I asked Anna about the idea that the study and veneration of plants were part of the culture of India. “Absolutely,” she said. “I grew up in Kerala. On my mother’s side we had many friends who were traditional physicians, vaidyas. We would call the vaidya as often as we went to the medical doctor. The vaidyas might prescribe a thailum, an oil, or maybe the extracts of two or three plants. We’d go to them for a large number of ailments. Of course, if you had appendicitis you’d go to the medical doctor, but from the vaidya we learned about plants that could help us. But this is how we learnt about plants – for an upset stomach, say, my grandmother would tell us to go to the garden and pick these leaves.”
I knew that, for minor ailments, my mother’s family in Tamil Nadu also called this pattivaidyam (granny doctor) or veetuvaidyam (home doctor). In their part of India this involved a mix of a system known as Siddha medicine. This is a system similar to Ayurveda in theory of causes of disease but different in origin; in the types of medicines used and in the ways they are processed; and with its own texts written mainly in Tamil, not Sanskrit. As well as Siddha, there were folk medicines handed down the generations and prescribed by mothers, grannies and relatives within the home – often simply from the spice cupboard in the kitchen. Like the Ashtavaidyas’ practice of Ayurveda, these home remedies were the result of an interaction between Indian medical theory and folk knowledge.
“That’s also part of the folklore of medicine”, Anna said. “Indian food is medicine. There is that overlap between them, inbuilt into the cuisine. There have always been these medical traditions, botanical-medical knowledge, massage therapy and so on. I was delivered by a local midwife, and for all of the problems that arose these women knew what medicine to administer. All this was part of our traditional systems – a new mother was bathed for thirty days with extract of certain leaves and roots, some of which helped with the contraction of the uterus – these women had a list of procedures and medicines of their own.
“It wasn’t until I was a teenager that a medical college was opened in Kerala. Now there are many medical schools and biomedicine is the dominant system. People want immediate relief with a single-molecule drug rather than wait for the lower concentrations found in traditional medicines to work.” Anna’s point was a significant one. Despite the fact that, according to the World Health Organisation, 70 per cent of people in India still use traditional medical therapy as a first line of defence, the way of thinking about medicine and the time frame in which results are expected have changed significantly. We want quick fixes rather than the protracted lifestyle changes that Ayurveda prescribes.
“You should come to Kerala with me and see how the physicians practice. There is a young Ashtavaidya who is trying very hard to preserve the traditions. He’s studying at an Ayurveda college. There is not much of the real tradition left.” Anna knew better than most how threatened the history of Ayurveda had become. She’d been devastated to discover that the palm-leaf manuscript that Achudem spoke of in the Malabaricus had recently been thrown away by his family. “It seems to have been suspended in the main house in a hanging basket and they weren’t sure what it was, so they put it in the rubbish. It was very sad,” she said, clearly frustrated. Perhaps even more sad is the fact that the loss of Achudem’s treasure is by no means an isolated case.