Of kashayams (herbal decoctions) and more

Herbal medicines have been an integral of Ayurveda for many thousands of years. Dhanvantari, the Divine physician and Lord of Ayurveda first made his appearance during Koormaavatharam (churning of the ocean), where he came bearing the Amrit or Nectar in one hand and the sankha, chakram and leeches (blood letting was an accepted medical practice in the past) in the other three hands. In other iconographic representations he is also portrayed holding medicinal herbs and the Ayurveda Upaveda in two of his four hands.Ayurveda is said to have been taught to the mortals by Dhanvantari who is considered as the 12th avataram of Sriman Narayanan in the Bhagavatham. Lord Indra, after seeing humanity so badly afflicted by pain and disease, pleaded with Lord Dhanvantari to descend into the material world and teach Ayurveda to mankind. In Dwapara yuga, King Dirghatamas of Kashi was keen to have a son and so performed severe austerities and offered them to Lord Dhanvantari. Pleased with the devotion of the King, Dhanvantari himself was born as his son. He taught Ayurveda to the sages and rishis (seers) who became his disciples. His teachings are recorded in the Agni Purana and other Puranas, as well as through the teachings of his disciples, Susruta among others. Ayurveda and the use of medicinal herbs has been recorded in our Puranas and mythology. Many of us are familiar with the instance in the Ramayanam, where Hanuman was asked to get the special herbs for reviving Lakshmanan when he fell on the battlefield. Not knowing which herbs were needed, he brought the whole mountain to Lanka. In the Mahabharata there are numerous instances of the use of herbal medicines. In fact Narada asks Yudhisthira about his well-being and asks whether the royal physicians are well versed in Ashtanga Ayurveda or the eight branches of Ayurveda. At the Srirangam Temple, there is a separate shrine for Lord Dhanvantari. Ramanujar the great Vaishnavite Acharyan would visit Lord Ranganatha every night when he was in Srirangam. One night he noticed that the Lord seemed to be suffering from a cold. Enquiries revealed that both நாவல் பழம் (jambolan or Malabar plum) and curds had been offered to the Lord as neivediyam, the offering at night. Immediately Ramanujar in consultation with Lord Dhanvantari, had a special kashayam prepared for the Lord. The திருமஞ்சனம் தீர்த்தம் (water from the holy bath of the Lord) at the Dhanvantari sannidhi at Srirangam, which is given to devotees is considered to have medicinal properties. 

Lord Dhanvantari

It is said that Goddess Mookambikai in Kollur made a kashayam of herbs to give to Bhagavadpada Adi Sankara when he was ailing during a visit to this temple. To this day the kashayam is given as Prasadam to devotees at this temple. Recently there was also an effort to rename the Ambalapuzha payasam as Gopala kashayam which it is said, was the traditional name.These practices that go back many thousands of years were carried forward by our elders in their daily life and many of us would remember the kashayams, chooranams and home remedies that our grandmothers gave to us. When we were kids we used to visit my grandmother in Srirangam during our summer vacation. Though we looked forward to many things especially, spending time with our cousins, a few things always put a damper on our high spirits. A few days after we would reach Srirangam, my grandmother would ask one of my aunts to make a paste of neem leaves and make it into pellets, which we were then expected to swallow. We would try our best to avoid it by running off to the temple or to other cousins’ homes, but these would be waiting for us upon our return. The bitterness would stay with us for hours together, but the benefits for the stomach are undisputed. My mother would religiously give to us (at least once a year), a dose of castor oil. A super effective colon cleanse, this was also given during the summer holidays when we were kids. This was always followed by jeera milagu rasam and paruppu tuvaiyal for lunch. You would literally feel as though your insides had got a good scrubbing. Sundays throughout the year were earmarked for the ritualistic oil bath with a vigorous head massage with sesame oil followed by a washing of the hair with shikakai powder. Even though these practices never found favour with us kids, it is because of them that we had a relatively illness free childhood. Today, as adults we see the merit in them. While these were preventive measures, the elders had a ton of remedies for every situation. A hint of a cold and cough and my mother would get the சித்தரத்தை (lesser galangal) out, pound it and make a decocotion of that along with tulsi leaves, ginger, pepper and turmeric. With a spoonful of honey, this was mixed with milk and given. This was of course one of more pleasant of the kashayams. The Golden Elixir that I make today is based on the chitharathai kashayam my mother would give us, with the addition of a lot more herbs, and it builds respiratory immunity.

golden elixir

 Any fever or flu brought out the நிலவேம்பு (nilavembu, king of bitters) kashayam, another bitter tasting but very effective kashayam. Today, I know of people who take this kashayam before flu season starts to prevent flu. At one time I was highly prone to migraines and my mother would make a மிளகு (milagu or black pepper) and turmeric பத்து (paste) and apply to my forehead. My forehead would be stinging for days but my migraine would disappear. A decoction of coriander seeds, dried ginger and black pepper would take care of sinus, fever and body pain. The betel is another handy herb for colds, pain relief and stomach ailments. A stomach ache and the jeera (cumin seed) kashayam with ghee would take care of it. A painful abscess or a boil would be sorted out by a hot turmeric, rice flour and sesame seed oil poultice. This traditional knowledge was passed down generations orally and they knew exactly what herbs to use and in what manner and proportion. Different herbs would be used for babies, children and adults. One time during my college days, I had a wart on my foot, that was so painful I could hardly walk. My Guru, Vidwan Shri Gopala Iyer asked my mother to tie the peel of a ripe நேந்திரம் பழம் (variety of banana) with the inside of the peel touching my skin. My mother did this for three nights before I went to bed and the fourth morning when I removed the bandage and the banana peel, the wart had literally come off with the peel. A childhood skin disorder of mine was cured by traditional treatment when Allopathy failed. At one time Nisha suffered from sudden weight loss and weakness which was finally traced to non specific liver problems. A daily dose of கீழாநெல்லி (keezhanelli or phylanthus niruri) for 48 days took care of it without any side effects. These are just some of my personal experiences with home remedies. Many of these remedies are incorporated into our food itself. Even today, when anyone at home comes down with a cold, I make திப்பிலி (long pepper) rasam, or betel leaf rasam or ஓமவல்லி (ajwain or Mexican mint) rasam or even a mixture of all these herbs. 

tippili rasam

A list of herbal home treatments for various ailments is indeed long. Today practitioners of Ayurveda and Siddha are highly sought after as more and more people, are realising the merit and are turning to traditional medicines. It is very easy to argue that these are unproven and unscientific but today, we have a Ministry of Ayush and aren’t many of us religiously having the கபசுரகுடி நீர் (kabasura kudi neer) kashayam (a concoction of about 15 medicinal herbs) to build immunity against the Corona virus?

some commonly used herbs