Saga of Neem

Some world renowned authorities in the field of environmental conservation and eminent agricultural scientists got together to draw up a master-plan for better understanding and utilization of Neem. From these deliberations, the Neem Foundation was established in November 1993. The Foundation is supported by several eminent scientists, researchers and environmentalist.

The saga of Neem is based on a rationale once understood by our fathers – of a lifestyle in tune with nature, sadly neglected and nearly destroyed over the millennia.

The concept of decentralized based on the resources of Neem and other renewable sources is sought to be promoted by the Foundation. The efforts of the Neem Foundation are also aimed towards integrating technology and industry with the greening of the earth.

As a part of its commitment to total sustainable human development, the Neem Foundation is committed to working with all important forums. With growing emphasis on environmentally friendly life-styles, it is imperative that effective coordination with various institutions is established.

The Neem Tree has, for a very long time, been a friend and protector of the Indian villager- so much so that families and individuals were commonly called Nimbkar, Nimbalkar, Limbaji, Nimai etc. It is therefore, also not unusual to find several towns and villages in the Indian countryside named after Neem; for example Neemuch, Neem-ka-Thana, Neemrana, Nemawar, Nimbgram, Nimbargi and Nimbahera in the northern parts of India. These towns and villages were probably set within dense Neem groves at one time, on which the villagers depended for shelter, food, fuel and medicines.

Venerating nature has been a part of the Indian ethos and Neem has been among the most venerated trees. Ancient Indian culture has ranked Neem higher than ‘ Kalpavriksha’ – the wish-fulfilling tree of Indian mythology!

The attitude of our ancestors herbs and trees can be very well understood from the story of Sage Jivaka as narrated in Vrkshayurveda, the treatise on Indian Plant Science. In order to test the aptitude and knowledge of the Sage Jivaka, Brahma (the Creator) ordered him to find a tree or herb which had absolutely no medicinal property. After wandering for eleven years searching for such a plant ,sage Jivaka returned to Brahma to say that he had not found such a creation in nature and Brahma recognised him as a great physician.

The moral conveyed by this ancient fable is that every plant or herb has some medicinal attributes and some value as a cure. A good physician has to be able to recognize the utility of these plants and use them judiciously.

The varied uses of neem as medicine have been documented in several ancient Indian texts like the Atharva veda, the Ghrhyasutras and also in the Sutragranthas and Puranas. In fact, the Sanskrit name, Nimba is a derivative of the term Nimbati svasthyamdadati (to give good health).

Ancient Indian medical texts state that neem is Kushtaghna (removes skin disorders including leprosy), Krimighna (anti-microbial), Vrnapacaka (anti-ulcer), Vranas’odhaka (purifier of ulcers), Putihara (removing pus), Dahapras’ amaka (anti-burning), Kandughna (against clotting), Vrnaropaka (healing effect), Vedanasthapaka (anodyne), Rocaka (appetiser), Grahi (constipating), Yakrtutwjaka (liver stimulant), Amlapittahara (gastric demulsant), Raktas’odhaka (blood purifier), Raktavikaka janyas’othahara (anti- inflammatory), Kaphaghna (anti-phlegm), Pramehaghna (anti-diabetic), Garbhas’aya Uttejaka (uterine stimulant), Balya (immuniser), Jvarghna (anti-pyretic), Netra Roghahara (useful in eye diseases), Caksusya (vision regulator), etc. It has also been used traditionally for curing urinary ailments and for birth control.

To generations of Indians, Neem was known to provide protection to human, plant and animal life from disease. The Upvanavinod, an ancient Sanskrit treatise dealing with forestry and agriculture, cites neem as a cure for ailing soils, plants and livestock.

In ancient India, protecting and planting Neem was not only considered a sacred duty- it was encouraged by religious sanction Brihat Samhita, an ancient Hindu treatise, contains a chapter of verses on plant medicine. It contains recommendations for specific trees to be planted in the vicinity of one’s house. Neem was highly recommended. This can also be borne out by the widely held Hindu belief that one who plants three Neem trees lives after death in Suryalok (Sun World) for three Yugas (epochs) and never goes to hell. (Dr. Shiva 1993).

