Indigenous Knowledge and sustainable development

NATTARIVU (Indigenous Knowledge) is the total achievements traditionally in every field by the local people in each place. Collectively each tribal group expresses itself and the signs of culture through it . Mainly its art and orality are the mediums to communicate from one generation to another. "Ethnic music, performances, mythology, games, handicrafts, arts and rituals represent the whole cultural scenario of the society" - was the declaration to the world countries by UNESCO in 1989. Though Celtic Academy established on the 30th March 1805 and started to dig out the folk knowledge, the epistemology got momentum only later. When William Thoms wrote a letter in ATHENEUM ( 982nd issue, august 22,1846 ) he used the word folklore which later was accepted universally. He wrote the necessity to collect the information about the rapidly vanishing knowledge of the rituals, songs, legends and other oral traditions of England.

Bio Independence and IK
Folklore / Anthropology has now reached beyond the study of the local significance of collecting the ballads, the details of performing arts and the social psychology in the post-modern approach. Euro- centric folklore fossilised the IK and made it an exhibition item, but the present day post modern studies have an advanced perspective in this matter to have a sustainable development for progress. IK is the accumulated information, vision and philosophy of life acquired by the local people in each place and country observing the practical effect of everything when they lived in tune with nature. Ethiopia which fell into severe drought could escape from it through the indigenous knowledge- and the world now has recognised that for the survival of each and every being and plant we need the sustained practice of the concept of bio-independence.

IK is the marginal truth till now ignored, and its history is its struggle against the aggressive attitude by the written history, upper class, culture and institutionalised research organisations. The enquiry into the terrain of IK started on realising the hollowness of the Euro-centric scientific research methodology and its results. Against the 'nature exploiting' attitude of developmental processes of the Euro - centric research, IK has strong alternatives which should be brought under Intellectual Property Right ( IPR ) as suggested by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Ethno Botany
Though Harsh Berger used the term Ethnobotany in 1985 this was the practising knowledge of the tribals and aborigines from time immemorial. Traditionally transmitted knowledge about plants, their medicinal and other uses and also their cultural significance are the three levels of ethnobotany. Now this branch has grown to the level of collecting and codifying the knowledge traditionally transmitted through centuries by tribals.

If the last century was dominated by the physics the 21st century will be by the biology. The exploitation of the IK in different countries by the pharmaceuticals and different multinationals has become a reality today and Ethnopharmacology has become a potential target. Countries like USA has now understood that germplasm has brighter future than atom bomb and more than 43% of the Ethnobotany research work is in that country. Traditional environmental knowledge is scientifically captured by the professionals and managers of developmental strategies for economic gains. By 'validating' the knowledge according to the rules fabricated by them, they try to annihilate even the remaining pieces of existence of the essence of the tribals. But the grannaries of the knowledge in the memories in folk forms of the indigenous people should have the patent right for which the people all over the world have to fight. The forest lore has the potential strength for independence struggle. The Ethno botanical war strategies are planned in countries like USA, and computing the management they penetrate into each 'knowledge culture' with euphemistic jargons by just adding the prefix 'eco' to everything.

Indigenous eco-knowledge
Modern biology is partial and technological which is totally depending on the laboratory based experiments and innovations. Modern Science views the knowledge about nature only in a technological way in the process of which major part of the essence is lost. Ethnic people have acquired knowledge about their surroundings through hundreds of centuries and this makes the modern biology only a secondary source.

Perhaps the first beings that recognised the medicinal value of plants may be birds and animals. Monkeys, rabbits, tigers and cats used to prefer some plants during some particular bodily situations. Ethnobotany tries to study the relation between humans and nature. Ethnic people are knowledgeable and their worldview about the sustainable life is now studied in post-modern context.

Local vision
Instead of studying the details of development from the apex of power downwards, the integral study of the indigenous knowledge is now recommended. The methodology cannot be defined as a universal formula for everything and everywhere, but it sprouts from the logic of the local people and specific landscape. The subtle categorisation of things connected with agriculture and ethnozoology etc at micro levels by acquiring knowledge from indigenous people is done by sustainable harvesting of biological sources. The Convention on Biological Diversity such as 'Our Common Future' 1987, World Conservation Strategy 1980, WWF, UNESCO etc, have already accepted Traditional Environmental knowledge (TEK) for the scientific and innovative resource management. It is a community- based research and participatory in action. The methodology of it is the Sharing of the Local Knowledge SLK ).
The difference between Indigenous Knowledge and the Western Scientific Knowledge can be broadly seen as follows:

Indigenous knowledge Modern Scientific Knowledge
1) Oral tradition 1) Written documents
2) Born from nature 2) Taught and disciplined
3) Eco-centric 3)Anthropocentric
4) Embracing the whole nature 4) Pertaining only to physical world
5) Integral/holistic 5) Segmental
6) Eco-contextual and Shared knowledge 6) Power centred and monopoly of scientific knowledge
7) Accumulation of knowledge 7) Partial knowledge collected through ages during a short span.
8) Qualitative 8) Quantitative
9) Intuitive and emotional 9) Analytical and depersonalised
10) Decentralised knowledge of thepeople 10)Centralised knowledgeof the experts.

