Consensus of the 'Malasars' traditional aboriginal knowledge of medicinal plants in the Velliangiri holy hills, India
© Ragupathy et al. 2008
Received: 28 November 2007
Accepted: 27 March 2008
Published: 27 March 2008
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© Ragupathy et al. 2008
Received: 28 November 2007
Accepted: 27 March 2008
Published: 27 March 2008
There are many vanishing cultures that possess a wealth of knowledge on the medicinal utility of plants. The Malasars of Dravidian Tamils are an indigenous society occupying the forests of the Western Ghats, South India. They are known to be exceptional healers and keepers of traditional aboriginal knowledge (TAK) of the flora in the Velliangiri holy hills. In fact, their expertise is well known throughout India as evidenced by the thousands of pilgrims that go to the Velliangiri holy hills for healing every year. Our research is the first detailed study of medicinal plants in India that considers variation in TAK among informants using a quantitative consensus analysis. A total of 95 species belonging to 50 families were identified for medicinal and general health purposes. For each species the botanical name, family, local name, parts used, summary of mode of preparation, administration and curing are provided. The consensus analysis revealed a high level of agreement among the informants usage of a particular plant at a local scale. The average consensus index value of an informant was FIC > 0.71, and over 0.80 for some ailments such as respiratory and jaundice. Some of the more common problems faced by the Malasars were gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory illness, dermatological problems and simple illness such as fever, cough, cold, wounds and bites from poisonous animals. We also discovered several new ethnotaxa that have considerable medicinal utility. This study supports claims that the Malasars possess a rich TAK of medicinal plants and that many aboriginals and mainstream people (pilgrims) utilize medicinal plants of the Velliangiri holy hills. Unfortunately, the younger generation of Malasars are not embracing TAK as they tend to migrate towards lucrative jobs in more developed urban areas. Our research sheds some light on a traditional culture that believes that a healthy lifestyle is founded on a healthy environment and we suggest that TAK such as that of the Malasars may serve toward a global lifestyle of health and environmental sustainability.
There are many vanishing cultures that possess a wealth of knowledge on the utilization and conservation of plants. Much of the traditional aboriginal knowledge (TAK) [1–3] concerning new drugs was discovered before the middle of the last century , but has risen again in the last decade . New fields have developed such as the "economics of identity", which bridge the economics of aboriginal and scientific classification . The recent interest in this area of research is partly driven by society's interest in healthy lifestyles, which supports a rapidly growing $230 billion dollar market force in USA alone . The World Health Organization  estimates that 80% of the world's population relies on traditional healing modalities and herbs. Many cultures still maintain traditional medical systems based on TAK and researchers are exploring cultural health and success based on TAK [7, 9–11]. These traditional cultures believe that a healthy lifestyle is founded on a healthy environment and some recent research on local or traditional ecological knowledge (LEK or TEK) has improved natural resource conservation and management policies for modern society [3, 12–16].
India is rich in its ethnic diversity of which many aboriginal cultures have retained traditional knowledge concerning the medicinal utility of the native flora. Southeast Indians have been known to put a great emphasis on traditional knowledge systems and practices, which is supported by their vast intra-ethnic diversity . India has over 537 different aboriginal and other ethnic groups constituting approximately eight percent of the country's population [18, 19]. Traditional knowledge systems including various medicinal plant utilities appear to vary according to local population domain . Documentation of these local knowledge systems concerning medicinal plants may have high impacts from a bioeconomic point of view . Tribal communities living in biodiversity rich areas possess a wealth of knowledge on the local utilization and conservation of food and medicinal plants [18, 21]. This traditional knowledge, which developed over years of observation, trial and error, inference and inheritance, has largely remained with the aboriginal people [22, 23]. However, these cultures and their associated botanical knowledge may be in peril and may even become extinct. Migration from one area to another in search of improved livelihoods is a key feature of human history. Many aboriginals in India migrate to access emerging opportunities and industrialization. This widens the gap between TAK and modern knowledge associated with workplace and social skills of the developed mainstream populations. It is a fact that as traditional healers who value TAK are becoming very old; younger generations exhibit a lack of interest in TAK with a trend toward migration to cities for lucrative jobs. TAK in India is declining [24, 25].
