Heritage of Deshiya Chikitsa | Sunday Observer

Heritage of Deshiya Chikitsa

The 2015 SAARC Cultural Centre publication titled Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions of South Asia, where a key focus is on traditional knowledge as related to health and wellbeing, included writings pertaining to Sri Lanka. The excerpts and quotes are used in the article on permission from the Director of the SAARC Cultural Centre.

One of my neighbours told me that a close relative had been hospitalised with suspected kidney stones. However, when the operation was in progress, they found no kidney stones although the X-ray had shown one stone like reflection.

The patient was in misery, because a complicated apparatus had been pushed down his throat to reach inside his body to check if there were kidney stones and he was unable to eat or drink. I asked the neighbour why the patient had not, earlier, when his condition was first suspected, consumed a consistent diet of Kekiri, one of the miracle ‘food cures’ for kidney stone dissolving.

Ancient hospitals

She said that he was ‘addicted’ to pethi, her description of Allopathy, or Western medicine. Common sense and rationality tell us that Western medicine has its uses. I have been quite mystified as to why Allopathy is not called alternative medicine in countries, such as Sri Lanka as our centuries-old, time proven indigenous medicine is linked with what grows in our soil and encompasses the mind, body and spirit, referred to and practised as the standard medicinal (preventive and curative) system of the land, as was the norm until colonisation took root in the country.

In the research paper, Traditional Knowledge Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, published in the SAARC publication, Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions of Sri Lanka, Daya Dissanayake wrote: Healthcare in Ancient Sri Lanka would go back about 5000 years to the time of Ravana who was said to be a great physician and had written several books on healthcare.

But there are those who try to reject Ravana as a mythical figure, because they are obsessed with the Ravana of Ramayana epic, and not the Lankan of the Yaksha tribe.”

He added, “When we talk of healthcare, we think of hospitals and we take pride in the claim that the first health centres were established in Sri Lanka. But what should come to our mind is about keeping ourselves healthy.

Hospitals should be the last resort and ill-health should be avoided. Till a few decades ago, our village folk believed that being admitted to a hospital meant a person would not go home alive, because it was the last resort. Till then, the village physician would treat them successfully.”

He outlined how the ancient Lankan hospitals discovered and excavated around the country are representative of the philosophy and science of the Deshiya Chikitsa (indigenous medical treatment).

He referred to the Sadharmaratnavaliya Avasta Pilliyam first aid and stated that treatment was known for hemorrhoids, filaria and leprosy. He added that one probable reason for the success of our ancient healthcare system was that our physicians never went against nature.

He wrote: “Our Deshiya Chikitsa would have been based on ahimsa, loving kindness for all living creatures, unlike today, when animals are used to experiment on, and then for clinical trials to test new drugs before using on humans.

Animals are infected and then killed to make vaccines, like the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis, where millions of rats were infected and killed to develop the vaccine which is made from their brain tissue.”

Dissanayake referred to something we have become immune to; the ingrained philosophy of being one with the universe and all that exists in it that was part of our ancient tradition; where we never harmed another being, human, plant or animal for our wellbeing.

Even when hunting was carried out, it was based on giving a fair chance for the animal to escape unlike today’s horrendous factory farming industry where creatures are ‘artificially grown’ with injected nefarious substance and killed just for a brief seconds of taste and a poisonous aftermath.

Even today in rural areas of Sri Lanka where health has not yet fully become a part of a profit motive industry, the philosophy of ahimsa still exists.

In these villages, there are still people who keep alive our ancient values; to treat someone who is ill is a great merit and to even go out of their way to give the correct type of herbs, fruit and vegetables as needed for the ailment is a pinkama.’ This is how we lived. This was our tradition.

This was our culture. We referred primarily to the Sinhala culture, but in the Tamil culture as evident in Tamil areas this holds true too and possibly in Unani medical tradition, which is part of the Islamic medical heritage.

Dissanayake spoke of treatment in Deshiya Chikitsa for snake bites and stated that today we use snake venom anti-serum, made by injecting snake venom into horses, and then collecting the serum from their blood for anti-venom.

Snake venom

“The horse gets snake venom injections many times during its life, suffers the poison, and then his blood is circulated through a plasmapheresis machine to collect the serum. To save human lives, horses have to suffer and die in the end.”

Dissanayake added that our ancient healers could diagnose and treat 76 different ailments of the eye, without the aid of any electronic or digital equipment.

He said that the Sivi Jataka even mentions the transplant of an eye. Astanga Hridaya Sambitha attributed to Vagbatha around 11th century deals even with heart ailments, he said.

The bark of the Kumbuk tree, Terminalia Arjuna, had been used in the treatment of Cardiomyopathy, which also means the diseases were also diagnosed by our physicians.”

He said, “Whatever the ailment was, one of the major ingredients always found in our medicine, was ‘Loving Kindness’, which probably was the so called guru mushti (what the teacher held in reserve) which some students could not grasp and hence often misunderstood.

He said that when indigenous physicians hold the patient’s hand to check the pulse beat, he becomes one with the patient, both in body and mind.

“It is not only the pulse beat, but the texture and the warmth of the skin, the look in the patient’s eyes, his breath, would tell the physician a lot about his mental and physical condition.

The physician would treat the patient as an individual, and he would never treat the illness in isolation. That is why we say in ancient healthcare, the medicine would be only one fourth of the cure.”

Last week, we focused on potential for post-Covid ‘wellbeing tourism’ and highlighted that we should first respect, own, make use of in our lives for the wellbeing of our nation, and pass on to future generations our traditional medicine systems.

Each person is a representative of a particular culture, a tradition and a history, whether of a community or location or a country.

Tourism is essentially a deep humanity centered exercise. If we approach tourism correctly, it has the great potential of being a beacon of light in these troubled times.

Travel and tourism has the great potential to heal hearts of prejudice, eliminate pre-conceived notions, bring us closer to the natural world and help us learn from different cultures, spiritual systems and traditions, especially those centred on wellbeing and nature, so that we enrich ourselves with this knowledge and heal ourselves and our planet, the common home to all of us.

If we take effort at individual and national level to seek, find and live our authentic culture, it will hold us and others that we influence in other parts of the world, in this age of pandemics, fears of biological warfare and anthropogenic climate change. However, we cannot do that if we are far removed from our heritage, as a living entity.