Experience and Worldviews of Traditional People
The methodology is of acquiring knowledge through 'seeing, hearing and doing' connected with the diachronic nature of myths, proverbs, ancient sayings etc in which the oral tradition hands over information from generation to generation. Those who work in the traditional local knowledge systems accept the informants as belonging to the Traditional Scientific Community of Researchers or as Community Researchers or as indigenous researchers. The informants are to be given prime importance. The knowledge should be patented in the name of the community and the professional researchers have very little part in it, and anybody from any strata of the society can gather information and be a researcher.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems have views different from the conventional western research practices. Its strategies are totally eco-centric and objective as well as intuitive and they are derived from practical and innovative life of the generations. Kochukuttan from Poyya classifies local fish in the river into three categories such as lower level fish, middle level fish and upper level fish. He explains: Different fish produce different noises, Mola's humming, Mullan's rough noise, Korukka's and Vatta's noise with 'Kurukuru' tone are his observations. Shrimps are described as creatures who stab even when dead, and they produce 'Kilukila' noise before death. A crab species that live long when crawl deep under water produce bubbles. Crabs and shrimps used to exuviate as snakes do. Shrimps have 'fever' from Ashtami day and become normal after Ekadasi. The flesh of shrimps is hard during the month of Vrischikam and Dhanu (Dec-Jan) and is soft during Meenam - Medom (April-May). During the month of Kanni even crows won't eat Kanambu as they don't have fat during that season... thus goes the indigenous knowledge of Kochukuttan Poyya collected by Madhu Poyya.

Karuvannur Chirayath Antony categorises the local cows as follows: 1) Pure white 2) Good Karimbu cow (black) (3) Mayil Pasu ( peacock cow ) (4)Deep Red (5)Pulirbu red.

Local History in memory
Indigenous knowledge is needed in this aelienated circumstances to regain the independence of the villages. As the informants from older generations are very few now, it is essential to have a strategy to collect the information as early as possible and document it. This history of knowledge / village is on the fringes of the so called mainstream of narration about the heroic deeds of the kings and lords. This can give information about diverse agricultural practices, details of the terrain, eco-herstory, village rituals and practices, the composition of ballads narrating the episodes of the life of communities etc,.The oral tradition of the villagers and indigenous people can contribute a lot to this.

Ethnopharmacology has now reached polynological level which is a branch of ethnobotany. The practice of using plants in the modern medicine started largely from the 17th century. In older days the Greeks had knowledge about it and many medical men had done very valuable research on it. Some rare medicinal remedies could be excavated when ethnobotany practised by indigenous people was digged out. The dropsy could be treated in the modern medicine when the indigenous knowledge about its treatment was discovered. Home medicine practised by many grandfathers and grandmothers could be a potential source of knowledge. They have their secret compositions of indigenous plants and other substances. Paediatrics, Ophthalmology, toxology, veterinary, orthopaedics, gynaecology, magic healing / medicine, Kalari etc, were practised satisfactorily in each locality.

The ethnobotanical knowledge of the tribes is a part of their life and rituals. But the modern medicine / science and the multinational pharmaceuticals are exploiting it to their own interest. These plants have their own local names varying from place to place and tribe to tribe. For the tribals not only the medicinal plants, but the roots and fruits for their daily food, the materials used for architecture and other works are indigenously developed ones. Paul Richard's Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, 1985 narrates how the West African farmers succeeded in cultivation without the help of modern agriculture technology.

People and Plants
As the indigenous knowledge is rapidly fading out of the memory, a number of schemes to preserve it have been worked out by organisations such as WWF and UNESCO. People and Plants, Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, Compas are some of the publications promoting this concept. Ethno-medicine, Ethno-ecology, Ethno-agriculture, Ethno-material culture, Ethnobotany, traditional Eco zones are sociologically relevant forest lores. By making aware of the traditional eco zones among the people the Euro-centred dogmas of the present can be deconstructed.

Places like Kerala where there were numerous sacred groves and related culture became ecologically barren now due to the so called developments chartered out by those who did not have any knowledge or concern about nature / ecology. Modernists could not understand the life of nature in the numerous rituals and myths. The tribals had their own thoughts and philosophy about ecological niche, and from their memory the concept of native ecology can be revived. Had the world listened to the talk in Washington by the Red Indian Chief Siatil in 1854 this tragedy would not have happened. Each inch of the land, to them , was divine.The totemism of the tribals is the symbol of the co-existence of the tribes of humans, plants, animals and other natural materials. Our kinship with nature can be detected in the DNA analysis. For the Hida Indians whale and crow are their brethren. The biodiversity was preserved in tribes in the form of totemism.

Through globalisation local cultures are rapidly vanishing. Against the theft of indigenous knowledge through the laws of patent there should be an upsurgence. The biodiversity and the indigenous knowledge of the people about numerous varieties of seeds are the wealth of the folks. By registering an indigenous knowledge in any field, it is to be made a declaration of the authority of the knowledge by the local people. Planning then becomes a festival.

Local and Indigenous knowledge about the soil, plants, ecology, water management, ethnozoology , ethnophilosophy, ethnoeducation, village games, local archaeology, markets, festivals, local fisheries, toxicology, agriculture, grandma medicine, rainlore, paddylore, honeylore, sealore, forestlore, groves, local technologies, food, fruits, ethno-music, ethno-astronomy, riverlore, arts and crafts etc, are now studied. This knowledge is totally different from the recorded written matter, as it lies in the oral tradition that is marginalized by the power-centres always. By understanding the ethnicity of every aspect cultural continuity can be found out, as the local knowledge is not a "taught" one but a "learned and assimilated" one. As this is a multidisciplinary area, present century will have to do a lot in preserving and documenting it.

Methodology of collecting IK ( Experience of CFS )
The need of a defensive role is necessary in this century and a new methodology is to be formulated for the collection and the study of IK. That follows:

1) Forming the IK centre: This can collectively be done by the help of elderly people, women, children and those who are outside the conventional educational stream. Eg: Nattukala Nattarivu Samithi, Viyyur, Thrissur. Similar NGO's can be constituted in schools, colleges, libraries, farmer's gatherings, women's associations, offices, factories etc.

2) Training people to collect information. This is not the conventional survey system. Instead of teaching the old people of the folks our knowledge, we should go to them and collect information from them. This is the 'Mapping of the Memory' method. If the informants are taken into confidence they will be opening up their memory. For example:
a) Field workers who took a group of old folks into their confidence could collect from them their technique of deriving white colour from buttermilk.
b) From Koottanadu, Sankara Warriar was spotted out who knew the folk song ( Nakshatrappana)about the method of identifying stars.
c) Haridas of Arattupuzha who lives in 'Nomans land' has given the names of Varinellu (rare varity of paddy) when contacted.
Similarly field workers collected some 30 methods of fishing from the fishermen from Poyya near Mala, Trichur District. For collecting such materials the researchers need training. The aims and targets of IK, preparation of questionnaire, methodology of collecting and documenting it, method to activate the memory of the old by suitably making them prepare to narrate etc. are to be practised.

