Wisdom from the Heart of India

Article excerpt

For hundreds of years, the Bharia and Gond tribes of India's remote Patalkot Valley have eked out a culturally unique and environmentally sustainable lifestyle where plants have played a central role in spiritual beliefs, and the land was treated as Mother. Now, warns Dr Deepak Acharya, an ethnobotanist who has lived at Patalkot for over six years, their remarkable knowledge and inspiring way of life is under threat from outside influences, including the commercial search for the pharmaceutical treasures hidden in the valley's local forests.

When I first saw Patalkot, I was struck by its rugged beauty. Located on the Satpura plateau in the Chhindwara district within Madhya Pradesh State, the geographic 'heart' of India, this horseshoe-shaped, forested valley is ringed by sheer cliffs that in some places rise straight up for hundreds of metres.

Patalkot--which literally means 'below the earth', and derives from the Sanskrit word patal, meaning 'very deep'--is spread over 79 square kilometres and is unique for its forest and herbal wealth. In fact, the Patalkot forest--home to panthers, leopards and other wildlife--is so well hidden that few people outside the valley even knew it existed until the early 1990s.

This isolation has helped preserve the rich ancient ways of local indigenous people--the Bharia and Gond tribes--who have inhabited the valley for hundreds of years. In their valley sanctuary, they have developed unique herbal treatments and uses from local plants, including treating ailments such as measles, cholera, hypertension, diabetes, coughs, snake bites and pain.

Dr Sanjay Pawar from Danielson College, Chhindwara, who has been documenting bhumka (local herbal healer) knowledge for the past few years, says, 'These people have a strong philosophy about caring for and preserving the environment and Mother Nature. Tribal people worship these plants; their herbal heritage is a real treasure for them.'

Unfortunately, the remarkable integrity of this ancient herbal culture and its ancestral tradition of sustainable living is now under threat from the encroachment and influence of modern society. When they re-discovered Patalkot's treasures in the early 1990s, visitors saw a way to make a profit: they brought in teams of harvesters to strip the forests for valuable herbs. Whole sections of forest were cut down to gain easier access to collection sites.

Scientists, NGOs and outsiders too are making an impact on social life here. Various NGOs are making the Patalkot people a cause celebre for their own fundraising aims, and herb 'brokers' have been picking up important plants with the help of unsuspecting locals who, in return, are handed radios, watches and English wines.

'Old people in the community have always refused such offers and they don't respond to people coming from outside; says Dr Surendra Bhade, a primary school teacher from the village of Chimtipur.

The portable radios that were given to the tribal people in exchange for information about where to find the plants now blare through the forest, frightening off wildlife and replacing the communal music that once bound the tribal people together.

Of concern for locals is that the increasing demand for Patalkot's flora has meant important medicinal plants--such as Gudmar (Gymnema sylvestre), Kalihari (Gloriosa superba) and Sarpagandha (Rauwolfia serpentine)--are on the verge of extinction.

Self-sufficiency from nature

Patalkot Valley is home to 24 villages and 15 hamlets with a total population of around 3000.

Legend has it that the kings ruling in this area in the 18th and 19th centuries constructed a long tunnel connecting Patalkot to Pachmarhi in the Hoshangabad district. It is also believed that around 950 AD, when Muslims invaded India, the Bhors dynasty came to the Satpura mountains around modern Chhindwara. They selected Patalkot for its natural resemblance to a fortress--in fact, there's a cave in the valley called Raja Ki Khoh ('Cave of the King'), where the Bhors leader is believed to have stayed. …