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Ethnobotanical knowledge among the semi-pastoral Gujjar tribe in the high altitude (Adhwari’s) of Churah subdivision, district Chamba, Western Himalaya

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Abstract

Background

The wild plants not only form an integral part of the culture and traditions of the Himalayan tribal communities but also contribute largely to the sustenance of these communities. The tribal people use large varieties of wild fruits, vegetables, fodder, medicinal plants, etc. for meeting their day-to-day requirements. The present study was conducted in Churah subdivision of district Chamba where large populations of Muslim Gujjars inhabit various remote villages. These tribal people are semi-pastoralists, and they seasonally (early summers) migrate to the upper altitudes (Adhwari’s) along with their cattle and return to permanent settlements before the onset of winters. A major source of subsistence of these tribal people is on natural resources to a wide extent, and thus, they have wide ethnobotanical knowledge. Therefore, the current study was aimed to report the ethnobotanical knowledge of plants among the Gujjar tribe in Churah subdivision of district Chamba, Himachal Pradesh.

Methods

Extensive field surveys were conducted in 15 remote villages dominant in Gujjar population from June 2016 to September 2017. The Gujjars of the area having ethnobotanical knowledge of the plants were interrogated especially during their stay at the higher altitudes (Adhwari’s) through well-structured questionnaires, interviews, and group meetings. The data generated was examined using quantitative tools such as use value, fidelity, and informant consensus factor (Fic).

Results

This study reveals 83 plants belonging to 75 genera and 49 families that were observed to have ethnobotanical uses. Plants were listed in five categories as per their use by the Gujjars, i.e. food plants, fruit plants, fodder plants, household, and ethnomedicinal plants. The leaves, fruits, and roots were the most commonly used plant parts in the various preparations. The highest number of plants was recorded from the family Rosaceae followed by Polygonaceae and Betulaceae. On the basis of use value (UV), the most important plants in the study area were Pteridium aquilinum, Juglans regia, Corylus jacquemontii, Urtica dioica, Diplazium maximum, and Angelica glauca. Maximum plant species (32) were reported for ethnomedicinal uses followed by food plants (22 species), household purposes (16 species), edible fruits (15 species), and as fodder plants (14 species). The agreement of the informants conceded the most from the use of various plants used as food plants and fruit plants (Fic = 0.99), followed by fodder plants and household uses (Fic = 0.98) while it was least for the use of plants in ethnomedicine (Fic = 0.97). The fidelity value varied from 8 to 100% in all the use categories. Phytolacca acinosa (100%), Stellaria media (100%), and Urtica dioica (100%) were among the species with high fidelity level used as food plants, while the important species used as fruit plants in the study area were Berberis lycium (100%), Prunus armeniaca (100%), and Rubus ellipticus (100%). Some important fodder plants with high fidelity values (100%) were Acer caesium, Aesculus indica, Ailanthus altissima, and Quercus semecarpifolia. The comparison of age interval with the number of plant use revealed the obvious transfer of traditional knowledge among the younger generation, but it was mostly concentrated in the informants within the age group of 60–79 years.

Conclusions

Value addition and product development of wild fruit plants can provide an alternate source of livelihood for the rural people. The identification of the active components of the plants used by the people may provide some useful leads for the development of new drugs which can help in the well-being of mankind. Thus, bioprospection, phytochemical profiling, and evaluation of economically viable products can lead to the optimum harnessing of Himalayan bioresources in this region.

Introduction

In India, about 54 million tribal people inhabit about 5000 forest-dominated villages that constitute about 15% of the total geographic area [1]. Traditionally, these tribal groups are known to use a large number of wild plants for various purposes like medicine, food, fodder, fuel, essence, culture, and other miscellaneous purposes [2]. Thus, forests have maintained the very existence of numerous tribes and their culture for centuries, while fulfilling their social, economic, cultural, religious, nutritional, and medical needs [3,4,5,6,7,8]. Thus, these tribal communities are a rich depository of various ethnobotanical uses of plants and guardians of indigenous traditional knowledge associated with surrounding biological resources which they have used for generations in their day-to-day life [9, 10].

