A walk down the rich history of Ayurveda

Excerpt from ‘The Indic Quotient: Reclaiming Heritage through Cultural Enterprise’

Kaninika Mishra | September 29, 2020


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The Indic Quotient: Reclaiming Heritage through Cultural Enterprise
By Kaninika Mishra
Bloomsbury India, 230 pages, Rs. 499   

Over the past decade, India has seen a significant rise in passion for enterprise as well as pride in heritage. The two have converged to form successful ventures and imaginative social initiatives centred on Indic ideas that encompass yoga, Ayurveda, textiles, Sanskrit education and temple conservation, among others. In ‘The Indic Quotient’, Kaninika Mishra celebrates the efforts of ordinary Indians as they reclaim their native identity with ingenuity – from a team of economists working to put long-forgotten millets on urban Indian plates in Delhi to a group of art enthusiasts working to bring back stolen artefacts from museums abroad; an ex-investment banker formulating Ayurveda-inspired beauty products in Chandigarh to a yoga teacher from rural Bihar setting up a successful teaching practice in Gurugram; and a former engineer working to revive traditional textiles in Assam to a corporate professional in Bengaluru making India’s first Sanskrit animation film. With intimately told stories of dynamism and entrepreneurship, the book tries to examine the relevance of traditional wisdom and culture in modern India, and what they mean for India's economic future and soft power.
Here is an excerpt from the book:

A state that drives much of Ayurveda’s growth is Kerala. It has the largest number of units producing classical drugs. In Kerala, unlike other states where nutrition supplements and consumer products dominate, medicines constitute the bulk of Ayurveda products.

Kerala is, of course, synonymous with Ayurveda. Across urban India, one finds signboards of Ayurveda clinics that refer to their massages as ‘Kerala massage’. There is, however, a more profound connection between Kerala and Ayurveda. To understand the inexorable link between the two, I make a second visit to Kerala. This time my destination is Thrissur, two hours further south from Kotakkal. Known for its temples and religious festivals, Thrissur has an exceptionally high concentration of firms dealing in Ayurvedic products.

The town is home to Ashtavaidya families, the Ayurveda physicians who trace their lineage to a prehistoric legend. According to this lore, Parashurama, the sixth incarnation of lord Vishnu, reclaimed Kerala from the sea and appointed a few Brahmin families to serve as doctors. They were known as Ashtavaidyas because they specialized in all eight treatment specialities: kaya (general medicine), bala (paediatrics and obstetrics), graha (psychological disorders), urdhvanga (diseases of the head [eyes, ears, nose, throat and teeth]), shalya (surgery and treatment for external injuries), damshtra (toxicology for poisoning, snake and insect bites), jara(geriatrics and rejuvenation) and vrisha (aphrodisiacs and treatment for sterility).

While many of these families no longer exist, and some have merged with other families over the years, a few still practise Ayurveda. One such family, the Eledath Thaikkattu Mooss family of Thrissur runs Vaidyaratnam, an Ayurveda manufacturing and health facility on the outskirts of Thrissur. (Interestingly, the Variers from AVS, the biggest Ayurveda firm in Kerala, are not from the Ashtavaidya lineage.)

The museum of Ayurveda established by the Mooss family is the new attraction in central Kerala’s tourist circuit. It was inaugurated by the former president of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2013.

Housed within the Mooss’s 80-year-old imposing erstwhile home, the museum showcases the evolution and history of Ayurveda. And, as a befitting tribute to Hindu tradition, at the entrance, stands a large statue of the god of medicine Dhanvantari seemingly emerging from the ocean during samudra manthan; in his hands, he holds a bowl of nectar.

Classical Ayurveda texts begin with divine attribution, referring to the transmission of medical knowledge from the gods to sages and later to human physicians. This supernatural association may be mythical and magical to some, but to those grounded in Indic philosophy, ascribing celestial source to a system that originated in antiquity and got distilled over thousands of years into a cohesive and coherent whole by unusually gifted individuals seems only natural.

