that during this pandemic, institutional physicians, scientists and media people advise people to drink and gargle with warm water, take Vitamin C, consume ginger, garlic, turmeric, margosa, clove, cinnamon, black gram, etc and increase protein intake to strengthen the immunity against the attack of the novel coronavirus. All these treatment methods have been the invention of indigenous knowledge and it has been proved that the experience and the application of indigenous knowledge has paved the way again for people across the world to protect themselves from the present pandemic situation both physically and mentally. So, the question is coming up again as to why are we not recognising the strength and necessity of indigenous wisdom and the science of nature in mainstream policies?


Indigenous lockdown

ETHNIC communities have been able to adopt lockdown, isolation or quarantine because they have been practising this customary system since time immemorial. The Mro community in Banderban once used to isolate their villages to get rid of contagious diseases and the ritual that they practised during that time was called Ang-Dub and Pwua-bhang. When a contagious disease arrived, they prepared to isolate their village from others. During that situation, they collected some small special stones from the hilly streams early in the morning. They used to draw charm words to cast away the disease on the small stones. They tied a tiny thread to fence around the whole village area. All entrances to the village remained closed during that time. The Mro people practise the Pwua-bhang ritual put their village in lockdown during this novel coronavirus outbreak. The Pangkhua people in Rangamati and Banderban practised some rituals to get rid of any pandemic disease. They too collected small stones from hilly streams and sketched charm words on them.

The Pangkhua called this ritual Lungteronget-yn-towale-rit. After performing the rituals they put their village, which is called Khuwa Khar in their language, in lockdown. No outsider can enter the village and the people inside the village also have to ensure that they have made themselves safe before entering their houses. This is called Mei Rakan in the Pangkhua language. The name for the lockdown ritual in the Mandi (Garo) language is Denmarangaa; in the Lyngyam language, this is called Khang Chunang; in the Chakma language it is Adam Bon Garana while in the Khasi language, it is called Khang Kerdep chnong. On the other hand, the Koch and the Berman put their villages in lockdown through Geram Puja, and the Tripuras do it through Kerr Puja. The concepts of lockdown and quarantine have also been found in ayurveda and samhita. This proves that these concepts used to stop the spread of any pandemic disease are not new ideas that are provided by mainstream agencies such as the World Health Organisation. It is rather the indigenous knowledge-based practice which is now institutionally known as ‘lockdown’ to us all.


Known medicine and healer

THE corporate-driven medical system could hardly combat the disease. Food habit, health instructions, the way of life and even the gene diversity of humans have their impact on combating the disease. Countries such as Mongolia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Taiwan, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar have also dealt with the novel coronavirus. This virus has not spread widely in the north-eastern states of India and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area of Bangladesh. We can learn from Sri Lanka too regarding how the country controls the spread of the virus. The food culture and health instructions of these countries are closely related to the natural way. The natural science plays a vital role in strengthening the immunity system of humans. Besides, indigenous health instruction focuses on the social and cultural relationship of humans and that of medicine. We have no clear idea regarding the ingredients of corporate medicines.

On the other hand, the experienced traditional healers are known to local people and they know the whole history of local people. Thus, in the case of symptom-based treatments, the healers can analyse the illness history and other aspects of the patients. Experienced traditional healers of some such communities mention that they know of medicines and treatment techniques to cure patients who have similar symptoms like a novel coronavirus patient. Therefore, mainstream policies can incorporate the experiences of indigenous knowledge-based treatment in order to combat the current crisis. Ayurveda, homoeopathy, yunani and traditional kaviraji should also be on the list. This kind of pluralistic health approach of the state could perhaps help to combat the novel coronavirus crisis.


The philosophy of ‘disease’

ETHNIC communities have the belief that illness appears because humans injure the nature. Droughts and floods make their existence known in the annual rings of plants and trees and in a similar way, illness remains in the flesh or memory of humans. Indigenous communities pray for the well-being of all life forms on earth during their rituals. Degrading nature and killing all the wild beasts will impact humans lives and livelihoods. Such communities warned the world but no one heeded. So, now we need to clarify the philosophy of ‘disease’ keeping both human beings and other life forms on the planet in discussion.


Progress, not consumption

THE Santals in Dinajpur in their annual Baha festival in March 2020 received the Sal (Shorea rubasta) flower after praying together to get rid of the novel coronavirus crisis for all living being. This means that before taking or receiving any element of nature, one has to bow in front of it and pray. This is how the indigenous rituals have been created. However, in today’s neo-liberal corporate world, hardly anyone maintains these things. All kinds of vegetables and fruit are now available on the market throughout the year. As a result, it is hard to keep track of the natural cycle of seasons. But the spirit of indigenous life is not consumption; it is protection for the progress of nature. This connects one life with another and, thus, develops an interdependent relationship. Therefore, the traditional conservation wisdom of indigenous knowledge and natural science could protect us from the cruel attack of a pandemic such as the present one if we abandon our consumption habits and bow to nature for its progress.


Pavel Partha is a researcher on ecology and biodiversity conservation. The article is translated by Silvanus Lamin.

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