Interpreting the Ayurvedic Man

21 December 2017
 Still from British Sign Language interpreted video of 'Ayurvedic Man'.

Image of Lalita Kaplish
Lalita Kaplish

A British Sign Language video is the latest interpretation of an unique 18th century Nepali painting about Ayurvedic medicine.

 A colour anatomical illustration of a man, face on, with organs and veins shown, with Nepalese and Sanskrit texts surrounding it.
[object Object]

'Ayurvedic Man'. A gouache with pen and ink painting, c.1800.

This rare manuscript is a visual interpretation of the male body, surrounded by Sanskrit extracts from 'Bhāvaprakāśa' by Bhāvamiśra (fl. ca. 1650–1690), a 17th century Ayurvedic work that is still used in Ayurvedic medical colleges today.

It's not clear who the intended audience for the manuscript would have been, but Dominik Wujastyk, who carried out extensive research on the manuscript, suggests that there are clues in its condition and the manor of its creation.

The work is a likely collaboration between an Ayurvedic physician, Tibetan artists and a calligrapher, all based in Kathmandu.

The painting is flat and shows no signs of having been rolled up, so it may have been intended for display, but the freshness of the colours suggests limited exposure to daylight. Perhaps it hung on the wall in a royal physician's examining room, or maybe it was used for teaching?

Open eyes suggest life

One intriguing question is whether the artist was painting a corpse (as with other anatomical illustrations) or a living person. The open eyes and the style of the figure calls to mind the 'body maps' used to show Tibetan bloodletting and moxibustion points, and these are relevant only to living bodies. Yet the anatomical details are clearly the results of dissecting a dead body.

Illustrations are rare in Sanskrit tradition, but they are more common in Nepali and Tibetan texts, so to have such a striking illustration at the centre of the work may be another example of how this is a unique interpretation of Ayurveda.

A written reminder

Captivating as the painting is, those of us who can't read Sanskrit are missing out on the interaction between word and image offered by the surrounding texts.

All the texts are from Chapter three of the 'Bhāvaprakāśa'. Fortunately Dominik Wujastyk provides detailed transcriptions, and translations of the texts into English. He notes that the poor quality of the original transcriptions - 20 or more errors in each passage - mean it would have been impossible to understand them without prior knowledge of the original.

It also suggests that the calligrapher was unfamiliar with Sanskrit and would have had to work closely with the physician. There are nine texts in all, as well as labels written on the different parts of the body. The labels are not in Sanskrit, but in Bhasa, a vernacular derivative of sanskrit, perhaps more familiar to some of the creators.

Whoever owned the painting probably used it as an aide-memoire for his practice. The original texts are in verse (another aide memoire?) but the line divisions in the painting don't reflect the verse structure.

The brushes, ropes and grooves of the body

Even in translation, the language of the texts is poetic. 'Text A' outlines the content of the rest of the chapter, and contains a beautiful survey of the landscape of the body:

...the orifices and mass of tubes with nets, and the brushes and ropes, the grooves too, and the junctions and aggregate bones, the seams and also the skin, the hairs and pores. The body is thought to be made of these.

Other texts accompany different parts of the body. 'Text B' offers a detailed and precise anatomical description of the testicles, including measurements and explains how these "carry virility, that convey manliness".

'Text C' refers to the theoretical system underlying Ayurveda, with its three qualities called vata, pita and kapla. Each quality has several functions, depending on its location in the body. Kapla (phlegm) is described as "mositener, dripper, taster, oiler and gluer".

As with the ancient Greek humours, diseases relate to an imbalance of these three qualities.

Ayurvedic medicine has been associated for thousands of years with a range of medical practices rooted in South Asia. It is still widely practised, and this work shows how the practice is often the result of many collaborations and interpretations.

Visit Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine at Wellcome Collection until 8 April 2018.

Image of Lalita Kaplish
Lalita Kaplish
Lalita is a web editor at Wellcome Collection.