New Delhi: It was around 1990. A large section of Nagas was still into the primordial economy. Neighbouring 'Myanmar' was still Burma. Political headhunting was a political norm in Nagaland among state lawmakers and violence and anti-Naga killings were the order of the day. In Tobu region of the state - two tribal groups had clashed fiercely and at one point even 'refugees' from Burma had sneaked into Nagaland looking for 'greener pastures.
“I could never imagine I would be a herbalist,” said Dr Somba Chang, a Naga herbalist from Tuensang district adjoining Myanmar.
He recounted to this journo - then a fresher - how a film he had seen 30 years ago led him on this search for the wonder herb. This was 31 years back in 1990 !
“The film was ‘Ramayana’ in Hindi and I saw it in the 1960s. I saw how Hanuman brought the herb Sanjeevani from the Himalayas to save Lakshman. Later I learnt from the Ramayana text that the medicinal herb was of yellow colour. Then in a Chinese magazine, I saw a colour picture of Ginseng and immediately I knew it was the same Sanjeevani of the Ramayana," Somba Chang had said.
That inspired him to undertake an extensive search "more earnestly and at last I was rewarded by the discovery of the wonder drug in Nagaland”.
In the business of pharmaceuticals, in the 1990s - it was probably recording the highest growth sale. Suddenly a variety of over-the-counter aggressively advertised ‘energy rechargers’ were flooding the market, all aimed at the urban Indian male over 30. Aphrodisiac health tonic or whatever it was marketed as, most of the pills contained the stimulae Ginseng, the wonder herb of the ancient Chinese, believed to cure 'all ailments'.
The Indian drug manufacturers used to obtain the herb primarily from South Korea and its demand, according to a top executive of Glenmark Pharmaceuticals “was growing at the rate of 80 per cent annually”. For Glenmark and its rivals, however, there was good news from the wilds of the northeast. Botanists in Nagaland had discovered the magic herb! In fact, there was another claimant.
“We have it here in India as we had always believed,” said Sapu Changkija, regional director of Sophisticated Instrumentation Centre, Shillong.
Changkija first made the claim in October 1989 but this had touched off a minor battle for credit, with Dr Somba Chang saying it was he who first discovered Ginseng in Nagaland.
Somba has in fact even named the Naga plant after himself, calling it Panax Somba.
True Ginseng that the Chinese prize has the scientific name Panax Schinseng while a North American variety,used as a substitute but now almost extinct is called Panax Quinquefolius.
Panax comes from the Greek words ‘pan’ meaning all and ‘akos’ for cure. The English word Panacea incidentally is similarly derived.
Somba had said he first chanced upon the herbs in August 1985 in the northeastern Changsang forest on the Saramati mountain range not far from the Burmese (Myanmar) border.
Two years later, he also earned a certificate from the Department of Botany in the North Eastern Hill University(NEHU) in Shillong (headquartered) to practice as a herbalist.
The state government also had granted him financial assistance of Rs 20,000 to run the clinic. Sapu Changkija made his ‘discovery’ of Ginseng in the Japfu range and had described the plants as 30 to 50 cm tall having five to six compound leaflets.
According to him, it grew in highly shaded, deep loamy soil at high altitudes, preferably in thick forest rich in humus or disintegrating organic matter.
That description did not tally with Somba’s Ginseng plants which, he had said, were 60-70 cm tall having green fruits which turn red when ripe.Changkija’s discovery, in fact, in 1990 was seen with a degree of skepticism by the Nagaland government.
“The Economic Plants Cell of the state’s Department of Industry has not yet recognised his claim,” Y Jamir, a senior official of the department, had said then.
“The claim may be true or false, we can’t say yet (that is 1990). We have not heard anything. But the Saramati and Japfu mountain ranges have similar topographical conditions so this second discovery should not be surprising”.
“No, I received no financial assistance from the government. But I did not ask for it either," Changkija had said.
He said there could be three varieties of the herb growing in the wilds of Nagaland and perhaps one in Arunachal Pradesh too. “Perhaps, the Naga people, who came from southeast Asia, once knew the curative properties of the plant. But later forgot”.
Because of its rarity and its supposed magical properties, Ginseng has always been surrounded by an aura of mystery.
But for the people of Nagaland, it was hoped the discovery would usher in a boom of sorts with not only the Indian drug manufacturers but also firms from the west flocking the state.
Sadly, however, this was the story of Ginseng discovery in Naga hills cradled in the wilds of northeast India in 1990. After that nothing much moved and happened on that front as politicians and the administration in general focused on politics, insurgency, law and order and so called peace talks.