Stephanie Bahramian: My name is Stephanie Bahramian. I am an M.S. student in geography where my main interests lie in planning and sustainability. I am also learning GIS as I like to map data, and I will likely do my masters project in GIS and planning. I am also very much concerned with international issues, probably more so than domestic. As the developing world seeks to attain the standards of living of those of the West, they risk developing in such a way that can compromise and deplete their own resources. Therefore, sustainable development is my primary area of study. My reason for coming on this trip to India was quite simply that I love India. I had also failed to get to this part of Kerala on my previous two trips to the state, and I found the itinerary very well designed.
I have noticed a shift in recent years of those living in several western countries seeking to know more about more traditional medicines such as Chinese, Ayurveda, herbal, homeopathy etc. At the same time I was suspecting a reverse move from those in the developing world embracing more heartily allopathy than their own traditional medicines.
This past summer, I had several medicine students from China and Taiwan, and they indeed confirmed that their studies were almost devoid of Chinese medicine and that their scant knowledge of it depended on their access while growing up, or if their families were regular users of acupuncture, Chinese medicinal treatments and the like.
This trip further convinced me of this shift. Every modern person or professional I met on our travels in India admitted to preferring using allopathy to seeking tradtional Ayurvedic treatments. The reason everytime, was quite simply that people did not want to wait to feel better, even though they were fully aware that Ayurvedic treatments would give them the most long-term benefits! The practitioners, too, said this was the main reason if not sole as Ayurvedic treatments do not have side effects.
I have been practicing Ayurveda for many years, but access to it in the US is poor, so I decided to deepen my knowledge of it in the two weeks we were travelling. It helped that I was actually sick due mainly to the heavy travelling to India shortly after a tiring semester. I visited several Ayurvedic doctors of varying experience, did three types of treatments and am using numerous herbal treatments from teas to hygiene products to treatments for more chronic ailments. There are definitely varying degrees of expertise among the practitioners and the types of locales to get treatments and consultations. One young woman had a
Roots and herbs at an Ayurveda shop
little cubby hole attached to just as small of a place where her family sold hundreds of Ayurvedic treatments; she was the doctor of the family. Another slightly larger pharmacy also had a cubby hole where one could get free consultations just like the last place, but this was a chain shop where the young woman there had not long graduated an Ayurvedic college and who considered this a good first job before eventually one day having her own private practice, something that would require her having built a reputation in order to operate well.
The next place I went to was to a private Ayurvedic doctor that I found through one of our contacts during our lectures. She had been practicing many years and received me in her home, gave me a cup of tea and consulted with me for about 45 minutes. She refused to take any money, which was very uncomfortable for me, but I realized that it would have been just as uncomfortable for her had I insisted in handing her some. I also had no clue as to how much to pay anyway. I was pleased that all practitioners had agreed with what was first “prescribed” and so trusted the additional treatments that were suggested (there was no prescription per se).
As for the distribution of medicines, some came from the Ayurvedic pharmacies and some from raw medicinal shops, which were basically tiny cramped warehouses of dried herbs and fruits and barks and heaven knows what else. These places were less abundant and not so easy to find. Everything cost pennies to buy so, clearly accessible to the masses, something that is contrary to here in the US. Anything non-conventional in medicine in this country is either costly and/or not covered by insurances. Free consultations are also almost unheard of. I loved the way everything was wrapped up in newspaper and natural fiber string (coir?!).
This brings me to my final point, and that is about the Ayurvedic school that I visited. Even guidebooks are now saying that one can no longer visit them. As I
The Kerala Ayurveda College
was with an Indian student, I was able to have a quick look around and ask some questions. Ayurveda has been an open sharing of knowledge forever, probably since the beginning some 5000 years ago, but in recent times, this knowledge had been used and profited from by Western countries like our own, and the recent trend in patenting components of nature is threatening the very industry. As a result, Indians are now getting suspicious of foreigners and quite rightly so if we have been thieving and claiming ownership of something that was never needed to be owned before. The school I visited was in the center of town and was government-run with an attached pharmacy for all to get their medicines. I felt a lot of hostility there and decided to go elsewhere for my meds. It was not clear if being sick made the people grouchy or if my being the only foreigner evoked the animosity, so I decided to focus on other things.
The rooftop housed many potted plants with plaques with names in Sanskrit, the language of Ayurveda, Malayalam, the language of Kerala, and, of course, the botanical name in Latin. I was not allowed to take a picture so I refrained…We stopped a young man who told us that he was in his first year and in his class of 70 students, there were only 12 men. He said this was typical, which jibed with information I had been getting from numerous sources, that this was predominantly a woman’s profession; it is one that does not generate a large income typically. It can be completed in 5 years, including a 6-month practicum. I asked another gentleman about foreigners studying at the school. He said that everyone must learn Sanskrit and to pass an entrance exam. There are two places reserved for outsiders that one must interview for but one cannot pay directly for. The foreign government must pay for the studies. I suspected there was no bursars office on campus and could safely assume that the US government would NOT pay for me to go to school there. I removed it from my bucket list. Otherwise one can attend a private Ayurvedic school. Had there been more time, I would have researched these just to complete my preliminary understanding of the field of Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is not medicine per se; it is a way of life and encompasses elements such as correct breathing, posture, movements and attitude. One does not need to wait to get sick to take Ayurvedic treatments and ideally should be taking concoctions to help balance the body before it gets sick. We in the West are just beginning to recognize this. What a pity that Indians are turning away from a piece of their very identity that others of us are discovering is a wisdom to be valued and cherised.