Saturday Features

The Ayurvedic Man

  • A rare Ayurvedic painting from Kathmandu has become a top attraction at a British Museum
- Sanyukta Shrestha

Feb 10, 2018-

Tracking down Nepali artefacts peppered around museums in Europe and beyond can be a treasure hunt of sorts. This is particularly true for London, a city that I have called home for the past fourteen years, where the museums, archives and art dealerships house a staggering array of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and artefacts of immense historic and artistic value. The general rule of thumb while seeking out Nepali connection in London is that the more you look for, the more you eventually end up finding.  

Medical knowledge from the bygone era is of special interest to the Wellcome Collection, a London-based foundation that explores the relationship between science, medicine, life and art. Established under the will of pharmacist and collector Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936, the collection houses an extensive library of 750,000 books and rare manuscripts from around the world. A small fraction of this collection is dedicated to Nepal. One of the top attractions of Wellcome Collection, however, is a Nepali painting, dubbed The Ayurvedic Man, which is cited as the world’s earliest known painting on Ayurvedic anatomy.

The finer details behind how this 62.5 x 40.5 cm Nepali masterpiece ended up in Britain’s shores is rather obscure, but what is known is that the Wellcome Collection paid a handsome sum to acquire it. According to its curator, Dr William Schupbach, a London-based art dealer, David Salmon, from David Tremayne Ltd, approached the Wellcome Collection on September 15, 1986. Then, a follow-up meeting was held on October 13, where a price of £1,750 was agreed upon. Salmon’s offer was quite high for Wellcome Collection’s acquisition budget but there was something unique about this painting which prompted the institute to close the deal.

But what makes The Ayurvedic Man so special?

To start with, illustrations of scientific study are quite rare in Sanskrit manuscripts. Besides a very few of them, like the 11th century Rasendramangala which merely has diagrams of alchemical apparatus, others have not been discovered till date. In light of which, an illustration of the entire human anatomy The Ayurvedic Man has should be considered a great leap forward. “No single manuscript I have seen contains even so much as an anatomical sketch, a line drawing for surgical guidance, or any other visual representation of the medical body,” says Sanskritist and medical historian Dominik Wujastik, who has studied the painting extensively.

Secondly, most other human body representations in South Asian traditional paintings are either guided by the early Vedic philosophy of Vishwaroop (The Universal Form), or that of the Tantric chakras or kundalini. In contrast, this particular piece illustrates a purely Ayurvedic concept of human anatomy through pen and watercolour. “It did not fall into any style of Hindu art that would be recognisable to a non-expert. The nearest resemblance was to Nepali diagrams of chakras, but those do not show discrete organs,” says curator Dr Schupbach about the painting’s uniqueness.

As Francis Zimmermann remarked in 1984, Ayurved considers the human anatomy in terms of constantly moving humours or vital fluids held by the body as a framework. Another rarity of this painting is its depiction of the male body components through the three physiological forces of baat (wind), pitta (bile) and kuff (phlegm), as defined by Ayurved, alongside prescribing their colours. Selection of these colours demands for deeper understanding of the inherent philosophy, which the Vajracharya priests of Kathmandu excelled in. In contrast to biomedicine, Ayurvedic philosophy does not rely on dissection. This is further verified by the fact that the subject of the painting is depicted with wide-open eyes, signifying that he was alive and well.

Besides the central figure of a male body, the painting also includes Sanskrit verses around it. By far, the most remarkable contribution to our understanding of this painting is due to professor Dominik, who, in 2008, identified the scriptures around this painting as that from Bhav Prakash, thereby dating the painting to 18th century. Bhav Prakash is a 16th century seminal work on Ayurved by a renowned South Indian physician Bhav Mishra.

A closer look, however, shows that the peripheral Sanskrit verses are full of errors, and the anatomical labels are quite obscure in many places, especially along the middle where it was folded while being moved to London. Written entirely in Devnagari script, Dominik has identified most of the anatomical text labels of The Ayurvedic Man. Many Khas Nepali words have been identified like gala (cheek), gija (gums) and parela (eyelash), but a few other obvious ones have been labelled as ‘ineligible’, for instance, tigra (thigh). A number of labels have also been misinterpreted, as in the case of painalo for paitalo (sole), and parauda for pirauda. Pirauda is possibly a spoonerism or metathesis for pidaura, which is linguistically close to saying pidaula (calf).

More misreadings continue with instances like kurkuwa for kurkucha (heel), which is because ‘cha’ written in Nepal/Prachalit script resembles ‘wa’ in Devnagari. Nepalbhasha was the administrative language of Nepal until the late 18th century and was written in Nepal/Prachalit script. This is hence another evidence that not only the work is most probably by a traditional artist from Kathmandu valley, Pun or Chitrakar as they are called, it is from an era of transition between the two popular scripts, Nepal/Prachalit and Devnagari. Known for painting illuminated palm leaf manuscripts or thyasafus, some of these Chitrakars must have tried to break the monotony of Sanskrit medical manuscripts that rarely included illustrations.

But more significantly, The Ayurvedic Man is a testament to the Chitrakars’ ability to incorporate genuinely bespoke content into their ancient art format, thereby letting the tradition of Paubha explore newer avenues. It also proves that Kathmandu Valley’s culture historically thrived in interdisciplinary creative projects, in which priests and artists often worked together. Particularly in the case of The Ayurvedic Man, how they reviewed the popular medical literature of Bhav Prakash from outside the valley is praiseworthy.

The tradition of thyasafu has it that Chitrakars make several copies, and a periodic renewal of these manuscripts ensure that the knowledge of tantras and sutras are preserved and passed on. A relatively newer copy of the ‘Ayurvedic Man’ came to my attention in September 2017 from a private collection in Nepal. While it is an exact copy of the Wellcome Library’s version in terms of the content, some of its parts are not rendered with as much diligence. The strokes are less confident and the colour tones are far from that of natural pigments common to traditional paubhas from before the 19th century. But the rest of the painting retains an uncanny resemblance.

Interestingly, the accompanying script in The Ayurvedic Man painting is from Prakaran (chapter) three of Bhav Prakash, which deals with embryology. If the text has anything to do with the central diagram, study of child birth is largely incomplete without a fuller understanding of the female body. Two things are hence possible. First that the artist lacked the understanding of the text that he was including. Or, maybe slightly wishfully, there is another similar painting of an ‘Ayurvedic Woman’ somewhere. A yin to the yang.

That, however, is not very likely because despite erotic forms being common in tantric paintings and sculpting, anatomical painting of the female figure from this time period is yet to be discovered.

Grave lack of collective documentation and comparative study of traditional Nepali art scattered around the world has limited our theoretical understanding and public discourse in this faculty. As culture expert Satya Mohan Joshi once said: We can talk about Nepali culture and heritage endlessly but the real challenge is in appreciating the nuances of our traditional art. The relevance of his statement resonates with the widening gap between generations, the works of whose ancestors, today, constitute proud collections of museums around the world.

Published: 10-02-2018 08:24

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