A mission to revive and promote traditional health care systems — Guni traditions — in India.
Herbal medicine is the oldest form of healthcare known to mankind. Much of the medicinal use of plants developed through observations of wild animals, and by trial and error. As time went on, each tribe added the medicinal power of herbs in their area to its knowledge base. With industrialization and urbanization, this store house of information has depleted considerably. However, certain groups of indigenous people have closely guarded this valuable information. One such group in India is the Guni, or Traditional Health Practitioners, and other such groups scattered in various countries. Rashtriya Guni Mission in its effort towards revitalizing traditional health systems has been identifying these traditional health practitioners (Gunis) in order to re-establish a medical system that is indigenous, easily accessible, effective and affordable.
Since time immemorial, intelligent animals, including man, have been using the therapeutic compounds lodged by nature in herbs to cure various ailments, illness and diseases. From the Aborigines of Australia to the Yanomami tribes of the Amazon rainforest, from the Indus valley civilization to the Mayans, human beings for centuries have been using naturally available materials to cure wounds, treat diseases and restore health. If one goes back about 250 years there were no synthetic medicines, and the only treatment was the use of herbal, mineral and animal drugs.
India, a country rich in biodiversity and herbal plants, has a mature indigenous medical heritage which in modern terms is described as ‘complimentary medicine’. It is one of the countries which has provided legal status to seven non-allopathic systems of medicine, namely Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Tibetan / Amchi Medicine. All these systems function today in India, as parallel streams along with the mainstream, allopathic medicine, with very little interaction between them.
Ancient scriptures and literatures like Rig Veda (4000 BC) clearly mention the healing properties of plants. Further, Ayurveda, a branch of medicine, has evolved which specifically talks about herbal medicines in detail. In the past various efforts have been made to document available medicines and plants though various medicine journals like Shushruta Sanhita and Charaka Sanhita. Centuries ago, the traditional system of medicine was highly developed and was promoted especially among traditional health practitioners like herbal doctors (Vaidyas) and Gunis (Traditional Health Practitioners).
Traditional Medicine (TM)
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ‘Traditional Medicine’ as knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness. Traditional Medicine and indigenous medicine are comprehensive terms, both used to refer to systems such as traditional Chinese medicine, Arabic medicine, Indian systems of medicine like Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani and Siddha. TM therapies include medication therapies (if they involve use of herbal medicines, animal parts and/or minerals) and non medication therapies (if they are carried out primarily without the use of medication, as in the case of yoga, acupuncture, manual therapies and spiritual therapies).
Traditional Medicine is based on the needs of individuals. Different people may receive varied treatments, even if according to modern medicine they suffer from the same disease. TM is based on a belief that each individual has his or her own constitution and social circumstances which result in different reactions or causes of disease and therefore its treatment.
In some Asian and African countries, up to 80% of the population relies on TM for their primary health care needs. People in rural areas depend upon traditional healing systems for their effectiveness. Hospitals are sporadic, and as most of the people don’t have health-insurance, going to doctors representing Western Medicine is very expensive. As allopathic doctors are not always accessible to rural patients, traditional healing systems have a vital role in supplementing the modern health care system. People consult traditional healers because TM is cheap, has better cultural acceptability, better compatibility with the human body and less side effects.
Under the impact of industrialization and urbanization, western medicine has displaced indigenous medical systems in most countries, and in the process has left many without any health care. Traditional medicinal knowledge is rapidly disappearing, owing to cultural change and declining access — in both urban and rural areas — to sources of natural medicinal products. Most villages in the world are no longer surrounded by the natural habitat that formerly served as a medicine cabinet, and bodies of folk knowledge that had accumulated and been honed for thousands of years are disappearing at an alarming rate.
On other hand, the knowledge of traditional health practices is very well encashed by the big companies. The benefits are going to corporations rather than real people — those holding the knowledge, like the Guni traditional health practitioners. Gunis have not been given due status in terms of either social or legal recognition. These healers, for the most part, are not officially recognized by governments. They operate outside formal health structures.
Traditional Health Practitioner – Guni Deva ji
Initiative to revive
TM can play a supplementary role to the mainstream primary health care system. Traditional medicine can be codified, regulated, taught openly and practiced widely and systematically, and benefits from thousands of years of experience can be utilized. Initiatives have been taken to recognize and bring the traditional health practitioners under the fold of the formal public health system.
One such initiative is Rashtriya Guni Mission (RGM) which was formed in 1998 in Udaipur, Rajasthan. It works to strengthen the traditional health systems and its practitioners (Guni), develop communities towards traditional health systems, conserve medicinal plants, and promote and create awareness in the community about traditional knowledge.
