can plants heal you? Ajuntha Anwari thinks so.

Ajuntha Anwari has long been immersed in the healing traditions of Jamu and Ayurveda. But if your knowledge of both topics is limited to just types of massages, well… you’re in for a surprise. We find out more about plant-based natural remedies from the talented lady herself in this exclusive interview.

What comes to mind when you think about traditional medicines like TCM, Jamu and Ayurveda? Being pinned with a hundred needles from head to toe, or staring down shelves of large glass jars filled with preserved animal parts?

Well, I tend to imagine brewing, bubbling liquids in stone pots over an open flame, and bitter-strange smells wafting from a pile of smoking dried leaves, against a gentle rhythmic backdrop of ethnic bells and gongs, all in a quiet little hut tucked kilometres away from the nearest airport… But, that’s just me.

Ajuntha Anwari. | Image credits: T:>Works.

Ajuntha Anwari has over 40 years of experience in horticulture, health and wellness. Well-versed in the indigenous healing traditions of Jamu and Ayurveda, and a strong proponent of living foods, Ajuntha is a coach, teacher, and speaker on the power and benefits of natural remedies.

To share more about her craft, she’s also leading a Restorative Tonics workshop as part of T:>Works, Festival of Women N.O.W. 2021, a festival which celebrates solidarity between women. Ahead of the workshop, we invited her for a chat to share more about the practice of traditional medicine, and delve a little deeper into its relevance to our modern-day lives. Hi Ajuntha, nice to meet you! Could you tell us a little more about yourself?

Ajuntha: Hi there, I’m Ajuntha and I’m 70 years young this year! (smiles) I have many interests but most are centred around health and fitness. I enjoy yoga practice, horticulture, creating plant-based food recipes, Asian plant medicines, aromatherapy, massage therapy and Reiki. I also strongly support the empowerment of women.

That all sounds really calming and rewarding. Could you share with us how you discovered natural medicine?

Sure! When I was a young child, nature and plants were my sanctuary away from noise and adults. I spent a lot of time in the garden. Years later when I reached 30, I stepped away from a profession in advertising and sales to go back to school, and enrolled in a 2-year diploma course in Horticulture. I spent this time surrounded by everything I loved at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Horticulture opened up my interest in the medicinal properties of plants, their tradition and use and the ethnobotany of cultures. That inspired me to explore the tradition of Jamu, or Indonesian plant remedies, which I realised was a living practice in my own backyard. For me, the learning never ends. I have a deep respect for nature and plants that feed and heal us.

How does natural medicine differ from other forms of medicine such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Western medicine? And can a person combine the use of all these practices?

The herbs used in TCM are a collection of plants that are dried. It also makes use of animal parts such as horns, and insects. But it remains primarily plant-based. In a way, it’s similar to Jamu, Ayurveda and Western herbal medicines.

In ancient times, say around the era of Hippocrates for example, plants were used to treat human ailments. Some plant ingredients still make up a major component of what we know as modern medicine today, along with other chemicals, of course. But that said, I do understand that it’s not prudent to combine a chemotherapy treatment with herbal remedies, as that might reduce the efficacy of the chemotherapy.

What are some examples of natural medicine applications?

There are topical medicinal applications, like the aloe gel and turmeric powders. Other natural remedies include green juices, herb salads, Jamu tonics, TCM herb teas, and Western herb teas. And of course, essential oils can be inhaled for a variety of purposes.

Do you only use plant-based sources for your medicines? Why is it so important to do so?

Yes, they’re all plant-based. (smiles) The alternative is medicines that use chemicals which can be toxic to the body. Plant-based food, especially when raw, is excellent nutrition source for the body. Fresh, raw plants contain plant nutrients and minerals that provide our organs with the necessary fuel to function properly and healthily.

What are some of the common ailments that can be alleviated with natural remedies? And do we have to wait long before we see results?

For bloating, nausea, indigestion, menstrual pains, you can use different kinds of gingers, like the turmeric, galangal and common ginger, to make teas. For nausea, I recommend a ginger juice as it gives immediate relief. If you are experiencing fatigue and a lack of energy, some fresh green juice combined with fruit is a great pick-me-up!

Now another very common ailment is acidity in the body. It shows up in symptoms like bloating, belching, gas, tiredness, colds and the flu. You can counter the acidity with bitter herbs and plants. For instance, there are Jamu tonics made from roots, bark, leaves, seeds, also known as Obat Periuk. These tonics help maintain alkalinity in the blood and protect from bacterial, viral and germ infections. They provide relief within a few days and you should feel better gradually.

Are there natural remedies that are gentle and child-friendly? Similarly, are there any ingredients that specific groups of people, like pregnant mothers or those prone to allergies should avoid?

