Assam holds a treasure of medicinal plants in India and most tribal communities in the state have their own traditional health care systems. The Tai Khamtis are one such community who practice Local Health Traditions (LHTs). This traditional form of medicine has been transferred from one generation to the next. This essay looks at the Khamtis of Assam and their perceptions towards health, illness and traditional healing methods.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health is, ‘A state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is the fundamental right of every human being’ . The Alma Ata Declaration of 1978  focused on primary health care as a means to achieving ‘health for all’, with a focus on community participation, community needs and properties. The Alma Ata Declaration’s values and visions for health care systems were seen as the guiding principles of achieving health for all. But till date, India has not been able to reach health for all and have also failed to promote traditional health care practices among the general public after forty two years of adopting the Declaration.
The term Local Health Tradition (LHT), is synonymous with other terms such as ethno-medicines, traditional medicines, local healing practices, and indigenous practices, which are used by different scholars in across various academic disciplines. In India, all official documentation of the Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Sidha and Homeopathy (AYUSH Department) , focuses on using the term ‘Local Health Traditions’ instead of using any other terminology. The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) refers to ‘mainstreaming of AYUSH and revitalization of Local Health Traditions’, but in practice, there is less importance accorded to local health traditions.
For all practical purposes the health system in India has been divided into two ̶ codified and uncodified systems (Shankar, 2007). The Codified Health Services System means following western medicine/allopathic/biomedicine health care services, which are structured through institutions, scientific research, trained health care practitioners and recognised bodies and documentation of health services. Other codified systems are Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Sidha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) incorporated with Tibetan Medicine.
Non-Codified Health System means the health care system is not structured, as these refer to folk medicinal practices that are not recognised by the government and are characterised by their oral transmission process from one generation to the next. This system is based on the epistemology and ontology of health services which involve the practice of trial and error. Folk medicinal practices are practiced by tribal and indigenous communities and usually involve the use of locally available and easily accessible cost-effective products from the natural environment. Folk medicine is also recognised under the non-codified health system.
Ethno-medicine or traditional medicine refers to a wide range of healthcare systems, practices, beliefs, and therapeutic techniques, that arise from indigenous cultural development. According to George M. Foster and Barbara Gallatin Anderson (1978), ‘Ethno-medicine denotes the totality of health knowledge, values, beliefs, skills and practices of indigenous people, including all the clinical and non-clinical activities that relate to their health needs’.
Nancy Scheper Hughes (1968) refers to ethno-medicine as, ‘Those beliefs and practices relating to disease which are products of indigenous cultural development and are not explicitly derived from the conceptual framework of modern medicine’. Such healthcare systems do not necessarily follow the structure of modern or western medicine. Instead, these healthcare practices are based on the unique culture of indigenous peoples.
THE TAI KHAMTI COMMUNITY
Among the tribes of Northeast, the Tai are one of the largest of Northeast India. The Tai people are inhabitants of greater mainland South East Asia particularly Thailand, Vietnam, Southern China and Myanmar. The Tai ethnic communities of Northeast India are Tai Ahom, Tai Aiton, Tai Khamti, Tai Khamyang, Tai Lai, Tai Phake and Tai Turung. In Assam, Tai Khamti is one of the smaller indigenous communities with a population of only 60,000. The name Khamti means ‘a land of gold’ where Kham means gold and Ti means place. The Khamti people are believers of Theravada Buddhism. Every Khamti village has a monastery (Vihar) headed by a monk (Bhante). The Khamtis mostly reside in the districts of Lakhimpur, Tinsukia, Dhemaji, and Dima Hasao.
Scholars such as Lila Gogoi and Siraporn Nathalang argue that the Khamtis migrated to India from the Irrawaddy valley in Myanmar in 1751 and they belonged to all the seven principalities of Khamti-Long of Myanmar. There are various classes among the Khamtis, such as the Luk- Khun, Lung-King, Khong-yek, Khong-lung etc. On the socio-political front, the Khamtis are divided into two groups, the Lu Kam and the Nuk Tai. The various sub groups of Khamtis are, Namsoom, Mongpong, Simit, Manlong, Longkeng, Manchuj, Khankew, Mannoi, and, Mannow. As they are of Tai origin, they have Tai Mongoloid features just like other sections of Tai people or the Shans. Generally, the houses of the Khamtis are built on elevated platforms made of bamboo several feet above the ground which are called Chang Ghar (as seen among the Mising community too in Assam). The Khamtis have their own Tai script known as Lik Tai although they speak both the Khamti and Assamese languages.
The main festival of the Tai Khamtis is called Sangken which is celebrated in April around the same time of the Assamese new year, Bohag Bihu. They also celebrate Poi Pee Mau Tai around November-December which is the traditional Tai New Year. Their major occupation is agriculture. Ethno-medicinal practices are quite prevalent among the community.
