October 2010


The fine art of living
October 2010




Mortar and herbs for making medicines.Patients usually prepare their medicines at home, following recipes provided by a physician

Blessed by nature, Sri Lanka's coppery soil yields a veritable cornucopia of medicinal herbs.This lush island nation is home to at least 1,400 species of medicinal plants, of which at least 500 are native. The value of this bounty has not eluded its people. Throughout the ages, Sri Lankans have drawn on its abundance for their health and sustenance.

Words: Daleena Samara | Photography: Rasika Surasena

Since ancient times, the Island's native physicians have practiced a system of medicine that was largely herbal and completely holistic. This indigenous system, Deshiya Chikithsa, existed at the time of the arrival of Arahant Mahinda, son of King Asoka of India, in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC. Mahinda brought to the country not only Buddhism, but ayurveda, the great Indian science of life. Deshiya Chikithsa was absorbed into the predominant ayurveda, resulting in a Sri Lankan version of ayurveda with a stamp of originality.

More than a mere indigenous healing system, ayurveda is a sophisticated way of life incorporating the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development of the individual, in harmonious tandem with nature. Deshiya Chikithsa itself has a lineage going back to the mythical king of Lanka, Ravana and his father, Pulasthi Rishi, both of whom are credited by Indian tradition as masters of medicine.

Hospitals arrived in Sri Lanka long before the advent of the first hospital in the West, in Paris in the 7th Century.King Pandukabhaya (437-367 BC) is credited with the concept of sivikasotthi-sala, lying-in homes, where the ailing could recuperate. King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC) is said to have built hospitals in 18 different districts. King Buddhadasa (498-426 BC), himself a physician, built hospitals not only for people, but for animals. Many of these hospitals were attached to monasteries. Ruins of hospitals attached to monasteries can be found in Anuradhapura, Mihintale and Polonnaruwa.

Ayurveda flourished as the central system of healthcare in Sri Lanka until colonisation, when it was forced by the colonisers to give way to occidental medicine. But although it faded from the official eye, the science was kept alive by the Buddhist clergy and by native physicians in rural areas.

In 1928, the British government gave in to local pressure and set up a Board of Indigenous Medicine and a teaching institution for the promotion of ayurveda. The Indigenous Medicine Act of 1941 paved the way for the formation of a Department of Indigenous Medicine. It is fitting that today Sri Lanka has a Ministry of Indigenous Medicine under which there is a dedicated Department of Ayurveda. Today, the National Institute of Ayurveda in the outskirts of Colombo supplies the country with a steady stream of practitioners.

The cornerstone of ayurveda is the tridosha or three bodily humours vata, pita and kapha, believed to pervade all matter, and derived from the panchabhuta - space, air, fire, water and earth, the five elements that according to eastern philosophy make up all physical matter. As dhatu, the tridosha form the tissues of the physique. As dosha, they make up our energetic blueprint. Every individual carries a unique combination of the three humours, determined at the time of conception by the balance of humours of the parents. This stamp of individuality, known as prakurthi, determines every aspect of individual makeup, from the shape of nostrils, how fast or slow he speaks, body size and whether or not he grows fat or remains thin when eating in excess. Vata predominant individuals, for example, tend to be lean, quick witted, creative and prone to mental disorders such as depression, while kapha predominant individuals may be slow, but have a good memory and put on weight easily. Diet is central to ayurveda and is also categorised by the tridosha, and thus separated into cooling or heaty types in addition to nutritional content. An ayurvedic diet is tailored to nurture the needs of the prakurthi.

Most Sri Lankans have an intuitive knowledge of ayurveda and fashion their diets accordingly.

Although this delicate balance of dosha changes with environmental influences, it remains the core foundation of the individual throughout his life. When the tridosha are in balance, the individual is healthy; when imbalanced, he is in a state of disease. When a skilled ayurvedic physician checks a patient's pulse, he determines not only the rate of the heart beat, but the prakurthi, and the current balance of the tridosha. Ayurveda then works on regaining that natural balance and addressing imbalances through appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes. This is a very basic overview of ayurveda, the vast scope of which embraces the origin of the universe, the play between spirit and matter and the art of living in harmony with nature. Serious students of ayurveda study daily for at least five years to master its complexities.

Ayurveda is stamped in the DNA of the local populace. Even today, most Sri Lankans turn to ayurvedic home remedies or native physicians for a cure. Ayurvedic products are an essential part of the domestic first aid kit and herbalists, grocery stores and supermarkets offer a range of herbal supplements and common herbal medicines, the most common being coriander, boiled in five cups of water until the liquid simmers down to one cup. It's an effective cure for common influenza. One of ayurveda's bitterest ingredients is weniwalgata, Ceylon Calumba root; well known for its antiseptic properties.

Most Sri Lankans have an intuitive knowledge of ayurveda and fashion their diets accordingly. For example, the diet of the pita prevalent individual, who has a heaty constitution, would be tailored to prevent overheating, thus preventing skin ailments and circulatory disorders that pita types are prone to. The diet of the vata prevalent individual, will warm his cool constitution, reducing aches and pains and preventing hyperactivity. Ayurveda is so detailed, it specifies what foods to eat at what time of day, and in what combination. Herbs take central place in the ayurvedic cuisine.

In Sanskrit, ayur means life and veda means science or knowledge.

Today, unlike in the colonial past, the tables have turned, and there is a strong interest in ayurveda globally. Even serious ailments caused by an imbalance of the dosha can be sent into remission as seen in those who have received ayurveda treatment. Serious ailments are gradually turned around with a controlled diet and an intensive detoxification programme known as panchakarma, which restores balance in the individual. The body is prepared for panchakarma with oil massages, face and body packs, and steaming. Thereafter, more intensive detoxification treatments such as shiro dhara are administered to flush out the system. When complete, the patient undergoes a gentle process of restoration.

Ayurveda has much to teach the world. Despite its complexity, ayurveda prohibits excesses, and advocates balance and wholeness that is in dire need in the world today. The legacy of Sri Lanka, ayurveda provides humanity with the roadmap to life.

 

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    The scattered remains of an ancient hospital near the Thuparama Stupa in Anuradhapura, shows a medical trough, a central court and rooms for inmates.

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    Ayurvedic oils, herbs and an ola leaf manuscript: the science of ayurveda was traditionally written in verse on ola manuscripts

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    Coriander is a staple of Sri Lankan homes. This coriander tea is a common cure for influenza

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    Gotukola (Indian Pennywort) congee is a common ayurvedic breakfast rich in Vitamin C and iron and known to improve memory and vision

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    Weighing an ayurvedic cure. A herbalist carefully fills the scales with ingredients for a brew prescribed by an ayurvedic physician

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    A Kothala himbutu mug on betel leaves and a stick of venival. Kothala himbatu wood is used to regulate blood sugar in diabetic patients

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