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Ethnic Medicine and the Tribes of the North-east

03 Mar 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic had seen the Indian population turn to traditional medicine, i.e., AYUSH, for enhancing immunity. Moreover, there are instances where many Ayurveda concoctions have treated diseases. Many households rely on homeopathic medicines for their ailments. But this is the urban population of India, which we are talking about. Choice of a form of treatment is ample and about much debate. What about the people for whom the resources are meager and the quality of healthcare is inferior? This article looks into the section on ethnic or indigenous medicine and how India`s tribes have been practicing the same since time immemorial. 

In the Census 2011, India`s Scheduled Tribe (ST) population was 8.6% of India`s total population. This population has minimal resources of healthcare or medicines, as they are dwelling in economic backwardness. For the medication supply, they depend solely on the plants available in the area. The knowledge about the treatment or the medication is not scribed in any books. These are in the form of "folklore," which is carried forward through different generations. There are no official reports or documentation of these. Various studies have elicited that there are 8000 species of plants and more than 25000 ethnic medications. 

India has a repository of untapped medicinal plants with plenty of associated knowledge that needs to be appropriately used. More than a million traditional medical practitioners in India use medicinal plants for treatment. When talking about this system, India has the codified and the non-codified system of medicine. The codified system involves Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy. These disciplines have numerous written records, documents which go up to the Vedic Age. On the other hand, the non-codified system is followed by the tribal population. 

The Tribes of North-eastern India and Ethnic Medicine

The Mishings are an indigenous group living in Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, and few others in Assam. A few live in and around Pasighat of East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. They are the second largest tribal group in North-East India, after the Bodos tribe. They inhabit near rivers and water bodies, which make them prone to malaria and other water-borne diseases. Throughout time, they have developed their traditional medicine practices, and these are being followed to date. Some other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, like Adi, Apatani, and Nyishi, also follow these treatment methods. They use herbs in fresh drugs, crushed juice, a decoction of drug, powdered medicine for oral intake, and paste for local application on skin diseases and wounds. As already stated, they use the plants which grow in their natural habitat. North-eastern India is more prone to diseases like malaria and jaundice. There has been 68 and 88 treatment modality recorded for malaria and jaundice respectively. They put their faith in the divine power for the cure of ailments. Under the Mishing community`s healing practices, general herbalists, bonesetters, Ojhas related with Bhoot Badha, Dondai using Mantra Tantra, etc., and the herbalists. Certain herbs like Centella asiatia, Houttuyinia cordata, Phyllanthus emblica, and Terminalia citrina are commonly practiced as protective medicine and are widely sold in vegetable shops. Presently all traditional healers of this community do not perform the same functions, and they all do not fall into the same category. Each of them has their field of expertise, including the techniques. They have their methods of diagnosis. By interviewing, it was found that there are different types of traditional healers based on their expertise in northeast India. In one study, 55 medicinal plants from other parts of the Mishing inhabitant area were used by this community in their daily ailment treatment medication. Fifteen were trees, 8 shrubs, and 30 were herbs and climbers. Different parts of the medicinal plant species were used for curing various diseases and mostly leaves (36.84%) were used, followed by the stem (14.03%), root (10.52%), and bark (7.02%). These plants are widely used under traditional healing practices, but due to multiple uses, they are decreasing from their natural habitat, like Acorus calamus, Costus speciosus, Eclipta prostrata, Oroxylum indicum, and Plumbago zeylanica.


One means of eliminating health disparities is by integrating indigenous healing practices with conventional medicine. Professional training and continuing education of existing professionals about safe and effective indigenous healing practices are needed to increase integration and reduce disparities. 


Pradeep T. Traditional ethnomedicinal knowledge of Indian tribes. Current Science. 2016 Feb 25;110(4):486.

Deka N. Traditional Knowledge in North-East India: scope for a sui generis protection. Clarion: International Multidisciplinary Journal. 2014 Feb 1;3(1).

McGrady E. Using Indigenous Healing Practices to Eliminate Health Disparities. International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities & Nations. 2006 Nov 1;6(3).

Shankar R, Lavekar GS, Deb S, Sharma BK. Traditional healing practice and folk medicines used by Mishing community of North East India. Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine. 2012 Jul;3(3):124.

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