History & Culture

A storyteller of ancient healing

When Annamma Spudich gave up a distinguished career in molecular biology to follow the spice trail, she was picking up on scents redolent of her childhood growing up in Kottayam, Kerala — the fragrance of pepper vines, cardamom and ginger. In the 19 years since, Annamma has amassed a treasure trove of information in India’s traditional medicinal system and maritime history. She recently curated an exhibition based on her research at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru.

“My work is about knowledge systems of India that are being lost,” says the Stanford graduate, whose first curated exhibition in India was held at NCBS in 2008.

Since childhood, Annamma was intrigued by the folk healing practised around her home in Kottayam, Kerala. “While we did go to a hospital, for ordinary illnesses we went to the local vaidya. Not the ashtavaidyas, who were trained in Ayurveda, but vaidyas who followed local healing traditions,” explains Annamma.

A chance encounter at a library in Cambridge University, when she came across a medieval European book on medicinal plants from India was what set her off. “Europeans who came to India in the 15th century discovered their medicinal knowledge was useless in the tropics. They found that Indians used their own medicines and lived to a great age.”

While she initially focused on the chemical properties of medicinal plants, her interest soon veered to their history as she researched and found various books written during that period on Indian folk healing.

“What these books give us is a unique window into the place of Indian knowledge systems in the history of the world.” Some of these books, such as The Hortus Malabaricus, compiled over a period of 30 years by the Governor of Dutch Malabar Hendrik van Rheede, provide a comprehensive record of the flora of Malabar during the 17th century. This treatise remained inaccessible to Indians until botanist K.S. Manilal translated and published an English edition, 325 years after its original publication in Latin.

Annamma’s research led her to similar records from other parts of Asia. The Bower Manuscript, a set of fragmented manuscript collections of Buddhist monk Yosamitra, dating back to the fifth century AD, mentioned Indian plants. “I also have a prescription for myrobalan (nellika or gooseberry) which was discovered in Egypt from the 11th or 12th century.”

At the exhibition, Annamma presented copies of six papers published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, counted among the world’s first science journals, which were sent by a British physician in Madras in the 17th century. “British and American medicines used ingredients exported from India. Into the middle of the 19th century, 50 percent of British medicines used Indian botanical species,” she claims.

Walking house of trivia

The affable professor is a living ‘house of trivia’ on Europeans and their encounters in India. “The Calicut Tapestries, a series of paintings commissioned by King Manuel of Portugal after Vasco Da Gama’s return, depict what the Europeans believed came on the ships. It included unimaginable riches and exotic animals - even a unicorn was painted on the deck,” she says. Reprints of the tapestries, with documents from several medieval books were part of the exhibition at NCBS. Her academic training helped her understand the science behind many forms of indigenous knowledge. “Many single-molecule drugs such as aspirin are derived from plants,” said the former molecular biologist.

She rues the standardisation of traditional medicinal teaching taking place in the country. “Traditional medicine is lost because nowadays to practice, you need to be certified from an Ayurveda college. Women, who were important practitioners for all gynaecological conditions and associated diseases, and the vyattati (midwives) who delivered children till the 1950s, none of them were products of ayurveda schooling.”

Stories and folk medicine

One of the ways folk practitioners preserved their knowledge was through stories. “When I was a child, I was told I should run as fast as I can if I happened to cross a yakshipala (Alstonia scholaris or Indian devil tree). I was five at the time, so I would run like mad! It turns out that some people are highly allergic to the pollen from the flowers of the yakshipala. So one way to pass on the knowledge was to tell a child there was a yakshi under the tree.” Annamma believes that India abounds with stories like these. “We need to record these stories before their tellers are gone. They may hold clues to medicinal knowledge lost over the years.”


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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 12:44:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-storyteller-of-ancient-healing/article18643758.ece

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