Alternative Medical Therapies of India: an Introduction
by Lalit Tiwari
Alternative therapies refer to a broad group of natural and spiritual healing
methods that are different than the conventional western medicine (or pharmaceutical
medicine). Many of these healing methods have been used for centuries in many
different cultures. A few examples are Ayurveda, Acupuncture, Aromatherapy,
Herbal therapy, Meditation, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM),
Though Ayurveda is perhaps 5,000 years old, the West has finally woken up
now to the possibilities of its efficacy. Not only more people, but even celebrities
such as Madonna, Naomi Campbell and Demi Moore, are turning to India's ancient
science to be cured of their ailments. Gopi Warrier, who is the first founder
of Britain's Ayurvedic Charitable Hospital and whose family has run Ayurvedic
hospitals in south India for many generations, says, "western medicine
has failed to deal with chronic problems as well as new, antibiotic-resistant
bacteria, and Ayurveda, by contrast, has an excellent record of curing the
sort of chronic problems that do not respond well to western medicine. Whether
it is enzema, cystitis or migraines, Ayurveda can get to the root of the problem."
As the Western medical practices did not satisfy the people, they have shifted
their attention to alternative medicine systems. According to Dr David Eisenberg
who is working at the Centre for Alternative Medicine at Harvard, the Americans
show a willingness to spend billions on alternative medicine to experiment
and explore all possible avenues.
In the world of medicine, Ayurveda represent a very effective alternative
system of medicine with its remarkable therapies like oil massage therapy,
magnetic therapy, hot treatment therapy, mud therapy, herbal therapy, magical
therapy, music therapy, etc. All over the world people have developed alternative
medical hospitals where Ayurveda is widely practiced, and very successfully.
Gopi Warrier first introduced the Ayurvedic clinic in London in 1988, and
around the same time the first Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Centre was established
in Britain. In 1996, Dr. Shanta Godagama, from Sri Lanka, set up the Ayurvedic
Medical Centre at the Hale Clinic in London; these are few prestigious centers
for alternative medicines. According to a study, the global herbal market
is worth $120 billion a year and Ayurveda's share is $60 billion a year.
In India, at AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Science) now it is compulsory
to follow these traditional alternative therapies along with their western
treatments. According to Dr. Upendra Singh, professor and head of department
of physical medicine and rehabilitation at AIIMS, "Heat therapy is being
widely used as a method of treatment as it relieves pain and also gives a
sense of well being". Dr. Neelkanth Goswami of Delhi's Northern Railway
Central Hospital defines music therapy as a way of maintaining and improving
the mental health of an individual. In 1930s Electro Convulsive Therapy was
developed in the field of psychiatric disorders, but currently this therapy
is totally rejected by many modern doctors, but Dr. Rajesh Sagar of the psychiatry
department of AIIMS says, "Traditionally, electric shocks are viewed
as barbaric but they are the best effective method of treatment for acute
Indian Alternative Therapies
There are many Indian traditional therapies, which are practiced by many
Indian tribes and rural people that are more effective in many incurable diseases,
like migraine, insomnia, mental disorders, sinusitis, asthma, indigestion,
arthritis, spondylitis, sciatica, paralysis, eczema, substance abuse, viral
infection, generally ill health, etc. A few therapies I have described below.
Oil Massage Therapy or Kerala Ayurveda (Dhara)
Oil massage therapy or Dhara traces its roots back to 3000 years.
This therapy is generally practiced by the Kerala's people. Many centers
are established in Kerala these days, which provide this therapy. Basically
this therapy is a cure for a variety of physical and mental diseases, strains
and tensions, arthritis, spondylitis, paralysis, obesity, sinusitis, migraine,
The treatment called Panchkarma is based on the principal of Tridosha
(three faults), which are Vata, Pita and Kapha. The
name panchkarma comes from two Sanskrit words, Pancha meaning
five and Karma meaning action or process. Through this five-fold
purification therapy healers revive the disturbed equilibrium of these three
doshas. Panchkarma therapy has three main stages: poorvakarma,
pradhanakarma and paschatkarma. Poorvakarma is the
first stage that comprises essential preliminary procedures preparing the
body to unload stored toxins. Pradhanakarma is the second stage and
main cleaning therapies. Paschatkarma is the final stage and describes
the measures employed after the main treatment.
