Exhibition Review: Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine at Wellcome Collection

Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine: Wellcome Collection's new exhibition is a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of the evolution of one of the world's oldest medical practices.

'The heart is similar to a lotus, facing downwards. On waking up, it blooms; on sleeping, it closes up' - Ayurvedic Man

Zodiac Man, with Persian annotations (19th century), diagram in the Tashrīh-i Manṣūrī style. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

Zodiac Man, with Persian annotations (19th century)

Wellcome Collection's new exhibition investigates the ancient medical practice of Ayurveda and focuses on how the practice has evolved as it travelled across cultures in South East Asia and beyond. Featuring a glorious riot of objects including Tibetan, Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts; vibrant gouache paintings, erotic manuals and animal-shaped surgical tools, the show skilfully considers the issues of cultural exchange and the ownership of medical heritage.

Image from Ayurvedic Man

An Indian person in a yogic posture style Gouache painting, 19th century

Throughout its three-thousand-year-old history, Ayurveda has absorbed new practices and ideas as it has encountered different medical systems and different cultures.  Opium, for example, was introduced to Ayurveda following contact with Islamic practices in medieval times. Plant remedies from Europe and the New World, such as cinchona bark to treat malaria, were gradually introduced.

And of course, the West has absorbed and co-opted Ayurvedic practices. A series of colourful 19th Century gouache paintings commissioned by the East India Company show how routine Ayurvedic practices for maintaining health such as ear cleaning and pulse taking were documented.

Company painting commissioned by Colonel James Skinner Gouache painting, 1825

Company painting commissioned by Colonel James Skinner Gouache painting, 1825

Ayurvedic practices were recorded and codified as evidenced by the 17th-century botanical text, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus provides a detailed account of the medicinal properties of some 742 plants from Malabar, drawing on knowledge from local Ayurvedic physicians. 

As part of considering how the West has co-opted Ayurveda, Wellcome Collection has examined its own role as guardian of Henry Wellcome's historic collection.  Letters between founder Henry Wellcome and Paira Mall, the collector who was sent to South Asia, are dotted around the exhibition.

With their tales of 45-day treks, broken cameras and Jaeger rugs, excerpts from these letters give a colourful insight into Mall's endeavours. But they also shed light on the acquisitive drive of Wellcome who infamously told Mall not to return until 'India is completely ransacked as far as we possibly can for literature and other objects of interest ­connected with ancient medicine'.  Their inclusion is a neat way of highlighting complexities around the Collection's ownership of this incredible treasure trove of medical heritage.

Ayurvedic Man is at Wellcome Collection, London and runs until  8 April 2018.

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