Among all the tribal groups, Gujjars are described as the largest pastoral community in India [11]. The tribe is described by varying names as ‘Goojar or Gurjara’ and is believed to have originated in the times of Huns. The tribe migrated to northern India and settled in various regions of Himachal Pradesh mainly Chamba, Kangra, Una, and Bilaspur [12]. The Muslim Gujjars are known to have first set foot in the princely states of Chamba and Sirmour because of the growing inadequacy of grazing resources in the neighbouring states of Jammu and Kashmir and then gradually migrated to other localities of the state [13]. The Gujjars of Chamba and Kangra are called as the ‘Ban Gujjars’ as they are nomads/semi-nomads practicing a pastoral lifestyle and comprise primarily of the Muslim population. In Chamba, the total Gujjar population is 9784 out of which 97.12% are Muslims [14], while Gujjars of Una and Bilaspur are settled Gujjars called the ‘Heer Gujjars’ and comprise mainly of Hindu population. Despite leading diverse lifestyles, one thing common among all Gujjars is that they all rear large herds of buffaloes.

The semi-nomadic Gujjars have permanent places to stay at the lower elevations, but they temporarily leave for higher altitudes called ‘Adhwari’s’ to graze their cattle mainly comprising buffaloes from mid-May till mid-October. The temporary migration takes along a predetermined set route that is covered in about 2–3 days [15]. The pasture lands are well distributed to the various families of Gujjars through a permit by the forest department of the area, thus also witnessing the proper management of the forest area. The main source of income of the Gujjars is selling of milk and milk products in the local market.

There is no doubt that the various tribal sects like the Gujjars while living in the remote mountain regions depend largely on wild plant resources for sustenance. Their nomadic employment from the ancestry makes them a good knowledge holder as a way of obtaining food and finding pasture for livestock that makes them more dependent on the environment [16]. Thus, they have a wide knowledge of use and practices of plant resources which is passed on verbally from one generation to another [17, 18]. Thereby, documentation of ethnobotanical knowledge is essential for the conservation and utilisation of biological resources [19]. This will also ensure future research on medicinal plant safety and efficacy to validate traditional use and prevent destructive changes in knowledge transmissions between generations [20, 21].

Thereby, the present study was undertaken to investigate and document the ethnobotanical knowledge of the Gujjars of Churah region, which they inherit based on the experiences and observations from their ancestors.

Methods

Study site

The present investigation was undertaken in Churah subdivision of district Chamba of Himachal Pradesh which is located in the Western Himalaya. The district lies between 32° 11′ to 33° 13′ N latitude and 75° 49′ to 77° 3′ E longitude with an altitudinal range varying between 800 and 5200 m amsl. Vegetation growth is mainly found in the Ravi basin, which is semi-tropical to Himalayan temperate and sub-Alpine to Alpine types. The maximum Gujjar population in the district consists of Muslims. These are a semi-pastoral tribe, and they seasonally (early summers) migrate to the upper altitudes along with their cattle and return back to permanent settlements before the onset of winters. They celebrate festivals like Eid-ul-Fitr, Id-ul-Zuha, and Shab-I-qader. The social status of these tribal people is generally poor, and they live an isolated life only confined to their own community. The main occupation of the Gujjars is rearing buffaloes, and they sell milk and milk products in the market. In the past, not much in-depth studies pertaining to various ethnobotanical aspects on Gujjar tribal community have been conducted [22, 23].

Data collection

Rigorous field surveys were conducted in 15 remote villages of Churah subdivision during June 2016 to September 2017 across all seasons to collect maximum information and authenticate the information provided by the local informants during the earlier visits. These villages were shortlisted on the basis of maximum Gujjar populations and thereby were selected for the surveys (Fig. 1). The interviews were conducted both at the permanent settlements and at the higher altitudes (Adhwari’s) for which trekking was done. A total of 135 informants within the age group of 11–90 years were interviewed (Fig. 2). The data helped us to analyse the trend of flow of ethnobotanical knowledge between different age classes. Traditional healers having sound knowledge of ethnomedicinal uses of plants were also interviewed in this study. The information was collected through structured questionnaires, interviews, and group discussions on various ethnobotanical aspects (Additional file 1). Trade-related information about the plants wherever available was also recorded.

Fig. 1
figure1

Map showing the location of surveyed villages

Fig. 2
figure2

Demographic description of the informants

Before the initiation of the interviewing process, the consent of the informants was also taken for participation in the study. The Gujjar informants did express some uneasiness in the beginning while sharing information, but gradually they responded quite well. A translator was hired to communicate and translate Gojri into Hindi. Details pertaining to the local name of the plant collected, plant parts used, ethnobotanical use of plants, and method of use were recorded. The informants were also asked to collect and show the plant specimens on site. The complete plant specimens, including its flower or fruit, were collected, dried, and assigned a voucher number (PLP) and then deposited as a record in the herbarium of the institute for future reference. The plant specimens were identified by using Flora of Himachal Pradesh [24]; Flora of Chamba [25]; Flowers of Himalaya [26].