4) Preparation of micro level questionnaire. For eg. For collecting IK about traditional agriculture and also the details of the seed the following key questionnaire can be used.
(a) Ancient seeds.
(b) The proper condition of the seed when it is suitable for sowing.
(c) How to differentiate the seed according to its genetic strength.
(d) The quality of good seed.
(e) Rituals connected with seed.
(f) The IK of preparation of the seed.
(g) Methods of preserving the seed.
(h) Transaction of seed.
(i) Preparation of Vallom with palm leaves/ bamboo.
(j) Songs about seed.
(k) Stories/ Myths about seed.
(l) The methods of planting/ sowing.
(m) What to do when the seed does not sprout.
(n) The difference between local varieties and new seeds.
(o) Relation between seed and climate.
(p) Different rituals for different seeds during different seasons.
(q) The leaves to protect seed from insects- Kanhjiram, Koova, Karijotta, Cloth dipped in Neem oil etc.
(r) The technique to regenerate seeds.

Methodology and questionnaire can be prepared to get all information from a group of informants. This questionnaire will have a key word. The questionnaire is flexible. Along with this preliminary survey, preliminary interview can be done and accordingly changes can be done. Collecting the information of previous surveys is to be done, and questionnaire can be changed according to the information collected from them. Questionnaire differs from place to place; the same questionnaire cannot be used for getting IK of Kol agricultre and paddy cultivation of Kuttanad. New questions will sprout out according to the ability of the field workers.

5) Materials for survey: Writing materials, Audio / Video cassettes and Still camera.

6) Field survey- a cultural activity. Making rapport with the person, telling him / her the aim of the work, collecting the IK should be informal. One person should not be interviewed for more than two hours at a time. This should be totally a liberal education process. Moving along with them and helping them in their work the field worker / researchers should acquire IK. Office / lab- oriented research work is not at all needed here. The information they give is their worldviews and philosophy. A local fisherman may be knowing much more than a marine biologist in a particular field.

This methodology is a little different from the ethnography of the anthropologist and folklorist. It can be begun from key word. For example first the names of the local varieties of coconut palms can be asked. Then go to the peculiar features of each one. Then the information about the number of coconuts, leaves, colour, growth rate, quality, oil content etc, can be collected. From this the researcher can go to micro level questions: which one gives more coconut and oil ? The answer many be Tutathi Thengu. Then the details of that can be enquired. All got wondered when one farmer in Alappuzha gave information about Palayankodan Thengu. He informed that this new coconut tree appeared sometime back there. Immediately the researcher can ask whether this variety is still there and try to get the details of it. When the Indigenous Scientist ( the informant ) tells about the land, with his / her help the researcher can draw the landscape / waterscape of the terrain.

There are people who answer only in one word, some may be very reluctant. Some may give answers actively. Some may give information in a research manner. There are people who exaggerate things. Some may direct us to the real informant. There are many patterns of informants. From them one has to find the real informant who has good memory. Some informants have a feeling that they are uneducated and such people should not be given such an idea from the researcher. They should be given the idea that the modern education is a shallow one.

When they are contacted mainly three things are to be noted.
(a) Request them to compare their traditional IK with the imported one.
(b) Request to suggest them some remedies to get over the present crisis.
(c) Request them whether they are ready to help in propagating the IK.

7) After collecting the knowledge categorisation of IK and registration are to be done. The researchers should assemble together every day and share their experiences and collected information. The pros and cons of every aspect can be understood by this process. This can help those who lag behind in the initial stage. This will make them go to different informants. The information may most probably be in the order of myths and beliefs. This ranges from new ways they have adopted in drought / flood situations to the new Theyyam performances they have enacted.

The selection of fieldworkers, imparting training to them in methodology of documentation should be completed in one month.

As an extension to it and conclusion to that, 4 points are to be noted.
1.The impact on IK by the depletion of natural resources and ecological pollution.
2.How far the new education, consumerism and modernisation are responsible for weakening the IK.
3.How and to what extent the natives used their knowledge to counter soil erosion, drinking water shortage, loss of cultivation fields, diseases and folk arts.
4.Till now how far in the developmental projects the following items have been incorporated.-Forest lore, handicrafts, local medicine, Grandma medicine ,traditional agricultural practices, informal traditional education patterns, utilisation of natural resources, local meteorology etc.

(8) By using the collected materials folklore museums, IK bank, IK library, audio/video library are to be set up. Manuscripts also are needed. There are a number of manuscripts of folksongs and medicines. Taped materials are to be made into written form the same day itself.

(9) Handicrafts of the people can be exhibited in folk museums. Primitive and rare tribal and folk forms can be performed. Daweli a folk scrol painting and reading performances, Nokkuvidhya a puppetry in kinetices, Mudiyattom a women dance performances, Pathirakkalam a floral folk painting, Malavazhiyattom a ritualistic folk drama of Paraya community etc. have now become popular again because of this kind of work. Pathila a seasonal food of ten leaves in the rainy season, Marunnukanji a medicinal food, Panikkashayangal local medicine for fever, sacred groves are becoming popular today. Mankai and the flute called Therali of Erula tribe, masks as old as 200 years, decorated Polavi, the ethnobotany of the seashore vegitation are the IK items regained. Folklore items should not be collected for fancy. It should be under the proper custodianship after proper documentation. Or, entrust them with the tribals and folk themselves informing them their importance. And it is to be well documented that the particular item is there in the particular house.

