The “Garland of Legends”, Ithihya Mala, is a collection of legends prepared by Kottarathil Sankunni, a revered Sanskrit - Malayalam scholar who lived in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century in Kerala. These legends were collected and published by Sankunni in the famous Malayalam literary magazine of the nineteenth century, the Bhashaposhini. Later, they were collected in eight parts and published by the Reddiar Press in Quilon, sometime in the early twentieth century. India’s first writers’ cooperative, the National Bookstall started publishing these stories as collections in 1974 and later this was taken up by another publisher in 1991. From 1991 till 2004 almost one and a half lakh copies of these stories were distributed, such is their popularity.
Ayurvedic Medicine in Ancient Kerala
In Kerala, the system of specialization in medicine was institutionalized and practiced since ancient times. The tradition of ‘Ashta vaidyans’, a group of eight physician families, was an innovative concept that was borne out of the system. Each of these families specialized in a certain area of Ayurvedic medicine.
Once, when some young Nampoothiris, Kerala Brahmins, were spending their free time talking in the verandah of a huge Illam, thier traditional house, the discussion veered around to who was the best among the Ashta Vaidyans. An elderly member of one of the Ashta Vaidyan families, who happened to pass by, explained to the young men that there was no question of which family was better than which. He said that each family was specially trained in a particular aspect of medicine and together the Ashta Vaidyans represented the best of Ayuvedic medicine.
The Renowned Alathoor Nambi Family
One of the more renowned of the Ashta Vaidya families was the family of Alathoor Nambi. The family hailing from what is now known as the Malappuram district of North Kerala, near the ancient port of Ponnani, was specially known for their prowess in finding out the exact nature of a disease and prescribing the correct and proper medicines.
One story recounted in the Ithihya Mala throws light on the awesome power of the Alathoor Nambis. Once, a handsome Brahmin approached the Nambis with the complaint of itching all over the body, which in the course of time was marring his handsome body with black sores. The Brahmin was in tears, since all the other Vaidyas he had approached were of the opinion that the disease was irreversible.
Nambi examined the Brahmin and said that the only effective remedy for the disease was to consume oil collected from a python. The Brahmin was aghast. With a heart filled with sorrow, he slowly wended his way back home. On the way was the famous temple of Chamravattam. (Chamravattam is a place near Tirur, in Malappuram district of modern North Kerala). The Brahmin decided to stay at the temple and spend his last days there in fasting and prayers.
That night he had a dream. A bearded man, very authoritative, approached him in the dream and asked him to ensure that he takes a bath every day in the nearby Bharatapuzha River and to drink some of its water every day after bathing. The Brahmin religiously followed these instructions. Lo and behold, within a couple of months, the itching stopped completely and the blackened sores had also disappeared.
Overjoyed, the Brahmin went to Alathur Nambi to share the joy of his recovery. Nambi asked him how he had managed to procure python’s oil. The Brahmin replied that he had not taken any python’s oil, but had only prayed at the divine temple of Chamravattam. He also recounted the dream. Nambi then went along with the Brahmin and after seeing the temple and the bathing place; he walked along with the Brahmin on the banks of the river. They had only gone a short distance upstream when they saw a python lying dead on the riverbank, oil from the carcass flowing downstream along with the river water to where the Brahmin used to bathe.
The story shows that even the Gods had accepted the veracity and exactitude of the treatment meted out by the Alathur Nambis. Once the Nambis have chalked out a course of treatment it is virtually impossible to better upon it.
Another story recounted by Kottarathil Sankunni reflects the relevance of the life style prescribed in modern times also. It seems that a pair of birds used to sit a on the branch of a tree near a bathing ghat and ask of everyone coming to bathe, ‘ko rukku?’ No one was able to understand the nature of the query and give a suitable reply.
One day Alathur Nambi, who was passing by, heard the cry of the birds and turning towards them composed a Sanskrit sloka. The sloka was acceptable to the birds and they flew away, after blessing the family of the Nambis. They were actually Aswini devas, the celestial physicians, who had come to check up on the technical efficiency of Ayurveda practitioners on earth.
What is relevant to us in modern times are the question and the answers. The question was actually ‘Kah arukku’, meaning ‘who is there who is disease free’. Nambi answered that he who eats lightly and at proper times, he who walks a little after taking food, he who sleeps turning to the left side, he who passes urine and stools promptly without delay and he who is controlled in satisfying his sexual urges will be free of diseases.
How modern is this advice! Even today, modern doctors suggest the same regimen as an antidote against modern lifestyle diseases like hypertension, elevated cholesterol levels, obesity and so on.
Ayurveda is a very scientific and systematized body of medicine. There are a number of popular stories as well as a body of scientific literature that attests to the efficacy of the treatment systems of Ayurveda. It is up to modern Indians to take up the cause of Ayurveda in a systematic manner as a life style regulating mechanism, which will appeal to the West also.
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