Data analysis

A comprehensive data analysis was done using different quantitative indices viz. use value, fidelity, and informant consensus factor (Fic).

Use value

The relative importance of the species was calculated using the use value which is a quantitative tool [27]:

UV = ΣU/n

where U is the number of plants cited by each informant for a given species and n is the total number of informants. Use values are high when there are many use reports for a plant signifying its importance, and approach to zero (0) when the use reports are low.

Validation of plant names, family, and plant authority was carried out using the database (http://www.theplantlist.org).

Informant consensus factor

Informant consensus factor was used to test the agreement on the use of plants in the various categories between the informants. Fic was calculated using the formula [28, 29]:

Fic = (Nur − Nt)/(Nur − 1)

where Nur refers to the number of use reports for a particular use/ailment category and Nt is the number of species used for a particular use/ailment category by all informants. The product of this factor ranges from 0 to 1. A high Fic value (close to 1) indicates that relatively few plant species are used by a large proportion of the informants while a low value indicates the disagreement of the informants on the use of plant species in the different categories [30,31,32].

Fidelity level (Fl%)

It is used to determine the most preferred species in the same use category [33].

Fl (%) = Np/N × 100

where Np refers to use reports cited for a given species for a particular category and N is the total number of use reports cited for any given species. High Fl value (near to 100%) is observed for plants in which use reports refer to its same way of use, whereas low Fl values are obtained from plants having multiple different uses [18, 34].

Scatter diagram

A scatter diagram was used to compare the flow of ethnobotanical information among the different age classes of the informants.

Results

Attributes of the informants

The characteristics of the informants is given in Fig. 2. Maximum male and female informants who had extensive ethnobotanical knowledge belonged to the age group between 60 and 79 years. The informants below the age of 20 years also responded well depicting the obvious transfer of traditional knowledge among the younger generation (Fig. 2). The children accompany the elders to the higher altitudes and help them in collecting wild plants. They learn about the uses of various plants through observations and especially wild fruits. A similar trend has been shown in the previous studies [4, 35, 36]. The translator helped us in easy communications with the Gujjar informants and even helped in collecting plant specimens from the wild. The female Gujjar informants were more comfortable in providing information to the female researcher as they are quite reticent. The tribal people of the region have a close relationship with nature and the vast experience of resource utilisation [37].

Floristic characteristics of the plants used

The study area is floristically rich, and the local inhabitants use a large number of plant species for variable uses. A total of 83 plant species belonging to 75 genera and 49 families were recorded in the study area (Table 1). The majority of plants belonged to Rosaceae (12 species), Polygonaceae (7 species), Betulaceae (4 species), Amaranthaceae (3 species), Apiaceae (3 species), Berberidaceae (3 species), Lamiaceae (3 species), and Ranunculaceae (3 species) [38,39,40] (Fig. 3). The genera represented by the highest number of species are Fragaria (3 species), Prunus (3 species), Rubus (2 species), Persicaria (2 species), Rhododendron (2 species), and Berberis (2 species).

Table 1 Enumeration of plants used by the Gujjars of Churah subdivision of Chamba district
Fig. 3
figure3

Dominant families in the study area

The most frequently used plant parts are leaves, fruits, roots, seeds, and whole part (Fig. 4). This result is similar to other investigations [41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48]. Easy availability of leaves with its higher metabolite content can be the reason for its preference [49, 50].

Fig. 4
figure4

Representation of plant parts used for various categories

The use value of plants

Maximum plant species (32) were reported for ethnomedicinal uses followed by food (22 species), household uses (16 species), fruits (15 species), and fodder (14 species). Use value is an important tool for selecting the most valued plants of any region for its detailed pharmacological investigation [51]. Highest use value was reported for the plant species which had multiple uses in the area. On the basis of use value (UV), the most important plants in the study area were Pteridium aquilinum (1.72), Juglans regia (1.60), Corylus jacquemontii (1.44), Urtica dioica (1.4), Diplazium maximum (1.21), Angelica glauca (1.16), Rumex hastatus (1.09), and Rheum australe (1.04) (Table 1). More than one plant part is used for about 13% of the species. For example, the bark of Juglans regia is used in cleaning teeth, its fruit is edible, and the wood is used in various household purposes. Similarly, the fruits of Phytolacca acinosa are fed to poultry while its aerial parts are eaten as a vegetable. The fruits of Solanum nigrum are edible while the tender leaves are eaten to cure dysentery. The leaves of Betula utilis are used to cure the urinary infection, and the bark is used in thatching roofs as a waterproof medium.

