By Frances Bulathsinghala
Colombo, November 22: What is Sri Lanka’s international leveraging position in these pandemic times? What does it have that is unique to the world? The answer: being a country with an ancient heritage and knowledge system.
This ranges from engineering to medical science (where marvels such as Sigiriya have not been solved yet through the limited knowledge of engineering as the West have discovered and transferred to Lankans).
The next crucial question would be; how does one begin to use the Lankan unique heritage knowledge in a practical sense in times of pandemics.
Answer: well, begin by not being afraid to acknowledge what is one’s birthright. Begin by using it when the country needs it so desperately. This means; if there are cases where Sri Lanka’s herbs and medicinal food/ancient medicinal science have boosted the immunity of patients from the risk of Covid or cured them faster than the usual time it takes for Covid19 to be eliminated from the system, avoid shying away from acknowledging it to ourselves first and then the world. No matter if that feat comes from a little known inconspicuous Weda Mahattaya .
We have to keep in mind that there should exist today in our genes, something of the memory that we are from generations where medicinal knowledge linked to the sacred soil of our country was in the veins of our ancestors. Robert Knox in his memoirs marveled at the medical expertise of all the people of this country, not just physicians. What happened to that collective consciousness of ours today – despite being pawns of colonization, globalization and the brainwashing that comes with it, is there nothing to salvage from who we were as a civilization which had the first ‘modern’ hospital in the world in Mihintale, replete with medical equipment and fittings.
This writer has in many instances written that we should equip each and every child of this country with the knowledge of our medicinal heritage, our herbs and the use of our traditional food as medicine. This has to be an integral part of our education system beginning with the earliest years of learning in order to inculcate this knowledge fully so that we are not breeding tourists and foreigners who are only Sri Lankan through name. In a conference last year at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka on indigenous medicine, attended by Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Nayaka Thero as a chief guest it was noted in the general discourse that whatever our heritage sciences that we have discarded thrive elsewhere, often in the very countries that were instrumental in making us feel ashamed of this knowledge and trained us to look at them as ‘backward’ and unscientific.
Ironically there are hundreds of the Westerners who have learned Ayurveda from India and gone back to their home countries to set up lucrative businesses under various fancy names involving health and often selling these ‘knowledge’ back to us. While India has used its Ayurveda to brand itself globally for economic progress (mainly Ayurvedic medical industry, tourism and related academia), despite it being also swept by the tide of Allopathy, Sri Lanka has done nothing to promote internationally its ancient Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama) which is distinct from Ayurveda although having some core common features. For those unfamiliar with the difference, two minor examples amidst hundreds of others are; the Ratha Kalkaya given traditionally to infants for immunity and the administering of a unique curative therapy for iron deficiency by grinding Gotukola (Centella asiatica) leaves and placing a nail heated in flames in the extracted juice, which are part of the many other forms of Deshiya Chikitsa cures that include Kalka, Guli, and Thaila.
For seven decades we have not realized what spiritual merit, what financial profit, what international stature we could get by reconnecting with our medicinal heritage that we lost due to long years of colonization. What is worse, we have become the instruments of demeaning this knowledge, scoffing at it, preventing it from dissemination and consigning it forever into the abyss of oblivion.
Because we have done the above we have failed to create for ourselves a unique global name and connected benefits in the above realm linked to tourism, education, agriculture and industry. As we have not realized it this long we are now in a flux, and confused as if we were also a nation without a heritage to learn from and with only the option of Allopathy.
Of course we should be proud that we have Allopathic doctors who can compete with the West on equal terms in the practice of Western medicine, but what should be remembered at all times by these doctors is that they are first and foremost Sri Lankans, born on this soil, whose forefathers had their indigenous medicine/food/attitudes to thank for their good health and long life (at a time when our part of the world did not know science as the West venerates now).
