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ndian

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olklifeFolk Medicine and Biodiversity

A QUARTERLY NEWSLETTER FROM NATIONAL FOLKLORE SUPPORT CENTRE VOLUME 2 ISSUE 4 SERIAL NO. 13 APRIL - JUNE 2003

BHAISHAJYAGURU, THE BUDDHA OF MEDICINE

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B O A R DKomal Kothari

O F

T R U S T E E S

C H A I R P E R S O N

National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC) is a nongovernmental, non-profit organisation, registered in Chennai dedicated to the promotion of Indian folklore research, education, training, networking and publications. The aim of the centre is to integrate scholarship with activism, aesthetic appreciation with community development, comparative folklore studies with cultural diversities and identities, dissemination of information with multidisciplinary dialogues, folklore fieldwork with developmental issues and folklore advocacy with public programming events. Folklore is a tradition based on any expressive behaviour that brings a group together, creates a convention and commits it to cultural memory. NFSC aims to achieve its goals through cooperative and experimental activities at various levels. NFSC is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation. CONTENTS Editorial.....................................................3 Dohada (Pregnancy Cravings)........................5 Hot / Cold ..................................................6 Dreams.......................................................7 Indigenous Knowledge Erosion .....................10 Medicinal Plants ..........................................12 An Introduction to the Tamil Siddhas...............14 Folk Medicinal Wisdom ................................19 Green Health Boom.......................................21 Book Review......................................23 Review Books ................................................24 C O V E R I L L U S T R AT I O NFront: Medicine Buddha or Bhaishajyaguru is considered to be the physician of human passions, the unfailing healer of the ills of samsara. He is dark blue in colour and holding a myrobalan (arura) plant in his right hand and a bowl of amrita medicine in his left hand. Courtesy: A Hand Book of Tibetan Culture (1993, London, Sydney, Auckland and Johannesburg: Rider)

Director, Rupayan Sansthan, Folklore Institute of Rajasthan, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

T R U S T E E SAjay S. MehtaExecutive Director, National Foundation for India, India Habitat Centre, Zone 4-A, UG Floor, Lodhi Road, New Delhi

Ashoke Chatterjee

B-1002, Rushin Tower, Behind Someshwar 2, Satellite Road, Ahmedabad

N. Bhakthavathsala Reddy Dadi D. Pudumjee

Dean, School of Folk and Tribal Lore, Warangal Managing Trustee, The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, B2/2211 Vasant Kunj, New Delhi

Deborah Thiagarajan Jyotindra Jain

President, Madras Craft Foundation, Chennai Professor and Dean, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Molly Kaushal

Associate Professor, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, C.V. Mess, Janpath, New Delhi

Munira Sen

Executive Director, Madhyam, Bangalore

K. Ramadas

Deputy Director, Regional Resources Centre for Folk Performing Arts, Udupi

P. Subramaniyam

Director, Centre for Development Research and Training, Chennai

Y. A. Sudhakar Reddy Veenapani Chawla

Reader, Centre for Folk Culture Studies, S. N. School, Hyderabad Director, Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Research, Pondicherry

EXECUTIVE TRUSTEE AND DIRECTORM.D. Muthukumaraswamy

S TA F FAssistant DirectorsT.R. Sivasubramaniam Administration Miriam Nelken Programmes (Volunteer) Eva Glanzer Programmes (Volunteer)

REGIONAL RESOURCE PERSONSV. Jayarajan Kuldeep Kothari Moji Riba K.V.S.L. Narasamamba Nima S. Gadhia Parag M. Sarma Sanat Kumar Mitra Satyabrata Ghosh Shikha Jhingan Susmita Poddar M.N. Venkatesha

T H I S

I S S U E

The focus of April June 2003 issue is on Folk Medicine and Biodiversity. Visual motifs courtesy: Sangs-Rgyas Stong: An Introduction to Mahayana Iconography (1988, Gangtok (India): Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology), and A Hand Book of Tibetan Culture (1993).