Informant consensus factor

The highest informant consensus values were obtained for food and fruit plants (Fic = 0.99), followed by fodder plants and household uses (Fic = 0.98) while it was least for the plants used for ethnomedicine (Fic = 0.97) (Table 2). Ethnobotanical uses of wild plants reported during the present investigation were found in agreement to previous studies [52, 53]. This reveals that wild plants play an important role in the sustenance of the people of the region. The various forest products not only fulfil their essential household requirements but wild vegetables and fruits provide essential vitamins and minerals for a healthy life [54]. A higher number of plants used for ethnomedicine by the tribal people indicate their dependency on locally available plant resources for curing various human and cattle related ailments. The complex ailments are healed by the local healers. This also signifies the unavailability of appropriate health care facilities in these remote regions. Aconitum heterophyllum, Bergenia stracheyi, and Verbascum thapsus with similar ethnomedicinal uses have been mentioned in the previous studies [55]. Roots were mostly used for curing various ailments because of easy availability in the dried form throughout the year [56].

Table 2 Use category and their factor informant consensus (Fic)

Fidelity level

The fidelity level varied from 8 to 100% in all the use categories (Table 3). Phytolacca acinosa (100%), Stellaria media (100%), and Urtica dioica (100%) were some of the species with high fidelity level used as food plants. The important species of wild fruits in the study area include Berberis lycium (100%), Prunus armeniaca (100%), and Rubus ellipticus (100%). Some of the important fodder plants with high fidelity values (100%) were Acer caesium, Aesculus indica, Ailanthus altissima, and Quercus semecarpifolia. Only a few plants with 100% fidelity were observed for ethnomedicine which were Aconitum heterophyllum, Angelica glauca, and Ajuga integrifolia while maximum plants in this category showed lower percentages of fidelity values varying from 10.91 to 47.12%. For the household use, least fidelity percentage was observed for Carpinus viminea (8%) while Angelica glauca and Boenninghausenia albiflora showed 100% fidelity values (Table 3). The fidelity level (Fl) helps in identifying the most preferred species for a particular use category. The high value of fidelity level (100%) indicates the same method of use for a specific plant [57]. Seventy-one plant species had 100% fidelity level. The ethnomedicinal plant use category had the maximum of 22 species with 100% fidelity level followed by food plant category with 18 species with 100% fidelity level.

Table 3 Fidelity level (Fl%) of some important plant species for various use categories
Table 4 Plants used for commercial purposes and their local market value in Tissa

Plants used for commercial purposes

With the onset of summer, the Gujjars start migrating to the higher altitudes with their cattle and stay in the temporary settlements called ‘Adhwari’s’. During this period, they uproot commercially important medicinal plants from the wild which they sell to local traders for financial gains [58]. The common medicinal plants harvested by them include Aconitum heterophyllum, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, Morchella esculenta, and Picrorhiza kurrooa (Table 4). Such indiscriminate exploitation of plant materials from nature can stress the natural population of these medicinal plants [59, 60]. Many of the plant species are categorised as threatened in the state that includes Aconitum heterophyllum, Angelica glauca, Berberis aristata, Betula utilis, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, Jurinea macrocephala, Sinopodophyllum hexandrum, and Taxus wallichiana (Table 5). Though these plant resources play an important role in the subsistence of the people, it may not be sustainable in the near future [61].

