Vrkshayurveda experiments Linking ancient texts and farmers’ practices

A.V. Balasubramanian, K. Vijayalakshmi, Subhashini Sridhar and S. Arumugasamy

The unique feature of traditional knowledge in India is that it is manifested in different ways. There are many living folk practices related to agriculture and health. Knowledge on these subjects can also be found in millions of ancient manuscripts. The traditional plant science is known as Vrkshayurveda. The Centre of Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS) has worked for several years with ancient manuscripts relating to agriculture. They have come to the conclusion that strengthening the links between farming practices and ancient texts can revitalise present day agriculture.

In India there is a rich and diverse folk tradition that includes age-old agricultural practices, home health remedies, and advice about the dos and don’ts of everyday life. Folk health practitioners as well as traditional health specialists also take care of serious conditions, such as bone injury and poisoning. There are formal traditional medical practitioners of the Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha systems who receive their training and qualifications at special colleges. The influence of modernisation and changes in lifestyle, however, has resulted in a decline in traditional health and agricultural practices. Moreover many modern practitioners show indifference or negative attitudes towards traditional practices.

Meanwhile, India has one of the largest collections of ancient manuscripts in the world. While there has never been a precise count, estimates suggest there may be as many as 300 million texts. These old Indian scripts pay considerable attention to philosophy, religion, health care, agriculture, livestock, rains and harvests. They include hymns, prayers, mantras – specific symbolic figures – and ancient prescriptions. The classical Indian health (Ayurveda) and plant (Vrkshayurveda) science is highly advanced. Scripts are written in many languages including Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu.

Ayurveda as a science

In India, the validation of knowledge and experience has been going on since ancient times: it is nothing new in our tradition. If we turn to the ancient texts of the Nyaya Sastra, the rules for what constitutes valid knowledge are laid out quite clearly. Nyaya Sastra says there are three sources of valid knowledge. The first is based on direct observation and experience. The second source is the accumulated wisdom found in texts. The third source of valid knowledge is ‘drawing valid conclusions from observations and experience’.

The science of Ayurveda is based on the above concepts, applied in the context of maintaining health. It is based on rational principles, and is sceptical of any knowledge that has not been acquired according to these scientific rules. Using this method Ayurveda has put together an enormous body of data and developed methodologies and categories that are equally valid for the past, the present and the future.

Literature on Vrkshayurveda

Three types of Vrkshayurveda literature can be distinguished. The first category consists of general texts with only specific sections devoted to traditional plant science. The second category involves more general texts and here Vrkshayurveda is an essential part of the content. These texts are important since they provide the basic theoretical framework that allows us to understand the Vrkshayurveda literature. Thirdly, there are those manuscripts that are devoted entirely to plant science. These are of great interest and direct relevance to our work.

The subject matter of Vrkshayurveda is vast, detailed and varied. It includes subjects such as the collection and selection of seeds, germination, cultivation, sowing, planting, nursery techniques, soil, manuring, cultivation under favourable meteorological conditions, pest and disease management, as well as the traditional names and description of plants. Some of the prescriptions of Vrkshayurveda are of a general nature; other prescriptions define a particular species precisely. Quite often the prescriptions list a set of ingredients without specifying the proportions to be used.

How it began

The Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS) is a non-governmental research and development centre. Our interest in Vrkshayurveda dates back to the 1980s when A.V. Balasubramanian was involved in a movement known as Patriotic and People Oriented Science and Technology. The objective of this movement was to explore various aspects of traditional Indian science and technology. This was done against the backdrop of the Green Revolution, which introduced radical changes into Indian agriculture and which, despite its short-term effectiveness, also created certain imbalances.

Since 1986, CIKS has been studying agriculture by looking at traditional agrarian knowledge as this is reflected in proverbs and folk sayings. We have compared this knowledge with some classical agricultural texts. We soon found that, while there are many specialised and active practitioners of traditional medicine, similar scholars in the area of traditional agriculture were difficult to find.

From 1990 onwards we started collecting literature and material on Vrkshayurveda and decided that we wanted to test the practices described in these texts. At first we did not give this high priority. This situation changed in the early nineties when we started growing crops on our own land. In 1997 a new phase began when we started our experiments on paddy, the main staple crop in the area.

 Starting actions

At our centre, we want to understand farmers’ practices in the context of classical Indian plant science and its agricultural cosmovision. Our activity is prompted by the concern that, in general, rural peoples’ activities are hardly ever analysed in their own context. They are often dissected using the tools of western science and technology. As a result, bits and pieces of traditional practices have been isolated and incorporated into the modern scheme of things. This process does not strengthen traditional practices, which are usually ignored until they have been declared valid by conventional Western science. We feel that it is important to understand these agricultural practices as more than a collection of technologies, and try to reach their theoretical foundations. Vrkshayurveda is important in this process.

 We started by scanning texts and literature in Sanskrit, and went on to develop a strategy for selecting those descriptions that seemed to offer the most promise to test in the field. We started the experiments in 1994 with various recipes and prescriptions of Vrkshayurveda in our garden and in our neighbour’s field.