Programme OfficersM. Ramakrishnan Gita Jayaraj

(Publications)

N E X T

I S S U E

Programme AssistantsPrimadonna Khongwir Rita Deka

The theme of the July - September issue of Indian Folklife is Folklore and Biopolitic. The forthcoming issue proposes to explore how folklore expresses the rich symbolism of the human body that exists as a way for social groups to express about their relationship to community, nature and state in a hierarchical society. Closing date for submission of articles is September 10, 2003. All communications should be addressed to: The Editor, Indian Folklife, National Folklore Support Centre, 7, 5th Cross Street, Rajalakshmi Nagar, Velachery, Chennai 600 042 (India), Tele/Fax: 91-44-22448589/ 22450553, email: info@indianfolklore.org/ muthu@md2.vsnl.net.in/ nfsc_india@yahoo.co.in

LibrarianR. Murugan

Archival AssistantRanga Ranjan Das

INDIAN FOLKLIFE EDITORIAL TEAMM.D. Muthukumaraswamy Editor M. Ramakrishnan Associate Editor K. Kamal Ahamed Page Layout & Design

Volunteer (Research Project)Rengin Aktar

Support StaffY. Pavitra P.T. Devan K. Kamal Ahamed V. Thennarasu C. Kannan

h t t p : / / w w w . i n d i a n f o l k l o r e . o r g2INDIAN FOLKLIFE VOLUME 2 SERIAL NO. 13 ISSUE 4 APRIL-JUNE 2003

Editorial

LIGHTING A YERCUM FIBRE WICKM.D.Muthukumaraswamy

veryday as I walk to the Centre for work I pass through two folk medicine shops in Velachery, one of the fast growing hi-tech suburbs of Chennai city. The shops themselves are semiotic delights as they assemble a wide range of sacred objects used in worship along with folk medicine. For the familiar eye the shops represent a mindset, a worldview and a luxury fast disappearing in the countryside. The citys economy and vastness have facilitated the business of these shops and their sheer presence anachronistic to those who belong to the popular realm - charts out an unstated vision of alternatives. Let me first of all name some of the herbs sold in these shops. Arugam grass, basil, climbing brinjal, Indian pennywort, bael, jamoon plum nut, turmeric, gallnut, Malabar nut, lotus stem wick, Yercum fibre wick, dry ginger and neem flower make up common list along with items that would ward off evil eye such as black twines, pumpkin pictures and yellow twines. If sacred things varying from basil bead garlands and holy ash pockets to lamps and wicks form yet another set available, then, traditional almanacs, astrological chapbooks and books of prayer songs complete the picture. Medicine, belief and worship shape the syntax of these shops and certain objects like turmeric, basil and Yercum traverse through all the three realms. Indicators of a larger paradigm basil and turmeric have found entries in the encyclopedia of South Asian Folklore (2003) edited by Margaret A. Mills, Peter J. Claus and Sarah Diamond. Yercum is yet to make its place in any encyclopedia including the Tamil one, Abithanachintamani. Yercum is a milky plant that grows even in a mound of trash all over the Tamil landscape. Yercum sports small white flowers with violet veins along the edges of the petals. Children are often advised not to play with the milk of Yercum plant, as it is feared to be poisonous. Although ruthlessly destroyed if it isYercum Plant

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found in the backyard of any house, Yercum is believed to be the most favourite plant of Ganesh, the remover of all obstacles. During Ganesh Chadurthi festival there is sudden demand for Yercum flowers. Ganesh figurines made out of Yercum stems are considered to be of extraordinary significance and auspicious quality. Lighting a Yercum fibre wick in front of Ganesh is believed to bring boons unparalleled. Nonetheless no plausible explanation exists in the folklore of Ganesh that would connect him to Yercum. On the contrary there is quite a body of negative folklore surrounding Yercum. In the recently published ten-volume collection of Tamil folksongs (2001) edited by Aru. Ramanathan, one folksong refers to Yercum as one of the herbs that may be used to abort an unwanted child. (Volume 3, Page 76 Song number 412). In fact, Yercum is a Tamil cultural sign that subscribes to certain incompleteness and so to infinity of interpretations. Tying a Yercum fibre twine around the hip of a child is believed to cure diarrhoea and ward off any Lord Dhanvantari, the Original Teacher of Ayurveda possible stomach ailments. It is possible that Yercum kills shigella, a highly virulent microbe responsible for half of all episodes of bloody diarrhoea in young children. Nobody has ever proved it yet. Yercums transference from a sacred/feared plant to a medicinal herb is a path familiar to a hermeneutic that wraps itself in itself and enters the domain of languages. It is this hermeneutics that reveals the cultural processes at work because it shows how cultural signs never cease to implicate themselves. If culture were to be seen as a dynamic process we cannot believe that cultural signs exist primarily, originally, actually, as coherent, pertinent and systematic marks. The ambivalent position of Yercum in Tamil culture exposes this fundamental nature of cultural signs. Floating they are, they gain meaning, place and purpose in lifes moments. Lighting a Yercum fibre wick in front of Ganesh or tying a Yercum fibre twine around the hip of a child may emerge from someone moments of despair s facilitated by tradition. Often they cannot and do not stand the test of scientific testimony. Especially when it comes to the case of folk medicine the main argument revolves around its scientific verifiability. The domain shift results in sev