How it started
Bhanwar Dhabhai, the founder of Rashtriya Guni Mission
Rashtriya Guni Mission was started by Bhanwar Dhabhai, 25 years ago. In the year 1988 when Bhanwar Dhabhai was working as a social worker, there was an outbreak of diphtheria in Charmar village, of Udaipur district and 15 children died due to lack of proper health care centers.
This incidence aroused a question in her mind: "What was the system in the ancient past that used to save the lives of these people when modern health services were not available and who were the people who used to provide health services?” The search for an answer took her across forests and far flung areas and brought her in touch with sages, hermits and people who have been providing health services for generations, and quietly passing their knowledge on to the next generation. The one-to-one interaction with this vast treasure house of indigenous knowledge encouraged her to find other such carriers of traditional health systems.
Bhanwar Dhabhai soon realized that this is the better option for healthcare for tribal and poor communities. She formed an informal group of Ayurvedic practitioners, social workers and with the help of non-profits working in other villagers, started identifying traditional medical practitioners, or the Gunis — meaning "the virtuous ones". Since then, she has established a strong network of traditional health systems in 8 states of northern India, including Rajasthan, Uttaranchal, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, and Jharkhand, with over 1500 active Gunis. This was made possible through collaboration with like-minded organizations like NGO, CBO, Youth Group, SHG, etc.
Who is a Guni?
Guni are those people who include diverse health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant and mineral based medicine, manual techniques and exercises applied separately or in combination to treat, diagnose or prevent illness.
How these people are trained or acquire the healing wisdom is quite interesting. Once man realized the significance of the "wonder of herb", they recorded them in mind, learned them by initiation and transmitted the knowledge orally from generation to generation or through "Guru-Shrishya Parampara" (teacher-disciple relationship). Many learned from their elders (who were in this profession for a long time) and worked with them in identifying and collecting the herbal plants and preparing medicines.
They also learned about medicinal herbs by direct observations of animals in the wilderness. Animal and birds have a strong natural instinctive feel for the right medicinal herbs. They consume them or rub their body parts against the medicinal plant to cure their ailments and illness. With these observations and their own experimentation by trial and error, Gunis mastered the use of herbal medicines and were able to diagnose diseases and administer and prescribe medicines effectively.
Guni treating patient
In almost all villages in India one can find people of any caste or community who treat different diseases with local plants or "jadi-butis" (medicinal plants). Jadi-buti includes crude plant material such as leaves, flowers, fruit, seed, stems, wood, bark, roots, rhizomes or other plant parts. These non degree-holder doctors posses distinctive and astonishing competence in bone setting, curing skin diseases, asthma, snake bites and various human and animal ailments. They are capable of doing wonders and that’s why they are named Gunis.
Guni treating patient
These practitioners are known by different names at different places in India such as Vaidu, Vaidhyaraj, Amchis, Gaitas, Uche and Danga Bhagat. But by different literature in the world they are called as tribal doctors, bare-footed doctors, herbal doctors, tribal medicine men (TMM), herbalists, folk healers, and folk and laymen practitioners. International organizations such as WHO, IUCN and WWF have recognized them as traditional health practitioners (THPs).
Guni Rathan Lal Kumhar instructing patients about dosage of medicines to be taken
Gunis have their own work ethics, which is quite fascinating. Gunis do not differentiate people on the basis of caste or class while doing their job. Most of the Gunis treat without any fee; they use their expertise as a social service and do not try to profit from it. Since these Gunis regard their art and competency as a patent gifted by God they do not share the name, identification and qualities of the herbs they use. On the one hand, this helps to maintain the purity and quality of herbal medicine usage, but on the other this leads to the disappearance of knowledge with the passing away of the Guni — hence the need to document and create a knowledge-sharing platform to save this knowledge for future generations.
Equipment used by Gunis for preparing traditional medicines
Preparation of herbal medicine for diabetes
Preparation of herbal medicine
Preparation of herbal medicine
Activities of RGM
RGM started with the goal of providing low cost, easily accessible and effective health services through the protection and promotion of traditional medicine systems, at the same time enabling biodiversity conservation by promoting traditional medicinal knowledge.
The organization has a number of objectives to fulfill, they are:
- Revival and promotion of traditional systems of medicine.
- To establish traditional health practitioners (Guni) in society.
- To develop and revitalize community-based health care systems.
- To promote sustainable conservation and identification of medicinal plants and provide scientific base for validation of traditional health care practices.
- To re-organize the traditional knowledge and methods and reestablish them at the community level.
- To cater to the most health needs possible at the community level on the basis of community initiatives and traditional methods.
To fulfill the above objectives RGM has initiated a number of activities. Some of the prominent ones are as follows.
1. Guni search and identification
RGM searches for and identifies Gunis who reside in hills and interior village areas and who have knowledge of traditional health systems, with the help of its grass-root networking partners, local governing bodies, school teachers, anganwadi workers, etc.
