KABUL — In the crowded old city of the Afghan capital, dozens of shops are lined with piles of colourful dried herbs, sitting out in the open. Their fragrance wafts into the street. Hindu shopkeepers wear red, blue and black turbans, and have long, bushy beards. They tell they've been making and selling herbal medicine here for generations.
Darmander Singh is a Hindu sage – a wise mystic. People here call him La La Dil Soz, which means ‘Kind big brother" in Persian. He sees more than 30 patients a week, asking them detailed questions about their body, before setting them on their way with herbal creations. Singh is one of a hundred Hindu sages in Kabul who specialise in herbal treatments.
"This treatment is centuries old, and it is relevant even now. Herbal medicine gets positive results almost 100% of the time, with no side effects," he insists. "That is why people still come to us and encourage their relatives to come too."
Herbal medicine is known as ‘Greek treatment" in Afghanistan. That's because it was brought to Afghanistan from Greece. It's widely believed that these herbal remedies came with the invasion of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, in 330BC.
Now, most herbal medicine practitioners are Hindus, whose ancestors arrived in Afghanistan from India around three hundred years ago.
In one of the shops here, Saifulla Alokozy is making herbal tonics. "As you see now I am making medicine for sexual virility, it's made from five different herbs," he explains.
Plants like saffron, cumin, coriander, licorice root, olive, and garlic are separated out. Each herb is pummeled in a separate metal bottle. Then they're mixed in special combinations, sometimes with a drop of water, oil or honey.
"Most of these herbs are collected from provinces around Afghanistan, by villagers who understand herbs," Alokozy says. "Then they bring it to us to sell. We know which herb works for which disease. Then I make medicine from it."
Ismial Omer. 40, is buying a tonic for his rheumatism. He tells me the treatment is cheap and effective.
"Once I had pain in my backbone. When I got herbal treatment I got better. That's why I come here for my rheumatism treatment too," he tells me. "Our ancestors used this treatment before there was modern medicine. I think it's the best method."
Those living in rural Afghanistan strongly rely on herbal treatments. It is cheaper and more readily available in areas that have few health clinics, and poor transportation.
But not everyone is convinced that it's a good option, and 24-year-old Hasib Muhammadi tells me he's experienced painful side effects after using herbal treatments.
Medical expert Dr. Abdul Jabbar Mominyar of Nangerhar University says that many sages are illiterate, relying on informal, verbal wisdom passed down from one person to the next.
He argues herbal treatment should be regulated for the safety of patients. "If we want to use herbal treatment, it needs to be standardized, in coordination with the ministry of health, and taught through university and books. Otherwise herbal treatments could be harmful."