Stepping into the Medicinal Plants section of Washington Botanical garden, I was taken by a pleasant surprise. A huge life size photograph of two women, clad in traditional attire of Sari and Mundu; squeezing the sap out of some herbal concoction. More than the Ayurveda connection, it delighted me to see two typical neighbourhood women right in the middle of Washington DC, just a few minutes away from the White House and Senate Building. They looked every bit women next door, on the roads, in the bus, at the local market.
Looking around, I saw many visitors eagerly observe the picture and read the descriptor below. Swelling with pride, I wanted to shout to the thronging masses that the picture represented the legacy of Kerala, my State. And that the picture was just a sneak peak into the vast possibilities of Ayurveda; so on and so forth. Even while showcasing a primeval form of treatment – squeezing the juice out of some wild herbs, the ordinary women in the picture were making a few facts straight for me. America acknowledges the pioneering role that Kerala plays in the administration of medicinal herbs. This meant that it also recognizes the science of Ayurveda.
Not that one needed to see this picture to underline the significance that Ayurveda has gained in the realm of holistic cure. Statistics lends credibility to the fact that Kerala is indeed at the global centre stage of Ayurveda cure; just like the picture taking centre stage in Washington DC. At an institutional level, much has to be done to reassert and retain the purity of this science which has been corrupted by several me-too players trying to duplicate the efficacy of this stream of medicine. However, it goes without saying that it’s best to leave the dynamics of this legacy to be managed by the concerned government bodies.
While it’s up to the government machinery to review policies and bring about guidelines to streamline and legitimatize the Ayurveda practice in the State, as a Non Resident Keralite living in the US, the above picture and the medicinal plants’ showcase at the Botanical garden triggered a silent revolution in my mind - to learn more about medicinal plants and to encourage my friends and families back home to get back to medicinal herb gardening.
After a few minutes of staring at the photograph, I walked across the narrow boulevards in the medicinal herbs section. Believe me, it felt like walking on a familiar village pathway back home. Even with limited knowledge of medicinal plants, I was delighted to observe that a vast majority of them could be traced back to the flora of our State. Very many little shrubs, creeping vines, branched out plants, and tall trees reminded me of life in Kerala. I noticed that some of the plants showcased were commonly perceived as weeds. Some others only adorned our frontyard gardens. Yet some others were part of our ancestral homes and sadly haven’t made it to the modern day home gardens. Needless to say, our authentic Ayurvedic practitioners would know all of them by their name and would know what use to put them to.
A big pot nurtured a sizeable ‘Gandharaajan’ plant (Gardenia Gummifera). Underneath was written the antiseptic properties of this plant. It took me to my childhood days when there were a few very old plants in the frontyard of my parents’ house. Gandharaajan instantly reminded me of another similar flowering plant called ‘Nandyarvettom’ which was used extensively to treat eye conjunctivitis and for cooling the eyes. I remember, when it was in full bloom, it left no stone unturned. Early mornings, with its soothing, calming fragrance permeating the whole compound, stepping into the garden was as blissful as aromatherapy.
At the end of a walkway, I noticed a thick bush from which familiar serrated leaves jutted out, crying for my attention. I shouted saying ‘Communist Pacha!’and instantly went back in time - yet another trip to days of childhood when for bruises we quickly crushed a few leaves and applied its juice, leaving the cure to Nature. And quite interestingly, this was done often, as a matter of habit, making no fuss about the umpteen falls and the resultant injuries.
Hibiscus, Ashokachethi and little formations of Mukutti, Jasmine, Thulasi, a coconut tree bearing bunches of the fruit, a cocoa tree with big cocoa fruits- these were just a few of the plant/ tree delights that welcomed me at every little turn that I took at the botanical garden. Visitors seemed to be in a state of awe reading the medicinal properties of some of the herbs. Many people clicked away pictures of the medicinal flowers as if it were a magic formula for good health. It seemed like I was back home, treading some village pathway or walking in my backyard where weeds and plants co-existed.
As someone who lived in Kerala all these years, not a day passed by without encountering at least a few of these medicinal marvels. I pitied myself not to have used them when they were well within reach. Here, Doctors who practise modern medicine refrain from prescribing medicines for common ailments. Many a time for a common cold or a stomach ailment, especially for children, I have wished for some of the green concoctions that my mother or mother in law made for the family, which I then snubbed with nonchalance. Medicinal herbs was for sure overlooked, but, today I really miss the many varieties of Thulasi and the lush formations of ‘panikoorkka’ leaves that spread to every nook and corner of the garden coming in handy for everyday ailments.
The whole world sings praises to Ayurveda, to our rich legacy. We know for a fact that millions of varieties of medicinal herbs thrive in our tropical climate, in a variety of our soils, in brackish backwaters and even in jute bags kept in balconies of zealous Malayalees. Going back to our good old ways of backyard herbal gardens must then, be easy. The will to tap the potential of at least some of our medicinal herbs will then possibly unleash the next revolution. Eyes closed, with that parting thought, I stood under the yellow Chembakam tree in full bloom then; trying to take in as much as I could before I stepped out into the streets of Washington DC.