(10) Sharing of Local knowledge (SLK): This can be arranged anywhere ,even in the courtyard or wherever convenient. This is a 'counter' assembly -traditional village gathering- to question the 'power assembly'. Bring the IK experts from the village in the most natural way. They may be seated in a semi circular form in a very respectable manner. The researchers and others should sit at their feet if possible near to them. This informal function should be to honour the IK experts . Their knowledge can be shared by asking our doubts and questions politely, honouring them. There should be provision to document it in different mediums. This informal assembly is a venue to share the knowledge and to discuss them. The IK experts from the audience also can contribute a lot and those information also are to be incorporated. In this informal village assembly only the local food items and drinks such as Thavudada, Kumbalappam (boild food), Panakam (medicinal soft drinks) are to be served. It is a participation of the common local people. During such an assembly of IK experts in Perinjanam Arattukadavu Kadakkodi (Thrissur)the local women folk sold the indigenous food 'Thendu'.

(11) Special training should be given to write down the matter. It should be taken down in the same accent. (but later it should be written in proper contemporary communicative language for documenting it.).Old people will be talking in proverbial language. Those who talk to them, if possible, should be from the same locality. The local plant names from seashore thus collected are recorded as Chulli,Kalli,Nochi,Kozhikkalu,Adambumvalli etc.

(12) By collectively visiting the local workshops of the IK experts they can be made aware of the importance of their crafts . By creating a rapport with them they can be given new chances to do their work so that they can become financially better off. Sanskriti in Kannur, Kumbham in Nilambur, Uravu in Wayanad, Mulappanikkoottam in Mala are some examples of such activities.

(13) Young generation from the local population /tribe should be trained in the folk crafts.

(14) Preparation of a local calendar of the festivals, rituals and agricultural works is needed. A directory of IK people also to be prepared.

(15) Declaration of Intellectual Property Right and Patent can be done in each place. It should be registered, legally and officially should be published according to the international norms .This is an independence struggle against the exploitative globalisation.

Similar endeavours have been done by Center for IK/Folklore Studies(CFS), Thrissur in collaboration with different Panchayats, Research Organisations and Cultural Centers.The first attempt by CFS was Swaraj done in Varandara ppilly, Thrissur Dt on November 1st 1997. After that Thrissur Dt Panchayat, and panchayats of Ollur,Mala,Avinissery,Porkkulam,Vellangallur,Padiyoor,Cherpu,Perinjanam,El avally,Vaniyamkulam,Ch-ovannur,Wadakkanchery,Vadakara,Kodungallur also did the same. Krishippattukkoottangal of Idukki, Gandhi Sankara Samiti of S.L. Puram, Alappuzha, Karshikavayanasala of Ponnuttassery also did similar works. With associative endeavour with Kerala Forest Research Institute and Kerala Forest Department similar works were done in Peechi, Peerumedu, Kotharmanakkadu were many ethno medical workshops were conducted. Libraries, Adivasi-Dalit Groups, River Protection Organisation, Karshakasree Agricultural Conferences, Litaracy Mission, Kudumbasree Units, Teachers Training Center, College Teachers Training Camps, NSS Units in many colleges, Sastra Sahitya Parishat, Project Bharathapuzha, Swdesi Sastra Congress etc. were some other venues where this methodology was introduced.

Repertory Of Knowledge
Many unknown and marginalized grandfathers and grandmothers from different branches of IK came forward to share their knowledge in all these attempts. K.P.NeelakantaKartha(Toxichologist),KochuPennu(Gynacologist),Elichetathi(Gra ndma Medicine),Malayan Kunjan(Tribal Medicine Man),Kochukuttan(Person who knows IK about fish), Karthiayani Amma (Expert in Folk songs ), Raman Panikkar ( Kol farming ), Ouseph Chakkamban (Ethno veterinary expert ), Patha ( Ethno botanist ),Vasu (Sealorist ), SubhadraV.Nair (Expert in indigenous food items), Narayani Amma (who talks about the details of floods), Velayudhan ( Black smith ), Mariamma Chetathi (Expert of ballads- Edanadan songs) are some of them. All these are documented in the Centre for Folklore Studies, Kanimangalam, Trissur. Those who wrote down all these matters were house wives, children and youngsters.

Some of the names given to such "village Assemblies" conducted by CFS are given below.

Puzhappolima-on IK on river, Polavi- on different folklore, Nattulsavam-folk performances, Gramappolima-on IK on agriculture, Nadupolika-on local history and IK, Krishippattukoottam-sharing the IK on agriculture, Anelam-methodology of IK, Kanapponnu-IK of fishermen community, Neytal-on heritage mapping, Manthai- on local eco history, Nattucharithram- on local history, Neerarivu-on water harvesting, Kappoli-on folk medicine, Ela-folk music, Katakkoti- on sealore, Makarakkazcha -on IK on agriculture, Navara- on agriculture and folk medicine, Ammummavazhikal-Grandmother wisdom, Thudikkottu- folk performances, Kanthurappu- sharing the IK, Kathirkkalam-IK methodology, Vanyatha-film and IK,Thitherikkuda-on ethnomusic, Nattunaipunikalude koottaymma-gatherings of 25master informants, Ariku sathyangal -stratagies of IK, Therali- on tribal and folk music, Nattamma- Grandmother wisdom, Valavaru-performances from a local village, Kalikalayiram-games and childlore, Malayala dinam-on local language, Nattarivukalude utsavam-celibrations of IK, Attom-women performances, Nattusangheetham-on folk musical instruments, Paithruka bhoopadam-mapping of memory, Erukoottam-folk crafts, Muthappanana-honouring the grandfathers, Athirolam- folk museum and performances, Mazhakk othu-IK on flood and rain, Muthalam-SLK on seed, Vallam-on agriculture, Kalam-on folk painting,Kavettom-folk knowledge,Chilambattom-folk performances and IK,Mulappanikkootam-workshop on bamboo crafts, Kurutholapp anikkoottam- on natural toys, Pennarivu-women and IK, Kunjunnimashum Kranormarum- gatherings of 20 master informants, Karanavakkoottam-heritage mapping, Koothattam-local games and IK,Thudi IK and students,Themmaru-sealore, Kattilppathu-IK of medicinal plants collectors are some of the titles showing indigenous ethnic specificity. A number of rare art forms were staged with the participation of people numbering from fifty to one thousand. A significant assembly in Karalam village saw women coming to the venue with hundreds of folk tools and crafts!

