Preserving tribal knowledge of herbal medicines and edibles in a digital library

Since 2001, CSIR, in association with AYUSH, has been preserving traditional knowledge of Indian herbal medicinal drugs in the form of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). TKDL is available in different foreign languages such as Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and others to prevent the patenting of India's traditional knowledge. So far, TKDL has prevented the patenting of 239 patents by other countries. TKDL has been documenting our knowledge from ancient texts such as Charaka, Sushruta and Siddha.

Medicinal herbs from the forests (a) SALMALI (MOOLA) (Bombax ceiba L.; Root) (b) SVETA PUNARNAVA (PANCHANGAM)
(Boerhavia plumbainea; Whole plant) Photo credit: by Dr.K.Nagaiah, CSIR-IICT

India also has a rich tribal knowledge base. Indigenous and tribal people live close to forest plants and wildlife for food, medicines, and forest materials to construct dwelling units. There is an extensive forest cover in the Himalayan and Aravalli ranges, the Eastern Ghats and the two biodiversity hot spots in Arunachal Pradesh and the Western Ghats.

It is believed that tribal knowledge is on the decline in India. Many reasons have been attributed to this. With forest reserves and developmental projects, the tribal population depends less on the forests for their living.

Traditionally, tribal knowledge has been passed on from one generation to the next through oral communication. The tradition is now on the wane as the new generation moves away from the tribal cultures and habitats. The names and terminologies used by the tribes for plants are region-specific, and the undocumented information will be lost forever. It has also been noted that many times the tribal communities are disinclined to disclose their knowledge. Anthropologists are required to befriend them to get the information.

It has been noted that plants used by the tribal population are different from AYUSH medicinal plants to treat a particular disease. For example, Rauwolfia serpentina is used as an antidote to snakebite by the tribal community, but reserpine isolated from the plant has been used to treat hypertension. In tribal tradition, many fresh leaves are ground into a paste or crushed to extract juice to treat many ailments.

The discovery of artemisinin in the early 1970s is from Artemisia annua, used in China to treat fevers. As per the traditional system, fresh plant juice was used. This knowledge was used by Chinese Scientist You-You Tu to extract artemisinin, an anti-malarial agent. The phytochemists use dried plant materials, which may lead to the missing active principles. There are other ways also to collect the plant materials from the forest. One way is to enquire which of the plants are not eaten cattle and livestock.

Vinca rosea (Catharanthus roseus contains Vincristine anticancer drug) is not attacked by insects nor eaten by animals. Similar is the case of Annona squomosa (sitaphal) that contains acetogenins which are toxic compounds. Cleistanthus collinus, a poisonous plant, is found in the forests of Andhra Pradesh. The Department of Chemistry, Osmania University isolated cleistanthin-B, which is toxic to fish. Oils extracted from the seeds of Butea monosperma is used to treat skin disease, and its flowers, known as flame of the forest, are a popular colouring material. There are many more examples. Millets cultivated by the tribal population look different in colour and shape from those cultivated elsewhere. The nutritional and toxicological aspects of the forest millets need to be examined and possibly popularized widely.

Although there are many monographs like CSIR's Wealth of India: A dictionary of Indian raw materials and industrial products, A.K. Nadkarni's Indian Materia Medica and publications of the Botanical Survey of India, these monographs have listed many medicinal properties of each plant, and they do not provide leads to study biological activity.

It is required to gather and digitize the tribal knowledge on medicinal plants, edibles, heartwood, plant products like gums and colouring matters etc. Plant taxonomists, phytochemists, pharmacologists and other scientists with relevant expertise need to survey and gather forest plants for further studies in the laboratory.

CSIR's TKDL should strive to document tribal knowledge as well. An alternative would be to create a tribal knowledge library of herbal medicines and edibles and link it to TKDL.

Dr Kommu Nagaiah
Chief Scientist & Head
Centre for Natural Products and Traditional Knowledge
CSIR- India Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad 500007, India