The study of ethnobotanical research is deeply rooted within India. There are many examples of medicinal ethnobotanical surveys conducted in India in the past that have recorded many botanical remedies among many aboriginal groups: Malasars ; Malamalasars ; Malayalis [28–31]; Irulas [22, 23, 32–34]; Gonds ; Koysd, Konda reddis, Valmikis, Koyas, Chenchus, Lambadis, Jatapus, Savaras, Bagatas, Kammaras, Khondas, Nukadoras, Porjas, Jatapus ; Paliyar ; Kanikar ; Todas, Kotas [38, 39]; Kattunayakas ; Apatani ; Chellipale . Although there are many descriptive qualitative surveys of TAK, to our knowledge, there are no ethnobotanical studies within India that consider variation in TAK among informants using a quantitative consensus analysis.
Aboriginal knowledge about plants needs to be reliable and repeatable if it is used as a bridge in scientific inquiry with an application to medicine and society-at-large. Trotter and Logan  presented a quantitative method to evaluate consensus among informants in order to identifying potentially effective medicinal plants. In the last 20 years since Trotter and Logan's  publication there has been limited research from several countries: Peru ; Indonesian Borneo & Timor [45, 46]; Northeastern Brazil [47, 48]; Mexico [5, 9, 49]; Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala ; Southern Belize ; Kenya [52, 53]; Mali ; Ethiopia ; Tanzania [56, 57] and the Canadian Arctic . This body of literature suggest that there is considerable variation in consensus factors and how this technique has been implemented. Moerman , Phillips and Gentry  and Heinrich  readapted Trotter and Logan's  factor of informant consensus factor (FIC) in order to quantitatively evaluate the degree of selection of certain plants for a particular utility (e.g., ailment). One of the traditional intentions of FIC is to test the homogeneity among informants' knowledge . In fact some researchers use consensus analysis to test falsifiable hypotheses concerning informant selection and use of plants [53, 44]. Many other researchers have employed consensus analysis as a decision making factor [5, 48] to examine the variation in TAK of cultivars by traditional aboriginal farmers , weighing the relative importance of TAK , identifying discrepancies in ratings , estimating the competence of informants [61, 62, 50] and ethnopharmacolgical surveys [54, 48, 47, 55].
The theoretical importance of our study is to test consensus (reliability/repeatability) of TAK within one ancient culture; the Malasars of the Velliangiri hills in the Western Ghats of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India. We chose to work with the Malasars of India, because 1) there are known to be exceptional healers and keepers of TAK of the flora in the Velliangiri holy hills  and 2) there is limited research on the Malasars TAK . We hypothesize that consensus of TAK of specific plants used for different illness categories are high indicating reliable and repeatable TAK among informants at a local scale (within one localized aboriginal group – Malasars of the Velliangiri hills), because it has been used within their culture without interruption for many generations. Scientific inquiry demands repeatability in order to substantiate claims of medicinal utility within any aboriginal culture. Alternatively, consensus of TAK may be low at local scales  because of i) unreliable TAK, ii) informant bias, iii) local remedies; certain villages may have unique uses for plants, iv) variability in local ethnotaxa; certain communities may have found variants or ecotypes for some plants that result in unique qualities that are of particular use at only a local scale, iv) use of pharmaceutical supplements; the availability of modern pharmaceuticals for a particular ailment may result sporadic use of traditional remedies and v) availability of multiple remedies; there may be groups of plants and therefore several remedies available that are preferentially selected by individual healers for various utility (e.g., healing some ailment), thus indicating the potential biological activity for a group of plants . These groups may represent Linnaean taxa (i.e., genus or family) that share similar biological processes, or aboriginal classifications may group plants (e.g., 'chedi' or 'kodi' etc.) that serve a similar utility [65, 25].
The study site (longitude 6° 40' to 7° 10' E and latitude 10° 55' to 11° 10' N) is located within the Velliangiri holy hills, which forms a major range in the Western Ghats in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The research was conducted among seven hills with altitudes ranging from 520 m – 1840 m, which is bordered by the Palghat district of Kerala on the western boundary, the plains of Coimbatore district to the east, the Nilgiri mountains to the north, and the Siruvani hills on the southern boundary (Figure 2). The annual rainfall is quite variable in the hills (500 mm – 7000 mm) with temperatures ranging from 0°C during winter to 41°C in the summer. Many seasonal rivers such as the Neelivaikal, Mayar or Andisunai traverse the hilly landscape. The "Noyyal" river originating from Velliangiri hills is one of the major tributaries of the Cauvery, which irrigates about 100,000 of hectares of agricultural land in the plains. The Velliangiri hills watershed feeds into the Siruvani dam, which is the only drinking water for 150,000 people in the urban centre of Coimbatore.
