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 Table of Contents  
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Year : 2012  |  Volume : 32  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 99-103

Ethnozoology of the Karbis of Assam, India: Use of ichthyofauna in traditional health-care practices


Department of Life Science and Bioinformatics, Assam University - Diphu Campus, Diphu, Karbi Anglong, Assam 782460, India

Date of Web Publication20-Sep-2013

Correspondence Address:
Valentina Teronpi
Department of Life Science and Bioinformatics, Assam University, Diphu Campus, P.O. Diphu, Karbi Anglong, Assam - 782 462
India
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/0257-7941.118547

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  Abstract 

Background: Traditional or folk medicine is still prevalent among the Karbis as means of primary health-care. Traditional medicine is not only a source of healing, but the practice is also an important part of their religion and culture.
Aim: The aim of the present study is to discuss the use of ichthyofauna in traditional health-care practices among the Karbis and other ethnic tribes of Karbi Anglong district, Assam.
Setting and Design: Field study was undertaken from March 2011 to June 2012. A total of 75 informants were selected from 27 villages and the selection was based on their recognition as having sound knowledge relating to health-care practices.
Materials and Methods: Information was collected following both unstructured and structured interview methods, group discussions and personal observation. Fish used in health-care practices were collected with the help of local guides and identified using available literatures.
Results: The present study has recorded use of 14 species belonging 7 families in the treatment of 25 disease conditions. Traditional health-care practices of the Karbis include both local and oral applications and rituals to cure diseases. Use of fish to cure mental depression like symptoms locally referred as nihu kachingtung is prevalent until today. Studies among the Dimasa and Thadou tribes also revealed the use of fish in traditional medicine as therapies against different ailments, but do not use fish in rituals.
Conclusion: Study on fish-based zootherapy could be a viable option for discovery of new compounds with therapeutic potentials. However, the attitude of the present generation towards traditional medicine as being unscientific and acculturation are the main causes of decline of such practice in the Karbis. Destructive fishing practices by poisoning water bodies with synthetic chemicals pose serious threats to aquatic fauna in the hill streams.

Keywords: Ichthyofauna, Karbi tribe, Nihu kachingtung, traditional health-care practices


How to cite this article:
Teronpi V, Singh H T, Tamuli A K, Teron R. Ethnozoology of the Karbis of Assam, India: Use of ichthyofauna in traditional health-care practices. Ancient Sci Life 2012;32:99-103

How to cite this URL:
Teronpi V, Singh H T, Tamuli A K, Teron R. Ethnozoology of the Karbis of Assam, India: Use of ichthyofauna in traditional health-care practices. Ancient Sci Life [serial online] 2012 [cited 2021 Sep 19];32:99-103. Available from: https://www.ancientscienceoflife.org/text.asp?2012/32/2/99/118547


  Introduction Top


Many cultures around the world still depend on traditional medicine for primary health-care. Traditional medicines have been relied upon to support, promote, retain and regain human health for millennia. World Health Organization (WHO) defines traditional medicine as “the sum total of knowledge, skill and practices based on theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures that are used to maintain health as well as to prevent, diagnose, improve or treat physical and mental illnesses.” According to WHO report about 80% of the populations in some African and Asian countries are dependent on traditional medicines for primary health-care. Use of traditional medicine is equally significant in the developed countries; Nearly, 70-80% of the population has used some form of “alternative” or “complementary” medicines.[1] Although traditional medicine mainly relies on herbal treatment, animals or animal derived products are also used. It has been reported that more than half of the world's modern drugs are of biological resources and out of 252 that has been selected by WHO as essential to human health, 8.7% comes from animal sources.[2] Hence, it is fair to say that animals have been playing a significant role in healing processes, folk rituals and religious practices of people from all five continents.

Karbis represents one of the prominent indigenous tribes of Northeast India, with unique traditions and cultures distinct from other ethnic groups of the region. They are believed to have migrated from the Kuki-Chin area in Western Myanmar. Racially, Karbis belong to the Mongoloid group and linguistically belong to the Tibeto-Burman group particularly the Kuki-Chin subgroup of languages.[3],[4] Karbis follow patrilineal system of family and socially divided into five major Kur or clans viz., Lijang, Hanjang, Ejang, Kronjang and Tungjang. Clans are further divided into many subclans. These clans are exogamous, which means marriages between members of the same clan are not allowed. Karbi practice traditional religion, which is animistic in nature while about 15% Karbis are Christians (Census of India, 2011). Traditional religion believes in immortality of souls and rebirth and honoring the terim or ancestors is an integral part of their religion.

Traditional or folk medicine is still prevalent among the Karbis as means of primary health-care. The practice involves numerous magico-religious performances and administration of plant and animal or their products. For some ailments, minerals are also used. Zootherapy is an integral part of traditional health-care practice among the Karbis,[5] but there is a dearth of reports in this regard. A few works have been reported on the therapeutic use of ichthyofauna in India and abroad.[6],[7],[8] Use of fish in health-care practices among the Karbis have received scant attention and hence the present study.

