Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word meaning the “knowledge for prolonging life”, is a five-thousand-year-old holistic medical system that is widely practised in India. Ayurvedic doctors and clinics in large towns deal with foreigners as well as their usual patients, and some pharmacies specialize in Ayurvedic preparations, including toiletries such as soaps, shampoos and toothpastes.

Ayurveda assumes the fundamental sameness of self and nature. Unlike the allopathic medicines of the West, which depend on finding out what’s ailing you and then killing it, Ayurveda looks at the whole patient: disease is regarded as a symptom of imbalance, so it’s the imbalance that’s treated, not the disease. Ayurvedic theory holds that the body is controlled by three forces, which reflect the forces within the self: pitta, the force of the sun, is hot, and rules the digestive processes and metabolism; kapha, likened to the moon, the creator of tides and rhythms, has a cooling effect and governs the body’s organs; and vata, wind, relates to movement and the nervous system. The healthy body is one that has the three forces in balance. To diagnose an imbalance, the Ayurvedic vaid (doctor) responds not only to the physical complaint but also to family background, daily habits and emotional traits.

Imbalances are typically treated with herbal remedies designed to alter whichever of the three forces is out of whack. Made according to traditional formulae, using indigenous plants, Ayurvedic medicines are cheaper than branded or imported drugs. In addition, the doctor may prescribe various forms of yogic cleansing to rid the body of waste substances. To the uninitiated, these techniques will sound rather off-putting – for instance, swallowing a long strip of cloth, a short section at a time, and then pulling it back up again to remove mucus from the stomach. Ayurvedic massage with herbal oils is especially popular in Kerala where courses of treatments are available to combat a wide array of ailments.

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