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Mountains of Sanjeevani

The mythical herb, <g data-gr-id="105">sanjeevani</g>, that saved the life of Laxman, received widespread media attention when the Uttarakhand government proposed to spend Rs 25 crore in finding this miraculous herb. As the legend goes, Lord Hanuman arrived in the Himalayas to collect this life-saving herb, but since he could not identify <g data-gr-id="106">sanjeevani</g>, he uprooted a part of the mountain and carried it to Lanka. Due to the complexities in identifying this mythical herb, there is scepticism about the proposed project. 

The concept of <g data-gr-id="115">sanjeevani</g> 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 <g data-gr-id="116">sanjeevani</g> can bring a dead person to life. In the epic, Laxman became unconscious while fighting Meghnada, the eldest son of demon king Ravana. So it became obvious that <g data-gr-id="117">sanjeevani</g> 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 <g data-gr-id="146">katuki</g> (Picrorhiza <g data-gr-id="148">kurrooa</g>), a herb which is commonly used by local people living at this altitude. <g data-gr-id="151">Katuki</g> cured my pain. Though this plant bears no resemblance to <g data-gr-id="153">sanjeevani</g>, I believe its properties are no less than that of <g data-gr-id="155">sanjeevani</g>.

Like <g data-gr-id="265">katuki</g>, there are hundreds of medicinal plants that grow between the treeline and the snowline in the 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 life-saving herbs including Fritillaria <g data-gr-id="266">roylei</g>, Megacarpaea <g data-gr-id="267">polyandra</g>, Dactylorhiza <g data-gr-id="268">hatagirea</g>, Picrorhiza <g data-gr-id="269">kurrooa</g>, Malaxis <g data-gr-id="270">acuminata</g>, Polygonatum <g data-gr-id="271">verticillatum</g>, and P <g data-gr-id="272">cirrhifolium</g>.

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 <g data-gr-id="130">sanjeevani</g> 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 <g data-gr-id="131">phen</g> kamal (Saussurea <g data-gr-id="132">gossypiphora</g>) which grows above 4,300 m is the <g data-gr-id="133">mrita</g> <g data-gr-id="134">sanjeevani</g>. Since <g data-gr-id="136">phen</g> kamal has a white foam sort of bloom which glows in moonlight—one of the characteristics of <g data-gr-id="137">sanjeevani</g> as mentioned in literature—it was assumed to be the <g data-gr-id="138">sanjeevani</g>. More details are awaited as Patanjali Yogpeeth scientists are still testing these herbs. Apart from <g data-gr-id="140">mrita</g> <g data-gr-id="141">sanjeevani</g>, <g data-gr-id="142">shalya</g> <g data-gr-id="143">karani</g>, <g data-gr-id="144">suvarnakarani</g>, and <g data-gr-id="145">sandhani</g> 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 <g data-gr-id="121">sanjeevani</g>, its synonym, or words sounding phonetically similar. After further analysis, the researchers found that three species, namely Selaginella <g data-gr-id="122">bryopteris</g>, Cressa <g data-gr-id="123">cretica</g>, and Desmotrichum <g data-gr-id="124">fimbriatum</g> (<g data-gr-id="125">sanjeevani</g>, <g data-gr-id="126">rudanthi</g>, and <g data-gr-id="127">jeevaka</g>, respectively) had the closest and consistent reference to the term <g data-gr-id="128">sanjeevani</g> or the word sounding phonetically similar, however, only <g data-gr-id="129">sanjeevani</g> is known to grow in the hills. 

While surveying the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, I came across a plant called <g data-gr-id="159">sanjeevani</g> (Selaginella <g data-gr-id="160">bryopteris</g>). 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 <g data-gr-id="191">coma</g>.

Miraculous herbs
There are many such herbs that have great medicinal values, but unfortunately, their properties are yet to be discovered or documented. In fact, every plant growing at such altitudes is a <g data-gr-id="108">sanjeevani</g> 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 <g data-gr-id="193">collaboration</g> 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 <g data-gr-id="318">sanjeevani</g> 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. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
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