The word magnetic therapy comes from the magnet. In this process, the different
positive forces of a magnet are taken into account to cure any kind of diseases.
In the Atharvaveda words like 'sikata' and 'ashman'
were used which mean 'sand' and 'stone' respectively. These two elements
were effectively used to counter ravages, wrought by bleeding and for countering
infertility among women. Ceramic magnetic devices owe their origin to the
above two elements, in conjunction with iron.
Healing magnets of about 200 gauss are considered to be
of lower powers and are meant to be used on sensitive and delicate organs
and diseases appearing therein like tonsils, eye, nose, etc.
Mud therapy is regarded as 1000 years old traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine
in which different layers of mud paste are applied on the body against diseases.
Basically Indian rural and tribal people believe that mud has many medical
properties for all kinds of diseases. They smear mud on the inner and outer
layer in their houses to keep it cool during summer and warm during winter,
and most importantly, to keep diseases and germs outside the houses.
This is the best treatment of many incurable diseases
such as migraine, insomnia, mental disorders, sinusitis, asthma, indigestion,
arthritis, spondylitis, sciatica, paralysis, eczema, viral infection, general
ill health, etc.
Mud therapy as enunciated by Ayurveda, is based on the
principal of two elements, prithvi (earth) and vayu (air).
Mud from various places has different medical properties like soil of the
northern hills are very good for arthritis, spondylitis, sciatica and paralysis;
mud of the desert is good for viral infection. The mud of south India has
the most effective properties against many diseases, as it is rich in minerals.
It is believed that the concept of mud therapy originated from south India,
and I think this therapy is deeply connected with Sidha medicine system
because Sidha is essentially mineral based Indian traditional medicine system.
Agnikarma or Tau-dam Tau-dam is a basically a traditional Himalayan therapy practiced
by the rural Himalayan people for liver troubles, stomach troubles, backache,
etc. According to Tewari (2002), this therapy was also practiced by the
ancient people and is also mentioned in Ayurveda as agnikarma. He
mentions that in other parts of India also this therapy is used for stomach
and liver troubles.
Tau therapy is generally practiced by the older
people of village and is compulsory for 6 month to 1-year old children.
A 45-60 cm long iron rod is called the tau, which is sharply curved
at one end and has one or two holes depending upon the diseases. In this
therapy, tau device is placed on burning fire till it gets red-hot.
The older people touch this red-hot tau on the affected skin for
only a few seconds. And after branding it, they massage the affected area
with the mustard or olive oil.
In the dam technique, fresh seeds of Terminalia
chebula or Anaphalis araneosa are burned on fire and touched
on the required part of the body for only few seconds. After this, like
tau, the effective area is massaged with the mustard or olive oil.
Generally this therapy is practiced in the month of April
because, according to Ayurveda, this is very suitable time for treatment
of the vata, pitta and kapha.
As most of the Indian people believe that diseases are the result of the
wrath of gods, they treat diseases through magical therapies, like zadu
tona, tantra mantra, jhar phuk, etc.
In the Central Himalayan region a magical therapy is practiced
very widely against diseases. This magical therapy is very ancient and called
jagar. According to the Himalayan people this is the best cure for
many incurable diseases, especially mental and psychiatric diseases. Jagar
is held at night and takes one night or twenty-two nights depending upon
the severity of the wrath of the local god.