Criteria for identifying a Guni
- He/she inherits the knowledge traditionally or learned it through a guru — i.e. sishya parampara (teacher disciple system) — and who treat with jadi-buti (medicinal plants) or any other indigenous practices.
- He/she has the knowledge for identifying, utilizing, harvesting and conserving these medicinal plants.
- He/she should know the after-effect for medicinal plants with particular diseases and should diagnose traditionally through proper symptoms.
- He/ she should have the knowledge of how to formulate the medicines with jadi-buti, and be able to define the required dosage to any person and instructions or restrictions that one should follow.
Individuals who include supernatural spirituality (jhad-phuk) into his/her traditional medicine practices are not considered.
The objective of the process is to validate traditional health practitioners, ensuring their practices as safe and effective, with the goal of regenerating the knowledge base of traditional medicinal practices and evidence-based data.
2. Certification by local governing body
Once the existence of a Guni in a specific area is known, information about the Guni is gathered from local people, such as: how many years the Guni has been treating patients, in which disease is the Guni an expert, how many patients he treats in a month, etc. Then the Guni is approached to get information about his treatment process, which herb is being used to treat a specific disease and from whom he got the knowledge, etc.
Expert committee interviewing Gunis for the certification process
After this process is over, the Guni applies for certification from the local governing body. Once he is approved, with the help of experienced ayurvedacharya, RGM analyzes which medicinal plants are used by Guni for treatment and whether it is mentioned somewhere else, like in a botanical review, or not. If there is some formulation which is not mentioned elsewhere but which is found to be unique and patients get relief from it, then it is documented as a unique formulation.
3. Guni training
After the Guni search and identification, to increase their capacity and capability five 5-day Guni training programs are organized in three phases. The training program will cover the various aspects of traditional systems of medicine with a focus on developing the Gunis as trained health providers and to associate the Guni with income generation by the end of the training.
Senior Guni Birbal Ram Vishnoi giving information to new Gunis during training about anatomy
Guni training program
In the first phase of training, Guni knowledge is increased through a knowledge exchange program. And then discussion is made on the following points:
- Information about the history of traditional health systems
- When, how and from whom did Guni get their knowledge of the traditional health systems
- Importance of health and hygiene in human life
- Information about dietary and food practices
- Relation between health and environment
- Information about human physiology and anatomy
- Information about home remedies and primary treatment
- What should be role of Gunis in future society?
- Knowledge of seasonal diseases, symptoms and their treatment
- Information about local diseases in women and children, their reasons, symptoms and treatment.
In the second phase, a forest visit is organized for identification and utilization of ethno-medicinal plants in their natural habitat. These visits expose the Gunis to the various medicinal plants available within their surroundings and also their level of availability is ascertained. Information such as name, identity, disease for which it can be used, how to use, etc., are given and also shared among Gunis so that after identification of a medicinal plant their herbarium can be developed.
Gunis identifying medicinal plants during forest exposure
In the third and last phase all Gunis formulate their medicine and describe their formulation to other Gunis, like the medicinal plant used to prepare it, the quantity used, method of preparation, for which diseases it can be used, how to consume it and how long, etc. These formulations are further verified for their efficacy by the Ayurvedic physician, the taxonomist verifies the various ingredients used by the Guni.
At the end of the training Gunis are provided with a medicinal kit which contains medicines and useful things required for treatment.
4. Guni clinic
Guni clinic managed by Guni Prithvi Singh and his wife
Guni clinic managed by Guni Varda Ram ji
Gunic clinics are established in the Guni’s village, which provides preventive, curative and promotive healthcare that is easily available, affordable and effective. In these Guni clinics patients with various diseases like asthma, joint pain, piles, skin diseases, leucorrhoea, and hemorrhage are treated by Gunis through traditional health systems. Through the Guni clinics there has been improvement in the working capacity and self-confidence of the Gunis, as they now enjoy the faith of the community.
5. Herbal garden development
To protect, promote and create awareness about medicinal plants available at the local level, RGM has established home herbal gardens, school herbal gardens and Guni herbal gardens.
Guni herbal gardens are established in Gunis’ private land, in which medicinal plants are grown to be used for the treatment of patients. The medicines prepared by fresh garden plants are more effective. In this way the Guni no longer have to go to the forest to collect herbs, and this helps to preserve the medicinal plants in the forest.
Nursery of medicinal plants at Guni Ruparam home
School herbal gardens helps to create awareness and interest among children about medicinal plants. They are taught how to identify them, what are their medicinal uses, and how to protect and take care of them. The children are given responsibility for taking care of herbal gardens so that they remain in connection with medicinal plants.
