Chaulmoogra (botanical name Hydnocarpus kurzii) is a tall tree usually growing up to a height of 50 feet to 60 feet. This tree bears brown, velvety, spherical fruits and asymmetrical seeds having a gray hue. Chaulmoogra seeds are angled, but have rounded ends. It may be mentioned here that chaulmoogra oil can be obtained from an associated species called Tarak-togenos kurzii.
Leprosy is a dread word as it has frightened people ever since the commencement of documented history. In fact, in many places lepers are treated as outcasts since this is considered to be carriers of an incurable ailment, which is considered to be extremely infectious or communicable. Therefore, it is not surprising that in advanced cases the damages caused by leprosy have really been horrifying. In such instances, the faces of the patients would be worn down, their bodies would be swathed with decomposing sores and fingers as well as toes would be worn out. It has been documented that during various periods of European history, the patients were killed or were made to wear bells so that others could keep away from them. In some cases, the victims were also isolated by keeping them in horrendous leper colonies.
Despite the terrifying consequences of leprosy, the good thing is that treatment for this frightful disease has been available for several thousand years. Available documents from the prehistoric Hindu and Chinese cultures have described oil which was considered effectual in treating this horrendous disease, and reports regarding such modes of treatment generally reached the medical practitioners in the Western nations. However, it was not till the middle of the 20th century that the Western physicians took the magical chaulmoogra oil seriously as a remedy for leprosy. Scientists in the West not only investigated and examined chaulmoogra prior to importing the herb from China, but initially the supplies were extremely limited and till date the source of this magical herb continues to be a mystery in the West.
Way back in 1920, an exploratory Australian-American botanist Joseph Francis Rock reached Singapore to commence his exploration for the tree which was said to be a source of the magical oil. Rock was aware of the existence of the chaulmoogra, but was not aware about the appearance, the place where it can be found, or the manner in which the valuable oil of this tree can be obtained. In order to discover these, Rock roamed through the Far Eastern surroundings, often climbing mountains, and also surveying the forest plains. Eventually, Joseph Francis Rock discovered the seeds for sale in the indigenous Indian markets. Rock discovered that the seeds came from a lofty tree having rubbery leaves and large white hued blooms. Actually, three species of this genus supplied the seeds and most important of them later came to be known as H. wightiana. Rock was quick to gather a huge supply of these seeds and sent them to Hawaii where he set up a plantation with a view to provide the world with chaulmoogra oil.
Being mesmerized by the Orient, Rock once again went to the Far East and spent almost 30 years there in the mountainous region bordering China and Tibet. During this period, he sent several thousand unidentified plants and birds to the botanical gardens and museums in the West. In the meantime, he also translated over 8,000 books from an ambiguous language called Na-Khi in this Far East mountainous region into English. Eventually, he was driven out of the region during the Communist revolution in China and went back to Hawaii, where he breathed his last in 1962.
Chemical analysis of the chaulmoogra oil has revealed that it encloses potent antibacterial compounds, among which two are chaulmoogric acid and hydnocarpic acid, which are responsible for eliminated the bacterium that causes leprosy and is called Mycobacterium leprae. In traditional Indian herbal medication, chaulmoogra oil has also been employed for treating skin complaints as well as intestinal worms. Currently, in several places chemists have modified the chaulmoogra oil and it continues to be employed for treating initial cases of leprosy. It may be noted that chaulmoogra oil is not effective in curing advanced stages of leprosy. However, for treating advanced stages of leprosy, chaulmoogra oil has been substituted by synthesized sulfones.
A fable from the pre-Buddhist era says that a Burmese king who was affected by leprosy had exiled himself voluntarily into the forest. While he stayed in the jungle, the king decided to live in a hollow tree and cure himself by consuming the fruits and leaves of the tree Tarak-togenos kurzii, also known as the ‘Kalaw' tree. It was much later that chaulmoogra was identified as the foundation of chaulmoogra oil, which is considered to be an ancient remedy for leprosy.
According to the report of one medical practitioner, chaulmoogra oil was also used by the ancient Egyptians. In fact, the writings of the Sushrata Samhitas are one more early reference to the chaulmoogra oil which was made in India way back in 600 B.C. As discussed earlier here, chaulmoogra oil has been extensively used as a remedy for leprosy in China and India for long. The Americans also searched for chaulmoogra in the initial days of the 20th century and used this herbal oil to treat leprosy till they developed a synthesized medication for treating leprosy in 1941. Wandering botanist Joseph Francis Rock was the person responsible for bringing chaulmoogra to the United States after he returned from a mission in the hinterlands of the East and Far East, which was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. However, the effectiveness of chaulmoogra oil in curing leprosy has been challenged by many during the contemporary times.
It may be noted that chaulmoogra oil is obtained by compressing the seeds of the Chaulmoogra trees. This oil is thought to possess antibacterial properties and has been used for ages for treating various health conditions, including eczema, skin inflammations, sprains, arthritis and bruises. Several researches undertaken with chaulmoogra oil have demonstrated that this magical oil has the potential to be an effectual remedy for leprosy. In addition, chaulmoogra oil may be included as an active ingredient in several lotions, creams, balms, ointment, massage oil, lip balm as well as balm formulations for wound care.
As mentioned earlier, chaulmoogra is a magical herb that is an effectual remedy for one of the most horrifying diseases - leprosy. In effect, chaulmoogra oil is marketed in the form of topical oil for external use only. Chaulmoogra oil has rich contents of palmitic acid, hydnocarpic acid and oleic acid. The bark of the chaulmoogra tree encloses tannins that are useful for reducing fever. In addition, the oil extracted from the seeds of chaulmoogra tree is used to cure a number of skin complaints, including different chronic conditions and scaly eruptions.
A liniment or ointment is prepared by blending equal parts of lime water and chaulmoogra oil and applied topically to alleviate rheumatic pains, cure leprous ulcerations, burnt heads as well as scruff on the head. The crushed seeds are applied in the form of a paste to heal skin diseases like eczema, scabies and ringworm, as well as to cure wounds.
Habitat and cultivation
Chaulmoogra is indigenous to the tropical climatic regions in Malaysia and it also has its origin in the Indian sub-continent.
Side effects and cautions
People using chaulmoogra or its preparations ought to be aware of the side effects this herb may cause. For instance, one may experience stomach irritation following the administration of chaulmoogra oil in the form of an injection into the skin. In fact, taking subcutaneous injections may also result in accumulation of calcium. Here is a word of caution - women should not take this herb during pregnancy or while they are breast feeding. In addition, people enduring leprosy should never self inject chaulmoogra oil, but always take the help of a professional and expert practitioner.