The region of Ladakh set atop the Himalayan plateau, straddled by the Karakoram range is undeniably unique and is home to a variety of plants with medicinal and aromatic properties.
The defining features are its craggy mountainscape, bitter cold conditions and desert landscape.
It is here that life moves according to a pattern set over centuries in response not only to the difficult terrain and inhospitable climatic conditions but also to the historical and cultural influence of the region, which in close proximity to Tibet.
To most observers, however Ladakh still remains disconnected. There are no rail links, limited road connections and few flights operating. Infact it is this degree of isolation and remoteness that has forced the people to seek ways how to conserve resources, to become self-sufficient. The ecology of this region being highly sensitive, plants, grasses and shrubs play a vital role in maintaining the balance in the environment, in the oxygen levels that green cover provides.
What is lesser known is that Ladakh is home to a wide variety of plants, particular to this high altitude region, which is fed by numerous glacial streams originating in the Himalayan heights. Deceptively barren, the arid region infact is a treasure trove of more than 1000 local varieties.
Sources say about 50 percent of these have medicinal and aromatic properties. Indeed this bounty of nature in one of the starkest locales plays a vital role in local health systems.
Typically in any mountainous region, locals have a dependence on wild plants for their food, fodder, and medicines as well as in their cultural and artistic pursuits. In Ladakh too, this is the case and there exists a rich repository of traditional knowledge on the properties and use of plants in various aspects of life.
The unique blend of temperatures, terrain, of soil and water has given rise to a fascinating fauna, which has been used by locals for curing and healing. The practice of 'Sowa Rigpa', the Science of Healing and the system of traditional medicines called 'Amchi' is based on this.
Based principally on a traditional system centering around 'three humors' called 'Nespa sum' and five elements 'Jung wa ina', this draws on Himalayan herbs, minerals and animals parts. The judicious mix of these has created medicines for specific ailments based on their intrinsic knowledge and learning gleaned from an observation of nature and from traditions handed down.
They know which plants grow where in the vast mountainscape and thus source specific ones from the Indus valley, Nubra, Changthang, Drass, Zangskar and Suru valley. The value of these medicinal mixes is high amongst the local population, it being a part of their lives.
Even today, in the modern age, the average Ladakhi swears by the Amchi. The question is whether this indigenous system of medicine can benefit a larger populace rather than being confined to Ladakh?
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) over 3/4th of the five billion world population cannot afford modern medicines and rely on the use of traditional medicine of plant origin. In fact the UN body through its programmes across countries, encourages, recommends and promotes the usage of plant derivatives of drugs in national health care programmes.
The benefit are enormous primarily because it is affordable, not dependent on expensive chemicals of the allopathic system and ideal for developing societies struggling to cater to the needs of their poor.
This puts the Amchi system in Ladakh in a wider context. Can it play a role beyond the region, beyond the traditional pools of knowledge and expertise? Steps towards this are already evident. The Amchi Medicine Research Unit Leh (AMRUL) and Field Research Laboratory (FRL) Leh, two major institution of the Government are involved in conducting research on medicinal plants of the Trans-Himalayas over the last ten years.
Around 1100 plant species have been recorded of which 525 species are used in current medicinal systems of India.
A note of caution however needs to be sounded. There is an inherent danger of exploitation. Recent studies show that many of these plant species are being destroyed. This highlights the urgency to conserve.
The benefits of the plants in Ladakh can go a long way, provided systems are developed and then fine-tuned to harvest this precious resource while conserving it. The ecology of Ladakh, which is fragile, needs to maintain the harmony to sustain over time and the enthusiasts of the traditional medicinal systems in Ladakh need to work to ensure that.
Another dimension has been brought in. Over the years, the window to the world is opening. With Ladakh gradually opening out to tourists, the interest of travelers and researchers has grown. This has led to the medicinal wealth of Ladakh finding a wider arena of supporters and practitioners. In tune with these trends, Amchi Medical Research Unit and Field Research Laboratory have started education and awareness programmes on conservation of medicinal plants for groups of people.
What is interesting is that it is attracting commercial interests as well. We know history is replete with developments arising from trade and commerce activates which are great connecting, unifying forces, joining cultures, regions and peoples over the ages. Today in a globalised world, probably the potential is even wider.
This in the context of Ladakh could draw out the immense natural wealth and knowledge for larger systems beyond its frontiers. . For instance it would be possible through new agro-techniques for commercial cultivation of alpine varieties of Trans-Himalayas in field conditions
Ploughing in the incredible wealth of Ladakh to develop medicinal systems beyond its frontiers is feasible today. Interested parties like the health and well-ness industry can play a role. The key word however is caution; the judicious use of these natural resources; to walk and not trample upon the fauna of Ladakh.
Such an approach would lead to high-value herbal products being created of course, but also open up a means of livelihood to the rural people.
The Charkha Development Communication Network is convinced that the possibilities are limitless with a world out there waiting to be explored for Ladakh's bio-diversity, which could give something of lasting value to this world. By Stanzin Kunzang Angmo