Ah, you can make child-friendly remedies by mixing turmeric into fruit juices, and sweetening with honey. As for what to be careful of? I would advise that pregnant women avoid essential oils altogether. Plant-based foods and fresh herbs are fine. There are combinations of herbs found in Obat Periuk which are not toxic because the dried plants remain intact, so you can see and know that they’re really plants. But you should stay clear of any dried or powdered Jamu or TCM products. It’s difficult to safely identify and verify the plants and chemicals used in powdered substances.

Can anyone create their own concoction, or is it better to follow a tried-and-tested recipe? Do you have a favourite recipe to share?

If one is so inclined, sure, they can concoct their own plant-based recipes! My favourite recipe is the kunyit asam (turmeric juice with tamarind). Turmeric is an antiseptic and is anti-inflammatory, it helps reduces acidity too. Tamarind on the other hand is a natural laxative, so you could say it ‘cleans the walls of the intestines’.

What is your recommended programme for anyone who wishes to try out natural tonics for general well-being and self-care?

They should try it! I would recommend a detox programme of at least 7 days. For each day, drink 3 litres of lemon water, fresh vegetable juices, herb teas, and eat green salads. This programme aims to calm the body down and stop heavy food intake, which in turn allows the body to do its own work of eliminating toxic substances from the intestines and blood.

You mentioned on your Instagram account that sustainable bodies, health and resource add up to a sustainable world. Could you share more about this with us?

I do believe that a sound, working body will influence the mind in positive ways to support the environment. On the other hand, an unhealthy body is not sustainable, and collectively, a population in ill health can be a burden to health systems, while consuming the earth’s natural resources greatly and quickly.

We love the idea of growing your own plants to create health tonics. What has your own experience taught you?

Ah, growing culinary herbs is ideal especially for majority of Singaporeans who live in apartments. I have a small garden and I grow lemongrass, some culinary herbs like basil, papaya, noni and a couple of gingers like resurrection lily, torch ginger and turmeric. Growing culinary herbs at home is convenient. Not only are freshly plucked herbs more fragrant, they also contain the full spectrum of chemicals and nutrients!

Most people would consider Jamu an ancient medicinal practice. How easy is it to establish its relevance to our modern-day lifestyles?

I have been teaching modern women to use Jamu for at least 20 years now. Jamu is no different to TCM or western herbal medicine and Ayurveda. All of these practices use plants, whether dried or fresh. I stick to some easily available gingers from our local markets, fresh herbs and the Jamu basic medicine which is Obat Periuk, or pot medicine. Obat Periuk consists of assorted plant parts which are brewed in a clay pot. They combine to form an effective tonic that can soothe several ailments at the same time.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe the base condition for disease is an acidic body, so this bitter tonic helps to alleviate the condition of acidity while killing germs in the gut and parasites in the blood. It’s a general tonic I would recommend for all women and men regardless of age.

We understand you’ll be conducting an online hands-on workshop as part of T:>Works’ annual N.O.W. 2021 event. What can participants expect from this workshop and what are you most excited about?

Oh yes, Restorative Tonics is happening very soon, this weekend actually. Participants will learn about three different tonics and how to make them. Two of these tonics are made from common gingers that some South Asian women already use in their own kitchens, both as condiments in their food or as natural remedies. I am especially excited to introduce them to the Jamu tonic, Obat Periuk, as well.

A still of Ajuntha in the T:>Works production, Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing and Being. | Image credits: T:>Works.

Finally, out of curiosity, do you think women in Singapore are paying attention to self-care and earth-care more than before?

Hmm, I feel most women in Singapore are drawn towards commercial products like creams, lotions, or tonics for their health. However, fresh and natural products that are plant-based are still the best options. And while vegans and vegetarians are doing well by avoiding meat, they may also be consuming fried foods that are overcooked or meat substitutes that lack living plant-based nutrients. This is purely my opinion, and maybe a survey will shed some light?

As for earth-care, perhaps there is a small movement, but sadly there are still many meat eaters who are not fully aware of the degradation of livestock practices that destroy the planet. I hope women in Singapore can practise earth-care more than we do right now.

Keen to learn more about natural remedies? Visit Ajuntha’s Instagram page here, find out more about her Restorative Tonics online workshop, or book tickets to watch her in Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing and Being here.

To discover more exciting exhibitions and programmes, visit the T:>Works, Festival of Women N.O.W. 2021 website today!

Feeling inspired? Find out how this family gets creative about eating their greens, and learn how this mother incorporates nature into her living space.

stef t.

Stef believes that small steps for the environment go a long way. This proud mum of 3 teenaged boys also keeps the loveable folks at Strada Visual Lab in check, while cashing them cheques. Loves journaling and taking incredibly long walks.

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