Herb-medicine tango in ancient India

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2017.36 Published online 20 February 2017

Gentleman’s Magazine report on rhinoplasty in India in 1794, a practice then unknown in the West.

© Wellcome Library, London

Throughout the history of maritime trade, Indian herbs, spices and medicines have been a great pull for international traders. So much so that around the 15th Century, lured by the richess of these spices and medicines, discovery voyages started to change the map of the world as mariners tried configuring the shortest routes to India.

During these adventurous times, many books and texts were scripted, by foreign traders detailing regional medicines and therapies of India. Annamma Spudich, a Stanford University-trained biologist and now a botany historian, has researched such resources from around the world. 

In an ongoing exhibition (13 January-31 March, 2017) at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, she points to the underlying science behind many indigenous botanical medical practices – drawing an interesting plot between these natural allies as a “consummate example of pre-modern science” in India.

“These uniquely Indian knowledge resources provide an interesting facet to our understanding of disease pathways and may help modern scientific tools find some therapeutic solutions to hitherto intractable diseases,” Spudich says.

On display are images and texts from European books describing now-vanished regional medicines and therapies of India, not found in classical Indian medical texts. 

Indian medical manuscript fragment written in Chinese, Dunhuang Caves, China, 9th C. AD.

© Institute of OrientaI Studies, Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Russia

In these books, European authors describe medicinal properties of plants and disease symptoms from a biomedicine point of view. These may be more accessible to modern biomedical researchers than Indian classical medical texts. 

“They could be valuable resources for future bio-medical research in India,” Spudich says.

Among other interesting exhibits is one from the Gentleman's Magazine in England talking of  “A Singular Operation" — a nose job on a Maratha bullock cart driver named Cowasjee, who worked in the British army. A regional folk practitioner reportedly replaced Cowasjee's nose, mutilated in battle, with a flap of skin from his forehead. According to folk medical traditions, this was an operation practiced for centuries in India. (A History of Organ Transplantation: Ancient Legends to Modern Practice, David Hamilton, U. Pittsburg Press, 2012).

Indigo dying in India. Company Painting.

© KEW Collection

Another panel at the exhibition shows traditional indigo making from leaves of the Indian plant Indigoferra tinctoria L and illustrates it with the chemical reaction that converts the colourless precursor indican in its leaves into the brilliant blue indigo dye. "While the complex molecular pathways and chemistry were unknown at the time, many of the underlying concepts have been confirmed with modern scientific methods," Spudich says.

A series of short audio narratives accompany the exhibition transporting the audience into times and places where such fascinating science was happening — amidst busy maritime traders in local bazaars where indigenous knowledge found its takers. It’s a fascinating journey through millennia, accentuated by layered light installations that depict important historic knowledge milestones and hand-drawn illustrations that bring out the folklore related to Indian healing practices.

Spudich had earlier curated an exhibition called 'Such Treasures and Rich Merchandize at NCBS after getting initiated into Indian botany history at Cambridge University library when she read 'The Greate Herball'  written by John Gerard in 1597.