The term “ethnobotany” has often been considered synonmymous with “traditional medicine” or with “economic botany”.
By Ashwani Kumar
| September 28th 2009 02:27 AM | Print
Ethnobotany in totality is virtually, a new field of research and if this field is investigated thoroughly and systematically, it will yield results of great value to the ethnologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, plant geographers, ethnobotanists, botanists, linguists and ultimately to phytochemists and pharmacologists.
The term “ethnobotany” has often been considered synonmymous with “traditional medicine” or with “economic botany”. The scope, concepts and implications of ethnobotany have been expanding at a very fast rate (Schultes 1962, Jain, 1967, 1987 A & B).
During last 30 years, studies have proceeded along various lines such as the ethnobotany of specific tribes of certain region, of particular plant groups, diseases and along various other miscellenous subject or inter disciplinary approaches. Through organised study or research in ethnobotany is recent, many earlier publications contain valuable material of ethnobotanical importance. Ethnologies on tribes living in different parts of the world works on indigenous medicines and botany and sometimes even forestry and travel accounts contain data of ethnobotanical signifiance.
Organised study of ethnobotany is only about 4 decades old in India and during this period about 300 papers have been published on various aspects of ethnobotany. These papers describe plants used in medicine, food other material culture, like in building houses and a variety of tools. They also deal with magico-religious association like worship, taboo, offering and totems. In these publications there has not only been considerable narration of known uses and relationship but also duplication in reporting ethnobotanical studies on various sub-groups of the plants kingdom like on algae, fungi, bryophytes, pteridophytes, lichens etc are sub-disciplines and have been name ethnoalgology, ethnomycology, ethnobryology, ethnopteridology, ethnolichenology etc. Studies on special ascepts of botany like systems of classification, medicinal uses, palaeobotany, ecology, ethnomology of plant names etc are also sub-disciplines and have been termed as ethnotaxonomy, ethnomedicobotany, ethnoecology, palaeobotany etc. But when the inquiry in ethnobotany extends beyong ordinary realm of botany and has significant input of another branch of science like archeology or medicine, the work becomes inter disciplinary.
According to Schultes 1962 “Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship which exists between people of primitive societies and their environment. In more simple words, it is an anthropological approach to botany”.
In recent years, much work in this science has been done in the U.S.A., England, France, Mexico, India etc (Minnis , 1976).
The term is not new even to India . Kirtikar and Basu (1935) stated that the ancient Hindus should also be given the credit for cultivating what is now called ethnobotany.
India is very rich in ethnobotanical information. About 80% of India’s population lives in villages and a considerable proportion comprises of tribals living in remote forest areas. The population of several districts in Central and Eastern India is predominantly tribal. The different traditions, beliefs, needs and cultures of the various tribes and the diversity of flora in India richly contribute to plant folklore. Ethnomedicine is here taken to mean knowledge and practice that have survived only folklore in certain human societies particularly among the primitive and rural societies. There is a world wide interest in folklores about medicinal herbs as a new sources of drugs. Study of folklores fall within the discipline of ethnobotany.
Plants have profoundly influenced the culture and civilization of many in several countries. In India traditional tales, mythological studies and events in the epics, as also in numerable religious practices of worship in the household and in the temples, in festivals, birth and death are all replete with references to plants. These associations can be traced from the prehistoric period to modern times in our virtually unbroken line (Rendle, 1967).
Tree worship plays an important role in the religious history of Aryan race in India. The ancient Indian cultures flourished in the midst of dense forests. Sages and Rishis used to impart knowledge to students in their hermitages in dense forests. Since plants are the oldest associations of man, they are offered in worship of several deities. Plants are used for religious performances, among all races of mankind. In Buddhist literature many references of tree worship and tree culture are available (Chaudhary and Pal, 1997).
Plants have been an integral part of Indian life and culture and hence all aspects of folk literature, namely folk songs, folk tales and folk proverbs of our country have profuse reference to trees, shrubs, climbers and their flowers and fruits.
Folk songs are particularly rich in references to flowers and fruits. Folk songs sung on various occasion from birth to death, in times of joy and sorrow, in festivals, ceremonies and rites have abundant references to plants. Folks proverbs, having references to plants are indicative of the deep insight, common sense and practical wisdom of the common folk (Agarwal, 1997).
Although folk literature in different regional languages in India has developed and evolved in different environments and circumstances, the overall literary characters of folk literature of the country shows striking similarity . Perhaps, this is because the inherent culture of several regions of our nation is the same (Jain, 1997).
Folk songs : References to the trees and flowers are found profusely in folk song, particularly in songs of worship of plants. Folk songs in praise of Bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris Schard. ex. J.C.Wendl), Basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.), and Amaltas (Cassia fistula Linn.) are sung, believing these plants are the abode of several Gods and Goddess (Agarwal, 1997).
Flowers, fruits and plants as offerings : Religious songs have references to offering of flowers and fruits Palas (Butea monosperma O. Kuntze.), Kachnar (Bauhinia variegata Linn.), and Mahua (Madhuca indica Gmel.) etc bear flowers and fruits which are offered to Gods and Goddess to invoke blessings for the fulfiliment of wishes (Matiyani, 1957).
Festivals of trees and flowers : In Bundelkhand, at the time of the festival of Mamulian girls decorate the spiny, green branches of Babul (Acacia arabica Willd.) with colourful flowers. They offer various fruits to the trees for the fulfillment of their wishes (Sankrityayan and Upadhyaya, 1960).
Trees, plants, flowers and fruits in rite : Certain trees like Basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.), Palas (Butea monosperma O.Kuntze.), Sandal wood (Santalum album Linn.) find a prominent place in songs sung in religious rites. On auspicious occasions, such as birth of babies, thread ceremonies, marriages and other religious functions, all have associations with mandaps made from bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris Schard. ex. J.C. Wendl) and plant culms, the paintings of floors with sandal (Santalum album Linn.) and the decoration of doors with mango leaves. In thread ceremonies Palas (Butea monosperma O.Kuntze.) is an essential item Uppadhyaya, 1960).
Good omens from trees and plants : On important occasions, when man feels that his efforts and work are enough to bring forth result, he begins to depend on good and bad omens and oracles and totems Anonymous (1959). To get leaves of peepal ( Ficus religiosa Linn.), to burn camphor in a sandalwood (Santalum album Linn.) lamp, to wear a garland of Basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.), or to keep plants of basil and sandal wood in the house are symbols of wealth and religious faith. It is believed that if basils fruits are put on the head of a person at the time of death, he goes to heaven.