Traditional health-care practices of the Karbis

Ailment or illness in Karbi is called Keso and its treatment is called seh-kelang. The latter involves various practices such as therapies, charms and rituals. Kapherem involves incantation of holy verses related to concerned deity to cure minor ailments such as Ingthum (Boils), Methan Kekor (Dog bite), But Pharo (Acute gastroenteritis), Me Kapherem (Burn), Inghai (lymphadenitis), Han Kangri (vegetable poisoning), Mek Aur (sore eye), Thengkur (Poisoning) and Furui Karchu (Snake bite). Therapies or prescription prepared from plants, animals or minerals are also used; for a few ailments, therapies may be accompanied with kapherem or charms before being given to the patient. Kachehi (local therapy) involves the application of concoction locally, which may or may not involve kapherem. Kecho (oral therapy) involves administration of traditional medicine orally. It may or may not be accompanied with kapherem. For some ailments seh karkli or ritual involving blood-sacrifice is resorted for recovery of the patient. In karkli, a priest resorts to reading of entrails and liver of sacrificed chickens, goats or pigs. This practice of divination, known since the time of ancient Etruscans, Romans and the Mesopotamians, is referred as haruspicy, hepatoscopy or hepatomancy. The practice is also called extispicy (from Latin extispicium). Organs inspected include the liver, intestines and lungs. Besides reading the entrails and livers etc., the direction of the head and wings of the sacrificed chicken is also examined to predict the effectiveness of the ritual. Traditional medicine is not only source of healing, but the practice is also an important part of Karbi religion and culture.


  Materials and Methods Top


Karbi ethnic group of Karbi Anglong district (25°33'-26°35'N and 92°10'-93°50'E), Assam [Figure 1] and their traditional health-care system are materials for the present study. Field study was undertaken during the period from March 2011 to June 2012. A total of 75 informants were selected from 27 villages and the selection was based on their recognition as knowledgeable relating to health-care practices. As part of prior informed consent, the informants were apprised of the objectives of this study. Information was collected following both unstructured and structured interview methods and group discussions. Information so obtained was substantiated from elders of other localities and also by personal observations. Similar studies were also carried out among the Dimasa and Thadou ethnic tribes in the study area. Fish used in health-care practices were collected with the help of local guides and identified using available literature.[9],[10]
Figure 1: Map of Karbi Anglong district

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  Results and Discussions Top


Traditional medicine is an indispensable part of primary health-care among the Karbis. Fish is an integral part of the ritual associated with propitiation of their supreme deity [Figure 2]. The customary use of fish (toman) during the ritual of nihu kachingtung [Figure 3] for curing mental depression-like symptoms is still prevalent. Traditional health-care practices of the Karbis are based on religious beliefs and therefore, are an important driver for continuation of their culture. Studies among the Dimasa and Thadou tribes also revealed the use of fish in traditional medicine as therapies against different ailments, but they do not use fish in rituals. The present study has recorded use of 14 species belonging 7 families in the treatment of 25 disease conditions [Table 1]. Fishing practices among different tribes in Karbi Anglong use various fishing gears to catch fish. Use of pesicidal plants in water bodies is common among different communities. In recent times, some sections of people have been using synthetic chemicals to stupefy fishes, but the practice has serious irreversible damage on aquatic fauna ecosystem.
Figure 2: A scene from chojun ritual of the Karbis and (inset) fish (Devario aequipinnatus and Channa gachua) and Carcinus sp. being offered to the deity on the occasion

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Figure 3: A girl being offered Five balls of rice and toman by her ma­ternal uncle as part of the nihu kachingtung ritual

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Table 1: Inventory of fish used for medicinal purpose by the Karbi, Dimasa and Thadou tribes in Karbi Anglong district

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Fishes are used to address a host of health related problems such as cough, anemia, diarrhea, infirmities etc. Often a single species is the source of treatment for many disease and infirmities. These therapeutic uses are associated with the use of different parts of the animal. The blood of Monopterus cuchia is used as a cure for anemia while the flesh of the fish is used as a cure for infirmities. The flesh of Labeo pangusia is used as tonic and bile of the fish is used as a cure for stomach ache. The list of fish includes an unidentified species the bile of which is used as a remedy for malaria. Further, investigations on the therapeutic use of fish could lead to discovery of novel products. Some fishes are avoided during certain illnesses.

Ritual use of fish among the Karbis

Rituals are observed for general well-being of individuals, household or village community. Fish is symbolically used in all the rituals of household deities; as a customary practice the kurusar or priest honors his predecessors with hor lang or rice beer and beng or dried caudal fin of fish, before performing the ritual. The nomenclature beng for dried caudal fin is applicable only when used during ritual.

Further, beng is used as offering to the deities Peng (the household protector) and Arnam Kethe (the supreme deity). For this purpose, fish is collected from rivers in advance and then dried. On the day of the ritual, the dried fish is cooked by boiling, but no flavor or salt is added. The boiled fish is then wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with nine strands of jintak (bamboo splits) and placed at the altar of the concern deity. Beng carries significant implications to the ritual as it is customary to offer beng to the deity. Beng is distributed to the priest and all male guests present. The priest then calls for collective incantation in honor of the deity with offering of rice beer and beng. A person takes a pair of plantain leaves and collects the offerings (i.e., rice beer and beng) and places the same in front of the altar of the deity. This practice is called Thekar, which constitute an integral part of the ritual. Failure to observe Thekar is considered as a serious offense.

