Parvathy Nagaraj has worked in Pitchandikulam and the bioregional villages for the past 17 years, focusing on community health awareness, traditional herbal practices, health camps for humans and cattle, women’s groups, empowerment, women’s health and hygiene, and environmental conservation. For the past three years, she has been concentrating on women’s entrepreneurship in rural communities. Parvathy has recently opened a forest herbal shop in Auroville, and she runs regular “Herbs for Health” classes here in Pitchandikulam Forest.
Here’s her story…
I was born in Nallure Village, near Nadukuppam. The village itself was my first and best teacher- I learned about agriculture, herbs and plants, animals, snakes, swimming, climbing trees, fresh water fishing, crafts… It also gave me courage and inspired me to take on women’s concerns and this has been the focus of my work for many years.
During the first eight years of my life, I had a serious skin condition, and my father, mother and grandmother tried and tested many herbal remedies in order to cure me, countless herbs and even a millipede remedy! And finally, they found one herb that seemed to help, it was ground with oil and made into a paste that was applied on my body, and after a while I was cured. This was a great success, and during these years of research and trials on me, my father accumulated great knowledge of plants and herbal remedies that he decided to continue to practice herbal medicine to help others in our community. So my parents became the first herbal healers in our village, and this was the only healing system we had, as there was no official medical care.
At the time, there was a big problem with an infectious skin condition which affected especially the Dobhi community (washer people), and my father successfully treated this disease with local herbs.
As a child, I helped my father collect and prepare many different local medicinal herbs, so I observed and learned a lot at this time. But after finishing school my interests changed and I left my village to study further. This was very difficult as I come from a very traditional community where young women are often not allowed to leave the village to study, and many even leave school very early, without completing their studies. My family was also opposed to my studying but I was very determined and even went on hunger strike three times in protest! So finally they gave in and let me go. I first completed a BA in History, and later on two Masters degrees- one in Sociology and the other in Human Rights.
Eventually, I returned to herbal medicine. My first initiative in this came when one of my relatives had a problem with losing patches of hair, and he went to many doctors and healers but nothing helped. So I used my grandmother’s old book of home remedies and I collected and prepared some herbs which I used on my relative and the treatment was successful within one month. I was so excited and happy that it worked!
I first encountered Pitchandikulam when their team came to find local healers in my village, as part of their survey of local health practitioners and traditions in our bioregion. I also participated in a local healers conference, and this is how my relationship with Pitchandikulam started. I had never heard of Pitchandikulam or Auroville before. After this, someone came to my village to invite me to work in Pitchandikulam Forest. When I first entered the forest, I was a bit frightened- I didn’t know what was hiding inside the bushes and behind the trees! This was the first time I met Joss, and after a long interview he immediately gave me my first task- to read a huge project proposal which I did in the following days and I started working at Pitchandikulam.
For the first four years I worked on creating awareness about healing plants and local health traditions, going around villages, making simple demonstrations and also bringing groups of village nurses and other health practitioners to Pitchandikulam Forest to show them the work we do with medicinal herbs and conservation of local healing knowledge. During this time I learned so much, I attended many healers’ conferences, and I did many training programmes for local women, pilot studies, creating and testing herbal remedies etc. So when I got married in 2003 and I had my child in 2005, I had many family commitments but I still wanted to continue this work which gave me so much new knowledge and satisfaction. And then four or five years ago, I was part of the team that wrote the proposal and got funding to create the Sustainable Enterprise Development in the Auroville Bio-Region (SEDAB), and through this initiative we started several community women’s enterprises, based on local knowledge and resources, creating income through producing and selling local, eco-friendly products such as herbal medicine, spirulina, tree seedlings, craft products etc. The idea is that after the initial period in which we help to get enterprises off the ground, they become independent small businesses which the women themselves are running and benefiting from fully.
For the past three years, I have mostly focused on running two enterprises- Amirtha Herbal Medicine and Meera Herbal Foods, and supporting others such as Herbal Wellness Beauticians, Evergreen Spirulina and Nadukuppam Nursery.
All these years, I have been dreaming of opening an outlet to promote and sell products from all the women’s enterprises that we helped to set up, and finally three months ago I opened a shop just around the corner from Pitchandikulam Forest in Auroville. For now, I am concentrating on selling herbal produce from eight or nine forest based enterprises, and my shop is gradually filling up with herbal remedies, natural cosmetics, juices, spices, teas, oils, pot plants… I want these products to be used by everyone, not only visitors and tourists, I want local people too to come and be part of this- so there is a lot of work to be done to encourage local people to come and enjoy these products too.
My colleague Dr Pruthviraj a Naturopathy doctor and Ayurveda practitioner, who originally helped to create herbal recipes for Amirtha, encouraged me to open this shop and is working on bringing new produce to us, and promoting our produce in his shop in Hyderabad, so we can reach a wider area. He also offers Ayurveda consultations in my shop while he is here for about ten days each month.
The shop is now in its fourth month, and we’re slowly building it up, but this is my first time doing this kind of business and there is so much to do and learn. It is one thing teaching others to do it, but doing it ourselves is very different!
My plan is for my shop to also become a small café, selling freshly cooked herbal dosas, chutneys, smoothies and other quick but healthy, traditionally inspired items people can enjoy and that will use only the best organic produce and herbs from our forests. My dream is to have a little ‘herbal paradise’ and slowly, but surely, I will get there.
Parvathi’s shop is opposite Marc’s Cafe on Auroville Main Road, near Pitchandikulam (link on Google Maps is here).