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How the west co-opted Ayurvedic medicine


Ayurvedic medicine originated more than 3,000 years ago in South Asia. “Ayurveda” means “knowledge of long life”, from the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science or knowledge). Over time, the idea of Ayurvedic practice has shifted, been altered and exoticised, as it has been translated across cultures and geographies within Southeast Asia and beyond. Nowadays a Californian lifestyle blogger is almost as likely to use Ayurvedic concepts about internal balance as a health practitioner from Kerala who has inherited generations of knowledge. 


“Every time I talked to different people from different communities, religions and parts of the world, they would have a different viewpoint on who owns Ayurveda and where the knowledge came from,” says Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, curator of Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine at the Wellcome Collection in London. 


In 1911, Henry Wellcome, the medical entrepreneur who founded the Wellcome Collection, sent Paira Mall, a doctor and linguist, to scour India for diagrams and manuscripts that would reveal “the art and science of healing through the ages”. Wellcome 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”. 


The exhibition includes Mall’s letters, which reveal tensions around the sometimes mercenary intent behind transcultural collections. “He ­discusses prices, sees herbal preparations that seem very useful and asks how can we bring this to London and turn them into tablet form,” notes Rodríguez Muñoz. She wanted the exhibition to tackle the issues around cultural appropriation in a transparent way, given Wellcome’s own role. “You start from that problematic context where you are putting on an exhibition here, in a western institution, of Indian science.”


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