Moun­tains of San­jee­vani

The Ut­tarak­hand govern­ment's ini­tia­tive to spend 25 crore on an elu­sive myth­i­cal herb should trig­ger a wider quest to iden­tify, doc­u­ment and an­a­lyse life-sav­ing Himalayan herbs


Ut­tarak­hand's ini­tia­tive to find San­jee­vani should trig­ger a wider quest to doc­u­ment Himalayan herbs

THE MYTH­I­CAL herb, san­jee­vani, which saved the life of Lax­man, brother of Lord Ram, as de­scribed in the epic Ra­mayana au­thored by Ma­harshi Valmiki, re­ceived wide­spread me­dia at­ten­tion re­cently when the Ut­tarak­hand govern­ment pro­posed to spend 25 crore in find­ing this mirac­u­lous herb. As the le­gend goes, Lord Hanu­man ar­rived in the Hi­malayas to gather this life-sav­ing herb, but since he could not iden­tify san­jee­vani, he up­rooted a part of the moun­tain and car­ried it to Lanka. Be­cause of the com­plex­i­ties in iden­ti­fy­ing this myth­i­cal herb, there is skep­ti­cism about the pro­posed project.

The con­cept of san­jee­vani is deeply rooted in the In­dian tra­di­tional medic­i­nal sys­tem. It is also an in­te­gral part of the cul­tural

her­itage of the coun­try. San­jee­vani lit­er­ally means some­thing that of­fers life. Peo­ple gen­er­ally be­lieve that san­jee­vani can bring a dead per­son to life. But in the epic Ra­mayana and Ram­charit Manas, Lax­man be­came un­con­scious while fight­ing Megh­nath, the el­dest son of de­mon king Ra­vana. So it is ob­vi­ous that san­jee­vani can bring back a per­son from a co­matose to a con­scious state.

Ex­ploratory jour­neys

About two decades ago, I climbed to Dron­a­giri vil­lage—named af­ter the moun­tain Dron­a­giri, the myth­i­cal habi­tat of san­jee­vani— in Chamoli district, Ut­tarak­hand. The vil­lage is lo­cated more than 3,500 m above sea level in the world-fa­mous Nanda Devi Bio­sphere Re­serve ( ndbr). The vil­lage is in the up­per-most limit of any hu­man habi­ta­tion in the ndbr. In the evening, I al­most fainted due to a se­vere headache. A wo­man, who gave us refuge at her house in Dron­a­giri, of­fered a small herb root to me. It tasted ex­tremely bit­ter, but within 45 min­utes my headache dis­ap­peared.

When I in­quired, she told me it was katuki ( Pi­crorhiza kur­rooa), a herb which is com­monly used by lo­cal peo­ple liv­ing at this al­ti­tude. Katuki cured my pain. Though this plant bears no re­sem­blance to san­jee­vani, I be­lieve its properties are no less than that of san­jee­vani.

Like katuki, there are hun­dreds of medic­i­nal plants that grow be­tween the tree­line and the snow­line in the alpine mead­ows and grass­lands. In fact, in the hills and val­leys of Ut­tarak­hand, I have doc­u­mented 964 medic­i­nal plant species. In the Val­ley of Flow­ers it­self, I in­ves­ti­gated and found more than 520 plant species af­ter a decade-long in­ves­ti­ga­tion that be­gan in 1993. Of which, 112 are renowned for their medic­i­nal properties. In­ter­est­ingly, there is a lo­cal­ity called Dron­a­giri in the Val­ley of Flow­ers, and dur­ing the growing sea­son (from June to Septem­ber) this area is filled with life­sav­ing herbs in­clud­ing Fri­t­il­laria roylei, Me­gacarpaea polyan­dra, Dacty­lorhiza hata­girea, Pi­crorhiza kur­rooa, Malaxis acumi­nata, Polyg­o­na­tum ver­ti­cil­la­tum and P cir­rhi­folium.

