Endangered Archives

EAP810: Conservation, documentation and preservation of the knowledge of siddha medicine

Dr Brigitte Sebastia, French Institute of Pondicherry
2015 award - Major project
£41,789 for 24 months

Archival partner: French Institute of Pondicherry

Project Overview

The project aims to digitise two collections of siddha manuscripts: the collection of Mohana Raj (president of Akila Thiruvithancore Siddha Vaidhya Sangam, ATSVS) of approximately 150 texts, and the collection of traditional siddha practitioners kept in northern and central districts of Tamil Nadu (around 130 texts identified), and in the three southern districts of Tamil Nadu (Kanniyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin), approximately 140 texts. This project will benefit from the collaboration of CTMR (Centre of Traditional medicine and Research), Chennai.

Siddha refers to the traditional medical system of Tamil Nadu, India. Although recognised by the government of India, siddha medicine has not been systemically studied, partly due to the difficulty of access to its texts, mostly in form of manuscripts, kept in libraries or held by practitioners. The manuscripts consist of palm leaves made vulnerable by attacks by insect larvae, rodents and fungus. Their digitisation is crucial to preserve the siddha knowledge from decay, and to facilitate research in the medical field and on socio-cultural subjects related to this medical system. The siddha manuscripts were inscribed with a metal stylus and commonly blackened with charcoal powder or soot mixed with lemon grass oil. The manuscripts are written in Tamil script, and sometimes in Grantha.

The manuscripts concern valuable texts attributed to cittarkaḷ, yogis supposed to have acquired powers and knowledge through asceticism, or texts signed with their names. Other texts, anonymous, cover a large range of subjects: general siddha medicine and medical specialities such as acupressure, baby and mother care, eye diseases or toxicology (snake and scorpion bites; food and medicine intoxication), and socio-cultural topics rooted in the siddha tradition such as mantra, philosophy, alchemy, spirituality, and astrology. The composition of these manuscripts is variable. Some contain only one text while others consist of several texts covering from one to several topics. Quite often undated, these manuscripts date back to the beginning of the 19th century.

Palm leaves are, by nature, extremely fragile and vulnerable to climatic variations, air pollution and attacks by insect larvae, rodents and microorganisms. The manuscripts are often neglected by traditional siddha practitioners because few of them are able to decipher them, as their traditional training relied on clinical practice, and the texts may use a metaphoric language. Moreover, at the death of the practitioner, manuscripts may have been burnt, thrown away, sold or donated, when no descendant continued the family medical practice.

However, after a long period of neglect, siddha medicine and its allied subjects are benefiting from a recent revival which is also of concern for the manuscripts. Some practitioners seek to collect manuscripts from their peers in order to improve their practice, or to discover processes for preparing iconic products of siddha alchemy. Others, in contrast, are dispossessed by family members who do not follow the profession of their forefathers, and claim their right to manuscripts as a family heritage. This situation, combining vulnerability of the material, neglect, monopolisation and dispersion, results in the decreasing availability of, and accessibility to, the texts. Siddha manuscripts have, however, been collected by libraries, mostly in Tamil Nadu. These institutions contribute to protecting them from damages and destruction, and to facilitating research. But the efficacy of lemon grass oil applied to manuscripts as a repellent is time-limited and the process of deterioration continues if the manuscripts are not regularly checked. Moreover, access to this material is a constraint for researchers in terms of timing and travel.

Digitisation thus offers adequate means for preserving manuscripts, facilitating study of texts, and encouraging present and future research on siddha knowledge. Digitisation has the advantages of preserving manuscripts from unintentional damages whilst reading, and makes reading easier, especially when the script is tiny or has not been blackened.

The manuscript collection of Mohana Raj and the traditional siddha practitioners’ manuscripts of Kanniyakumari will be of great interest to researchers who are keen to investigate the siddha medical practices and knowledge in this region. The region is renowned for the practice of varmakkalai (acupressure and martial art) and the use of plant material in its pharmacopeia which may result from its physical, climatic and environmental proximity to Kerala and thus to its ayurvedic practice, and consequently from the influence of ayurveda in siddha medical practice.

The manuscripts collected in the two other southern districts and in the north and centre of Tamil Nadu will offer a basis for research on the differences in medical practice, philosophy, materia medica and alchemy between each district. Collections of manuscripts, locally identified, would be pertinent to the investigation of the construction of the siddha medical system and knowledge in comparison with ayurveda.

Project Outcome