News reports and reviews about some of the lesser known peaceful societies, such as the Paliyans, can be reassuring, even when they just discuss the enduring traditions of the people. Since news about some of the other peaceful societies is distressing at times, a positive journal article last year about the fact that the Paliyans continue to use their customary herbal preparations is heartening.

The authors, who refer to the Paliyans by using the Indian plural form Paliyar, indicate that traditional botanical preparations represent the primary resource for health care in that society. Tribal herbal practitioners evidently still play an important role in helping keep the Paliyans healthy.

The authors conducted fieldwork in several Paliyan villages in the Madurai district of India’s Tamil Nadu State from April 1998 to November 1999. The villages included almost 3,000 people, over 500 families. The researchers observed the daily activities in the villages and participated in various religious rites, social rituals, and ceremonies as part of their fieldwork.

They worked with 12 adult informants, four of whom were herbal practitioners. They administered questionnaires that allowed respondents to describe the plants and the specific parts of the plants they used. The respondents also described the medicinal uses of the plants and the ways the herbal medicines were prepared (such as a paste, juice, or powder). They confirmed the plant identifications with the standard, published flora of Tamil Nadu.

The most common ailments treated by the herbal preparations were skin problems—burns, wounds, cuts, and diseases of the skin. Other illnesses alleviated by herbal medicines included respiratory infections such as coughs, fevers, and colds, and gastrointestinal problems—abdominal pains, stomach aches, and the like.

Herbalists may find the article useful because of the detailed table listing the different plants the Paliyans use. The entries in the table, arranged according to the therapeutic uses (“stomach aches”, “throat infections”, etc.) include the scientific names of the plants, the local names, the parts of the plants used, and brief descriptions of the ways the medicines are prepared.

For instance, for snakebites, one of the herbal preparations is to use Tylophora indica, in the family Asclepiadaceae, locally named Nangilai. The directions read, “Paste of leaf and root is mixed with equal amount of root paste of Rauvolfia serpentina and applied externally on the spot of snakebite. Leaf juice alone is also taken internally to cure snakebite.” The table includes more than 75 such descriptions.

The authors mention that some healers concentrate on treating patients primarily through the use of plants while others rely more on ritual healing ceremonies that may take an entire day. The healers try to use the plants fresh if they can, though they may also use them dried. Sometimes they use plants separately, sometimes in combination with others.

Some of the plants clearly have multiple uses. The table informs us that the fruits of Solanum erianthum are used for toothaches. “The ripened or unripened fruits are boiled with water and the vapour is inhaled once or twice a week through the mouth.” But the text also mentions that the Paliyans crush the fruits of this plant and apply it as a paste to their legs when they enter the forest to help prevent leech bites, a major trial to forest dwellers in that part of the world.

The authors conclude that the Paliyan uses of herbal preparations today to help maintain their health has apparently not differed much from their practices in the past.

Ignacimuthu, S., M. Ayyanar, and Sankara Sivaraman K. 2006. “Ethnobotanical Investigations among Tribes in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu ( India).” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2:25. Open Access journal article available from http://ethnobiomed.com/content/2/2/25