The trimonthly publication Nattarivu by CFS had Triballore, Sea and culture, Seedlore, Ballads of Kerala, Women and folklore, Mappila Folklore, Folk archite cture,Village theatre,IK on Food, Folk painting, IK on crafts, Childlore as titles which became an encyclopaedia in IK having more than 1200 pages. This information was collected from people having IK by about 80 research workers from May 1995 to May 2002. Krishigeetha,(songs on agriculture) an 18th C. text on agriculture practices, Gothrakalavativukal, a book on ethno-aesthetics, IK on River are some other significant publications by CFS. This organisation has apart from these activities done a lot of work on ethnomedicine, ethnoorthopaedics, ethno music, women's status, Rain water harvesting, River lore, Biocultural diversity project report for Govt. of India, Local history,TV.Series on local knowledge, audio albums of folksongs. Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, a journal from Netherlands have published the details of IK seminar on agriculture held at Alappattu village near Trichur. British Columbia Folklore Journal has published the essay on the music of the ethnic / aborigine group of Kerala.

Translated by Vijayakumar Menon

Reference: 1. Johnson Martha ( Ed.) Lore Capturing Traditional Environmental Knowledge IDRC, Canada 1992.

2. Bertus Harverkort (Ed) Food for thought, ancient visions and new experiments of rural people, Compas, Netherlands 1999.

3. Indigenous knowledge and development monitor vol.7. Issue 1 M.1999. Netherlands.

4. People and Plants 1-6 UNESCO 2000-2002

5. Gary A.Klee(Ed)World Systems of Traditional Resource Management Winston and Sons 1980.

6. David Susuki- Wisdom of the Elders, Bantam Books, New York 1992.

7. Nattarivu 12 Issues ,CFS, Thrissur -27, 1995-2002. DR. C.R. RAJAGOPALAN. E-mail . trc_nattariv @ www.


Of compassion and knowledge - Exploring the traditional elephant health care system
Manju Vasudevan and Meera Abraham
Nattarivu,CFS, Thrissur -27,
E-mail . trc_nattariv @

Indigenous medical traditions have evolved in every civilization, ever since man came to understand nature and explore its resources. The science of veterinary health must have been born out of man’s compassion for domesticated animals. And it must have followed the growth and pattern of human health practices.
One of the earliest wild animals to be brought to our societies to be tamed for religious and military purposes was the elephant.

Elephants in the landscape of Kerala
The elephant lore of Kerala is as old as the land itself. Our mythology is replete with stories of handsome and heroic elephants used in war, and our temple history incomplete without the extensive mention of elephants. Every big temple in Kerala owned tuskers. The elephant has always been part of the paraphernalia of annual festivals in temples. Stories of the famous temple elephants Guruvayur Kesavan and Aranmula Raghunathan are still fresh in the memory of every Malayali[1]. Prestigious elephants with the title “Gajarajan” bestowed upon them, their status and value such that they were honoured with special rituals and poojas: When lying down to die, Kesavan is believed to have raised his trunk in the direction of the temple door, and folded his foreleg in veneration to Lord Guruvayurappan, whose idol he had carried on his back a whole lifetime. The same story is told about tusker Raghunathan of the Aranmula Krishna temple.

Kingdoms and temples in the Thiruvuthancoor (Travancore) province have had their own elephant physicians too. Elephant admirers who could afford to rear a large animal like the elephant were people who had a fair knowledge of elephant health care and so Aanavaidyam[2] unfolded itself in families of dedicated, self-taught “physicians”. Aristocratic families like the famous Poomulli mana are living legends of trusted and renowned Ayurvedic physicians. The name of Poomulli mana Aaram Thampuran is one that echoes success stories of a lifetime of health practices for human beings and elephants alike. Narayanan, his agriculturalist son tells us about the elephants they owned and the innumerable elephant health cases that his father had handled all over the Malabar and Central Travancore regions. Elephant rearing, he says, had been part of a tradition in a large number of Malayali families. However, in the whole of Kerala today, there are only a handful of traditional physicians in the field of elephant care. Among the remaining few in northern and central Kerala who have an indepth understanding of traditional elephant healing practices, two names stand apart -Aanaparambil Maheshwaran Namboodiripad and C N Damodaran Nair.

Born in a family of traditional elephant healers in Vadakkanchery, Trissur, Namboodiripad is a fourth generation Aanavaidyan[3]. He remembers how his grandfather Narayanan Namboodiripad used to tell him bedtime stories of elephants reared and treated in their family home and in their temple. He is an expert in clinical toxicology and Vishachikitsa by informal training, with a history of treating over seven thousand poison bite victims. Respectfully called Thampuran, he is the chief consultant of the Guruvayur Devaswom’s elephant farm.

Damodaran Nair, better known as Kulathurmozhi Damodaran Vaidyan, is also no ordinary elephant admirer. At the age of sixteen he began treating his pet elephant at his home in Kulathur, Kottayam. He sought guidance from his maternal uncle Maveli Krishna Kurup, an Ayurvedic physician. He had his own notes taken down from the ancient text Hastyayurveda. And today, he is the only person in Kerala who devotes his time exclusively to elephant care. Both the physicians are in their seventies and are blessed with five decades of experience in the field of elephant health. What is special about them is not just their holistic approach to elephant treatment, but also their admiration and love for the animal.

