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Sons of the soil
Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times
Golaghat/Jorhat (Assam), April 04, 2012
First Published: 23:46 IST(4/4/2012)
Last Updated: 23:47 IST(4/4/2012)

Not everyone that Gunaram Khanikar, 65, attends to daily is a patient seeking his herbal remedies. Tapuram Das, from Ulutoli, 307 km east of Guwahati, has come to has learn about Sweet Flag, a high-value crop that controls pests in his paddy fields, and also yields a tuber that combats epilepsy, piles and brain cell damage. Satram Deka of Gangapukhuri in north-central Assam’s Darrang district wants Khanikar’s advice to grow medicinal plants in his kitchen garden.

The sick and the sickle-wielders don’t make a beeline for the ‘botanical’ cottage of 90-year-old Ananda Chandra Dutta in Jorhat, a town 55 km northeast of Golaghat. His guests are invariably established botanists, teachers and students of plant science. Like Rupanjita Bora, head of botany at Bokakhat College, who spends hours poring over books Dutta penned for identification of plants her college reading list never mentioned. Bora can’t help marvel at the mine of information provided by Dutta, who couldn’t study beyond high school himself.

Apart from their obsession with plants and their poverty-dictated childhoods, Khanikar and Dutta have few things in common. But the beneficiaries of their knowledge and expertise agree that they belong to a rare breed of self-taught botanists who ‘feel the heartbeat’ of everything that stands on roots.

In 45 years of practising herbal medicine, Khanikar has developed 30 medicines for battling an array of ailments such as diabetes, obesity, asthma and malaria. “I am awaiting patents (through Ahmedabad-based National Innovation Foundation) for a few of these,” he said. But his patients — both Indian and foreign — aren’t fussy about copyright. “Doctors had given me six months to live after I was detected with ovarian cancer. His medicines have not only kept me alive; tests at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences have revealed the cancerous cells have vanished,” said Guwahati-based homemaker Bandana Barua.

Khanikar has received numerous awards for his innovations. Such is his popularity that his birthday, March 22, is observed as Medicinal Plants Day in Assam. “What I treasure is the relief and satisfaction of the people I try to cure and the farmers who apply my ideas,” he said.

His love for plants and their medicinal properties was accidental. “My mother applied the juice of kolakochu, a local plant, on a wound during my childhood. She did it because she had learned about the plant from her mother,” he said. “Oral traditional knowledge of medicinal plants is so rich in India. My mission is to pass on the knowledge on a much wider scale.”

And that is exactly what he is doing. Schools, colleges and universities in Assam conduct regular educational trips to his garden of herbal medicines. He also edits an Assamese periodical on medicinal plants and anchors a TV show focussing on a plant a day.

“His tireless and persistent efforts for promoting and popularising tradition knowledge about herbal medicine are exemplary,” said Kulendu Pathak, former vice-chancellor of Dibrugarh University.

On the other hand, Ananda Dutta is obsessed with the study of every plant across the North-east. His research on tea taxonomy, morphology, anatomy and work on expansion of the region’s Tocklai herbarium is legend.

Botanists swear by Dutta’s tomes which include the two-volume Asomor Gos Gosoni (Trees and Plants of Assam).

Much like Darwin in the Galapagos islands, Dutta’s books contain 1,550 illustrations made by him. Even the ‘botanical bible,’ J Hutch-inson’s Evolution and Phylogeny of Flowering Plants, contains 551 drawings by 17 professional artists.

“My father was a labourer, and though I had high grades, he couldn’t afford my higher education. For decades, botanists and scientists questioned my books as I lacked the necessary qualifications. But they invariably ended up at my doorstep after I received critical acclaim from University of California years ago.” Remarkably sprightly for his age, Dutta’s discourses on plants help naturalists and landscapers ensure gardens and plantations are endemic and suitable to climatic and soil conditions.

Their efforts to acquaint people with trees and medicinal plants are paying off. Farmers are using Khanikar’s formula for making manure from water hyacinth and cow dung; many have planted thorny lemon trees instead of bamboo fences to check invasion of plantations by goats and tea-leaf thieves on his recommendation. Both men show no signs of slowing down. From practising medicine, writing books, touring and managing employees in his medicine firm, Khanikar is a true multi-tasker.

How does he do it? “Maybe because I am a bachelor,” he said with a smile. “On second thoughts, I am married — to plants.”

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