Ashtavaidya Tradition of Kerala Ayurveda
Ayurveda is a system of holistic treatment and is thousands of years old. Kerala has been a rich source of medicinal plants and there was already a system of folk medicine that was locally practiced. It is believed that Vagbhata, composed Ashtangahridayam sitting on a rock near the Thiruvizha temple in Kerala. This class of physicians who could intellectually combine these two branches came to be known as Ashtavaidyas of Kerala. They are generally referred to as Mooss and Nambis.
According to the legend, it was Lord Parasurama who brought eighteen (18) Namboodiri (Kerala Brahmins) families to Kerala and appointed them as physicians for the 18 regions of Kerala. They were called Ashtavaidyas since they were equally proficient in the eight (Ashta) branches of Ayurveda.
There were 18 original Ashtavaidya families. Of 15 Ashtavaidyas practicing now, I belong to the Elayidathu Thaikkat family of Ashtavaidyas which is the most prominent one today.
System of training
The traditional system of learning any branch of knowledge in India is Gurukula. The disciple stays with the Guru (Master) and also takes care of even his personal care. Since Ashtangahridayam is the backbone of the Ayurvedic treatment, Ashtavaidyas begin their study by learning by-heart all the 7120 verses of the treatise.
This is followed by the period of apprenticeship. under a guru. By close observation of his Guru’s methods of examining the patient, the student could understand the rationale behind the prescription. The students were also taught to identify plants for making personalized medicinal preparations.
Method of treatment
A notable feature of Ayurvedic treatment by Ashtavaidyas is the care taken to examine even minute details of the personal history of a patient before diagnosing the disease and prescribing a treatment. Ashtavaidyas diagnose diseases by interacting with patients and not by noting the pulse. But Ashtavaidyas of Pulamanthole Mooss family have recently started checking pulse in some cases.
As for the medicines, they are prepared by the Ashtavaidyas themselves for which they have their own units. Some of the Ashtavaidyas had discovered their own formulations for specific disorders.
Many Ashtavaidyas have written commentaries on Ashtangahridayam and other Ayurvedic books. A few of them have been published also. Sahsrayogam, Yogamrutham, Chikitsamanjari, Alathiyur Manipravalam are a few among them. Sahasrayogam contains a thousand formulations. Also many of the Vaidyas have been prolific writers.
My Guru Vayaskara Moos was one such writer. Surprisingly, he is the only one who has written in English, apart from Sanskrit and Malayalam. ‘Single Drug Remedies’ and ‘Ayurveda Flora Medica’ are two of his significant works. They are important reference books in Ayurveda materia medica today. Another notable Vaidya is Vaidyamadham Narayanan Namboodiri who has to his credit many articles on Ayurveda and treatment practices in periodicals.