When it comes to taking care of their children's health, the indigenous Khasis of Meghalaya have an ingenious solution. They start young, with traditional preventive medicine. Babies' immune systems are still undeveloped and weak. A lot of infantile health complications can occur, such as loose motions, irregular bowels, jaundice to name a few.
Almost every child born is fed with herbal medication called ka Dawai Ñiangsohpet. This is believed to gently help their tender body systems fight infections and build up immunity against diseases, especially digestive ones.
Khasis are known for their prowess in herbal medicine, which is quite natural because Meghalaya has a plethora of plants with curative properties. In fact, there are about 834 herbs that make up the official medicinal plants list. So, the vast repertoire of traditional cures is quite a natural outcome.
Quite a bit of painstaking and highly commendable research has gone in the documenting of ethnobotanical data on these herbs. Of special mention here is a detailed study on Dawai Ñiangsohpet by botanist Dr. Sierra R. Hynniewta of North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.
Ka Dawai Ñiangsohpet is a popular and essential traditional medicinal formula that's favoured almost unquestioningly by many Khasi folks with newborn babies. It is said to protect the infants from infantile diarrhoea or jaundice and its administration starts from a few weeks after birth till the child attains about two years of age.
Diseases of the digestive system, traditional healers say, are the root cause of many later-year complications. So Ka Dawai Ñiangsohpet is the best antidote against disorders, especially of the gut. Dawai means medicine in Khasi, Ñiang is germs and Sohpet is the navel. Because small children mostly suffer from diseases affecting the digestive tract or the navel region, traditional healers have put together a formulation that eliminates the germs accumulating around the navel region. That's how ka Dawai Ñiangsohpet got its name.
Traditionally the Khasis believe that new-born infants are born with tender stomachs and intestines that are lined with disease-causing microorganisms that can wreak havoc on the child's health as it grows up. These germs settle in because of many reasons including the mother's eating habits during pregnancy. This eventually weakens the infant's immune system, making it susceptible to many kinds of digestive and other health problems.
Some of these problems can manifest themselves as chronic coughs and colds, fevers, appetite loss, loose motion or constipation.
Food always plays an important role in health, say the healers. In order to ensure robust health of infants, expectant mothers are often advised not to consume foods that can harm the unborn child. They must also avoid harmful foods while lactating because mother's milk can affect the suckling baby. So, foods such as the well-loved fermented soya bean paste (tungrymbai) are a strict no-no. Certain vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplants and squash are also forbidden.
Traditional healers believe these foods add to the harmful waste products that can affect the unborn babies very badly. Later, during their growing years, they may become chronic sufferers of various diseases and their growth might even become stunted. To counter such health problems in infants, ka Dawai Ñiangsohpet is the panacea, the choice curative option of almost every Khasi mother to this day to protect her baby from diseases.
According to traditional medicine practitioners, there are two types of Ñiangsohpet: Ñiang Iong or black germs and Ñiang Saw or red germs. There is also Ñiang Stem, the yellow germs and Ñiang Tamar, the colourless germs. Ñiang Iong is the most common and takes longer to get eliminated – about a year or two.
Food also determines the emergence of the type of germs, says Kong Ribha Khriem, a practitioner from Mawphlang. For example, if the mother is fond of mustard, her baby's stool will be blackish and healers will establish the germs to be Ñiang Iong.
Ages ago it was only the female royals, or the Syiems, who prepared and administered this important medicine. Nowadays, other traditional healers also involve themselves in making it. The medication is given according to the type of germs that affect the baby.
There are a number of ways practitioners determine the type of microorganisms. Some confirm by inspecting or pressing the baby's thumbnail with a piece of ginger or the petiole of a tympew, the betel leaf. Others gently press the baby's tummy in the navel region. Some are so expert that they can confirm the type by just inspecting the baby's clothes or the baby's faeces. Once the types of germs are known, medicine is prepared and given, mostly orally but sometimes applied topically on the tummy. There are specific herbs that go into the preparation. Depending upon the type of germs, black or red, the medicine prepared, usually a selection of two or three herbs from a list of about 20, each of which possess amazing individual healing properties.
For example, one formulation is boiling together of roots and leaves of Kynbat Waitlam and pieces of Ing Makhir. Another example is boiling ingredients of Shiah krot, Krah Rngai, Sohshiah and Dieng Sohbyrno.
The ingredients are always boiled in water continuously for 2-3 hours, then cooled and bottled. Dosage varies from one teaspoon to five, two or three times a day. In some cases, lactating mothers are also advised to take the medicine.
|Local name of the herb||Scientific Name||Parts of Plant Used|
|Kynbat Waitlam or Kynbat Rynniaw||Acorus calamus||Leaves and rhizome|
|Kynbat jajew||Ageratina riparia||Whole plant|
|Shiah jaker||Asparagus racemosa||Leaves and rhizome|
|Sohpen khlaw||Asparagus filicinius||Leaves and rhizome|
|Sohnaro or Dieng laroo||Cassia fistula||Fruit pulp (without seeds)|
|Sylli (a grassy reed)||Cephalostachyum latifolium||Stem|
|Sying shmoh kynthei or Kynshiang||Curcuma montana||Rhizome|
|Sying Blei or Shyrmit Iong||Curcuma aeroginosa Roxb||Rhizome|
|Batpyllon ( a climber)||Cyclea bicristata||Leaves and rhizome|
|Krah rngai||Melastoma malabathricum||leaves and tender twigs|
|Dieng sohbyrno or Dieng lakum or Kynbat tukhra||Osbeckia crinita||Whole plant|
|Jyrmi saw or Kynbat thar or Mei rihoi||Rubia cordifolia||Stem and root|
|Dieng ngan||Schima wallichii||Stem bark|
|Shiah krot||Smilax ferox Kunth||Roots|
|Dieng sohkpei||Symplocos laurina||Stem and leaves|
|Jyrmi Ñiangsohpet||Ternstroemia gymnathera||Stem bark|
|Mangkaring||Viscum articulatum Burm||Whole plant|
|Sying shmoh shynrang||Zingiber Montanum||Rhizome|
|Ing makhir||Zingiber rubens||Rhizome|
Traditional medicine, like natural foods, is the product of millennia of a people's collective experience. It may not possess the empirical evidence of modern medicine but can its efficacy or trustworthiness be summarily discounted?
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