Tag Archives: complementary and alternative medicine

the self healing power of the body – and of the hakim

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.

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Mushtaq Dawakhana, Moradabad

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!’

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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.

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A Day On The Water

Sunday. Freezing, sunny. Walthamstow farmers’ market. Quiche, hot fritter, tomatoes. Goodies gathered for the day.

I wend my way with my bicycle and my basket down the high street, peacefully peopled in this clear brightness but an absolute contrast to the hawking crowds of Saturday. Down, down, down to the end and over the edge, past the last houses of Coppermill and across the border, the large metal plate that bears you over to the wild side of water and yawking birds. Fly on down – silver cityscape dreaming away on left – under the goldening trees and the crazy low tunnel, head ducked paranoically. Then the marshes. Meadowsweet is long gone; Comfrey banks have been shorn and shaved. The air is pure and sweet. There are sacred groves! There are no sirens! Along and on to the marina crowded with boats, the bridge, Stamford Hill couples crossing solemnly in gigantic fur hats, Russian-style. Such a glorious day here. It’s morning busy – canoes, breakfasters in lovely sunshine in front of the caff, football at play and jolly shouts in Springfield park beyond. I find what I’m looking for. Step aboard! Stormvogel is moored under the bridge and smoke issues gently from its roof. I spy some herbalists…

The Herbal Barge, I gotta say, is quite a magical little domain. Wooden shelves all crammed with ointments, bunches of protective plants hanging from windows, mysterious snuff boxes, jars of teas… a delicious little kitchen with old tiled black iron stove and a mess of pots… You step down from glinting green surrounds reflected in the (today not so murky) canal, colourful boats lined all along, bright blue sky above – into a warm sunlit little space full of enticing smells and discussions. What is this? It’s an awesome little converted barge – ‘London’s first floating apothecary in 350 years’ – resulting from the handiwork of several years of Melissa Ronaldson, a medical herbalist whose creations and achievements to date include her collection of herbal snuffs, formation (with a small group of colleagues) of the London Community Herbalists and a lot of community action: sharing and teaching herb lore, making medicines and developing herb gardens, striving for vigorous and just representation of herbal medicine in this country… you can see the love and power of her vocation shining out of the carefully made spaces and pots of medicine all around you on this boat. Melissa ain’t here today though – I’m sharing the day with Annwen and Siobhan, two blessed herbalist creatures that I got to know at the Green Gathering, documented early on in this blog. Annwen the Welsh elf is listening to Cerys on Radio 6 and pottering about making fragrant tea, Siobhan is talking nineteen to the dozen as she does (she spends the day doing consultations under cover of looong friendly conversations)… ahh, what a happy place to be for breakfast. I put out the hot fritter with chilli sauce and we all sit on deck at the plastic-clothed table drinking tea as various visitors step on and sit and pass some time with us. The lure of Stormvogel is too fascinating to resist I think – as it would be for me if I were some unsuspecting member of the public strolling by. The day goes on like this, making lots of tea, welcoming folks aboard, them telling us things, us talking about health and herbs… most of our Mill workshops people come to hang out which is great. One comes asking for a magic cream that she had from Melissa that enabled her to walk again at a festival after being laid low by her knee complaint… Annwen and I begin a mission to recreate this, going by the ingredients on the old label. Filippo brings lunch of Jamaican stew and rice from the market. We mix teas, we talk, we show people round, we share ideas and knowledge about medicines and what grows around us in the marshes. A long and lovely autumn day spiralled about by sun and light and gentleness and learning.

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Melissa has a little consultation room at the back of the boat but it’s not her main place of practice – but the barge will be around on the canals at certain times, with a Christmas floating market on the cards (location to be confirmed – check on the Herbal Barge website) and monthly moorings at Springfield Marina. Do come visit.

Related links: Annwen’s work at Rhizome Community Clinic in Bristol, Siobhan’s herbalism courses at the Mary Ward Centre in London