TRADITIONAL HEALTH PRACTICES OF THE TAI KHAMTIS
The Tai Khamtis possess knowledge of a number of remedies which are prepared from a wide range of plants. Traditional medicinal knowledge of the community is mostly available as oral narratives and in Tai Buddhist literature. Some remedies are reported to have high ethno-medicinal value, especially because they can cure some critical diseases. The Khamtis have developed such ethno-medicinal practices due to their close association with Nature.
The Tai Khamti ethno-medicinal knowledge can be broadly divided into two types (1) Material Medicine, which is the treatment of diseases caused by pathogens like viruses, bacteria, fungi, and, (2) Spiritual Medicine that is the treatment of diseases caused by supernatural forces like magic, miracles, demonic possessions, etc.
(1) MATERIAL MEDICINE
Some of the herbal medicinal therapies used to cure diseases are listed below:
Bone fracture: For bone fractures, the remedy involves the use of leaf, body and root of certain herbs such as Yalung, Pongthot, Chingchiri, Yapet, and Yahep (Khamti names for different herbs). The concerned procedure takes time as three doses of the medicine are needed to completely join the bones. A single dose of the paste of herbs is put inside a banana leaf and tied over the fractured area for three to five days. Finely cut bamboo sticks are used as splints over the fracture and also to bind the medicine. This procedure is completed after the third and final dose. The time required for the fracture to heal depends on the intensity of the injury. In case the fracture is followed by internal bleeding and blood clotting, then about two hundred grams of Devil’s Backbone plant (Harjura root in Assamese), hundred grams of Plai (a root of the ginger family also known as Moran Ada in Assamese) and twenty five grams of black pepper seeds, are ground to a fine mixture and boiled in one litre of water. The juice is filtered after cooling and the patient is advised to drink three cups of this tonic.
Fever with cold: The remedy for fever with cold involves preparing a soup called jall by boiling ginger, black pepper, mustard, long coriander (Mandhania in Assamese), clove and garlic together with water. The jall is consumed before a meal. Another treatment of fever with cold involves consuming juice from the leaves of Spearmint (Gos Poduna in Assamese) which is mixed with water and, also applying a paste made by crushing aloe vera leaves to the forehead of the patient.
High Blood Pressure: The remedy for high blood pressure involves consuming four to five cloves of garlic regularly with meals. Tender leaves of East Indian Glory Bower (Nefafu in Assamese) along with three to four garlic cloves, are wrapped in a banana leaf and roasted on fire to be eaten on an empty stomach. The paste of these leaves is is also applied to the forehead.
Dysentery: The remedy involves crushing and grinding together in hot water the dried root of Garcinia (Bor-Thekera in Assamese), peel of one pomegranate and one dried Chebulic Myrobalan (Hilikha in Assamese). The solution which is extracted is then consumed by the patient at any time of the day for three to four days till their recovery.
Jaundice: The patient is required to consume the fruit juice of mango with milk twice a day. In addition to this remedy, the patient is also orally administered the leaf juice of Bryophyllum Calycinum Salisb (Dooportenga in Assamese). Star Fruit (Kordoi in Assamese) is crushed and the extracted juice is consumed with water. Another remedy for jaundice includes, mixing the paste of pigeon-pea (Rohor Dal in Assamese) and 0.25 litres of water.The infusion is filtered after letting it rest for an hour, and consumed by the patient on an empty stomach early in the morning.
Gynaecological Disorders: Women suffering from irregular menstruation are prescribed the root paste of Indian Nightshade (Tita Bhekuri in Assamese), to be consumed after it is mixed with a small amount of black pepper powder. For relieving painful menstruation, juice extracts of Hill Glory Bower (Dhopat Tita in Assamese) root and Loranthus (Roghu-mola in Assamese) leaf, are consumed two times a day on an empty stomach. For cases of delayed puberty in girls, hibiscus juice is prescribed.
The remedies and treatments listed above relate to the use of various types of natural materials, but the practitioners have rules and regulations regarding the time of plucking leaves of the herbs as well as, chants which are used while mixing the herbs. These chants are in the Tai Khamti language and some of them are orally transmitted from one generation to the next, as only a few of the Khamti community members are well versed with their written script. Some of the chants and treatments are derived from the Buddhist scripture, Tripitaka.
(2) SPIRITUAL PRACTICES
There are multiple diseases which are believed to be inflicted by supernatural forces. These diseases may be the same as those mentioned above or they may have other symptoms and complications. The traditional practitioners are well versed in identifying the cause of the affliction and thus, being able to provide with the appropriate treatment. Occasionally ethno-medicine practices are administered in conjunction with spiritual remedies.
Influence of Evil Spirit: The Tai Khamti people generally believe that the world is full of various types of malevolent spirits taking abode in places like trees, air, water, by the road side, etc. The influence of evil spirits is treated with chanting of mantras, and concurrently tying a thick cord made out of red, white and black color strings or an amulet around the effected person’s neck, or on the left hand above the elbow or around the waist.
Influence of Evil Eyes: There is some belief among the people that some individuals possess certain evil powers. As per their beliefs, if such people look at someone or pass comments with an evil intent, it may cause illness in the form of indigestion, incessant vomiting, diarrhea, or fever. Generally, it is believed that young children are more susceptible. In these cases, the concerned patient is administered with sacred water involving chanting of magical hymns by the Spirit Doctor (Mo Phi). This practice is called Pani Jora. The patient drinks half of the water and the rest is applied from head to toe in a downward direction.
