By Suryamithra Vishwa/Harmony Page-DailyFT
This article is part of the series the Harmony page is running on Sri Lanka’s indigenous medical heritage, medicinal-food culture and traditional lifestyle/values. We, the Harmony page team believe that this is the ‘now or never’ moment to revive our ignored wealth of knowledge on well-being practiced for thousands of years in our land and known traditionally as Hela Wedakam or Sinhala Wedakam although the encompassing term ‘Ayurveda’ is also used.
We as a nation are sitting on a gold mine; the gold mine of our Lankan indigenous medicine and food culture that those of us who know its value respect deeply and practice it with reverence in our everyday life while watching sadly as many, many of us ignore it and even scoff at it.
Dr. Seela Fernando in her book ‘Herbal Food and Medicines in Sri Lanka’ points out that Ayurvedic science in Sri Lanka shone at its best during the reigns of King Buddhadasa and Parakrama Bahu the Great. She points out: ‘During these days, every Sinhalese of noble birth was expected to know Ayurveda; besides Royalty, they included Buddhist monks and poets. These physicians attained a high degree of efficiency in both medicine and surgery, yet they did not work for pecuniary gain. Even the Sinhalese kings, among whom were famous surgeons and physicians, practiced medicine as an act of service to gain merit.”
She further quotes Robert Knox, the British East India company sailor who was taken captive in 1659 by the military of the King of Kandy. This is what Robert Knox had to say about Sri Lanka’s indigenous medicinal system/culture that was inculcated within society at the time: “Here are professed Physicians but all in general have some skill that way and are Physicians to themselves. The woods are the Apothecaries shops, where with herbs, leaves and rind of trees they make all their physics and their plasters with which they do notable cures.”
Today how will a foreigner, say one of the multitudes of so-called western ‘experts’, whose advice we have ardently listened to, for the past decades, speak of contemporary Lankan society? Will they say what Knox said?
Western science has failed us
It is now clear that Western science has failed us – at least it has failed us in the murky and unclear ongoing saga of COVID-19. But has our traditional medicine failed us in the face of COVID-19? What is being used to successfully rid our bodies of this virus of questionable origin and nature, are methods such as steaming which our ancient medical practice had recommended through the use of the Dhum Hattiya infused with herbs to clear the lungs and aid in respiratory health.
In the Dum Hattiya, among the herbs used are those such as nidhikumba flowers, karapincha leaves, kuppameniya dalu, marakondi leaves, kohomba leaves, devadara and vishnukanthi (to name a few). The above herbs are mentioned based on a discussion with Ayurveda physician D.D. Nawarathenna of Kandy who is one among the hundreds of traditional physicians and Ayurvedic medical suppliers who are striving to save our country from this COVID-19 pandemic, even if they do not seem to be at the medical forefront battling this virus.
Sri Lankans unfortunately are today brainwashed to think that Western science is ‘superior’ but let us look at what Western doctors who were intrigued by the accuracy of our traditional medical practices, had to say as quoted in the book Herbal Food and Medicines in Sri Lanka.
“Dr. John Attyagalle, a British qualified Doctor of medicine who compiled the Sinhalese ‘Materia Medica’ in 1917 mentions that he himself has administered these decoctions in their proper order and found them most effective.”
Dr. George Clarke, M.D., M.A. of Philadelphia is quoted as stating after reading the Charaka Samhita, the ancient text on the Ayurvedic medical tradition; “As I go through a part of Charaka, I come to the conclusion that if present day physicians drop all modern drugs and chemicals from their Pharmacopoeia and adopt the methods of Charaka in treating diseases, there will be less work for undertakers and fewer invalids in the world.”
‘Tablet gulping’ human machines
Is it then not pathetically ironic that we are a country where thousands die of cancer, are ridden with diabetes and diverse other ailments and have become ‘tablet gulping’ human machines, half dead before they are fully dead?
Some months ago, on a visit to an Ayurvedic doctor practicing in the Piliyandala area, as part of a research on indigenous wellbeing in Sri Lanka, I was watching the crowds of patients, for whom the Allopathic tradition of cure had not worked. Although this doctor had got his certification from the Institute of Indigenous Medicine in the 1980s he had included into his knowledge the training he received from a senior Hela Weda Mahattaya from Anuradhapura at whose house he had worked as a servant for more than two years, in order to persuade him to pass on his ancient medical knowledge gained from generations, dating back to the dynasty of physicians in Sinhala kingdoms. He still has with him few of the ancient medical documents used by that doctor, although dozens of others he had given to the Ayurvedic Department.
Having got permission to sit and observe the patients being treated, one thing I noticed was the extremely unhealthy eating habits of the patients which they reveal during the questions the doctor raised when he was checking their ‘naadi’. Nowhere in their diet were village rice varieties such as Rathu Nadu, Bata Pola El, Haya Masa wee, Kalu Heeneti , grains such as Kollu, Mineri, Olu haal, or the many variety of leaves/trees that usually were grown in our gardens such as masbedda, thebu, thulasi, gotukola, kos, manokka (the writer has opted to identify these food in our everyday Sinhala parlence).