A walk down the museum’s ground floor gallery provides the lay visitor with a crash course in ancient Indian history and the evolution of Ayurveda. The journey of Ayurveda along the ages is presented in a chronological order through lifelike dioramas. One learns that Ayurveda is the oldest, continuously practised system of medicine by mankind on the planet. It predates written history and was passed down orally for several millennia before being recorded in writing. The Vedas provide the earliest records of Ayurveda. The first section in the museum depicts the Vedic period. There is a reference to the Atharvaveda, which describes both incantations and herbs to treat specific diseases.

The next exhibit at the museum shows sages practising and teaching Ayurveda. Labelled as the saṃhitā period, several classical compendiums were produced in this era and Ayurveda began taking the shape of organized medical care. Historians have dated this variously between 6th to 3rd century BCE. (New research by some Indian scholars, however, endorses a much older timeline.)

Two main surviving texts of this period, considered as the foundations of Ayurvedic practice, are the Charaka Saṃhitā and Suśruta Saṃhitā. Historical analysis suggests several authors, layers and versions of these books, but it is generally believed that two sages with the names Charak and Sushruta were the authors, who played a major role in organizing the knowledge of Ayurveda. Palm-leaf manuscripts of the texts are found in private collections present in India and abroad. The writings show a profound knowledge of human anatomy, disease and cure. Suśruta Saṃhitā, Sushruta’s compendium, describes 1,120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations based on animal sources.

Sushruta’s detailed accounts of surgeries are especially fascinating. The surgeries described include: the removal of the prostate gland, urethral stricture dilation, hernia surgery, caesarean section, and the principles of fracture management, i.e., traction, manipulation, apposition, stabilization and fitting of prosthetic. It gives a classification of eye diseases, including cataract surgery. The text has illustrations of 125 types of surgical instruments. The museum has replicas of some of them. The resemblance to modern instruments causes excitement among young visitors and they stand around the display in awe.

The timeline continues as we go around the gallery. Following the saṃhitā period is the sangraha, the era of ‘commentaries’. The texts of this period made significant contributions to the way Ayurveda was understood and practised. Ashtangasangraha and Ashtangahridayasamhita, written by Vagbhata, are the most well-known manuals. Dated 6th century CE, they are still used by students and practitioners. The Mooss family owns old palm-leaf versions of some of these books. I am told that they had been recently removed from public viewing owing to security concerns.

Kerala’s Ashtavaidyas have played an important role in preserving Ayurveda. They have made significant contributions to the progress of Ayurveda. Many of them wrote medical texts and treatises in both Sanskrit and Malayalam. Even though they adapted their Ayurveda practice to modern times, they have ensured that the fundamentals remain intact. At the final exhibit, one can see the Mooss family tree, tracing back several generations. The names of the male descendants are listed on wooden plaques.

Ayurveda tradition entrusted men with the responsibility of carrying on the family profession. While there is a mention of a large number of female students and teachers in various other subjects in the ancient text Ashtadhyayi, medical education was mostly limited to men. Rusa, known by the Arabic name given to her in the translation of her work into Arabic in the 8th century CE, is known to be the only female doctor in Ayurveda history. Writer Kanjiv lochan, in his book, ‘Medicines of Early India: With Appendix on a Rare Ancient Text’, attributes the lack of women physicians in ancient India to the long duration of Ayurveda education, which stretched to seven years of a basic course followed by several years of specialized study.

The trend is reversed today. In the government-recognized five-year degree programmes offered by Ayurveda colleges established by Arya Vaidya Sala and Vaidyaratnam, women outnumber men. ‘This is one welcome change to tradition,’ says the curator guiding my walk through the museum.

The gender diversity in modern Ayurveda schools is heartening. Perhaps it is not so surprising because at the end of the gallery stands a large statue of Durga Bhagwathy, an incarnation of Goddess Durga. The divine force in extraordinary human endeavour has been acknowledged in a feminine form by the Mooss family. Worshipped as Dhanvantari, the fierce goddess is in an unusually benevolent avatar at Vaidyaratnam.

[Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publisher.]

 

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