During chojun ritual, the supreme deity of Karbi pantheon Arnam Kethe (also popularly referred as Barithe, Abinong, Angsong Asor etc.) is offered ok-kereng or live fish namely nune (Amblypharyngodon mola, Danio aequipinnatus) and ok-langso (Channa gachua) along with chehe (Carcinus sp.) and kumphi (Dytiscus marginalis) [Figure 2]. Fish and crab for this purpose are collected a day ahead of ritual and stored in a bamboo tube.

Use of fish to cure nihu kachingtung (mental depression-like condition)

As a society, Karbis are organized around a network of kinship relations. The maternal uncles are held in high esteem and traditionally, it is customary for all sisters to pay periodic homage to their brothers for the well-being of her children. When a sister's son or daughter is afflicted with certain socially defined conditions such as biting nails, pulling one's hair, aloofness and loss of appetite (with no physical evidence of illness), the condition is said to be attributed to nihu kachiri (Nihu, maternal uncle; kachiri, longing) or the curse of maternal uncle. Often the help of a wise man is sought to determine the cause of such unusual conditions. As customary practice, the nihu or maternal uncle of the patient is approached and he is honored with specially prepared rice beer. The nihu then prepares aandum or ball of rice (six in case of a boy and five in case of a girl) and along with six pieces of toman (dried fish of bigger size) offers to the afflicted person [Figure 3]. If the person takes the ritual gifts (of rice and toman), it is considered as a positive sign that the patient will return to normal state of health. The nihu kachingtung is an integral part of traditional religion of the Karbis and the practice is still vibrant in the society irrespective of economic status.

Restriction observed on consumption of fish

Some fishes are avoided during certain illnesses. Among the Karbis, patient suffering from throat problem, goiter or leprosy is restricted from eating scaled fishes as such fishes are said to aggravate the condition. Patients suffering from tuberculosis are restricted from eating fish. Similarly, among the Dimasas, Puntius sp. is not consumed by patients suffering from dermis problem and Wallago attu is avoided during any illness. In case of urinary tract infection and renal problem, the head of the fish is avoided.


  Conclusion Top


Besides being a source of food, fish is used in health-care practices among the Karbis. Poverty and limited access to modern medicine are the main factors for their dependence on traditional medicine, particularly in rural areas. Study on fish-based zootherapy could be a viable option for discovery of new compounds with therapeutic potentials. However, the present generation attitude toward traditional medicine as being unscientific and acculturation are the main causes of decline of such practices in Karbi society. Traditional medicine is based on resource availability and therefore, study of such practices provides information about diversity and distribution of organisms in the past. Further, traditional knowledge of indigenous people can provide leads for sustainable use and management of natural resources. Today however, unmindful extraction of resources has pushed our resources toward the brink of collapse. Destructive fishing practices by poisoning water bodies with synthetic chemicals pose serious threats to aquatic fauna in the hill streams of Karbi Anglong district. Concerted studies should be undertaken to evolve management policies by incorporating traditional management practices with scientific practices; such integrated approach will conserve not only natural resources, but also preserve local culture as well.

 
  References Top

1.World Health Organisation Fact Sheet No. 134 (December 2008): Traditional Medicine. Geneva, Switzerland; 2008.  Back to cited text no. 1
    
2.Marques JG. Faunal medicinal: Recurso do ambiente on ameaca a biodiversidade? Mutum 1997;1:4.  Back to cited text no. 2
    
3.Bhattacharjee T. Sociology of the Karbis. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation; 1986.  Back to cited text no. 3
    
4.Phangcho PC. Karbi anglong and north cachar hills: A study of geography and culture. Diphu: Printwell; 2001.  Back to cited text no. 4
    
5.Ronghang R, Teron R, Tamuli AK, Rajkhowa RC. Traditional zootherapy practiced among the Karbis of Assam (India). The Ecoscan 2011;1:161-6.  Back to cited text no. 5
    
6.Saikia K, Ahmed R. Wetland fish diversity of Majuli river island (India) and their medicinal values. The Clarion 2011;1:91-86.  Back to cited text no. 6
    
7.Deb AK, Emdad Haque C. 'Every mother is a mini-doctor': Ethnomedicinal uses of fish, shellfish and some other aquatic animals in Bangladesh. J Ethnopharmacol 2011;134:259-67.  Back to cited text no. 7
[PUBMED]    
8.Orilogbon JO, Adewole AM. Ethnoichthyological knowledge and perception in traditional medicine in Onde and Lagos states, southeast Nigeria. Egypt J Biol 2011;13:57-64.  Back to cited text no. 8
    
9.Jayaram KC. Freshwater Fishes of Indian Region. Delhi: Narendra Publishing House; 2001.  Back to cited text no. 9
    
10.Vishwanath W. Fishes of North East India: A field guide to species identification. Imphal: R & K Packaging Industries; 2002.  Back to cited text no. 10
    


    Figures

  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3]
 
 
    Tables

  [Table 1]


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