I asked one 65-year-old woman suffering from many ailments such as arthritis, diabetes and cholesterol why she can’t take foods such as lunu kenda and for lunch prepare simple traditional rice varieties and boil them with herbs such as garlic, perumkayam, kaha, goraka, gammiris, kottamalli seed and karapincha leaves. She looked at me as if I had asked her some impossible to do task. I then told her that this is how I eat daily and that I am totally disease free. She seemed quite aghast.
In the conversation that ensued with this physician, as with many other physicians of Ayurveda/Hela Wedakam, comes up the sad topic of today’s ‘modern’ diet where we have ‘imported’ into our bodies every kind of immunity impairing ‘chemically induced’ and ‘processed’ rubbish that passes off for ‘taste’. Yes, the same rubbish that the hundreds who are dying in Western countries following COVID-19 have been consuming all their lives.
Thus, the desperately needed focus now in Sri Lanka is to revive our traditional/indigenous patterns of consumption/living and attitude where there was a thin divide between medicine and food. As the Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Nayaka Thero stated in his address at last December’s Royal Asiatic Society (RASL) symposium, focusing on Indigenous Medicine, Health Care and Wellbeing; “If you do not consider food as medicine in your diet then one day you will have to consume medicine as food.” This is exactly what the Western world has done – consumed manufactured substance euphemistically called ‘food’ to encourage greed/craving alone and then consumed medicine as food. We now see the difference between the death toll of the coronavirus in countries such as India and Sri Lanka and the so-called ‘developed’ world.
This means that although we have aped the West including diet, whatever fragment left in practicing our food culture such as even a sparse use of everyday herbs in our curries have possibly held us in good stead. Imagine if we had fully followed our indigenous diet and had a strong food production policy based on our traditional foods, traditional agricultural methods/philosophy and had educated the masses on practicing our disease prevention focused medical heritage as well as enabling the individual’s cultivation of our own food sans pesticide? Would not we than have been a formidable mass of people, with unconquerable immunity that could face even an army of pandemics which may just be at worst as irritating as common cold? Why on earth are we not focusing on the topic of immunity and encouraging our professionals to study this aspect in depth? (https://dailyftepaper.pressreader.com/daily-ft/20200328)
Those practicing Ayurveda/traditional medicine and cultivating indigenous ‘food/medicines are now the most wanted humans of our country and they are unable to keep up with the orders that come for everyday spices/medicines such as Kaha, beheth inguru, perumkayam and veniwel.
The elite of this country revel in the use of Western oils such as Olive oil imported from far away countries, extolling its purported goodness , but how many of us cook with oils from our traditional herbs such as those made from the seeds of Sri Lanka’s ‘miracle tree,’ the Mee tree that was protected by law during the times of the Sinhala kings because it facilitates innumerable cures to both humans and the soil.
Some of us buy almonds and pumpkin seed imported from other countries without a second thought as to how they are cultivated – whether chemical agricultural process is used or not, while our own kotang seed known to be an equivalent or even superior to organic almond and our kos eta known to be a powerhouse or nutrients are hardly talked of and the same persons who are paying hundreds of rupees on imported pumpkin seed throws away the pumpkin seed before cooking!
While the elite in America who are becoming conscious of their health are getting coconut water imported into their country, we throw it down the sink and then reach for dubious fizzy drinks that are marketed as must-haves with our food.
This writer along with few likeminded others who have spent much time educating ourselves on our indigenous food/medicine, fear no virus in the planet, bio weapon or bat weapon. This is because we thoroughly respect, love and strive to know our nation’s indigenous food/medicine/lifestyle methods and are aware of what happens to our immune system when we eat anything that is not part of our ancestral heritage such as white bread, known for gluten and the harm it does to the human body. Although many Lankans are now addicted to ‘kade paan’ almost to the effect that we think it is part and parcel of our food culture, it is an alien thing to our diet.
It is said that when the Sinhalese saw the Portuguese who invaded this country in 1505 eat bread that they mistook them for cannibals thinking they were consuming human flesh. If we must eat bread, we can bake it ourselves with flour made of traditional rice varieties. Today we use chilli amply but it was pepper which was the dominant spice infused into our curries in pre-colonial times and because of its constant use ancient Sri Lankans scarcely had respiratory issues. The Kaluheeneti rice known for boosting of immunity and vigour constituted of the diet of the fighting forces of the ancient kings of Lanka. We now drink tea introduced to us by the British and promote it as our traditional drink but we had many herbal drinks that were consumed prior to colonisation including beli mal, ranawara and boiled Kansa leaf.
This writer recalls of how two years ago in a visit to a Weda Watta in Kottawa area how it was explained that in ancient times our robust Sinhala farmers, would return from the field and how he would be served by the Hamine, with a cup of boiled kansa leaf to remove the ‘thehettuwa’ of the body (causing no addiction or danger to society). However today it is arduous even for the traditional medicine sector to grow the Kansa plant.