On a specific day the prayer room of the patient's house
is cleaned and provided with articles of worship such as fruit, cereals,
milk, ghee, sweets, etc. The floor of house is coated with the mixture of
red soil and cowdung and decorated with flowers, etc. At night patients
and his family members, relatives, friends, the jagaria (hymn chanter
and conductor of the ceremony) and the dangaria (the dancer who acts
as a mediator between god and jagaria). At first the jagaria
chants the devi strot and prays to the patient's household god and
sprinkles the ganga jal (river water). After this a crude drum (hurkha
or nagara) and a metallic plate (thali) are played, the jagaria
chants hymns, and the dangaria begins to dance. When the dance and
the music reach their peak, the patient's household god speaks through the
medium of the dangaria. The relatives ask the god-in-medium the cause
of his anger. He tells the cause, which could be that the patient did not
worship him properly, or that he did not offer the god sufficient share
from his earnings, etc. As a penalty the god may demand a simple khichari
(a mixture of uncooked rice, urad, chillies, and salt), or a sacrifice
of a goat, pig, cock, or coconut, or a continuous Jagar for 20 days
or so, or simple worship at home or in a particular temple; it also depends
on the caste of the patient whether he is a brahman, a thakur,
or a dom, etc. Everyone has to fulfill the demands of the god because
failure to do so may result in serious consequences, not only to the patient
but also to his family. About 50% of the patients are cured by it. This
medical therapy is psychosomatic in nature and needs to be properly investigated.
Basically, Ayurveda is a herbal medicine system and it cures many incurable
diseases. These herbal products are used in the form of powder, decoction,
tonic, etc. These could be a single herb or a mixture of many herbal products,
depending on the diseases and the treatment required.
The use of herbal products for treatment in India dates
back to prehistoric times. In the Indus Valley Civilization tree worship
was a very remarkable feature, which shows the importance of plants and
plant products in human life. In Vedic times, Rgveda mentions a few
plants like Semal, Pithvam, Palash, Pipal, etc.
These references increased in the later works, like Atharvaveda.
The Kalpasutra of Atharvaveda refers to an exhaustive list
of 579 plants and mentions their botanical characteristics and medical properties.
Today, Ayurveda has captured more than 50% part of the
world's herbal market. A recent survey shows that the global herbal market
is worth $120 billion a year and Ayurveda represents $60 billion of it.
According to market experts the global herbal market is expected to grow
to Rs. 2,50,000 crore by 2010.
Yoga is a comprehensive term comprising yogasanas, breath control,
meditation, etc. The word Yoga in Sanskrit means to link, to unite
and its ultimate goal is to achieve a reunion of our soul (jeevatma)
with the supreme soul (paramatma). The main aim of yoga is to build
physical and mental powers in a human body.
Yogasanas or asanas form only a part of
yoga and are meant to keep the body in good health. Recent scientific research
and experiments have proved beyond doubt the efficacy of yoga in controlling
and curing many serious diseases like blood pressure, heart diseases, hypertension,
nervous disorders, etc.
Jon Stock describes special Indian therapies for incurable diseases:
Talam: A herbal paste mixed with oil is applied
to the head. This cures insomnia, improves eyesight, cures skin disorders
Chakra Basti: This treatment is used for
curing indigestion and alleviates constipation. The umbilical region
is bathed with medicated oil or herbal decoctions.
Greeva Basti: Bathing the back of the neck
with warm medicated oil or herbal decoction. It cures the cervical
spondylosis and chronic pain in the neck region.
Netra Dhara: This treatment cures cataract,
improves eyesight and soothes and relaxes eyes.
We thus observe that the people are shifting their allegiance to the Indian
alternative therapies, because these therapies are natural and have no side-effects.
The western medicine has failed to deal with the chronic diseases as well as
new, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Ancient therapies, by contrast, have an
excellent record of curing the chronic diseases that do not respond well to
Bright, P. S. 2000. India's alternative therapies: the cure of modern times.
Junior Science Refresher, November: 20-27.
Stock Jon. 2002. Ayurveda goes global. The Week, July 28: 16-27.
Tewari, V. P. 2002. Uttaranchal ki paramparik chikitsa paddhati: tau-dam
(in Hindi). In press.
2002. The healing touch .. The Times of India, Delhi Times "Health
Varupi Jain. 2001. Fast forward to the past. The Saturday Statesman "Life
Style", October 20: 2.
Shah, N. C. and M. C. Joshi. 1971. An ethnobotanical study of Kumaun region
of India. Economic Botany, 25(4): 414-422.