There are many medic­i­nal mir­a­cles as­so­ci­ated with Himalayan herbs. Chyawan­prash is one of them. Its for­mula was orig­i­nally de­vised by the col­lec­tive ef­forts of many saints to re­ju­ve­nate the very frail body of Chyawan rishi (sage).

The ini­tia­tive of the Ut­tarak­hand govern­ment to search for san­jee­vani is not the first one. In 2008, Acharya Balkr­ishna of Patan­jali Yog­peeth along with his col­leagues, af­ter sur­vey­ing the high al­ti­tudes of the Garhwal Hi­malaya, re­ported that phen ka­mal ( Saus­surea gossyp­iphora) which grows above 4,300 m is the mrita san­jee­vani. Since phen ka­mal has a white foam sort of bloom which glows in moon­light—one of the characteristics of san­jee­vani as men­tioned in lit­er­a­ture—it was as­sumed to be the san­jee­vani. More de­tails are awaited as Patan­jali Yog­peeth sci­en­tists are still test­ing these herbs. Apart from mrita san­jee­vani, shalya karani, su­var­nakarani and sand­hani are re­ported to be life-sav­ing herbs.

A 2009 study pub­lished in Cur­rent Science screened a data­base of 1,000 species and found 17 species that have the name san­jee­vani, its syn­onym, or words sound­ing pho­net­i­cally sim­i­lar. Af­ter fur­ther anal­y­sis, the re­searchers found that three species, namely Se­laginella bry­opteris, Cressa cret­ica and Des­motrichum fim­bria­tum ( san­jee­vani, rudan­thi and jee­vaka, re­spec­tively) had the clos­est and con­sis­tent ref­er­ence to the term san­jee­vani or the word sound­ing pho­net­i­cally sim­i­lar, how­ever only san­jee­vani is known to grow in the hills.

While sur­vey­ing the Pach­marhi Bio­sphere Re­serve in Mad­hya Pradesh, I came across a plant called san­jee­vani ( Se­laginella bry­opteris). When I asked lo­cal peo­ple I was told that the dry leaves of this plant turn green once wa­ter is splashed on it. Though it pos­sesses many ther­a­peu­tic properties, sci­en­tists have not yet tested whether it can re­vive a per­son from coma.

Mirac­u­lous herbs

There are many such herbs that have high medic­i­nal val­ues, but un­for­tu­nately their medic­i­nal properties are yet to be dis­cov­ered or doc­u­mented. In truth, ev­ery plant growing at such al­ti­tudes is a san­jee­vani for a host of dis­eases. But most tra­di­tional herbal prac­ti­tion­ers do not dis­close their ther­a­peu­tic properties.

Though many re­search and sci­en­tific in­sti­tu­tions, such as the Herbal Re­search and De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute in Man­dal, Ut­tarak­hand, ex­ist in In­dia, what is miss­ing is col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween them to find so­lu­tions. Work­ing in iso­la­tion can­not pro­vide re­sults. At the same time, plant tax­onomists—who have be­come a rare species— need to be en­cour­aged in such col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts.

The govern­ment must also seek the ex­per­tise of dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers, sub­ject experts, and these ef­forts must sys­tem­at­i­cally pass sci­en­tific rigour. The Ut­tarak­hand govern­ment’s ini­tia­tive must strive to iden­tify, doc­u­ment and clin­i­cally test many mirac­u­lous Himalayan san­jee­vani herbs in the larger in­ter­est of so­ci­ety.

The author is with the Ecosys­tem and Environment Man­age­ment Divi­sion of the In­dian In­sti­tute of For­est

Man­age­ment, Bhopal

The con­cept of san­jee­vani is deeply rooted in the In­dian tra­di­tional medic­i­nal sys­tem. It is also an in­te­gral part of the cul­tural her­itage of the coun­try. San­jee­vani lit­er­ally means some­thing that of­fers life

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