The best text on elephant treatment, we are told, is the four to five centuries old Hastyayurvedam. It is believed to have been written by Palakaapya Maharshi, based on his personal observations on wild elephants in the forest. It comprises of more than 1000 padhyams (verses) spread across 152 chapters. Such an elaborate treatise inevitably gives detailed information on the anatomy, physiology, pathology, surgery and the diet for elephants. There is also the famous Matangalila, with over 350 verses. The text written on horse health, Aswayurveda, is the only other extensive text in the field of traditional veterinary medicine.

As part of our exploration, we visit the Aana kotta or elephant farm, affiliated to the Guruvayur temple in Trissur. The 30 year old farm is the only one of its kind in Kerala, covers an area of twelve and a half acres and is home to fifty-seven temple elephants. Here we see sixty one year old Padmanabhan- the tusker considered to be the healthiest and most handsome in all of Kerala.

Food, hygiene and general health care
The conventional food of domesticated elephants includes palm leaves without much fibre, jaggery, bananas and coconut. Navadhanya (the nine grains) and other seasonal medicated food are essential to maintain the health of a working elephant. Napier grass has of late become a part of the diet of all temple elephants. Most elephants live in tough environmental conditions and are constantly under strain. They need sufficient health care each day of the busy year. Apart from this, as Maheshwaran Thampuran says, during festivals and processions they need extra care and rest.

To maintain the health of a constantly working elephant a minimum of one month’s rest and rejuvenation period is required. This is not just to revive the energy of an exhausted and worn animal, but also to make sure that it does not fall prey to common ailments.

Venalkku aana ezhunnellichu, anudinam kaayunna raktham thelichu
Aanandam valaraan chikitsa, balamaay cheytheedum medathilum
Koottam mutty pidicheduthu valayunnoru, anchu vaayukkale
Pattaanullathu Kanniyyinkel adhavaa cheytheedam thulaathinkelum

- quoted from Gaja raksha Tantram by Sankaran Namboodiripad

(The most suitable time for rest is the pre-monsoon season, either the months of Kanni- Thulam (mid-September to mid-November) or Medamasam (mid- April to mid-May). There are elephants that have to put up with sleeplessness because of endless festive processions and there are others that need to undergo long walks. The two kinds of elephants need independent kinds of restorative treatment.)

It is also suggested that they be given rest and care during Karkadaka maasam (mid- July to mid- August) when the festive season is over, and the body is in a suitable state to imbibe oil applications, massages and decoctions. This kind of yearly treatment is crucial for rejuvenating the elephant’s health.

Thampuran shares with us one of the Sukhachikitsa (restorative treatments) customarily followed by elephant physicians traditionally; palm toddy, sesame seeds, palm jaggery, Aadu lehyam (preparation using goat meat) and a wide range of herbs form the general ingredients. Damodaran Vaidyan recommends a combination of pulses, cereals like wheat and parched rice, leaves of Avicennia species, Sida cordifolia and four species of Ficus and bark of Pterocarpus marsupium. Pure ghee too blends well with an elephant’s system; the animal can be given up to two kilos of ghee per day provided there is the supplement of a natural digestive. He tells us that for a healthy elephant there never arises the need to eat mamsa (meat), since it is a vegetarian animal in the wild.

An illustrative example of the Restorative Treatment for an elephant at the Guruvayur Aana Kotta. A course of 30 days contains the following daily diet:
Cooked rice - 5 kg Cooked green gram - 2 kg
Astachoornam - 50g
(an Ayurvedic pereparation) Chyavanaprasam - 500g (an Ayurvedic preparation) Bio boost - 8 mg
Protein supplement - 50 g
Becadexamin - 20 mg
Salt - 100 g

The feeding and health care of all the inhabitants of the farm is indeed a tedious yet fascinating procedure. At the Guruvayur Elephant farm, one gets an opportunity to understand the intricacies of elephant rearing. An elephant recognizes man chiefly by smell, and only then by sound and vision. The mahout who is the closet to an elephant is usually an expert in handling most conditions and behavioural changes in the animal. But unfortunately, there are also a growing number of rude and ignorant mahouts. While taming an elephant, a mahout is traditionally allowed to beat the creature, but only with reason enough. Sometimes a serious tone or a severe word does the job: ‘elephants are a lot like children.’

In ancient mythology a mahout is referred to as Nagapalan (one who brings up an elephant) and is talked of with much regard:

Bheeman, Satyapratijnan, Nirvriti eduttavan, Dharmikan, Swamibhaktan, Dakshan, Dheeran, Vyasanarahitan, Aayigriyathe jayichavan, Karmam kandavan, Utsahi, Pedi vittavan, Gada arunakaram, Phalguman, Nagapalan.

(A mahout must have the finest qualities of the heroic characters of Bheema, Dakshan, and Arjuna and must be one with truthfulness, sincerity, heart’s content, enthusiasm, and practical experience, and must be free from fear and sorrow.)

Ailments common in elephants
Almost all the ailments that affect human beings are common in elephants too. A condition of ill health is in fact a response to the five Vayus mentioned in Shastra - Praana, Apaana, Vyaana, Udaana and Samaana. Consider for example constipation; it is a state where Apaana undergoes sthambam, or stillness. Similarly, elephants that pull heavy timber with a rope in the mouth face breathing problems due to Vaayu. In such instances, the treatment is either from vaayukumbham (trunk) or is anal. The smooth movement of vaayu ensures that the elephant is safe from many major illnesses. Stomach ailments such as indigestion and ulcer affect most elephants. Damodaran Vaidyan tells us that for long standing indigestion called Karinovu, which is distinct from Novu or common indigestion, there is nothing better than Gajakalyana lehyam.

Constipation or Erandakettu is the most common and difficult ailment affecting elephants, and the obvious symptoms are the irregular evacuation of bowels and the animal refusing to eat. Vastikarmam is the time-tested and most effective treatment for this; in the seemingly crude method, the medicine was injected through the anal aperture, using the inner layer of a banana leaf sheath. And once the large and hard mass of dung has reached the wide distal end of the large intestine it has to be pulled out in pieces from the narrow rectum.

