When I went to Kerala to shoot a tourism reportage on Ayurvedic treatments, I found out that there was a hidden reality about which I could only guess. Some of the last keepers of this millenary knowledge would not accept to meet a western reporter. For very good reasons.
The simple natural remedies used in ayurvedic medicine, a tradition dating back over three thousand years, are the result of careful observation of the rhythms of nature and the effect of herbs on the human body.
Generations and generations of vaidyas (ayurvedic doctors) have dedicated their lives to refining the practice, trying out different combinations of medicinal preparations and special treatments. Ayurvedic knowledge has been passed down over the centuries directly from fathers to sons, and the recipes for remedies, written on palm leaves, are kept as family treasures.
The fortunes of ayurvedic medicine in India have varied over the centuries. For example, during British rule, it was forbidden to practice it. However, it continued to exist and has been preserved particularly in the Kerala region, partially for geographical reasons.
Here, until very recent times, the aristocrats of the higher castes – the Brahmins and the Christians – dedicated the monsoon season to personal body care. Prior to the actual treatments, which lasted from early July to the end of August, the patients prepared themselves through a three-month diet. Only then did they begin the long and pleasurable purifying processes.
Every family had a space set aside for massages. It was customarily a spacious roofed area without walls, affording protection from the rain while ensuring maximum ventilation. The only barrier was that dividing the men’s and women’s spaces.
Pariahs and the lower social classes, not being able to afford to keep an ayurvedic doctor at their disposal for the entire season, relied on traveling physicians.
The Kerala elders remember that when life was simpler and ayurveda was practiced regularly, it was not at all unusual to live over 100 years in perfect health. But now things have changed. The blame – they say – is principally laid to new developments that have upset the age-old rhythms of life, such as air conditioning, cold drinks, pollution, processed foods, chemicals and of course stress.
The practice of ayurvedic medicine continues today thanks partially to the innovative idea of Doctor Franklin. About fifteen years ago, he had the inspiration of opening a clinic for Westerners, combining purifying treatments and tourism.
Since then, in addition to being nominated man of the year for the tourism sector, Doctor Franklin has begun intense collaboration with many other centers and created a school to teach the basics of ayurveda.
The ayurvedic practice is essentially a preventive medicine, but can it also treat existing sickness or disease? Many Indians treat themselves exclusively with ayurveda. Paradoxically, despite the lucky combination of tourism and ayurvedic medicine, it’s not so simple for Westerners.
There are ayurvedic doctors who are deeply familiar with the highly curative properties of a great many herbs and their combinations. They are the last keepers of this knowledge, but they hide from Westerners and often live in poverty doing another humble jobs. They only treat Indians who know of their descent from families of vaidyas. They are not infrequently highly specialized and know how to prepare, for example, plasters that heal fractures extremely quickly or antivenoms for the bite of any snake.
Their extreme reserve is a means for protecting themselves from the invasiveness of Western multinationals that seek to patent medicinal plants and the millenary secrets of the vaidyas. In this regard, in 1997 a multinational patented basmati rice, and it was only after a long legal battle that the patent was voided. It was a decision that saved thousands of Indian farming families who live of basmati rice cultivation. The impact on public opinion was immense: the fear that one’s thousand-year traditions may be lost is very strong. For this reason, the secrets of the vaidya families are protected with great determination.
The fact remains that – even if we Westerners have access only to a limited part of this knowledge – an ayurvedic treatment is such a pleasant and reinvigorating experience that those who have the fortune of being able to treat themselves to it once almost always make sure it becomes a habit.