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At age 74, ayurvedic physician Alathiyoor Narayanan Nambi still sees several patients daily, carrying forward a tradition his family has pursued for hundreds of years. Even the medicines he prescribes, made out of traditional herbs, are the same that his forefathers prescribed and which he began learning as he sat once on the lap of his grandfather, Parameswaran Nambi. The Nambis hail from a family of Ashtanga Vaidyas, one of the 18 traditional Namboodiri families in Kerala who had mastered the secrets of ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine.
Thanks to them, Kerala is today home to authentic ayurveda, attracting tens of thousands of patients not only from India but all over the globe. Due to royal patronage, the early ayurveda physicians saw patients for free. When people got cured, many patients presented vegetables or fruits to the doctors to express their gratitude. 'There were no ready-made medicines then,' recalls Narayanan Nambi, seated in his clinic located in a traditional Namboodiri home in a leafy part of East Fort in Thrissur district.
'People would come to my grandfather for consultation. The diseases were very ordinary then. My grandfather charged no fees,' Nambi told IANS, his Malayalam translated into English by his daughter-in-law Devi Narayanan, also an ayurveda doctor. 'Physicians then mostly prepared some of the medicines. Or they would simply write down the names of herbs which the patient procured on his own and readied the medicine at home.' He added: 'I am proud of my lineage.'
Today, Nambi says, only seven or eight of the original 18 Ashatnga Vaidya families - those who had mastered all eight strands of ayurveda - remain. Ayurveda was born thousands of years ago, with its fundamentals to be found in the ancient Hindu scriptures, Vedas. Nambi's family has a photo of the great-grandfather's brother who was a reputed physician.
'Since then, we have photographic evidence of everyone,' says Devi Narayanan. The family also proudly possesses a book on Ayurveda written by a member around 600 years ago. Unlike his father and forefathers, Narayanan Nambi is the first among Ashtanga Vaidyas to have attended one of the colleges of Ayurveda that now have thousands on their rolls. And in the 54 years he has practised, the family estimates, he would have seen - and mostly cured - a staggering 72,000 patients so far.
He also spent several years in the US and Germany, popularizing ayurveda in both the countries. How and why has ayurveda flourished all these years while so many Indian traditions have withered away? 'This is because ayurveda was never considered a business. For a long time it was considered a service,' Nambi explained. Now, however, physicians charge fees since there is no more royal patronage. There is no choice. Also, herbs have to be bought today unlike the olden times when one could pluck them from the wild at will.
'The situation has changed. Today, ayurveda is a business to many,' he said, referring to those who do not practise its authentic and original stream and instead sell wellness ayurveda to Indians and foreigners. Nambi's three sons have embraced ayurveda. And daughter-in-law Devi Narayanan gives a broad smile when asked if her two sons - now aged four-and-a-half and two - will do so too. 'I do expect them to carry forward the tradition,' the woman doctor told IANS but not sounding very confident. 'It won't be easy though.'
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