The interview protocols, data confirmation and field observation were all followed as suggested by Bernard ; Etkin ; Pelto and Pelto ; Alexiades . To elucidate community domains and determine differences in knowledge among the 'Malasars' people, we cross checked with other Malasars respondents. With the help of the headman, we were able to record information on the local customs, habits and beliefs, information on the surrounding area and individuals who are knowledgeable of the local flora .
Surveys of informant TAK of medicinal plants were used for the consensus analysis. Local traditional healers having practical knowledge of plant medicinal utility of the Velliangiri hills were interviewed during April 2003 – January 2007. During the course of the study, about 18 field trips were conducted in the study area totalling 120 days. Surveys were conducted by a stratified random selection of informants, based on methods suggested by Schultes [81, 4], Jain  and Bernard .
Calculation of a consensus factor (FIC) for testing homogeneity on the informant's knowledge was followed by the method provided by Trotter and Logan . A consensus factor of FIC is given by:
FIC = Nur-Nt/(Nur-1)
51 Malasars ailments grouped by Illness category .
Illness category 
Power of memory
The identity of spontaneously described plants found in the Velliangiri hills was confirmed by reference to fresh plant material collected, and to voucher specimens of known identity [85, 86]. The Linnaean identities were designated by comparing the specimens with the authentic type specimens in herbaria, and by referring to recent taxonomic monographs and revisions. The botanical nomenclature followed that of the Flora of Tamil Nadu, India Series Analysis [87–89]. They were verified at Botanical Survey of India, Southern Circle, Coimbatore, India. All the preserved herbarium voucher specimens are deposited in the herbarium of Kongunad Arts and Science College (KASC) and herbarium of Botanical Survey of India, Southern Circle (MH).
The Malasars demonstrated diverse medicinal utility of the local plant flora in the Velliangiri hills. Our interviews yielded ten illness categories including 51 medical uses (Table 1). These illness categories were modified according to Cook  and Heinrich . Diversity in medicinal utility may be attributed to a diversity of ailments within the Malasars or neighbouring communities. However, we did not study medical ailments of the Malasars or the neighbouring communities in great detail and are not aware of any published research on this topic. Treating illnesses with particular plants, such as piles (Tinosporia cordifolia (Willd.) Hook. f. & Thoms. Zizyphus maurtiana Lam.), stones in urinary tracts (Boerhavia erecta L.), leucoderma (Kalanchoe floribunda W. & A.), leucorrhoea (Kalanchoe floribunda W. & A., Securinega leucopyrus (Willd.) Muell., Dichrostachys cinerea (L.) W. & A., Plumbago zeylanica L., Centella asiatica (L.) Urban), epilepsy (Indigofera caerulea Roxb.), eczema (Centella asiatica (L.) Urban, Glinus lotoides L.) by Malasars healers is unique and may be indicative of the need to treat more frequent ailments within their community. Poisonous bites are also a frequent treated because the Malasars work in the fields and forests where snakes and scorpions are commonly encountered. Perhaps a more likely explanation for the high diversity of medicinal utility is that the Malasars are known to be great herbal healers and treat many people from urbanized, mainstream communities. In fact, many Malasars earn their living treating people's ailments using the flora of the Velliangiri hills.
Ethnobotanical consensus index for traditional medicinal plant use categories.
