The Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, or rather more manageably the FRLHT, has a grand vision: “to revitalise Indian medical heritage”. A large and well-equipped campus spread over 15 acres in North Bangalore and a 100-plus team of medical and horticultural experts suggests that realising this goal is well within the FRLHT’s grasp.
The Foundation is active in promoting the use of traditional medicine systems – including siddha medicine, a system similar to ayurveda but based on mercury (rasa-aushadi), as well as ayurveda – and in re-establishing the traditional methods of transmitting this knowledge. The executive chairman, Mr Darshan Shankar, distinguishes between the very sophisticated Sanskrit oral tradition and that of other cultures and languages, Indian and otherwise, which focus more on practical knowledge. “There are tribes in India that are totally illiterate who can set a broken bone, whether of a man or an animal, pretty well; but the Sanskrit tradition is much more than that.” He stresses the importance of sound for the oral tradition and likens reading a Sanskrit manuscript to reading sheet music – much of the meaning of the notation cannot be brought out without sound. It is the sound of the words which, he says, engage with the mind.
A large part of the organisation’s work involves conserving the plants used in Indian medicine for thousands of years and the campus is dotted with all manner of trees and flowers each with a particular medicinal quality. The team has endeavoured to identify and catalogue each plant in several Indian languages, including Tamil, Marathi and Hindi, as well as Sanskrit. There are perhaps 400 plants on campus out of the 2,000 they have positively identified; another 3,000 estimated species are said to be known to various local traditions.
Three Ayurvedic doctors, a horticultural expert from Kerala and a Sanskrit poet-cum-psychiatrist reveal just there is to learn from each plant: the different types of medicinal usages, the parts you can eat and how to prepare them, the varieties of the plant and which part of India it comes from, and how to reconcile this reality with the at times fantastical descriptions of flora found in Sanskrit poetry. Dr Suparna explains how the ishvari, a plant with bizarre purple flowers that resemble a brain (above), cures snakebites; while the nirgundi is used for arthritis. Dr Shankar, who leads the team responsible for translating Sanskrit texts into English, notes that the names match the plants’ morphology, so the asti-shrnkhala (literarly ‘chains of bones’) is a shrub with small green tubular leaves separated into several joints (below).
Some take their name from other characteristics, the ugra-gandha for instance is a type of kasturi, or musk, so called because of its fierce (ugra) smell (gandha). The parijata, one of the five divine trees which were produced at the churning of the ocean and which was later brought to earth by Krishna, is happily found to be alive and well – on the FRLHT campus at least. Its tiny white flowers have a bright almost fluorescent orange stem, justifying its alias as the coral tree.
The lotus pond though brings a disappointment as the botanist, Mr Ram, explains that lotuses and water lilies grow only in still water. The golden lotuses that Kalidasa has growing in the divine river, Ganga, may owe more to poetic licence than botany but nature here reveals so many weird and wonderful that it is easy to forgive the poets their overactive imaginations.
For more about the FRLHT click here