Mannanam at that time had only one hospital— if you are to take that pronoun in a strictly allopathic sense. Institutions practicing other forms of medical streams were referred to as infirmaries. Thus we had just Dr. Kora’s hospital. Korachan as he was fondly called had no medical degree to boast of. Nonetheless people believed that he could cure any illness, thanks to his practical experience and dexterity, about which they would recite any number of anecdotes. Though, as a law-abiding citizen he appointed qualified personnel in the hospital, people wanted only Korachan to treat them. All his sons became well-qualified doctors later. The eldest one along with his wife opened a hospital at Ettumanur, near Kottayam. Cabinet ministers and other luminaries of the day were invited for its inauguration. As the serving sub-collector of Pala, the neighboring town, I too was among the speakers. Everyone spoke eloquently of their acquaintance with Korachan. When my turn came I said, ‘’I saw Korachan for the first time 27 years, one month and ten days ago.’’ As everyone got surprised at my deadly accuracy, I added, ‘’I was born in Korachan’s hospital.’’ Balagopal, the IAS turned businessman who was among the audience still recollects the incident amusingly.
Mannanam junction had an ayurvedic dispensary too—Illichira Vaidyan’s officialdom. He would invite anyone who walks by to offer Dasamoolarishtam for free. You had no choice but to drink it. He was our family physician as well. Dexterity and a gifted sense of diagnosis were his capital. All his medications were home-made guaranteeing unblemished purity. As ayurveda was not at all commercialised yet, no one would go for the kill in the trade.
Hospitals were a rarity in those times primarily because people in general emphasised on prevention rather than cure. A brief walk after dinner was almost habitual, eating to live rather than the other way round being the life-style. Children grew up hearing such sayings as ‘’body first, then the rites’’. Those oft-repeated phrases served as warnings in disguise. And then, rural materia medica had cure for almost all the common ills. Anybody could handle them without much expertise. All house compounds would have medicinal flora with panikkoorka (adjeran/Coleus amboinicus), tulsi (holy basil), koovalam (bel tree/Aegle marmelos) erukku (maddar plant/Calotropis procera) in the court yard and koduveli (Plumbago zeylanica), ramachcham (vetiver / cuscus grass) thazhuthama (Boerhavia diffusa) etc in the backyard. Most families had a special grove called kaavu, which was nothing but a treasure-house of medicinal plants and forest trees. Everyone had a quick-fix or some indigenous panacea up his sleeve. For fever, warmed adjeran leaves would be smeared and applied on the forehead. For common cold, no one would hurry for any nasal drop. A strong doze of black-coffee boiled with a little raw-jaggery, pepper and unripe coriander, for a couple of days would do the needful. For coughing, anti-biotic and cough syrups proved no match for Krishnathulasi leaves pounded and squeezed with lemon and honey. Housewives had certain indigenous medi -tricks in common. For instance Thribhala, the famous 3-in-1 mix of kadukka (gall nut/ myrabolan), gooseberry and thannikka (balleric seed). A daily dose of this kitchen drug would keep the stomach clean. Dasamoolam was another mixture in vogue. Roots of Paathiri (stereospermum chelonoides), palakapachchani (Indian trumpet flower tree / oroxylum indicum), orila (desmodium gangeticum) , koovalam (bel tree / aegle marmelos) , kumizh (gamelina asiatica ), munja (headache tree/ balsamodendron myrrha) , brinjal and moovila (pseudarthria viscid) along with the seed of njerinjil (ghokru /tribulus terrestris) make this special 10-in-1 drink that sets all systems of human body in order. Ashtachoornam proved to be the ideal peadiatric powder, teaming up dried ginger, asephoitida, chili, rock salt, cumin, lovage (common caraway), black cumin and long pepper in equal proportion.
A dip in the pond was part of daily routine, where womenfolk relished a thali bath. Making the thali itself was quite a process. Leaves of hibiscus, sida ( sida retusa) devil’s apple (datura metel) , hijjal, vellila ( mussaenda frondosa) and lumb tree would be laboriously pounded with green gram and mixed in oil to make this delicate beauty-pack. They were not merely some beauticians but quite handy at pharmacology as well. Their instant mixture of beetle -leaf syrup, malabar nut (adathoda vasica) and adjeran leaf smeared with a little honey would do away with many a breath problem. Jaundice would be dealt with the now famous keezharnelli (phyllanthus deblis), muthanga (nut grass / cyperus rotondus) chakkarakkolli (gymnema sylvestre). Kachchola (kaempferia galanga) for lungs, amruthu (tinospora cordifolia) for skin and diabetes, cumin in coconut -oil for dandruff, sarppagandhi (rauwolfia serpentine) for blood pressure, the white dust on the coconut flower for external wounds, mukkutty (bioplytum sensitivum) smeared in butter for bee -sting… the home-pharma goes on. Though such remedies were aplenty and effective, rural life anchored on a simple and somewhat orderly life-style. Once a big fat fellow approached Illichira Vaidyan for getting rid of his extra fat. The doc enquired about his eating habit. He promptly enlisted the menu: 10 dosas or 15 idlis and a couple of litres of milk for the break-fast, a fair amount of rice with dal , sambar and a dessert for lunch, eight boiled eggs and a pitcher of milk in the evening followed shortly by 15 chappathis, 2 plates of rice and enough chicken for the dinner. The doc without any hesitation, prescribed just broken -rice gruel for the patient. Pat came his doubt; ‘’should it be taken before or after food?’’.
