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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

A traditional healer combines ancient wisdom and training for healing and livelihood

Updated: Jul 17, 2021


  • In Chhattisgarh, 39-year-old Sarojini Goyal is trained and practicing as a traditional healer, drawing upon her vast knowledge gathered from her parents, and then adding to it with certified courses in naturopathy and botany.

  • Goyal set up a self-help (SHG) group of local women to join her in her quest for healing through nature, which also helped them earn their livelihood.

  • According to the World Health Organization, 65 percent of rural Indian populations use traditional medicines to meet their primary health care needs. Trained traditional healers like Goyal, therefore, play a crucial role in the healthcare system.

When she was a young girl, Sarojini Goyal of the Korba district of Chhattisgarh would often accompany her parents to the nearby forest to collect shoots, leaves, flowers, and fruits of certain medicinal plants. These would then be used to make concoctions that her father and mother would advise to those who would come to their home to cure their ailments. As she grew up, Goyal was determined to hold on to that rich repository of knowledge, and after formal training in naturopathy, started practicing as a traditional healer. Fifteen years on, not only is she a successful healer, but a herbal medicine processing unit that she set up is helping 300 women from villages around Korba earn their livelihood and live a life of dignity.

Chhattisgarh is called India’s herbal state, with over 44 percent of its land covered with forests that support a wide variety of biodiversity. According to the Chhattisgarh State Medicinal Plants Board, there are 1,525 species of medicinal plants in the state. Goyal, who is from the Adivasi community, was familiar with most of these plant species even as a child as she grew up on the fringes of the forest, near the Dudhitanga People’s Protected Area.

Her father was a well-regarded traditional healer in the village. His knowledge was rooted in what he assimilated from his father — Goyal’s grandfather — who was also a healer. “Those communities which live near the forest have a deep understanding of nature and the different properties of trees and plants. I have grown up in such a world. For example, it is typical in an Adivasi home to tie up the red Amru flower in a cloth and keep it at home—it is said to prevent dehydration and vomiting during the hot summers,” Goyal told Mongabay India. “This and the fact that hospitals are usually far, makes these communities have more faith in traditional medicines than others.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 65 percent of rural Indian populations use traditional medicines to meet their primary health care needs. Trained traditional healers like Goyal, therefore, play a crucial role in India’s healthcare system.

Sarojini Goyal (centre) with other SHG members. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.

As a practitioner, Goyal has treated people with various ailments from cough, cold, diarrhoea, and skin ailments to chronic problems. However, if anyone were to come to her requiring critical care, she refers them to the hospital.

“I suggest that after getting critical care treatment, one should have some traditional medicine in order to flush out any toxin from the body,” the 39-year-old said.

Goyal has done her graduation in naturopathy and yoga science and a village botanist course that helped her learn the botanical names of plants and harvest them without hampering the forest. This course was supported by UNDP and the State Medicinal Plants Board.

In 2010, she decided to start a self-help group (SHG) for women of the local villages who could help her prepare the herbal medicines. “Most of the women already knew a lot about the properties of medicinal plants and would use it at home. I helped them expand their knowledge,” Goyal said, “I also wanted to help them earn a livelihood.”

The training began at a basic level — going to the forest, identifying a particular plant, and collecting its shoot or flower for the medicine. They were taught how to clean the plant and then process it — make a mix with some other plant-produce to make the required concoction. In 2013, Goyal launched her own brand of herbal medicine, which was certified by the forest department in 2015, following which the women SHG members got involved in its marketing and raised a herbal garden as well.

According to Tushar Dash, forest rights activist, diversity of knowledge with regards to herbs, trees, and plants, among Adivasi, forest-dwelling communities, is very high and is “active”, practical ecological knowledge. Their understanding of the ecology is high and there is rich documentation about community forest resource conservation.

“The problem in conserving traditional knowledge has been that the species of plants used have been getting destroyed by the forest department intervention. Monoculture cultivation, for example, is replacing diversity, and is robbing resources of food and other necessities,” Dash told Mongabay-India.

India exported USD 330.18 million worth of herbs in 2017-18, registering a growth rateof 14.2 percent over the previous year, and herbal extracts worth USD 456.12 million, with a growth rate of 12.23 percent over the previous year.

Livelihood generation for women

Thirty-five-year-old Sunita Varman, who has been a part of the SHG for the last six years, said that unlike some other women of her group, her knowledge about medicinal plants was minimal when she had joined the group. “But over these six years, my knowledge has increased immensely. Ever since I have started working on this, I use only herbal medications for my family,” Varman said.

From one, there are now 60 SHGs, comprising 300 women, who are involved in the entire process of preparing Goyal’s herbal medicines. “I earn Rs. 5000 every month through my SHG work,” Varman said, “I either use it on my children—to buy them something they need—or put it in savings. My work has helped me both stand on my feet as well as keep my family healthy.”

Rikhi Kanwar, another SHG member, agreed and added that most of them have their herbal gardens at home. The state government had also launched a Home Herbal Garden Scheme a few years back to raise awareness and encourage people to plant their herbs.

Goyal recommends ten medicinal plants to have in homes— tulsi, neem, giloy, aloe vera, brahmi, and ashwagandha being some of them. These plants can help you boost your health and take care of minor ailments, Goyal said. Talking of a raised awareness about traditional medicine, especially over the past few months—since the COVID-19 pandemic hit—she said that there has been an increase in the sale of herbal drugs aimed at boosting immunity. “I have inquiries from allopathic doctors and others on the properties of medicinal plants. I am happy that people are becoming aware of the healing power of nature,” Goyal signed off.

Sunita Varman (in sari) with other SHG members in the herbal garden. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.

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