Rheumatic problems are most often seen in older animals. There is effective treatment for the various rheumatic ailments in Hastyayurveda. The Ayurvedic formulations of Dhanwantara thai/am, Kottam chukkadi thailam, Chinjadi thailam and Punarnnavadi kashqyam constitute the basic steps in treatment. Wounds due to sleeping on hard stones and from the iron chains tied on the legs are common in tamed elephants. Sometimes, the wound may look healed but there may be pus formations within. An experienced mahout in Aana kotta told us that elephants have hard skin beneath which there is fibrous muscular tissue; this makes it difficult to cure infections, and recurring pus formation is a common problem. Washing with scrubbers can cause severe pain; it is advisable to wash the wound with dilute Kashayam and supplement it with internal medicine.

Violent elephants in some instances hurt other elephants with the tusk. One such victim was once brought to Damodaran Vaidyan- after thirteen long months of dubious allopathic treatment. All these months, the elephant had been kept away from water. The wound was almost 5 inches deep and there was pus inside. The first thing Vaidyan did was to inject water forcefully into the wound to bring out all the pus. After that, with less than three months of constant medicine and care, the elephant was cured completely. Older elephants suffer from ailments of the limbs like sprains, diseases of the nails, cracks in the foot, etc. Diseases of the eye and ear, and skin diseases are seen to affect elephants of all ages. Diarrhoea is one problem rarely seen in elephants.

From what we gathered from Damodaran Vaidyan and Maheshwaran Thampuran, a skilful physician knows from experience and intuition the physical and mental traits of an elephant. With timely treatment they believe there is no ailment that is incurable. The basic difference in the treatment of human beings and elephants is that an elephant needs more than twelve times the dosage prescribed for man. When it comes to feeding elephants with Kashayams and other strong smelling medicines, Damodaran Vaidyan uses an indigenous method - a small opening is made in a dry coconut and is filled with the medicine; then this is wrapped in boiled jaggery. Elephants relish jaggery.

Traditional healers have always collected herbs and themselves prepared the medicine. Damodaran Vaidyan mentions the names of certain herbs that have become rare in the wild; after a whole day’s hunt for Hemidesmus indicus, one gets hardly 200 grams of the tuber. Populations of many medicinal plants such as Desmodium gangeticus, Pseudarthria viscida and Holostemma ada- kodein are declining in Kerala and they have to be procured from traders from Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, the Himalayan herb Aconitum heterophyllum is a very common ingredient for formulations used in elephant treatment. Elephant treatment needs insight and practical knowledge. That is why Damodaran Nair says that the difference between human patients and- elephants is not in the dosage alone. One needs to understand the psychology of the animal. Every individual elephant is an independent entity. Its prakriti or body constitution determines its health condition.

When we asked a mahout how he recognizes the discomfort faced by an elephant, he told us it was rather simple if you can observe the changes in the behaviour of the elephant. For instance, the animal gets restless when there is a severe stomach pain. Similarly, stiffness of limbs is a symptom of rheumatism.

A large number of elephants at the Aana kotta are under allopathic treatment. The physician incharge of the Aana kotta showed us a few modem medicines stacked up alongside the many common Ayurvedic prescriptions like Yogaraja gulgulu and Chyavanaprasam. The following course was prescribed for an elephant brought from Assam suffering from a recurring skin disease- treatment targets the root cause (suspected to be an allergy):
- 200 ml. of Patola katurohinyadi-kashayam with 15 tablets of Vilvadi-gulika- each day for 21 days.
- External application of Neelidaladi coconut oil, with Paranthyadi coconut oil on the affected area.

Although the importance of integrating traditional and allopathic medicine is much talked about, there has hardly been any attempt to train qualified physicians and mahouts to handle even simple health problems in an elephant. There are certainly a lot of Ayurvedic medicines being prescribed for many ailments, either in consultation with Thampuran or relying on a very general, indistinct understanding about lehyams and kashayams.

Modern physicians fail to diagnose the difference between the Novu (pain due to indigestion) and Karinovu (long standing indigestion), about which, to our surprise, even experienced mahouts knew. Sometimes a medicine suitable for human patients is prescribed for elephants with the same condition. Ashtachoornam, for instance, is given to most elephants when they exhibit restlessness due to stomach pain and indigestion, although the ideal medicine is Gajarajachoornam. Such intricate details are familiar to experienced traditional physicians alone, who treat elephants based on observation. And it is disheartening to observe how the number of the traditional experts in Aanavaidyam is dwindling.

Medical science, traditional or modern, is not and ought not to be confined to formal institutional education. Years of practical experience is what matters most. It would be beneficial to make changes in both veterinary science (where apparently there is no course on elephant healing) and traditional science (in terms of a willingness to use modern technology) to best suit the elephant rearing system. Research undeniably must be the first step. We met an endocrinologist at the Guruvayur elephant farm collecting samples of urine from elephants under must for research and felt it was a positive sign.

Understanding an elephant in Must
When a tusker is about fifteen to eighteen years of age, its physiological constitution undergoes certain changes, a manifestation of which is madam or must.

Must affects 90% of the elephants at the beginning of winter, while some ‘go must’ in the rainy season and this lasts for three months. Of late, there has been a noticeable disturbance in the animal’s annual cycle. This is probably a reaction to changes in rearing practices. Changes in feeding and bathing pattern is also believed to be one possible cause for this.

Maheswaran Thampuran shares with us the oft-misunderstood concept of Madam or must. Inexperienced doctors and mahouts try and hasten this natural cycle because of its restless and violent nature the elephant is sometimes even considered “mad”. Equating must to any other process in nature, be it flowers blooming when a plant matures or the rock fluid called kanmadam oozing out from a heated rock on earth, Thampuran explains how madam is an essential phase in the life of every healthy elephant. It is a natural period of over three months each year, when every individual elephant behaves differently, depending on its body balance of the tridoshas- vata, pitta and kapha.