Curse for a Sin: Sometimes diseases like allergy, chickenpox, paralysis, etc., are believed to be a punishment from god or by deities for a sin committed by an individual or by his/her family members. For allergy and chickenpox, the healer takes a glass of water and chants mantras by dipping the index finger of his/her right hand in it. The afflicted person is made to drink three sips of water and the rest is rubbed over the affected area on the patient’s body. Besides, certain elaborate religious rituals are performed that include giving offerings to the deities and arranging a feast for the Bhante. A Bhante is the Head Priest or Abbot of a particular area or village in Tai Khamti, Tai Phake and other Theravada Buddhist Tai societies of Northeast India.
DECLINE OF THESE MEDICINAL PRACTICES
In the rural areas of Assam, both religious and non-religious healing methods are widely practiced. Most of these practices serve the needs of primary healthcare among the majority of the population in these areas where modern health facilities are not available and medical treatment is expensive. People with low socioeconomic and educational backgrounds are more likely to seek help from traditional healers in rural settings . The Tai Khamti people are rich in ethno-medicinal knowledge and based on such valuable age old traditions, these indigenous practitioners are considered to be some of the most knowledgeable and expert service providers in the field of ethno-medicine in this part of Assam. The Tai Khamtis have immense faith in their traditional medicinal practices and they do not consider ethno-medicinal practices as their source of livelihood, but as a service to people which translates in to service to the divine. They consider ethno-medicine more effective than modern scientific medicine as these do not have any side effects.
The indigenous ethno-medicinal practices among the Khamti community, some of which have been discussed above, are disappearing gradually. This is due to the reluctance by some families to transmit the knowledge of these practices to the younger generation, even though there seems to be interest among some young people to maintain and revive their indigenous practices. Few written records of traditional medicinal remedies and practices are now present among the Khamtis, yet a larger issue is that many are not able to read the Khamti language properly. In some cases, death of the aged traditional healers is another reason for the loss of knowledge on traditional medicinal practice. Because of modernisation and urbanisation, modern health care systems are becoming more prevalent among the people as compared to the traditional healing practices. Less promotion of these traditional healing practices is also a key reason for the decline of these practices.
There may come a time in the near future when the ethno-medicinal healers of the Khamti community may become extinct. Hence, to preserve and to enable the transmission of this remarkable medical system for the benefit of future generations there is an immediate need for proper written inventories and scientific studies of their ethno-medicinal knowledge.
- The bibliographic citation for definition of Health is Preamble to the Constitution of WHO as adopted by International Health Conference , New York,19 June -22 July 1946.The definition has not been amended since 1948.
- The Alma Ata Declaration in 1978 expanded the approach to improve the health for all people from focus on doctors, hospitals etc. It expressed the need for urgent action by all the government workers, all health and development workers and the world community to protect and promote the health of all people. The declaration of Alma- Ata was adopted at the international conference on primary health care, Almaty, Kazakhstan,6-12 September 1978.
- AYUSH is acronym of the medical systems that are being practiced in India such as Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Sidha and Homeopathy.
- There are both female and male healers in the Tai Khamti community. Gynecological disorders are treated by the female healers.
Gogoi Lila. “History of The Khamti”. Taikhamtinamsai.blogspot. URL: https://taikhamtinamsai.blogspot.com/2013/08/history-of-khamti-by-dr-lila-gogoi.html (accessed 22 March’ 2021).
Foster, George M. and Anderson, Gallatin Barbara. Medicinal Anthropology. New York: John Wiley K Sons, 1978.
Nathalang Siraporn. “Khamti Buddhism and Culture An Observation from Visit to Khamti Land in Arunachal Pradesh 2006”. Conference paper presented at Shan Buddhism and Culture at SOAS Center of Buddhist Studies and The Shan Cultural Association, UK, at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 8-9 December, 2007. URL: https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/5290/1/7NathalangS-Khamti_paper-SOAS.pdf (accessed 15 March’ 2021).
Payyappallimana Unikrishnan. “Role of Traditional Medicine in primary Health Care: An Overview of Perspective and Challenges”. Yokohama Journal of Social Sciences, 14, no. 6 (2010): 57-77.
Sonowal, Ripunjay and Barua, Indira. “Ethnnomedicinal practices among Tai-Khamyangs of Assam”. Studies on Ethno-Medicine, 5, no. 1 (2011):41-50.
Shankar, Darshan.“A Future Agenda for the Indian Medical Heritage?”. Indian Anthropologist. 37, no. 1,(2007): 173-186.
Debismita Bora is a faculty member in the Department of Social Work at the Assam Kaziranga University. She completed her Masters of Social Work with specialisation in Community Development from Assam Kaziranga University. Her interest areas are Rural Community Development, Tribal Community Development, Local Health Traditions and diverse cultures of tribal peoples.