Illness category 
Number of Taxa (Nt)
Number of use-reports (Nur)
Informants' consensus index factor (Fic)a
Repel evil sprit
There may be a logical explanation for some of the lower consensus factors in our study. The low consensus factor (FIC 0.56) for the gastrointestinal category may be indicative of the lack of gastrointestinal disorders among the Malasars. Studies of other cultures have shown high incidents of gastrointestinal occurrences, but among the Malasars it is relatively low [24, 94, 95]. While the actual reason for this is unclear, the ratio of use-reports to number of taxa might be a reason for this [51, 43, 44]. We currently are investigating the incidence of gastrointestinal disorders in other aboriginal communities (eg. Muthuvans, Irulas) within the same geographic area. The low consensus factor (FIC of 0.50) for the fever illness category may be explained by several factors. The availability of easily accessible pharmaceuticals provides many alternatives to traditional medicine. This may reduce the use of some traditional remedies, which could reduce consensus of TAK for some common ailments such as fever. For example, many of the local shops sell cheap allopathic/pharmacological medicine that provides quick relief for fever reducing the need for traditional fever remedies. An alternative explanation for a low consensus factor may be that there are a variety of plants being used for a variety of fever causations, such as sore throat, cold and flu.
Our consensus research provided new insights for several other categories of medicinal utility by the Malasars of which we learned that they routinely consume plants for their vital well being and good health. The "general health" category is not included in the standardized illness groupings by Cook . We included this category because it is an integral part of the Malasars health concept of which healers insist on having plants as part of their diet to maintain good health. The general health category included the largest number of taxa, reports of utility and a relatively high level of consensus (Table 2). We found in our survey that some of the plants used in the general health category are edible to the Malasars (7 species), while others were non-edible (18 species) (Additional file 1). An ancient tradition of the Malasars is to eat certain plants on a regular basis according to the seasons in order to prevent certain diseases. It is common practice for the Malasars to consume plants that they come across while out on walks, collecting water or any other daily routine. They believe it will aid their general health and provide an ailment for chronic disorders; examples include blood circulation (Begonia malabarica Lam), diuretic (Coccinea grandis (L.) J. Voigt), and bronchitis (Mukia maderaspatana (L.) M. Roem).
The Malasars have unique medicine in relation to other aboriginal groups in India. Several ethnobotanical studies have enumerated the plants used for various illnesses in India and elsewhere, especially wound healing [22–24, 96] and skin diseases [97, 98]. However when we compared these reports to the Malasars healers we found that they occasionally use different medicinal plants for the same illness category. To heal wounds, the Malasars used six plants (Achyranthes aspera Blume, Azima tetracantha Lam., Blepharis repens (Vahl) Roth, Euphorbia hirta L., Malaxis rheedii Sw., Trichodesma indicum (L.) R. Br.), of which all but one (Malaxis rheedii – high altitude species) are distributed in the plains and coastal areas. In this case personal preference may not be the reason for choosing these plants, but potential active ingredients for utilization in these plants for particular illnesses. Similarly, for skin diseases, three plants are used (Acalypha indica L., Lycopodium phlegmaria L. and Sphaeranthus indicus L.) of which all but Lycopodium are commonly found in the plains. In this case preference of availability may not be the key reason for constant utilization of this plant by the Malasars for skin diseases. However, on the plains, Acalypha indica is also used by traditional healers to treat scorpion bites and sore throats [22, 23, 30].
The Malasars are strong believers in spiritualism. They have a special way of dealing with illnesses brought along by evil. This is known as a culture bound syndrome, a folk illness that is specific to different cultures . This is similar to 'susto', within the latin population of Mexico, Guatemala and Texas. Susto is a folk illness, specifically a "fright sickness" with strong psychological overtones. The Malasars cure this category of illness using plants such as Abrus precatorius L., Crotalaria verrucosa and Selaginella rupestris (see mode of utilization in Additional file 1). The informant consensus factor for the spiritual illness category was quite high (FIC of 0.87). Weller et al  also reported that the treatment for susto involves praying for the individual, discussing the event that brought about the "sickness" and cultural rituals that involve 'drawing out the sickness' and 'restoring the lost essence'. Most treatments for folk illnesses can be found within cultural references. The Malasars treatment involves praying, communication with the evil sprit and the use of plants.