We also get the physiological explanation from Damodaran Vaidyan- madam is expressed when the kapham in its body vitiates in a particular season and spreads across the entire body. When it is saturated, the ichor bursts open through various openings in the body, the must gland, the nose, the penis and even minute hair follicles in the body. The animal has no sweat glands; the fanning action of the ear lobes is a temperature regulating mechanism in all elephants. During madam, this gets more vigorous, to further help cool the system.

We learnt how to recognise a rutting elephant. Resting the trunk on the ground and breathing deeply, the reddening of the corner of the eye, slow reaction to the mahout’s commands - these are some of the primary symptoms of the elephant under must. There are instances when the elephant takes the food up to its mouth, but does not eat or rather, forgets to eat. Sesame seeds mixed with appetisers are given to the elephant in such conditions. One must never try to restrain this natural phase in the animal’s life, although it is agreeable to reduce the intensity of must. It is a common practice to use Mayakkuvedi[4] (tranquillisers shot into the body) or use strong chemicals and hormones to dry up the system of the elephant. This is done to save the effort and financial loss of keeping the elephant idle in the farm during the boom season in festivals in temples.

According to Damodaran Vaidyan, it is easy to control this phase within a month’s care without torturing the elephant. To reduce or control the ichor (Mathashravu or Rudrashravu) during the period of must, various natural ways of cooling the elephant-body may be adopted. Feeding the elephant with banana stem, palm leaves, etc. helps. Coolants like ash gourd mixed with curds are supposed to be the best medium to reduce the toxicity.

To quote a sloka that Maheswaran Thampuran recited when talking about treating tuskers under must,

“Sahamrita shigru baladwimoorva,
kapittham saptacchada chandanaanaam;

Keripayaha kshaudrayutma gajaanaam,
Pindapradeyam mathasambhavaayaam”

(A combination of definite plant parts of Tinospora cordifolia, Moringa oleifera, Sida cordifolia, Clematis triloba, Feronia elephanta, Alstonia scholaris and Santalam a/bum mixed with coconut water and honey is an effective treatment for a rutting elephant.)

Acute cases of must have found effective treatment in the hands of traditional Aanavaidyans. Namboodiripad was once called to treat an elephant hit by Mayakkuvedi. The situation had aggravated because, immediately after the effect of the tranquilliser, cold water was not poured over the elephant. To handle this extremely critical condition of the elephant, which was now brought down to his illom with fever, pus formation and oedema, Thampuran developed a new combination of medicines for a prolonged course of almost one and a half years. His perseverance did pay, and the elephant was back to perfect health so as to be able to participate in the next pooram (temple’s annual festival) and temple procession.

Water plays a vital role in maintaining the health and hygiene of an elephant under must. It needs to stay in water for a minimum of three hours a day.

Neer kondu mel kazhukeedil tholi nallathaakum
Sthambham, chadappu, malabhandham athum varaayka
Vaatham shamikkum akhilam balasoukhyamundaam
Sandhikkum, angamathinum bahuthaa bhavikkum

(All ailments associated with must can be eased by water; water makes the skin clean and lustrous, and it keeps the body away from debility, rheumatic problems, stiffness of limbs, and constipation.)

Above all, the rutting period in an elephant builds up its immunity, and when allowed to take its natural course, it also helps to keep the elephant away from major ailments. Modern understanding fails to recognise this and tends to support the commercial requirement of employing an elephant for timber collection or temple festivals by supplying strong anti-must chemicals.

Ill- treating beautiful creatures of the wild
The build and features of the body, the colour of its eye, its skin and tusk -these are the ways to identify a healthy elephant. Honey coloured eyes, ghee coloured shining tusk, and trunk the colour of tender mango leaves, pleasant body odour -these are the signs of a beautiful elephant. The pattern of dung deposit also proves the health of the creature; a normal elephant’s dung would come in six large parts and one smaller blob. More than the perfection in physical features, it is the mental condition of “peace” that is important for the health of an elephant. Elephants are the most lovable of creatures -they need the kind of care we give children. Unfortunately, that is not how they are treated. We hear ghastly stories of elephants being ill- treated by owners, mahouts and doctors alike. Taking an elephant with a broken nail on a steaming-hot mid day for a procession, giving it strong hormones and harsh chemicals during must and taking it for festivals, employing it for very long hours in carrying timber ...

Like Namboodiripad rightly says, elephant rearing is a cruel joke today.
“Vishappum, daahavum, vedanayum aedoru mrigatthinum undennu nammal marakkunnu”
(We tend to forget that an animal has the same feelings of hunger, thirst and pain.)

He thinks this indifference and coldness is just another manifestation of the “ecological indifference” of today’s society. During the pooram in the Trissur temple, the array of decorated and caparisoned elephants is a glorious feast amidst a rising loud human population. But unlike in ancient days, little thought and care is given to the state of health and mind of individual elephants. While it causes great anguish to see these sanctified creatures from the wild undergo torture during such festival, the elephant remains an inseparable part of the psyche of Kerala.

Considering the current trends in the commercialisation of elephant rearing, the need for an integrated approach to healing is more urgent ever before. The relevance of traditional medicine in modern elephant- rearing is more than a free choice; it is a vital link to regenerative elephant healing practices. But the fact remains that the traditional elephant physician faces discouragement and a lack of appreciation. They ask the reason for this disinterest in accepting and promoting successful time tested medical techniques even as many other indigenous systems of tribal and folk medicine gain patronage.

To save the ancient tradition of elephant health care from dying abruptly, it is essential to make the knowledge available to sincere modern- veterinary physicians while we still have experts who have compassion for the animal to impart the treasured traditional knowledge.

[1] Malayalam is the language spoken by the natives of Kerala.
[2] Traditional Medical Science for elephants
[3] Elephant physician
[4] Capture gun loaded with strong tranquilliser used to hit a rutting elephant.

Nattarivu,CFS, Thrissur -27,
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