Medicinal Plants in Northeast India

“Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine shall be thy food.” Hippocrates

Medicinal plants are resources of traditional medicines and many of the modern medicines are produced indirectly from plants. They have also played an essential role in the development of human culture. Since the dawn of history, man has relied so much on medicinal plants for health and food needs. There were traditional use of medicinal plants for curing and preventing illnesses, including the promotion of both physical and spiritual well-being among human beings. The use of herbs to treat disease is almost universal among non-industrialized societies and the goodness and healing properties of herbal plants were explored by people since ages.

The local people have a long history of traditional plant usage for medicinal purposes. In fact, the ancient man was totally dependent on green plants for his day-to-day needs of medicaments.  Plants were at the basis of Indian and Chinese medicine for millennia, and they still are to this day, most of which probably exert therapeutic effects. The mystery of their magic still stands, but what was magic and mystery to our ancestors is a science to us today. The more we learn about plants, the more we find ways to use them to support health. At a very basic level we can use them as a condiment or seasoning in food, enhance all those otherwise dull dishes by the fragrance and flavour only herbs can provide.

Medicinal plants are important elements of indigenous medical systems all over the world. All cultures have a history of herbal medicine use, usually making use of the plants found closest to home. Even today in the times of advanced technology, medical science still depends on plants for their healing. As its name implies, it is part of the tradition of each country and employs practices that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Northeast India has the richest reservoir of plant diversity in India and is one of the ‘biodiversity hotspots’ which falls under the Himalaya and the Indo-Burma biodiversity, forming a unique biogeographic province harbouring major biomes recognized in the world. The different states of North east India are falling into different hill zones like Eastern Himalaya beginning from Sikkim to Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, Naga hills covering the areas of Nagaland and Manipur states, Lusai hills with Mizoram and Tripura states and Garo, Jaintia and Khasi hills occupying the state of Meghalaya. This region is also well-known for diverse culture of human races and is inhabited by a large number of tribals of various ethnic groups. These ethnic communities are rich in traditional knowledge and practicing traditional healing since time immemorial.

All types right from the grassland, meadows, marshes, swamps, scrub forests, mixed deciduous forests, humid evergreen forests, temperate and alpine vegetation are found here. The varied forests types found in the region are home to numerous plants and animals. The lushness of its landscape, favourable climatic condition, the range of communities and geographical and ecological diversity makes the North East part of India quite different from other parts of the subcontinent. There is a huge potential to do ethnobotanical research in the region, primarily, because, half of the total Indian tribal communities lives and practices their cultures in its own unique way.

Traditional healing is the oldest form of structured method of treatment that is based on underlying philosophy and set of principles by which it is practiced. Traditional healing practice was originally an integral part of semi-nomadic and agricultural tribal societies and although archeological evidence for its existence dates back to only around 6000 BC, its origins probably date back from well before the end of the last Ice-age.

Ethnic communities have always generated, refined and passed on traditional knowledge from generation to generation. This knowledge is based on their needs, instinct, observation, trial and error and long experience. Such knowledge is often an important part of their cultural identities. Traditional knowledge has played, and still plays, a vital role in the daily lives of these people. The therapeutic activity of such plants has made an outstanding contribution in the origin and evolution of many traditional herbal therapies, but such folk traditional system they possessed or inherited as a legacy is vanishing fast or polluted with the impact of modernity. The bio-resources along with the rich indigenous knowledge systems are depleting so fast due to various anthropogenic activities and rapid urbanization.

Some of the medicinal plants are distributed in high potential whereas certain others go on depleting from their Natural habitat. This depletion is due to high pressure for their un-systemic exploitation through shifting cultivation expansion of urbanization, agricultural land and road development as well as some natural calamities like land sliding, etc. Therefore, it requires urgent systematic investigation using biotechnological tools to authenticate and develop new novel drugs from the rich bio-resources of the region. Scientific approach for their exploration, utilization, conservation and value addition may be the key points for entrepreneurship development by exploiting the indigenous technology knowledge.

The art of truly relating to the plants is to choose the ones that you feel an attraction with. If you have the ability to grow them for yourself in a garden or in a pot, this is of enormous value. Growing your own plants and medicinal herbs, endeavouring to learn more about them put you in touch with Nature in a very deep way. These readily available and culturally important traditional medicines form the basis of an accessible and affordable health-care regime and are an important source of livelihood for indigenous and rural populations.

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