Kansa/Canabis was outlawed by the British with their introduction of the Dangerous Drug Ordinance, so that they could sell British made arrack and cigarettes. This was well-explained by Dr. Vajira Seneviratne, senior scientist at the Bandaranaike Memorial Ayurvedic Research Institute at the conference on indigenous well-being, who pointed out that today one is fearful even to discuss the topic. (http://www.ft.lk/harmony_page/A-brief-look-at-pre-colonial-wellbeing-models-of-traditional-medicine/10523-691121)
What the colonisers did was to break our backbone. They shot at the knee to kill our traditional martial arts and feared our herbs. They knew that when you break the backbone of traditional sustenance pillars of wellbeing of a country, giving ‘independence’ to that does not mean a thing.
In a recent conversation with renowned Lankan chef Deshabandu Dr. T. Publis Silva, the author of Mahasupavamsaya; the great Chronicle of Sri Lankan culinary art, he lamented that Lankans have forgotten our diverse kinds of traditional potatoes/vegetables/fruits and instead import potatoes like we do apples and oranges. To listen to him was as equally depressing as it must have been for him to say it, as he explained how blindly seeped we are in pesticide, weedicide ridden agro culture ‘gifted’ to us by Western ‘advancement.’
In Sri Lanka, so far only seven or so patients have died after contracting the coronavirus. It would be interesting to see how many usually die of cancer or dengue in about a four-week time frame in Lanka.
We speak so much about building cancer hospitals, donating equipment needed but there is hardly any public discourse on the hundreds of native vegetables that renew damaged cells in the body and eliminate all poisonous or damaged conditions of the body. Sarath Perera of Waaduwa who has cured over 50,000 Lankan dengue patients in the past 10 years, in conversation with this writer spoke of the power of bee honey as a base for removing infections of the body (http://www.ft.lk/harmony_page/The-man-who-saves-bees-and-humans/10523-694329).
If there was ever a time for us Lankans to wake up, it is now. It is time to revert to our traditional truly ‘developed’ states of well-being that is part of our forgotten history.
It is lamentable that we as a nation have not asserted ourselves since 1948 using our own common sense. If we did, we would not have cultivated pine trees that destroy our soil beyond imagination while we ridiculed and debunked the advice of world-renowned Lankan ecologists such as Ranil Senanayake (who was the advisor to the ministry of Mahaweli in the 1970s). The proposal by Senanayake to grow trees such as Kos, Mee Kohomba and other native trees, vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs in a ‘foresting pattern’ on mountain tops and link these ‘forests’ to the surrounding villages to serve the nutrition and medicinal well-being of people were debunked (http://www.ft.lk/opinion/A-journey-to-keep-the-land-forested/14-661038).
We as a nation are sitting on a gold mine; the gold mine of our Lankan indigenous medicine and food culture that those of us who know its value respect deeply and practice it with reverence in our everyday life while watching sadly as many, many of us ignore it and even scoff at it
Reality of non-support
The torturous reality of non-support facing those of us who are trying to grow our indigenous heritage foods and come up with innovative business/educational concepts woven around our indigenous culture is the non-ending virus that we battle. But we carry on with persistence because we love our country despite being turned away from our banks, refusing us financial assistance ‘because it takes a long time for plants to grow and provide financial benefits.’
It is our fervent hope that policy makers (beyond party politics) will make attempts to truly work with those who are with honest intention, committed to studying, analysing and reviving indigenous well-being models to ensure that we are prepared in knowledge and practice to defend the health of our nation. If we do this firmly rooted in thorough knowledge and confidence of our medical/food heritage, we need not wait for the West to sell us pandemic vaccines, when we do not know just how many such ‘pandemics’ would be in store in this age of virus and vaccine intrigue.
Instead our vaccine against all ills, will be in how we educate every child, every adult on techniques of immunity boosting, on how cells within the body regenerate/heal and the ability for the body to fight/resist infection, if assisted by our ancestral food habits, preventive and curative indigenous medicinal practice. Thus, we have to take our indigenous health ‘vaccine’ by consuming only our traditional foods and putting into practice the Buddhist wisdom ‘Arogya parama labha. Santutthi paramam dhanan’. Health is the ultimate profit. Happiness is the ultimate wealth.
Instead of the unhealthy fast food shops that dot our streets in every corner of our country we need urgently to usher in a culture of food entrepreneurship that is aligned with our traditional indigenous foods (http://www.ft.lk/harmony_page/Health-is-the-ultimate-profit-An-effort-at-serving-health-and-wellbeing/10523-687052).
We have to recognise that our indigenous food is replete with almost magical medicinal nutrient benefits which are a luxury for many Western nations. This is a good opportunity for all sectors, from allopathic medical system to the banking sector, to the local business sector and the education system, to function in unity and in genuine consideration for the common Lankan cause in the sphere of promoting well-being/immunity. The financial wealth, the lives and the self-sufficiency of our nation, depends on it.
Herbal Food and Medicines in Sri Lanka by Dr. Seela Fernando
Mahasupavamsaya; The Great Chronicle of Sri Lankan Culinary Art of Sri Lanka by Deshabandu T. Publis Silva
Sinhala Nadi Waidya Vidyawa by Sarath P. Ambathalawa
Swabahadaham Govithena by Thilak Kandegama
Hela Weda Isiwaru by Wimalasiri Agalakada