Table 5 Comparison with the previous ethnobotanical studies

Comparison with the previous ethnobotanical studies

The extensive literature review revealed the lesser known or new uses for 21 plant species from the study area (Table 5). Out of these, 13 plant species had ethnomedicinal uses, six household uses, and three edible uses. In the present study, leaf juice of Pleurospermum brunonis was used to cure skin infections while it was reported to cure jaundice and fever and used as an insect repellent in the previous studies [62, 63]. The root of Asparagus adscendens was used to control hair fall while previously it has been reported as carminative and demulcent [64]. The decoction of leaves of Betula utilis was used to treat a urinary infection while the dried root powder of Trillium govanianum was used to cure arthritis. Morchella esculenta besides eaten as a vegetable was also used to cure a cold and cough while in the previous reports it is known to protect the stomach, nourish the lungs, and strengthen immunity [65,66,67]. The root of Oxalis corniculata was used to treat dyspepsia, and aerial part of Polygonum aviculare was used to cure pneumonia. Seed powder of Prunus cornuta was administrated orally to cure diabetes while the same species was reported against anaemia [23]. The tender leaves of Solanum nigrum were reported to treat dysentery while it is known to cure a headache [55]. The animal ailments like a cough and a cold of buffalos were cured using leaves of Rhododendron campanulatum and Daphne papyracea. The worm-infected sores and wounds of cattle were healed using leaves of Caltha palustris while it has been reported to cure various other ailments like urinary infections and inflammation in the previous studies [68, 69]. A number of plants were used by people for household uses like leaves and roots of Primula floribunda for cleaning milk containers to remove the oiliness and odour of the utensils while it has been reported for its use to ward off devils and as a hair decorator by women [70, 71]. Very interesting information was provided by the Gujjars about the use of root of Persicaria amplexicaulis in tea making which they consume very often because of easy availability of the plant, good flavour, and a number of health benefits. Fruits of Brucea javanica were used in making chutney (sauce) while the cracked seeds of Clinopodium vulgare were used in various recipes. They make brooms from the stems of Sarcococca saligna and shoes from the bark of Carpinus viminea. The poor economic conditions of the Gujjars and remoteness of the area have made them adopt indigenous knowledge passed through their ancestry.

Conclusions

The Gujjars of Churah region constitute an important segment of the population in the region who have in-depth knowledge of diverse plant uses that can be linked back to their hereditary profession of pastoralism (Fig. 5). The infinite ethnobotanical knowledge of this tribe can also be related to their greater dependency on the wild plant resources for their sustenance because of poor living standards, illiteracy, and poverty. The younger generation is also actively involved in the seasonal activity of semi-nomadic pastoralism, and therefore, they had sound knowledge of the traditional knowledge though it was mostly concentrated in the older informants.

Fig. 5
figure5

Glimpses of photographs clicked during the entire period of study

The present study revealed the in-depth ethnobotanical knowledge of the Gujjars. The local communities have accumulated this immense knowledge through experimentation and modifications since centuries. Knowledge and use of medicinal plants to cure various ailments is part of their life and culture that requires preservation of this indigenous knowledge. In the present scenario, it forms an essential component of sustainable development. But this traditional knowledge which is transferred from one generation to another through the words of mouth is eroding exigently. Thus, there is an urgent need for the documentation of this traditional knowledge and in-depth phytochemical investigations to evaluate potentially active compounds of the plant species to prove their efficacy.

It is essentially required to develop agro technological tools for plant species for which the same is lacking to ensure plantation in the forests/community lands available in the villages to check unsustainable harvesting of wild edibles. Value addition and product development of wild fruit plants can provide an alternate source of livelihood to the rural people. Thus, bioprospection and phytochemical profiling and evaluation of economically viable products can lead to the optimum harnessing of Himalayan bioresources in this region.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are thankful to the Director, CSIR-IHBT, Palampur for providing facilities and encouragement. We are grateful to DST, Govt. of India for the financial assistance provided under a sponsored project entitled “Network programme on the convergence of traditional knowledge system for sustainable development in the Indian Himalayan Region” and Prof. S.C. Garkoti, JNU for his constant support and cooperation. We are highly grateful to the Gujjars of the Churah region for sharing valuable information without any hurdle and support of officials of various line departments is also duly acknowledged. We are grateful to the Editor and the Reviewers for their valuable suggestions which helped us in improving this manuscript.

Funding

Funds for the study were provided by DST, Govt. of India funded project GAP-0189.

Availability of data and materials

All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article.

Author information

DR and AB carried out field surveys and data recording and prepared the manuscript. BL designed the study and edited the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Correspondence to Brij Lal.

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Additional file

Additional file 1:

Questionnaire for documentation of ethno-botanical related TKS in the IHR from local resource persons and traditional healers (DOCX 19 kb)

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Keywords

  • Gujjar
  • Tribe
  • Adhwari
  • Himalaya
  • Informant consensus factor
  • Use value
  • Fidelity level