Perspectives – Traditional Knowledge Systems: Genesis & Current Relevance

Traditional Knowledge Systems are the mother of all sciences and innovation as the primitive people had close ties with their environment, which was not something out there but part of their being. Despite the tremendous importance and value of traditional knowledge, especially in the hilly areas such as Uttarakhand, it is at a risk of becoming extinct for various reasons, warns D P Agrawal

Traditional Knowledge Systems are the mother of all sciences and innovation as the primitive people had close ties with their environment, which was not something out there but part of their being. Despite the tremendous importance and value of traditional knowledge, especially in the hilly areas such as Uttarakhand, it is at a risk of becoming extinct for various reasons, warns D P Agrawal

In her path breaking book, Laura Nader (1996) made a powerful plea that traditional knowledge systems (TKS) were scientific systems in their own right. She condemned the western attitude of creating hegemonic categories. She said that Western thought imposes the contrasting categories of science/religion, rational/magical, developed/under-developed and so on. But these categories are contrived and arbitrary. An aboriginal leader, Kwagley (in Nader 1996) complains, "Down through the millennia, the Yupiaq produced and maintained a science and technology to support a sustainable social and economic system . (but) at the advent of Western society the Yupiaq ways were pronounced primitive and savage".

Similarly Pat Howard comments, "regarding ecosystems and related logics of subsistence, traditional methods of healing and prophylaxis, traditional methods of socialization and education, methods for adjudicating disputes and the convictions and experience that inform them, traditional systems of self-government and communal decision making, and a myriad of languages and written and oral traditions – are not even recognized as knowledge. They are viewed as superstitious beliefs and irrational behaviour". (Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 19, No 2 (1994)).

Knowledge and science originate in an ambience where humans are in close contact with their environment. During the course of several millennia humans, through trial and error, learnt empirical science and transmitted it to their progeny through the word of mouth, and quite often through the heuristic devices of legends and myths. Thus the origin of knowledge and science lies with the primitive societies.

In countries like USA, Australia and New Zealand, the European colonisers decimated the aboriginal populations and thus totally cut off their links with the local cultural traditions. But in a country like India, with deep antiquity, both the systems have been flourishing and complementing each other: the Greater Tradition (Margi) and the Lesser Tradition (Desi).

Examples from Uttarakhand

The folk science of Uttarakhand is very rich in its diversity: architecture, hydraulics, ethnomedicine, ethnobotany, metallurgy, agriculture, etc. The micro-variations of the ambient harsh environment have been responsible for the extremely rich community knowledge systems and a biodiversity, necessary for sustainability of human life here. Despite the tremendous importance and value of traditional knowledge, especially in the hilly areas such as Uttarakhand, it is at a risk of becoming extinct for various reasons.

In secular architecture, there are examples of houses made of timber and stone which have resisted the ravages of time and earthquakes for the last 1000 years (Das 2007; Rautela and Joshi 2008). Such architecture has direct relevance for designing modern houses in highly seismic zones.

The traditional hydraulics of Uttarakhand was also quite developed and sophisticated. They built naulas (perennial wells), water mills and a variety of irrigation channels. The whole process of making a Naula reflects an ancient empirical knowledge based on trial and error and close observations. Even to identify the site to dig they go by the occurrence of five typical plants including Brahmi. In the masonry no mortar is used so that water can ooze through easily. To ensure a perennial supply of water, they test with a special type of clay (kamet) which absorbs and sucks out water. In earlier times they used to put copper sheets/pots to purify water. Such Naulas provided pure drinking water for villages and towns.

When the capital of the Chand Kings was shifted from Champawat to Almora in the 16th century, the king commissioned the digging of 300 odd Naulas; only a few of them survive today. To keep them clean they were treated as temples and any pollution was strictly taboo. They knew the importance of infiltration wells and used shallow depressions (chals/khals) to collect rain water for recharging such aquifers (Shah in press).

Through several millennia of close observation, the local inhabitants of Uttarakhand developed a rich medicinal system based on almost 2000 herbs, animal parts and minerals. This was a totally oral knowledge system. Even today when allopathic hospitals are so rare in the interior, the local people depend upon the traditional Himalayan medicine. The interesting thing is that almost 700 plants of this indigenous system have been incorporated in the Materia Medica of the Ayurveda system.

The Central Himalayas had an extensive pre-modern iron industry based on local ores. We have shown that high-grade goethite, magnetite, and pyrites are available there. The sites with the affix agar (Sanskrit for mine) are invariably associated with copper and iron mines. It is said that till a few decades back rust-free iron vessels were being produced in Lohaghat area of Kumaun. Geological surveys have shown extensive evidence of iron minerals/workings in the region. Early carbon-14 dates (c. 1000 BCE from Uleni iron smelting site, near Dwarahat) and ancient iron smelting traditions suggest Kumaun to be the probable source of early iron for northern India.

Myths and Legends

Folklore deals with the past, yet it is a dynamic tradition where the bards of different generations keep interpolating into the original core of the story. In folklore, cause and effect are related in a peculiar folk manner and we can’t judge them through modern logic. In the folk mind, supernatural is as real as the material reality. The folklore tradition is based on the word of mouth and memory which gives it a perpetual life and consistency. There is regional variation in folklore because of different bard families reciting and altering their folklore renditions. Thus, folklore is a collective tradition of the people.

