Plants and People of Nepal, by Narayan P. Manandhar. 2002. 636 pp, illustrated hardcover. ISBN 0-88192-527-6. $69.95.
When Timber Press puts its imprimatur on an ethnobotany book, the title typically establishes a new standard of excellence in its category. Thus, when Narayan Manandhar's Plants and People of Nepal came off the press, my expectations were high. Still, I was caught off guard by the breadth of what is offered in this book. Like Daniel Moerman's Native American Ethnobotany, also published by Timber Press in 2000, Plants and People of Nepal is not only a vast body of work, but is a career summary of a prolific scholar and researcher. Dr. Manandhar has handed us the keys to the botanical treasury of the Kingdom of Nepal, from its most remote and inaccessible corners to the well-trammeled Kathmandu Valley.
Dr. Manandhar is no stranger to academic rigor. Educated first at universities in Kathmandu, Nepal, and Bihar, India, he earned his doctorate in economic botany at the Scientific and Medical University of Grenoble, France. Upon his return to Nepal, he worked in that country's national herbarium. He applied himself to the systematic survey of Nepal's people and plants, a body of work that spanned 30 years. Then he set about to write Plants and People of Nepal.
Dividing the 600-page book into four large chapters, Dr. Manandhar establishes first a geographic foundation for the reader, describing the geography, climate, vegetation zones, and conservation concerns of Nepal. He maps and identifies all 75 districts in the country, every single one of which he has visited. Early on, the author emerges not only as an astute scholar, but as a seasoned and understated explorer as well. While others have investigated Asia in large expeditions (‡ la Roy Chapman Andrews of the New York Museum of Natural History, whose Central Asia Expeditions in the 1930s electrified world imagination), Manandhar has investigated the full length and breadth of Nepal, including a number of extremely remote and difficult areas, largely alone and on foot.
Moving into a discussion of the people of Nepal, Dr. Manandhar reveals a broad diversity of ethnic backgrounds and languages. A major crossroads of Asia, the Kingdom of Nepal is home to 60 or so ethnic communities, mostly divided into two major groups, Indo-Nepali and Tibeto-Nepali. Like native American or Amazonian tribes, these various peoples have evolved unique customary uses of native plants, which represent a vast agricultural and ethnomedical variety.
Plants and People of Nepal offers a full 36 pages of color photographs, all of which show the daily uses of various plants among Nepalese people. The photography is well done, and the number of pictures is quite generous, but I still wanted more, to enjoy a further glimpse of fascinating peoples in remote places with their medicinal plants, yeast cakes, spices, fruits, grains, baskets, and traps. But this is not a complaint born of any deficiency in the book; it just made me want more.
In his elucidation of the ethnobotany of Nepal, Dr. Manandhar describes that country's history of plant use, agriculture, medicinal and fiber plants, and flora employed for yet other purposes such as dyes, decorations, and fish poisons. That material, plus the preceding information, sets the stage for the stunning centerpiece chapter of the book, The Useful Plants of Nepal, which, along with two related appendices, occupies nearly 500 of the remaining pages. Here, the reader is treated to a sprawling library, a feast for the botanical intellect. The author provides everything you might expect, including Latin binomial and local names of plants, morphological descriptions, and medicinal and other uses. Finely executed line drawings by the author make the plant section of the book delightful to browse, and give visual depth to descriptions of the plants themselves. Clearly, he has worked and re-worked each plant description.
If the plant descriptions in this book are missing anything at all, it is more detailed information on their preparation. I would have enjoyed more insight into specific methods by which various medicinal species especially are juiced, mashed, ground, and made into infusions or poultices. But I would not say that this absence leaves the book lacking. Rather, it sets the stage for a variety of future herbal compendia that can delve more deeply into the specifics of that country's botanical pharmacopeia.
It's a tricky business to adequately summarize a book like this, especially considering that it represents the brilliant and apparently tireless career of a world-class scholar. That said, Plants and People of Nepal emerges as a bedrock volume, a collector's piece to be sure, but one which every collector should open and read and browse again and again. While India has produced a plethora of excellent ethnobotanical guides, Nepal has remained comparatively elusive until now. Thanks to decades of travel, study, and fastidious data collection, Narayan Manandhar has produced the definitive work on the ethnobotany of the Kingdom of Nepal. In doing so, he has established a place at the apogee of that region's botanical knowledge, and has given other researchers a worthy resource that will serve the interests of botanical scholarship and ethnomedical research for a long time to come. Bravo!