One of the points focused upon at the RASL symposium on indigenous medicine last year as quoted above, was the fact that today grandparents and parents have to witness their children dying first. This is a menace in purportedly advanced Western nations as highlighted by those such as Western qualified Lankan nutritionist, Dr. Damayanthi Perera in many related forums. The fact that immune deficiency and NCDs are an everyday plague in the West is seen through the Covid19 death scores. The fact that the West has always longed for Eastern options of health is clear in the Ayurveda tourism demand in Kerala (considered a haven for tourism) by the whole world including Sri Lankans. Sri Lankans going abroad for Ayurveda is a stark paradox on how we have underestimated the potential of our own medical heritage back home.
The Global Wellness Institute, UK revealed in a study in November 2018 that the wellness tourism market estimated then to be $639 Billion will reach $919 Billion by 2022.
When we talk of tourism resurgence of our country why are we not strategically (practically) looking at these possibilities and using all our wealth in indigenous medical heritage in this regard? Why are we not ensuring that we win this pandemic with the centuries old proven medical inheritance of Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama) and Ayurveda and then showcasing this victory to the world to be able to forever get a niche for indigenous medical heritage tourism and relevant product creation? Why are we not pulling together on this?
In the wellness tourism market Kerala is our immediate competitor. Upto around May this year it looked as if the Ayurvedic paradise of Kerala, which is also a hub for Homeopathy had made an example of how integrated medicine, including Allopathy, could work in cohesion to reduce the number of Covid19 patients through faster cures and impressive and large scale immunity boosting for prevention. Yet the pandemic went out of control in Kerala after permission was given for the August Onam festival to be celebrated freely (unlike Sri Lanka which prevented socializing for Traditional New Year and the main Buddhist festival Vesak.
We have to realize that the failure to use a cultural asset such as traditional medicine at a time that is needed most for the nation, will erase the authenticity/credibility of marketing it globally through tourism. Sri Lanka has so far not made the mistake of Kerala which was heralded as a global example of winning the Covid19 battle by April but due to a bad policy decision three months later failed to capitalize on it. Sri Lanka which reined in socializing during the two apex festivals of the country could easily replace Kerala as the global hub for Ayurveda and Sri Lanka’s unique indigenous medicine Deshiya Chikitsa could have incredible potential not only for tourism but also for export of traditional medicinal products such as immunity boosters. None of this will happen automatically. All of us as Sri Lankans have to work and work very hard for ensuring that our economic situation is saved by using the expertise which is ours.
Therefore a far-thinking vision that begins with unity between Lankan medical specialists and incorporates a system to truly educate ourselves on our medicinal heritage is needed for enabling the country of these possibilities. We could begin with changing the phone recording we hear that merely says to stay at home and fear the pandemic. We could use a truly meaningful phone recording which informs Lankans of the Western science certified details that certain heat levels kill the virus and encourage the use of our ancient vapor inhalation/steaming alongside advising people to eat traditional food. Such a phone recording could list out the many diverse herbs, most of them commonly known to raise immunity to exceptional levels and warn against eating poisonous imported substance which passes off for food. Such an initiative will also likely change the food entrepreneurship culture and usher in food entrepreneurs who are conscious of the value of traditional food and innovate as needed accordingly.
Alongside such a public awareness if we had a cohesive system of uniting together and using the expertise of our traditional physicians and Ayurveda doctors and as needed Allopathic doctors especially for complications such as surgery for which Allopathy is vital, we could have turned around and still turn around this situation to become the marvel of the world. It is still not too late because it is possible that like SARS and MERS, the Corona virus will likely have many other avatars and it is juvenile to think that we could keep making vaccines at the drop of a hat every time a virus summersaults to a new identity.
In this backdrop it is upto the relevant ministries of this country, from education, health/indigenous medicine promotion, agriculture and industries and all of us Sri Lankans, in our diverse capacities, to begin to see, learn and act upon the larger vision on how heritage of a nation is not just the past but belongs also in the present and the future.