In Kerala, awareness of the medical use of plants probably existed since early days of history. The use of iron and the instruments spread in Kerala probably by 5th century B.C. This led to the agrarian trait of the society. The different ‘thinas’ referred to in ancient Tamil literature like pathittupathau, puranaanooru and akanaanooru existed in Kerala also1 which point to the beginnings of agrarian culture.
In Kurunchi area (forests), cardamom was cultivated. There are references about kari or morkkalan (dish prepared with buttermilk) in which cardamom was also added. Other products were thina (Setaria italic Linn.), varaku (Papalum scrobiculatum Linn.) and muthira (Macrotyloma uniflorum (Lam.) Verdc.).
In marutham area (agricultural land), along with paddy with sugarcane was also cultivated. We are not sure whether medicinal properties of these were known to the people then. But seeds of Herbal Knowledge were sown during those ages.
There are references of inchi (Zingiber officinale Rosc.) and elam (Elettaria cardamom Maton) in the travelogues of Marco polo (1293 A.D.). He also mentions about the bark of cinnamon, turmeric and clove.
Chappangam (Caesalpinia sappan Linn.) is another commodity referred to by several travellers. Iben bathutha (1343 A.D.) mentions this as common firewood. But this plant was the main source of dye for clothes during those periods. It will be interesting to note that physicians of Kerala have been using chappangam by the name padmakam since centuries. A different plant is used in North India for the purpose. Sandalwood and eagle wood (Aquilaria agallocha Roxb.- akil in Malayalam) are the other historically important hill produces of medicinal value.
Plants appear in the name of several places of Kerala2 which are medicinally important. Ampazham, eruppa, ummam, kunni, chemmaram, puvvam, thaanni and chengazhineerkizhangu are examples. The places where a particular plant is abundantly seen might be named after it. Even though there are plants everywhere, only the useful one gets a name. To hint thelocation, name of the plant is given to the area.
The culture and language are also very much influenced by Herbal Knowledge. The use of the word ‘chukku’ (Malayalam for dried ginger) with meaning ‘nothing’ is an example. Dried ginger is a basic drug to be added in most of the decoctions. Many herbs like turmeric, curry leaves, and mustard are involved in the traditional cooking of Kerala. The kitchen of a house in Kerala is really a drug store.
Grandmothers usually treat minor illnesses of the family with whatever available in the kitchen. This is called muthassi-vaidyam (grandma’s treatment) or adukkala-vaidyam (kitchen therapy). Compound medicines, especially kashayas (decoctions) were prepared at home based on the physician’s prescriptions. Ingredients of the formulation were usually available on the household premises. ‘Kashayakol’ (stick to measure quantity of water) is used for the purpose. The senior members of the family had the knowledge of herbs and method of preparation. This led to the popularization of Herbal Knowledge and the trend prevails still in the villages of Kerala to some extent.
Joint family system was supportive of this. The household compounds were large enough for the growth of herbs also. In some of the nalukettu houses, there was ‘deenappura’ (separate room for the sick).
Karkadaka-kanji is another social trait related to Herbal Knowledge. In this month of Malayalam era (July-August), the agricultural activities are less. So the people devoted the period to take care of the body. Based on one’s financial capacity, karkidaka-chikitsa (monsoon therapy) was undertaken. Medicated kanji (gruel) is an integral part of this. Preparation of kanji involves many herbs. This is a local tradition without any advice from Vaidya.
Development of herbal knowledge through different religions is also a very fascinating subject of study. Jainism came to Kerala in the 3rd century.By early Christian era it was well established in the society. Trikkanaamatilakam, presently in Thrissur District, was an important Jain centre. The decline of Jainism by several causes was complete by early middle ages. There are Jain temples that remain still in Kerala even though many were converted to Hindu temples. Jains believe in the existence of twenty four Thirthankaras before Lord Mahavira.
Each Thirthankara is associated with a plant. These are planted, protected and revered by the Jains. Majority of these plants have medicinal values. Vata (Ficus bengalensis) saptaparna (Alstonia scholaris), shirisha (Albzzia lebbek), aksha (Terminalia belerica), Jamun (Syzygum cummni), arrayal ( Ficus religiosa), Mango (Mangifera indica), ashoka (Saraca indica), are some of them. Use of different flowers and scents in temple rituals was perhaps initiated by Jains to be followed by other religions.
Buddhism also contributed much to the Kerala culture and thus to Herbal Knowledge. This religion was more influential than Jainism to Kerala. Buddhism may be source through which Ayurveda came to Kerala . The popular text book of Ayurveda in Kerala was authored by a Vagbhata, who was probably a Buddhist as the references in the text indicate. Thus there are some Buddhist elements in the Ayurvedic tradition of Kerala .
Buddhists were pioneers in education. The spread of Sanskrit and Ayurveda beyond caste-ism is probably due to Buddhism. Like Jains Buddhists also had certain religiously important plants to protect and propagate. This might have been adapted later by Hindus also. This can be the reason for the presence of ficus trees in front of temples.
In the later Hinduism of Kerala, we find many plants are associated with rituals. There is use of holy basil (Ocimum santum Linn.), vilva (Aegle marmelos (Lin.), turmeric (Curcuma longa Linn.) etc. as prasada in the temples. Dasapushpas are ten plants which are considered sacred. Many of these do not bear flowers and also are not attractive ones; yet the total plant is called flower. All these, individually and collectively are used as medicines. Dasapushpas are planted on house premises and Hindu women wear these in their hair, especially in the Malayalam month of Karkataka for prosperity.
Saptachada (Alstonia scholaris) and panal (Glycosmis arborea (Roxb.) DC) are the plants related to Ayyappa cult. Another is the concept of nakshatra-vriksha. One has to protect and worship the tree related to one’s star of birth. Approach of the religions to consider certain plants as divine is actually a message of conservation. None of these plants has got any food value or other kind of attraction. Divinity attributed to these can be due to their therapeutic efficacy.
Development of a market for medicinal plants was an important event during middle ages. There are references on market and commodities in several champus and sandesha kavyas 5. Dried raw drugs are sold abundantly in those markets. This was possible due to flourishing medical practice. Vaidyas prescribed single and compound drugs. Formulations had to be prepared at home by the patients as mentioned elsewhere in the paper. They had to collect or purchase the raw materials and Vaidyas or their skilled assistants supervised the preparation if it is a complicated one. This system finds reference in thullal works6 of Nambiar’s (1704-1780) also.
Population explosion, urbanization, deforestation, decline of Ayurveda, fascination to foreign culture, popularity of Allopathic system through Governmental promotion, commercialization are the causes of deterioration of Herbal Knowledge in Modern times.
The lost has to be retrieved light of current patent laws. It also will contribute to the betterment of Ayurvedam which is facing the scarcity of drugs.