A trip to India, this time after 5 years, always includes a visit to my dad’s family medicine house in Moradabad in the north… a wonder trove of traditional medicine. It always reminds me that herbal medicine practice around the world shares a common root and it’s doubly exciting this time as now I’m a herbalist myself and more initiated into the mysteries of the craft.
Last time I came here my cousin Aamir, the hakim (who is about my age but has a headstart on me as he qualified around the time I started studying) sat with me in between seeing patients and went through various herbs, in the same way as I would learn them in herb school – habitat, actions, indications, constituents, energetics and so on – only obviously they were different herbs than the ones we met on this side. This time, his practice has grown and he’s got a smart little consulting room at the back of the clinic, rather than sitting with people at a wooden table looking out on the street as my grandfather used to. But the old bottles and the old Urdu script are still there. I sat with him as a steady stream of patients came and had their pulses felt and their problems gently questioned. Aamir’s dispensing assistants in the front wrapped up powders and poured waters and syrups in speedy and efficient fashion.
Unani medicine was the original basis of western herbalism, having originated in ancient Greece and travelled with the Arabs over to their side and from there to Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent; it is still used widely there in Muslim communities. Its emphasis on patients’ unique humoral constitutions and the fluids (bile, phlegm, urine) whose balance or otherwise influence the state of health is central to its practice although hakims like my cousin have also trained, like herbalists here, in modern clinical medicine. It would be very interesting to spend more time with him and understand more about the actual (as opposed to theoretical) nature of energetics in his practice – like with traditional Chinese medicine, sitting with him I had the sense of a much more matter of fact approach, mixed in with biomedical analysis of symptoms, so perhaps the model as practiced by the new generation of hakims is not so dissimilar today from our own in England, where a range of knowledges are mixed and applied, the traditional with the new.
A major difference between our western herbalism here and the practice in the dawakhana (medicine house) there is the nature of the medicines: no tinctures in this alcohol-free zone, instead, sweet syrups (sharbats) are used for respiratory conditions and a whole range of distilled waters whose names my cousin pronounces with great poetic flair. Also there are mixes of powders (safoof), often spicy and pungent, and little pills, and pastes of herbs and honey. The place is brilliant, and my cousin has stoked it up again after some years of lag where it seemed to be just drifting along; he’s ambitious and tells me he has patients in Bombay and even further afield now. He is looking to start manufacturing medicines to sell – Unani medicine in India has its commercial side and Hamdard, a major producer, is well-known for its formulas. So there are some differences, and some things are lost in translation for me as my Urdu isn’t proficient – but how amazing to see this place, and most of all, to see the people who keep coming, after 100 years of this place being open, because the medicine helps them. We see it in action when Filippo, sitting in the consulting room, tells Aamir he’s got a tummy ache (first time in India hehe). The hakim tells his dispenser to bring a little paper wrap of powder which Filippo consumes and leaves – I sit with Aamir for half an hour more observing his consultations and when I get home Filippo says ‘I’m better, it worked!’
Other Indian roamings included a couple of lush sun-baked botanical gardens (as well as a million loving relatives, friends, a LOT of excellent eating, a creative writing course in Calcutta, a Taj Mahal-Agra Fort trip, overnight train to Varanasi and dawn boat ride along Ganga-ma watching holy men covered head-to-toe in ashes and crowds bathing in the sacred water and the burning ghats, and a Calcutta-style cream tea at the famous Flury’s pastry house). Ahhhhhhhhhhhh very good.