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India’s Scientific and Metaphysical Views of Medicine in Objects

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Color plates in Hamsasvarupa Maharaj, Satcakranirupanacitra, Trikutivilas Press, Muzaffarpur (1903) (all images courtesy Wellcome Library, London unless otherwise noted)

The medical culture of India is perhaps among the world’s most complex, integrating the scientific and metaphysical realms. It is also perhaps the most pervasive, with rich medical visuals and health-related objects present in all facets of daily life. Health and healing are achieved well beyond the confines of clinical spaces, affecting how people think, worship, and go about other every day activities. Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in Indiaan exhibition organized by the Wellcome Library in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), draws from a broad mixture of artworks, texts, and objects that come from clinics but also from the streets of India, shrines, and personal homes, from centuries past to the present-day. The show is part of the Medicine Corner, a project to examine the country’s multilayered approach to medicine, and occurs in conjunction with Jeevanchakra, an exhibition that focuses on the human life cycle.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Unknown, illustration of a meditator shown with chakras and kundalini (19th century) (click to enlarge)

The word “tabiyat,” curator Ratan Vaswani explained, shares a similar meaning with the word “resilience.” The common term in many Indian languages to refer to health, it has a definition that extends far beyond medical implications.

“It encompasses psychological, spiritual health, and wellbeing in the broadest sense,” Vaswani told Hyperallergic. “It’s to do with the internal capacity rather than external agency or either medicine or a healer. It’s about the ability of the body and the mind to heal themselves, which is a theme throughout many different forms of medical and health practice in India.”

Such a view of the body gave rise to a number of its illustrations that integrate tantric visuals from chakras to kundalini symbols, including curious anatomical renderings that disregard scientific accuracy and replace internal organs with these colorful forms. Rather than focusing on the biological functions of the body — the traditional approach of the West — these tantric views explore how individuals may use the body in different ways to better oneself.

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Color plates in Hamsasvarupa Maharaj, Satcakranirupanacitra, Trikutivilas Press, Muzaffarpur (1903) (courtesy Wellcome Library, London)
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Color plates in Hamsasvarupa Maharaj, Satcakranirupanacitra, Trikutivilas Press, Muzaffarpur (1903) (courtesy Wellcome Library, London)

“The body, in many strands of Indian thought, is seen not primarily as substance — it’s not seen as flesh and blood,” Vaswani said. “Mind trumps flesh and blood. The body is seen as a vehicle of consciousness and, therefore, the instrument for achieving liberation.”

Other views of the interior body reflect foreign influences, showing attempts to reconcile this metaphysical view of the body with the anatomical, physical view. Tabiyat has on display an 18th-century copy of the “Tasrih-i-Mansuri,” a 14th-century anatomical manuscript from Persia that features detailed drawings of the circulatory and digestive systems. Such works influenced the 20th-century scholar Hamsasvarupa Maharaj, who, according to Vasawni, was one of the first in India who attempted to integrate biology into the established tantric understanding of the human body, as shown in a series of his published color plates. On display is also an incredibly rare, 18th-century anatomical drawing, “The Ayurvedic Man” — the only known historical illustration of the inside of the human body as understood in medical practice of Ayurveda.

“It’s not accurate anatomy, but it is definitely very biological in approach,” Vaswani said. “It sees the body as substance, which is quite rare in Indian thinking.”

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
“The Ayurvedic Man” (18th century) (courtesy Wellcome Library, London)

Other objects on view are more quotidian. Tools of personal hygiene, for example, suggest daily rituals of personal care and devotion that would leave little areas of the body neglected, from a wooden comb to a decorated brass foot scrubber to an elegantly bent sliver of metal assigned to scrape tongues of all toxins. Outside the walls of the home, reminders of health are still all around: modern, hand-painted signs advertise businesses such as one for a bone setter — just one of many medical practitioners who at times work on the open streets.

As a series of early 19th-century watercolors show, conducting treatments in public is an old and lasting tradition. These small watercolors, commissioned by one Colonel James Skinner — an officer of the East India Trading Company — focus on people like an eye surgeon, a barber, an ear cleaner, and a bath attendant carrying out their duties. Sent back to England to show the public what the Empire was like, they highlight very ordinary aspects of lived experience rather extraordinary ones. Such fascination characterizes much of the works featured in Tabiyat, which were created not particularly as precious objects but functional ones and sources of information intended to better understand and improve human health.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Illustrations in a copy of “Tasrih-i-Mansuri” attributed to a ‘Shikastah-Nastaliq’ (calligraphic hand) (18th century)
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Illustration in Hamsasvarupa Maharaj, Satcakranirupanacitra, Trikutivilas Press, Muzaffarpur (1903) (courtesy Wellcome Library, London)
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Gouaches commissioned by Colonel James Skinner by an unknown Delhi artist; left: an astrologer of the Brahmin caste outside his dwelling (1825) ; right: an ear cleaner at work (1825)
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Gouaches commissioned by Colonel James Skinner by an unknown Delhi artist; left: a bath attendant attending to a customer (1825); right: a barber attending to a man’s hair (1825)
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Tongue scraper purchased in Mumbai
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Enema syringe by Weiss and Sons, exported from England to India (19th century)
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Brass v ajri (foot scrubber) (18th or 19th century) (courtesy Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya)
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Kailash Utwal, bonesetter’s sign-board from Dharavi, Mumbai
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Poster warning against the effects of alcohol from Mumbai (19th century)
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Jnana Bagi (Game of Heaven & Hell), or “‘Snakes and Ladders” (late 18th century)
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Illustration of Lokapurusha, Jain cosmological figure from Rajasthan (late 19th c.) (courtesy Prshant Lahot)
L0079460 P. Gopalacharlu, Ayurvedic Medicines
Pandit D.Gopalacharlu, facsimile illustration from ‘Ayurvedic medicine prepared… at the Madras Ayurvedic Laboratory, Georgetown, Madras’ (1909)
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Astronomical diagram representing sun and moon eclipse (early 20th century) (courtesy Museum of Folk and Tribal Arts at Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, Delhi)
L0057500 Earthenware drug jar, Iran, 1201-1300 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The rim and top of this hexagonal drug jar is inscribed with Islamic script. The jar is glazed with a striking turquoise colour. The jar would have been used to hold ingredients for preparations or the actual finished product. The jarís contents would have been protected using an age-old technique ñ a parchment or vellum cover tied off with string. This jar was purchased in Cairo, Egypt, in 1932 by Captain Johnston-Saint, one of Henry Wellcomeís agents who collected on his behalf. maker: Unknown maker Place made: K?sh?n, Esfahan, Iran made: 1201-1300 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Earthenware albarello drug jar from Iran (12th century) (courtesy Science Museum, London)
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Sidharth Vayed, “Seva Dass” (2012) _Gold leaf and natural pigments on canvas (courtesy the artist)
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Santosh Kumar Das, “Hanuman brings the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to the relief camps” (2002)
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Kawala, son of the painter Bagta, “Ascetics preparing and smoking opium” (c. 1810)
L0079464 Hanuman, the monkey god. Gouache, 19th c.
Unknown Indian artist, “Hanuman carries sanjeevani to the mortally wounded Lakshman” (19th century)
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Wax votive offerings from various Catholic places of worship in Mumbai and South India (2015)

Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India continues at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Vastu Sangrahalaya, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai) through March 28.

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