In Uttarakhand, Central Himalayas, the concept of Nanda is unique in many ways. She is the consort of the Brahmanical god Siva; killer of Mahish, the demon; royal family deity of the Chand Kings of Kumaun. Nanda, in the folklore of Uttarakhand, is quite a prominent figure. She is depicted as a local village belle returning to her mait (mother’s place) from her sauras (in-laws’ house). The folklore says that she returns in the month of bhadon (roughly 15 August to 15 September) crossing rivers, ravines, slopes and steep ascents. On the way she rests under a chir (pine) tree and asks it how far her mait could be. The chir rudely replies, "Who the hell cares for your mait". This elicits a rebuke and a curse from Nanda, "You vain fellow, no plants will grow under you, no animals would eat your leaves, no birds will build nests on your branches and no bees will ever make their hives in them". Her next stop is under a banj (oak) tree. It welcomes her and asks her affectionately to treat its canopy as her own mait and feel at home. Nanda is pleased and blesses the oak, "You will always remain green, birds and bees will make their homes on your branches, water springs will always be near your shade".

The story is apocryphal but it clearly depicts the close relationship of the local people with nature and environment. Nanda’s rebukes and blessings are in fact ecological descriptions of the properties of oak and chir pine. For these hill people, environment is not something out there but is interwoven with their lives, and is part of their being.

Myths and legends represent the attempts of our ancestors to explain the scientific observations they made about the world around them and to transmit such knowledge to posterity. Modern humans often think that science is their monopoly. I would like to emphasise that scientific observations of the world around them were made by early humans too.

Below, I will compare some of the legends and modern scientific observations about geological events in the Indian subcontinent. We will discuss three examples.

1) Draining of Satisara in Kashmir
The geology of Kashmir (India) has been studied for more than 150 years now. As a result of these studies, and more recently our own (Agrawal 1992), it is now known that due to the rise of the Pir Panjal range around four million years ago, a vast lake formed, impounding the drainage from the Himalayas. Subsequently, the river Jhelum emerged as a result of the opening of a fault near Baramula, draining out the lake about 85,000 years ago. This is accepted geological history of the valley (Agrawal 1992).

Now let us compare the legend. According to the earliest traditional accounts the lake called Satisara, the lake of Sati (Durga), occupied the place of Kashmir from the beginning of Kalpa. In the period of the seventh Manu, the demon Jalodbhava (water born), who resided in this lake, caused great distress to all the neighbouring countries by his devastation. The Muni Kasyapa the father of all Nagas… thereupon promised to punish the evil-doer, and proceeded to the seat of Brahma to implore his and other gods’ help for the purpose. His prayer was granted…. The demon who was invisible in his own element refused to come out of the lake. Vishnu thereupon called upon his brother Balabhadra to drain the lake. This, the latter effected by piercing the mountains with his… ploughshare. When the lake became dry, Jalodbhava was attacked by Vishnu….

Ignoring the mythical fights between gods and demons, the legend does depict an account of the draining out of the primeval lake. Most of the earlier geologists, including Godwin-Austen and Drew, did take this legend seriously and inferred that early man did observe the geological changes in his area and transmitted the knowledge in the form of legends. Perhaps this was an accepted traditional mode of scientific communication where the facts were right, but the explanations were mythical.

2) Parasurama and the Sea
The sea level on the west coast of India, as elsewhere during the Ice Ages, was about 100 meters lower than today and started rising only after 16,000 BP or so. This is the accepted eustatic history. The related legend says that when Parasurama donated all his land to the Brahmins, the latter asked him as to how he could live in the land he had already donated away. Parasurama went to the cliff on the sea shore and threw his Parasu (hatchet) into the sea and the sea receded and then he occupied the land thus emerged, obviously a reference to the regressions of the sea and the newly emerged land.

3) Vashista and Sarasvati
The third example is of the river Satluj, a tributary of the Indus today, which was a feeder stream of the ancient Sarasvati, that flowed through modern Rajasthan. The Sarasvati eventually dried up mainly because its two main feeders – the precursors of the Satluj and the Yamuna – were pirated by other rivers, as is evident from the study of Landsat images (Agrawal and Sood, 1986). In finding its new course, the Sarasvati braided into several channels. This is accepted geology.

The relevant legend says that the holy sage Vashista wanted to commit suicide by jumping into the Sarasvati, but the river would not allow such a sage to drown himself and broke up into hundreds of shallow channels, hence its ancient name Satadru. Unless early man observed the braiding process of the Satluj, he could not have invented such a legend. This is another instance of explaining a geological observation through the model of a legend.


I have tried to show that Traditional Knowledge Systems is the mother of all sciences and innovation as the primitive people had close ties with their environment, which was not something out there but part of their being. To ensure their livelihood they had to observe closely the local flora, fauna, rocks and minerals. Thus, through trial and error and experience of millennia they developed an empirical science. They had a symbiotic relationship with nature and even today we could use Traditional Knowledge Systems as a valuable resource for sustainable development. (Excerpted from a paper in print)

Dr. Dharma Pal Agrawal, a distinguished scientist, currently leads Lok Vigyan Kendra (Almora) carrying out research into the past as well as training a future generation of enquirers.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *