Nepal is a country known all over the world for its beauty, generosity and culture. Tourists and researchers have also taken another note: the rich growth of Yarsagumba. For those who are unaware, Yarsagumba, also known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is an entomopathogenic fungus. It is largely famous due to the medicinal qualities that it possesses. It is found in mountainous regions of India and Tibet, among a few places.
I was largely inspired to learn about the fungus after watching a documentary, The Himalayan Gold Rush, by Eric Valli. Gold Rush is ‘a rapid movement of people to a newly discovered goldfield’. The goldfield in Nepal for the past few years has been the exchange of Yarsagumba for money. The documentary was originally aired in 2011 and it beautifully showcases the process of harvesting Yarsagumba by villagers of the Dolpa region in Nepal. It mainly focuses on outlining the hardships and challenges that these people have to undergo.
Yarsagumba is used for multitude of unique purposes; it is said to be used to strengthen the immunity system, tackle asthma, combat infertility in women, treat cancer, only to name a few. As it has proved to be an effective aphrodisiac in the traditional Chinese medicinal methods, China, so far, remains to be the largest buyer of this particular herb. In Nepal, it is found in the elevated regions of the Himalayas; also known as the 'Himalayan Viagra' or 'Himalayan Gold'. Due to its so claimed ‘healing abilities’, the localities also refer to it as 'Jeewan Buti'. In Nepal, it is also collected in Byas, Rapla, Ghusa, Khandeshwori, Sitola and Gujar village committees, all of which is, undoubtedly, are located in the mountainous region
Yarsagumba holds a significant place in the lives of the villagers to such an extent that the villagers lock down post offices and schools and set out to search for something which is worth its weight in gold, deserting the village. This happens when the Yarsagumba season hits so that all the available hands and eyes can be associated with the moneymaking hunt. All the villagers leave for this hunt, from small children to elderly people. They pack enough food, sleeping bags, and supplies to last for their whole journey and leave their homes in search of the herb which has been a major source of sustaining their lives.
The Yarsagumba harvesters often face many difficulties like high altitude sickness, avalanche, harsh weather conditions and extreme situations that make the whole process even more challenging. Nevertheless, finding Yarsagumba also requires great patience and concentration as the herb grows out of a caterpillar in extremis, buried inside the ground. In these three months of collecting the Yarsagumba, it is said that the harvesters, depending on their luck, may even collect up to 15 herbs a day, which might not look like a huge amount but you would be surprised otherwise. Once the mystical herb is gathered, they brush each piece carefully, rub away the mud and then leave it by the fire to dry.
Yarsagumba is found 3500 meters above the sea in the Dolpa district. Trekking along with the whole family to such a height might be unimaginable to most of us. Nobody voluntarily would want to climb up that high and risk their lives but when the price is money, everybody wants to test their luck. The villagers’ eagerness to climb up these mountains and put their life in jeopardy is only because they see this time of the year as an opportunity to build a capital. When poverty presents itself at their door every day, taking a risk as such is not much of a choice for them, it is a necessity.
As I mentioned, my inspiration for this article was a documentary. It was heartbreaking to see that these villagers, who build their capital by working their fingers to the bone, appeared to be oblivious to the actual worth of Yarsagumba. They were happy with what decent price they received for the herb when in reality it is worth millions in the economic market. The real worth of Yarsagumba weighs up to Rs 1.4 million per kilogram. The villagers were unaware that the herb, which they harvested as though it was worth gold, is actually worth gold
I was truly baffled by the fact that the villager's innocence led them to sell their goods way below the par or that the traders continued to take advantage of it. Somebody once said ‘Selfishness is the greatest curse of human race’. Until now, I wasn't quite sure!
The traders, lacking empathy, decide to be indifferent towards the villagers and ignorant of their hardships. They turn a blind eye and let the villagers put their life in jeopardy every year for Yarsagumba, whose price was not being fully paid. The poor villagers fear their survival in a world of growing necessities and that’s what causes them to keep their lives at stake. But it is truly inhuman of the traders to not show them the path and instead support this fear for their own benefits.
While there is life, there is hope. I know there isn't much an article can do, but I hope that maybe someday; those who have lost their path trace their steps back to humanity. I hope that those who have stayed in the dark find the light at the end of the tunnel and those who choose greed above all realize that true pursuit of happiness doesn't lie in money, but in altruism. Greedy traders, better be aware!
(Sureka is an intern)