The ancient apothecaries
During a temporary lull in vehicular traffic, Tiruchi’s Periyakadai Veedhi can step back in time with its many small businesses, born at the turn of the previous century, and their fading signage.
Among the most strident of these survivors are the various naatu marundhu kadais (country drugs stores), which envelope the senses with the pungent aroma of herbs, seeds, roots, spices, dry fruits and powders sourced from surrounding villages and from around the country.
Ironically, N. Govindaswamy & Co, one of the oldest country drugs stores, is the most modern looking among the lot: Glass cabinets skirted by red laminate sheeting; a variety of patented country drugs added to the inventory; and an adjoining Indian medicine clinic. A framed picture in the shop proclaims that it is headed towards a century of existence.
“While it was only in 1916 that my grandfather took over this store, it existed much before that,” says N. Venkatesan, the current proprietor.
According to him, many of the country drug stores that survive today were begun by persons who once worked for his grandfather, or his contemporary, T.P. Gopalswamy Naidu. “There used to be thrice as many shops as today in this bazaar but only a few survive.”
M.M. Nagaraja Pillai, who runs the M. Muniya Pillai Nattu Marundhu Kadai begun in 1944, believes that the relevance of country drugs was never on the decline. “Allopathy may be powerful, but country medicine is natural, time-tested and cures completely,” he says.
These shops stock an exhaustive list of raw drugs, and churanams and leihyams that combine the raw drugs in different permutations.
Apart from locals, the shops cater to natural medicine centres and doctors in the region, tourists and a sizeable non-resident Indian (NRI) population.
The demand varies with the seasons, festivals and any disease outbreaks, according to M. Saravanan, who runs P. Singaram Pillai Nattu Marundhu Kadai, begun by his grandfather in 1950.
“Whenever there is a spike in the sale of clothing and jewellery, the entire bazaar sells more,” he feels. However, the sale of country drugs slumps noticeably after Deepavali and before Pongal, according to Saravanan.
While the main business for these shops still comes from post-natal leihyams, Deepavali leihyams and the common cures for coughs, colds and joint pains, there is an increasing range of country drugs that target ailments like asthma, piles, kidney stones, impotency and heart problems and cancers in their early stages.
Besides, medicines for humans, they also stock traditional medicines and fodder for animals and birds as well.
Facing the future
Some feel the entry of new shops has diluted the trust in country medicines: “People nowadays buy country drugs entirely based on what they heard or read somewhere, rather than a real understanding of these medicines – a factor that many new shops are capitalising upon,” says Saravanan. Since country medicines have no side effects even supermarkets and general stores are now selling country drugs, he adds.
However, Venkatesan feels that it is time their business adapted to market demands.
Having noticed a significant enthusiasm for prepared country medicine, Venkatesan began selling patented country drugs in 1992.
“Today, nobody has the time or the means to make these medicines at home,” he says, “and ongoing research has made it possible to package country drugs as tablets, capsules and tonics as well.”
Though they have set their sights in the future, many of these shops still bear signs of their history: Weathered teak wood stools and soruvus (low lying tables with mini-draws that still serve as the galla petti or cash box); tin containers with peeling coats of jungle green paint and yellowed labels; and a few bill copies from 1935 or 1941 that refer to Tiruchi as Trichinopoly and use now-outmoded versions of the Tamil alphabet.
However, the most poignant among all the shops is the one without a name board.
T.M.R. Chandrasekaran says the shop has been in his family for over six generations now, though he has no documented evidence to support this claim.
Housed in a dilapidated stone structure, the shop, its owner and its goods seem ancient, but here too there is no dearth of customers.
“Our sales depend more on kairasi than on advertising,” he explains calmly.