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New Poisons, Old Remedies


Mohan Rao

OLD POTIONS, NEW BOTTLES: RECASTING INDIGENOUS MEDICINE IN COLONIAL PUNJAB, 1850-1945
By Kavita Sivaramakrishnan
Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2006, pp. 280, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

The late nineteenth century in Punjab, as in Bengal, witnessed huge debates about the role of “indigenous” science and “western” science – harbingers of today’s concerns with “Hindu” science, mathematics and so on. Many factors went into the making of these discourses. One of course was the reaction to colonial efforts to deligitimize them as unscientific and empirical medical methods, to be distinguished from the universal, scientific and rational methods of biomedicine. The second was a product of the work of Orientalists, as some indigenous practitioners harked back to the glory of ancient “Hindu” sciences, to the arts, and indeed to their “Aryan” past, a civilization that was said to have been at its pinnacle of achievements in diverse fields. The third, which the author of the volume under review traces, is the consolidation of indigenous practitioners into professional bodies, their reinvention made possible by newly emerging business classes, a burgeoning “vernacular’ press, and their recasting of Ayurveda and Unani as scientific bodies of knowledge, indigenous, and therefore authentic, pure and unsullied as was the national genius they thought they reflected and were a reflection of. In the process, “this produced representations of language-based interests…aligned with…often disparate (ideas) of a Hindu nation expressed in the vocabulary of Hindi revivalism” (p. 2).   Ayurvedic learning in early nineteenth century Punjab was of two kinds: the Brahminical schools or pathashala largely located in the larger urban centres, with a small student body that learnt in Sanskrit. The more widespread were the schools associated with Hindu heterodox sects such as the Dadupanthis and Jogis, the Jainas and the Sikh sects of Udasis and Nirmalas, who were responsible for its widespread diffusion in Gurmukhi. These sects became more prominent and powerful in the early nineteenth century as they were appointed as jagirdars and functionaries of the state under Ranjit Singh. They also provided treatment and medical relief, free of charge in Udasi akharas. Significantly, vaids practised closely with Yunani-practising hakims, who were themselves widely dispersed and attested to the influence of Arabic and Persian learning at maktabs. Many of the maktabs in Delhi and Amritsar were supported by wealthy Hindu and Sikh notables. In short, what existed appeared to be pluralistic, inclusive and non-professional bodies of practice performing a range of medical functions and indeed public health ones because some of them were also involved in vaccinations and inoculations.   Punjab’s annexation in 1850 changed ...


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