Herbal garden at Guni’s house
In home herbal gardens, 10-15 different plants are grown that can be used to cure some common diseases like fever, cold, cough, mouth ulcer, diarrhea, stomach infection, etc., at home by the people themselves. This also saves people time and money. These home herbal gardens create a habit in local people to preserve medicinal plants and it also facilitates increased knowledge of medicinal plants in the general population.
6. Seed banks
Seed bank of medicinal plants at Guni Hazari Singh’s village Kachabli
Seed bank at Sangat Guni Ashram
To store and preserve medicinal plant seeds, seed banks have been set up on Guni land. Seeds from these banks are used to grow medicinal plants and also for preparing some herbal medicines. Seed banks act as hubs for seed exchange and knowledge-sharing among Gunis from different villages.
7. Health camps and herbal festivals
RGM from time to time organize health camps and herbal festivals to promote traditional health systems and Gunis. Various diseases such as diabetes, eczema, stomach ache, heart trouble, asthma, joint pain, fever, piles, skin diseases, leucorrhoea, hemorrhage, etc., are treated. Gunis not only treat patients but also share their knowledge about common medicinal plants available in their locality and how to use them. Medicines and other nutritional food are also distributed at a very marginal cost.
Herbal festival organized by RGM
These activities, in addition to bringing recognition to the Gunis, enhance the confidence of Gunis. Along with providing affordable health care to the community, it creates a platform for the awareness, appreciation and acceptance of the forgotten traditional medicinal system.
8. Guni meeting, seminars and workshops
Guni meetings are organized every month in different districts and states. In these meetings Gunis present their work, share their experience and discuss the diseases treated and problems faced during treatment or herbal medicine preparation. New medicinal plants are identified.
Guni Vardaram, Guni Bhera and Guni Ghani Mohammed
discussing usefulness of a medicinal plant
Guni seminars and workshops are organized at district, state and national level from time to time in which discussion is done to improve the condition of Gunis and how government and non government organizations can support them.
9. Documentation and assessment of Guni knowledge
RGM documents the indigenous knowledge the Gunis possess– i.e. the name of the plant used, part used, the method in which the medicine is taken, the dosage, the food regime, the symptoms by which the disease is diagnosed, etc.
Documentation of Guni knowledge by RGM Ayurveda doctor
The Community Health Knowledge Register (CHKR)
Traditional medicinal knowledge is present in the community as oral folklore. RGM has documented this indigenous knowledge in the form of a community health knowledge register. This is an important document to protect intellectual property rights. These registers are kept as a treasure of the village, as it will protect the locally-available bio resources and will provide ownership rights to the community.
Community Biodiversity Register (CBR)
Prevents erosion of biological resources and knowledge. The CBR documents all biological resources and knowledge, its properties, products, uses (economic, religious, socio-cultural), its mention in any folk tale, song or any other medium of communication. The CBR thus acts as a tool for remembering. The empowerment process that it unleashes will further help in advocating the cause of traditional health practitioners.
In the past, most Gunis did not wish to impart their knowledge to others. This led to the disappearance of knowledge with the passing away of the Guni. Therefore, the organization felt that a process of documentation was the only way to save the available knowledge for future generations.
Gunis — Traditional healers in rural India
Bhanwar Dhabal’s efforts to bring the ‘Gunis’ under one platform has been a successful venture, not only in Rajasthan but throughout India under the ‘Rashtriya Guni Mission’. In order to strengthen the mission of RGM, a large number of institutions have acclaimed their work. Some of them are: People Health Assembly Award Bangladesh (2000), Switzerland Award for Empowering Traditional Rural Healers (2005), Health Excellence Award (2000) by the International Institute of Health Sciences Calcutta, 16th Godfary Phillips Bravery Awards (2008) by Women’s World Summit, and many others.
Traditional medicinal systems have their origin in nature. Forests and other ecosystems from time immemorial have acted as the colleges, universities and research centers for traditional health practitioners and acted as virtual hospitals. Industrialization and the population explosion have led to the over-exploitation and abuse of these fragile ecosystems. There is an urgent need to protect and conserve our bio-diversity for a healthy society.
Along with the forests and other biomes, the practitioners of traditional medicine also appear to be at a greater risk of extinction. The initiative of Rashtriya Guni Mission to identify, encourage, train and create a network among the Traditional Health Practitioners is commendable. These efforts will not only revive traditional medicinal systems but will also help to preserve natural ecosystems for coming generations.
Throughout the world one can find traditional systems connected to agriculture, health, the economy and natural resource management. If these systems are reestablished in society they will not only help to improve the economy but also help in strengthening our local resources. These systems are beneficial for the entire human community.
Resource: A list of some common herbs, roots and tubers with medicinal value used by Gunis can be downloaded here (PDF).