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Ayurveda: The ancient practice that healed with turmeric before it was cool

Turmeric may be the latest superfood to add to your coffee but it’s certainly nothing new. We delve into the world of Ayurvedic healing that’s been practised for thousands of years in India

Julia Platt Leonard
Wednesday 22 November 2017 14:18 GMT
A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is devoted to the ancient medical system
A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is devoted to the ancient medical system

Next time you sip your turmeric latte, basking in its superfood glow, remember that turmeric may be trendy but it’s definitely not new. Turmeric currently leads the top of the superfood crop, credited with healing wounds and burns, reducing inflammation and even preventing and inhibiting the spread of cancer. But long before it grabbed our attention in the West, it was a healing food used in the ancient Eastern medical system of Ayurveda.

Ayurveda – which translates into “the knowledge of long life” – is now the subject of a new exhibition, Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine at Wellcome Collection. The exhibit includes everything from ancient Sanskrit, Persian and Tibetan manuscripts to paintings, erotic manuals and animal-shaped surgical tools. All were collected for Henry Wellcome – pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and inveterate collector – over a 10-year period more than 100 years ago.

For curator, Barbara Rodriguez Muñoz, the complex and fascinating history of Ayurveda makes it ripe for a dedicated show. “For me today, I feel there is a growing fascination towards what we call alternative medicine. So it seems like an exciting time to reveal the cultural layers that have shaped Ayurveda and traditional Indian medicine as presented in our historical collections.”

There’s no doubt that some of the ideas behind Ayurveda are gaining popularity in the West, whether it’s foods we buy in the grocery store, creams we put on our faces or new cookbooks like The Turmeric Cookbook or the just-released East by West by Jasmine Hemsley. There is even a website called Yogibeings that is painstakingly capturing the ancient knowledge of yogis and sharing it online.

‘The Ayurvedic Man’, pen and watercolor, 18th century

At Wellcome Collection, Ayurvedic Man focuses on the rich, complex, often contested and ever-changing history of Ayurveda. While Ayurveda is rooted in ancient texts – some of which were compiled before the fifth century – it also is part of a lively oral tradition of information passed from teacher to student.

Dr Paira Mall – an Indian-born European-trained physician – noted the importance of information passing from one generation to the next, in a letter from 1911 that is publicly displayed for the first time in the exhibit. In the letter, Mall writes to Henry Wellcome’s curator, saying: “Perhaps as you know, like everything else in India, the profession of medicine is also practised by inheritance. There are families as old as 1,000 years or more who have done nothing else but practising the art of healing.”

Mall was Wellcome’s man on the ground in India, charged with finding, collecting and shipping back pieces that together painted a picture of Ayurvedic medicine, including the role of different spices and foods, and their medicinal and healing properties. He spoke eight languages besides English and translated many important Ayurvedic texts.

It’s the oral history of Ayurveda that Dipti Dhingra wants to capture on the Yogibeings website. She says this Ayurvedic learning was passed down from one generation to the next in families where parents, children and grandparents all lived under one roof. “With India rapidly Westernising and the nuclear family being the norm more commonly, this information is being rapidly lost as the older generation passes on,” she says.

Dhingra came up with an ingenious online solution. “We got together a team of editors and writers based all over the world. Their main purpose was to interview the older generation, and gather and document this information, to then process and publish in the form of easy-to-digest articles and information,” she says. Today, Yogibeings publishes 50 new articles each month along with an expanding Yogipedia – a snapshot of ingredients that are included in Ayurveda for health and healing.

‘Woman Swinging Below an Aubergine Plant’, watercolour with pencil, 19th century 

If you’re keen to learn more about the roots of Ayurveda, Ayurvedic Man at Wellcome Collection offers a rare opportunity to see first-hand seminal works such as the stunning Hortus Indicus Malabaricus compiled between 1678-1693. It’s a 12-volume botanical text that charts the medicinal properties of over 700 plants from Malabar (present day Kerala in southern India).

Another piece in the exhibit is Woman Swinging Below an Aubergine Plant, a 19th-century watercolour and pencil work depicting a woman dwarfed by a giant aubergine plant. Traditionally, aubergines have been used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions including cholera, ulcers and asthma. For Rodriguez Muñoz, this work makes an important point.

“I wanted to stress how a great deal of medical knowledge is domestic – as opposed to belonging to men, as opposed to codified, as opposed to professionalised – and how it has been used for generations by women in the kitchen.”

Turmeric is featured in the exhibit as well, in a coloured engraving from the 18th century, and Rodriguez Muñoz tells the story of how the Indian government fought and won a legal battle in 1999 to force the withdrawal of a US patent that had been filed for the medicinal use of turmeric. The Indian government argued successfully that such traditional medical knowledge couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be owned.

Rodriguez Muñoz says: “It makes me think, who owns this knowledge? Who owns medical heritage? And natural resources? Is it the nation? Is it the pharmaceutical company? Is it the practitioners?”

For Dhingra at Yogibeings, the answer is clearly that this is knowledge to be shared, not owned. “We are all Yogis who are seeking to lead more healthy and meaningful lives. Some have the knowledge, others are seeking it. We aim to connect the two.”

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

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