The Malasars traditional plant classification and nomenclature is complex and unique. During our ethnobotanical survey of the Malasars in the Velliangiri hills, we recorded the food and medicinal use of several ethnotaxa of Diplocyclos palmatus (L.) C. Jeffrey. In Tamil it is known as Iverali, which is based on it's morphology, meaning palm like leaves (I' = five; veralli = five fingers like leaf). The ethnotaxa were collected from different habitats of which some have utility as either medicine or healthy food. One of the ethnotaxa of Diplocyclos palmatus was identified by a Malasars healer as 'Lingankatti', which is only used for rheumatic pain. The name Lingankatti is derived from morphology of the fruit, which is deep reddish in colour, but more importantly this is also related to spiritual folk lore; Siva, the fire God of the holy hills represents red hot volcanic lava. Ragupathy , during his ethnobotancial survey of the Irulas in the Coromandal Coast of Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, recorded the food and medicinal uses of several ethnotaxa of Cardiospermum halicacabum. Some ethnotaxa of Cardiospermum halicacabum collected from different places are used as food, while others are used as medicine . An understanding of the multi-mechanistic aboriginal classification may lead to the discovery of new ethnotaxa, which offer novel medicinal and nutritional value [65, 25, 13].
The results of this study have demonstrated that medicinal knowledge of plants in the Velliangiri hill, Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is a well preserved tradition held by the Malasars. There are two other aboriginal groups who live near the Velliangiri hills, namely, the Muthuvans and Irulas. They also have accumulated extensive ethnobotanical knowledge by their long association with the diversity of plants in the Velliangiri hills. Further research is needed to evaluate the consensus of medicinal utility of plants within and among these cultures. This may provide further evidence for culturally specific classifications, utility of plants and the evolution of local ethnotaxa (genetic haplotypes) that offer medicinal or other utility for different cultures. Recent research is investigating the complex mechanisms of aboriginal classifications [65, 25]. The application of this research may bridge ancient traditional knowledge with modern molecular tools such as DNA barcoding [102, 103] in order to reliably identify new sources of medicines, agricultural cultivars or conservation strategies that have broad implications to society-at-large.
This article primarily focused on the TAK of the Malasars concerning medicinal flora of the Velliangiri holy hills. We have documented relatively high consensus among the Malasars informants concerning TAK of medicinal plants. The Malasars' healthy lifestyle is supported by the daily intake of plants as part of their diet to maintain good health. There are a few exceptions to diseases found amongst the Malasars in which they are dependent on modern medicine, like vaccinations for polio, small pox and treatment for tuberculosis, which is provided by the government intervention. There are considerable economic benefits in the sharing of this rich TAK with society-at-large. We suggest that TAK health practices should be considered to augment modern primary health care systems. Unfortunately, the Malasars' TAK is limited to local aboriginal communities with some extensions to rural mainstream people who depend on Malasars TAK to sustain their healthy lifestyle. Barriers to the effective dissemination of the Malasars' TAK is likely due to the inferior means of communication, poverty, influence of the modern health care facilities and migration of aboriginals. The rich TAK of the Malasars may be in peril or may even become extinct because of migration. Thousands of pilgrims migrate to the Velliangiri holy hills causing environmental degradation, threatening the native flora, which is the source of the Malasars' medicine. The migration of the younger generation of Malasars from their communities and TAK further threatens the existence of this precious knowledge. We have documented some the Malasars TAK here in order to protect it within our aboriginal repository of knowledge (ARK) research program. This research sheds some light on a traditional culture that believes that a healthy lifestyle is founded on a healthy environment and we suggest that TAK, such as that of the Malasars, may serve toward a global lifestyle of health and environmental sustainability for society-at-large.
Factor of Informant Consensus
number of use-reports in each category
number of taxa in each category
Traditional Aboriginal Knowledge
Traditional Ecological Knowledge
Local Ecological Knowledge
We thank the wonderful people (Malasars) of Velliangiri hills and surrounding villages for their enthusiasm and untiring support. We also wish to express our gratitude to Dr. M. Aruchami, Dr. T. Kulandaivelu, Dr. N. Nagarajan and S.N Suresh of Kongunadu Arts and Science College, Coimbatore, India for facilities, encouragements and help. We thank Forest department and Botanical Survey of India (BSI-MH) Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu for allowing us to enter forest and examine type specimens respectively. A special thanks to Drs. K. Thothathri and C.B. Nirmala for their suggestions and comments on a previous versions of the manuscript. Finally, we would like to thank members of the Floristic Diversity Research Group, OAC, Biodiversity Institute of Ontario especially Carol Ann Lacroix, Andrea Reid, Nick Uhlig and Candice Newmaster for their support. Ian Smith, CBS, University of Guelph is acknowledged for his assistance with photography and imaging. We also thank three anonymous reviewers for their useful suggestions.
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