Testing ancient recipes

Broadly speaking, we can classify our experiments into 5 categories. First, experiments in the CIKS office premises and garden; second, experiments in response to specific request for help; third, experiments carried out by schools and college students; fourth, experiments carried out by those who have read CIKS books on the subject, and finally experiments with paddy on the CIKS farm and in farmers’ fields. These experiments greatly varied in terms of the problem concerned, prescriptions and rigor, and were carried out over seven years.

                The initial experiments in the CIKS office garden in 1993 and 1994 included the rejuvenation of mango trees and the healing of a broken trunk in a guava tree. These experiments gave us a feeling for how treatment along Vrkshayurveda lines could be practically applied.

Botany students at a local college conducted other experiments, testing the effects of soaking seeds in milk before sowing. This is suggested in Vrkshayurveda to stimulate germination and growth. In some cases this led to an excellent improvement in the rate of germination, in other cases the effect was moderate or minimal. We found that many questions on details were generated by the experiments. For example, when milk was prescribed, which animal’s milk was required, how long should the seeds be soaked and how frequently should the milk be diluted or used?

During this period we also published some introductory monographs on Vrkshayurveda. These publications attracted considerable attention and encouraged others to try out the prescriptions and approaches of Vrkshayurveda or ask our help. In turn some of these requests provided interesting lessons for us.


A request for help

In 1994, the mango grove attached to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society suffered a major attack by the ‘mango leaf webber’. The Theosophical Society was reluctant to use chemicals and the garden superintendent approached us for help. We suggested removing the heavily affected parts of the trees, spraying the less affected parts with a mixture of neem oil and pongam oil in a soap solution, and then fumigating with a herbal mixture consisting of Embelia ribes and a herb known as Daruharidra. There was a dramatic reversal in the disease. The trees put forth new leaves and provided a very good harvest that year.  This gave us considerable confidence, not only because our effort had succeeded, but also because we had been able to develop a detailed recipe along Vrkshayurveda lines.

Others started carrying out experiments after reading the CIKS materials. For example, Sri K.K. Somani experimented by applying Vrkshayurveda remedies to custard apple trees that had not yielded fruit for 15 years.  The fruit would form and drop off just after starting to grow despite applications of fertilizers and full irrigation. After reading Vrkshayurveda, he applied about 1 litre of milk together with various pulses, ghee – clarified butter – and honey as prescribed in the ancient recipes. Altogether this Vrkshayurveda treatment costs less than Rs.50/-.  Within three months, he had a record crop of custard apples with a particularly delicious taste. He concluded that the cost of these Vrkshayurveda treatments was not high, which make them a valuable option when trying to strengthen today’s agricultural practices.


Experiments on paddy

After 1997, we started experimenting with rice to see what effect the Vrkshayurveda recipes had on improving germination, pest and disease resistance, and the effect of plant growth stimulators. The recipes available in the ancient texts were screened and selected on the bases of considerations such as the cost of ingredients, ease of preparation, possibility of replication, and the amount of effort involved in carrying out the treatment. The experiments were conducted on Kullakar, a traditional rice variety.

In the germination experiments, seeds were subjected to four different treatments: soaked in water for 24 hours; soaked in a mixture of cow’s urine and powdered vacha (Acorus calamus) for 24 hours; soaked in milk for 24 hours, then rinsed with water and coated and rubbed with cowdung, then dried in the shade for 6 hours, smeared with honey, and fumigated with powdered vidanga (Embelia ribes); and soaked in cow dung mixed with water for 24 hours. The control seeds were given no treatment. The percentage of germination as well as plant height was measured after seven days.

Experiments were also conducted with plant growth regulators. Here plants were transplanted into pots that contained a mixture of soil, farmyard manure and wood ash. Before transplanting, the plants were dipped into either a solution of cow’s urine diluted with water or a modified Panchagavya solution – a mixture of cow’s urine, milk, water and ghee.  Forty-five days after transplantation a plant growth regulator was sprayed in all pots. This regulator consisted of goat flesh extract, black gram powder and sesame seeds.

                Plant height and number of tillers were measured 7 days after spraying with the growth regulator. The weight of the grains obtained after harvest and the incidence of disease was also monitored. These experiments indicated that soaking the seeds in water seemed to be the best option when it comes to enhancing germination. The yield of paddy nearly doubled when the growth regulator was applied.


Some difficulties

These experiments on germination and the effect of growth regulator were also expected to have an impact on disease resistance. Unfortunately, during the first crop season when the experiments were performed in pots, all pots became heavily infested with the pest known as ‘brown plant hopper’. There was stagnant water and many weeds in a neighbouring garden near our pots; as a result our experiments were quickly swamped by the ‘hoppers’. We were able to control the infection by using wood ash, but in the process we lost the chance of observing the finer distinctions between experimental and control plants in terms of their susceptibility to disease.