Some common practices involving the Neem tree integrated in the Indian lifestyle have been:

  • Sleeping and resting under the Neem tree
  • Burning Neem leaves and twigs to ward off mosquitoes
  • Growing the tree in the vicinity to purify the atmosphere
  • Hanging Neem twigs and leaves at doors for protection against communicable diseases.
  • Spreading Neem leaves near persons suffering from infectious diseases.
  • Bathing with water in which a few Neem leaves have been boiled
  • Greeting the Groom with fresh Neem twigs at weddings, to ward off evil
  • Putting dried Neem leaves in folds of clothes  and in stored grain
  • Chewing a Neem stick for oral hygiene first thing in the morning
  • Increasing the shelf –life of vegetables and fruits by packing the produce with neem leaves in baskets.
  • Adding neem leaves to the feed of milch cattle
  • Puddling neem leaves and twigs in rice fields

Adding deoiled neem cake in fields for protection from pests and as a fertilizer

Neem has been one of the cornerstone of the Great Inidan civilization – along with the Himalayas, Ganga, Peacock, Mango, Lotus and Vedas. In the times when the Vedas were composed the Neem was called Sarva Roga Nivarini, (one that could cure all ailments and ills) (Dr. Randhawa 1993) and continued to be so regarded for more than a thousand years.

With then advent of the European colonists in the Indian subcontinent a few hundred years ago, traditional practices like using Neem came to be regarded as backward and created a stigma. This led to the abandonment of these ecologically sound practices in favour of modern chemical products imported from the west. Centuries of knowledge and wisdom accumulated in the minds of people- based on the trials and errors of generations gone by- were threatened.

However, the values of their forefathers were too deeply ingrained to be totally abandoned, and they lingered in the minds of the Indian masses. Neem continued to provide toothbrush, soap, sacrament, and protection to grains, pulses and rice and spiritual food to millions of Indians. (Dr. Tewari 1992)

The continued usage of Neem represented a condition not of primitiveness but was a fine example of rational, traditional knowledge prevailing over misguided modern notions. It represented the triumph of a rationale once understood, expounded through custom and translated into practice-for the largest common good!

The combination of medicinal and agricultural values of neem made it a favoured companion of Indians journeying to distant lands in search of their fortunes and this contributed to its widespread distribution and propagation across continents. To Indians in foreign lands the Neem tree brought solace and helped them to bridge the gap with their homeland. It symbolized a continuity of tradition and fulfilled the need to live in intimate harmony with nature. Thus the Neem tree came to be cultivated in Mauritius, Fiji, Australia, East and Sub-Sahelian Africa, South East Asia, many countries in central and South America and the Caribbean. (Tewari 1993)

With this journey across oceans the saga of Neem spread to the far corners   of the globe. The fact that only neem was chosen and carried as precious personal baggage was extremely significant. It proved beyond all doubt that neem was considered most beneficial and more useful than all other tree species known to Indians.

The socio economic transformation of rural agriculture in the last few decades, from survival needs to agri-business and agro-industry under the control of urban market economic forces have created a new set of problems for mankind. Proliferation of hazardous chemicals in agriculture has become a global threat to life on Earth. It must be noted here that the use of   neem as an insect control agent, which had been consistent for centuries in India, declined with the advent of DDT and the array of toxic, broad spectrum pesticides.

Only recently, the value of botanical pest control agents like neem that effect the behaviour and physiology of pests, rather than killing them outright, has been recognised. They are now an important component of integrated Pest Management Programmes. Therefore, now neem is seen to have vast business potential. Several formulations have been launched with increasing demand from international markets.

Upto June 1995, sixty three different patents had been granted on products and processes of Neem, worldwide. While commercial viability of Neem is not a totally new story – as a lot of toothpastes, soaps, shampoos, cosmetics and agricultural products have used active principles and extracts of Neem for years in India – what is new that modern packaging and viability enhancing techniques are being incorporated into product development to meet the stringent sophisticated market demand.