For chronic diseases, people would go to Vayaskara Mooss, who lived a little farther. He was among the renowned league of ashtavaidyas or the octophysicians. As the nomenclature denotes, they were not any eight persons, rather those well-versed in all the eight specialties in ayurveda viz kaya (medicine) ,baala(paediatrics), gruha (stature), oordhwaanga (ENT), shalya (surgery), dumshtra( toxicology), jera (rejuvenation & geriatrics), vrusha (infertility). Prominent among this distinguished league were Pulamanthol Mooss, Kuttancherry Mooss, Pazhanellippurathu thycad Mooss, Elaiydath thycad Mooss, Olassa Mooss, Vayaskara Mooss, Alathur Nambi, Elladathu Mooss, Velladu Mooss, Choondaattu Mooss, Karathol Nambi, Parappur Mooss, Vaidyamatom Namboothiri and Thruppangottu Mooss. Once I happened to visit Vaidyamatom. The then principal physician Mr. Cheriya Narayanan Namboothiri was to be felicitated with the Akshaya award. I too was supposed to receive an award there, for spreading vasthuvidya (the traditional architecture) through the state government’s Nirmithi Kendra. On that occasion, I could directly witness Vaidyamatom’s gifted techniques. Upon reading his book (Longevity and Ayurveda), my insight deepened, enthralling at the wisdom and expertise of this ancient medical science. Unlike today, surgery was quite common and highly developed in this stream of medicine, extending from the one for cataract to even plastic surgery (anganaveekirana shasthra, as it was termed). History throws light on one Jeevaka, the physician of Gautama Buddha. He was said to be an expert in brain surgery. Bhojaprabandha speaks of an open skull- surgery performed on king Bhoja. Again, Bhargava was fitted with an artificial eye and Pooshav with artificial teeth. The Mahabharata says that during wars, medical departments of military battalions were put on alert with medicine and surgical equipments. Vishphala was the relative of a king called Khela. Her leg was cut into two during a war and the Aswini gods rejoined them via surgery. If sammohini was used to anaesthetize a person for surgery, sanjeevani was for bringing back the lost consciousness!
Myths and legends apart, history clearly spells out the names of the real masters of ancient Indian medical science, broadly classifying them into two categories: the Dhanwanthareeyas and the Bharadwajeeyas. Great surgeons like Dhanwanthari, Shushrutha, Ourabha and Bhoushkalavathan belong to the former group while non-surgical greats like Aathreya, Bharadwaja, Agnivesha, Haareetha and Charaka belong to the latter. Even as these two schools of thought differ on the issue of surgical treatment, their ideological precepts sprout from common sources. All of them emphasise the importance of four basic ingredients in ayurvedic treatment system: Vaidya (physician), Medicine, Nurse and Patient.
Though ayurveda has its origins in northern India, Kerala has evolved a brand of its own, which has acquired a unique reputation throughout the country. Interestingly, there is an ironic story about its origin. It is well known that the progenitor of the Kerala School was Vagbhata (Vahata) who authored Ashtangahrudaya, the modern day bible of ayurveda. A Kerala Brahmin by caste, he was commissioned by his community elders to learn Ayurveda from the Buddhist monks of North India clandestinely. Since Brahminical Hinduism and Buddhism were at loggerheads with each other, the Buddhist monks who had virtual monopoly over this science would not in any case accept a brahmin as disciple. So, Vagbhata had to learn the trade by concealing his real identity. However, finishing his studies the disciple felt guilty and fearing a possible wrath, jumped out from the high wall surrounding the mountain monastery. In the fall he injured his leg earning a perpetual limp. Vagbhata was pompously received back home and his mastery over medical science was studiously imparted to selected disciples from the community. Initially he codified his knowledge in a masterly work titled Ashtangasamgraham. Since it was too tough for even good students, community leaders appealed for a simpler version. Thus was born ashtangahrudayam. Meanwhile, Vagbhata had an intimate affair with a known floozie, eventually leading to his ostracisation from the community. Disgraced, without a modicum of gratitude or reverence from the society, he became a miserable destitute overnight. As the whole society shut the doors on the great master, one individual came to his rescue, defying all diktats: the very same woman who he had the said affair with. Thus the Kerala school of ayurveda has this unique legacy of anathematizing the founder and appropriating the founded!