                In drawing conclusions from our experiments we also encountered the problem that treatments involve several steps and components. Because of the way the recipes are described in the ancient texts, we did not know exactly how to apply the prescriptions, or at what level we should look for results. For example, when we soaked the paddy seeds in milk, they curdled it. Later, when we washed the germinated seeds and transplanted them, the level of germination was quite low. We felt that this might be because the tips of the germinating seeds were injured when we washed them to remove the curdled milk. However, an anthropologist who had observed similar practices in a tribal area suggested that the objective of this exercise may be to ensure that the most robust seeds were selected, those that can survive this washing. We had to admit that this was an interesting possibility, but to test this would be quite a laborious process.

We discussed the results of the experiments with a wide cross section of people and decided that in our next phase we would decrease the number of variables as well as the number of pots. We continued the experiments, both in farmers’ fields and in our own fields, for two more crop seasons.  During this period we could confirm positive results, especially  with the use of plant growth regulators.


Increased resistance

Subsequently, we carried out several other experiments. When paddy is soaked in diluted cow’s urine before sowing, it considerably reduces the incidence of two diseases known as ‘leaf spot’ and ‘rice blast’. For this experiment paddy seeds were allowed to germinate for two days by soaking them in a special cloth bag that was kept continually moist. The seeds were then soaked in cow’s urine diluted with water. This was filtered off and the seeds were dried in the shade before being sown. We had to ensure that the concentration of cow’s urine was not too high, because this can suppress paddy germination.

We also found that soaking paddy seeds in milk stimulated resistance to certain viruses, especially the ‘tungro’ virus and ‘stunt’ virus. For this experiment paddy seeds were again allowed to germinate in a moist bag for two days. They were then soaked in milk mixed with water and sown immediately.  We observed that seeds subjected to this treatment showed resistance to both the tungro and the stunt virus, even when plants in neighbouring fields were affected.


Farmers and Vkrshayurveda

We have tried to include a number of farmers in our experiments with the use of plant growth regulators and transplanting solutions. There has not been extensive farmer participation either in our fields or in their own, however. We are particularly cautious before we recommend something to farmers – even at the level of small-scale experiments – because we want to avoid any problem or loss. We have learnt that the process of reconstructing practices from ancient texts requires many initial trials, before experiments can be started with farmers. For example, in testing the effect of a plant growth regulator, we had to experiment for 18 months before it was possible to start the farmer participation stage.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that in several instances farmers’ practice coincide with the prescriptions found in Vrkshayurveda. Perhaps the appropriate way to describe this phenomenon is to state that the texts on Vrkshayurveda are systematisations of the practices the farmers follow at field level, placed in a theoretical framework. For example, farmers use the leaves and latex produced by the plant Calotropis gigantea to control pests. While the ancient texts may mention this in general terms, farmers have a wide variety of practical ways of making use of this plant’s insecticidal properties. Green leaves of Calotropis are put in a cloth bag and placed at the entrance of an irrigation channel. This is used to control the weeds and aphids. The leaves are also used to control termites. They are soaked in water for a day and after the liquid is filtered off it is poured on the termite-infested soil.


Important lessons

Our experience so far indicates that there are two major lines of work we can follow in the future. On the one hand, we need to continue controlled experiments to enhance the use of ancient texts for present day agriculture. The texts include many recipes for improving crop production that can be tested under farmers’ conditions. There are many questions that need to be answered, such as how can experiments based on ancient techniques be designed and interpreted, which parameters should be used, how can we incorporate the hymns or symbolic figures mentioned in the texts into our work? Studying the difference between the ancient and the modern texts in terms of theoretical concepts and research methods is another major component of this activity.

On the other hand, we need to look carefully at the living folk practices of farmers in order to understand and analyse them. The ancient Vrkshayurveda texts offer us many possibilities, especially in providing us a theoretical and practical basis for analysing and understanding farmers’ practices. Strengthening these practices can go hand in hand with what we derive from the ancient Vrkshayurveda texts. We are convinced that combining the farmers’ practices and the wisdom available in the ancient texts can revitalise present day agriculture.



Results achieved by CIKS

  • CIKS works with 250 farmers, including 50 women farmers, in 15 villages
  • Over 1500 farmers have benefited from training programmes
  • Material inputs, like seeds, biofertilisers and pest control materials, provided to farmers
  • Organic certification and marketing supported
  • Traditional farming practices revived: 93 traditional paddy varieties and 24 varieties of 10 vegetables conserved and shared with farmers
  • 30 Vrkshayurveda texts in Sanskrit screened and topics short-listed for experimentation
  • Experiments based on recipes from ancient texts carried out with paddy and vegetables
  • Various documents on Vrkshayurveda publised
  • Networking on national and international level






30, Gandhi Mandapam Road


Chennai 600 085


F: +91 44 4471114

E: ciks@vsnl.com

I: www.ciks.org




Note: Reproduced fully from Compass magazine Vol No.4

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