ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Attiring Local Tradition for the Global Market

A single practice among several others in an indigenous knowledge system often emerges as the dominant and most visible face of the traditional practices. Can the Global Ayurveda Festival and new Jeevani project attempt a course correction? 

I acknowledge the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS) Bengaluru, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) New Delhi and Manipal University for their support.

Recently, some of the governmental and non-governmental initiatives on indigenous medical practices have prompted us to rethink the centre–periphery relation of Ayurveda and other indigenous medical practices from which Ayurveda stemmed out as a classical tradition of India. Though they were part of the same practice, Ayurveda has sought to fossilise the other indigenous practices, and has asserted its claim as the prime healing practice of India.

This is not only through medicines and cosmetic products, but also by conducting the Global Ayurveda Festival (GAF) and constituting international centres for research, treatment and manufacturing products.

Role of Global Ayurveda Festival

The third GAF to be held at Calicut in January 2016 is reported to be the largest biennial get-together of the Ayurveda fraternity (Special Correspondent 2015a). An Arogya Expo will also be held as part of the GAF and 5,000 delegates from 50 countries are expected to be participating in the conclave. The GAF 2016 will conduct a fortnight-long Grand Kerala Ayurveda Fair in all 14 districts of the state, as a prelude to the festival(Special Correspondent 2015b).  There will also be road shows, exhibitions of local health traditions, public awareness programmes, medicinal camps and medicinal tree planting programmes apart from the usual seminars and workshops (Special Correspondent 2015b).  This article explores the position of local health traditions in this festival.

Some relevant questions need to be asked in the context of the GAF. Will the festival organisers exhibit the local health traditions as an integral part of Ayurveda? Will their contribution in shaping Ayurveda as a unique indigenous tradition  be acknowledged or exhibited?  Why is it that a gamut of local health traditions remained “local”, while Ayurveda that drew from them and formalised it became global? What are the characteristics that differentiate the local from the global? What all would constitute a tradition to be enough local?

Indigenous and Its Others

Would specialised practices like vishavaidyam (indigenous toxicology), marmavaidyam (vital spot body massaging and related treatment) and ottamoolivaidyam (single medicine/one time medication) find place in the global or would that be preserved for the knowledge of extinguishing dais or nattuvaidyas (indigenous practitioners)? It is only in the 20th century that nattuvaidyam (indigenous or native healing practices) and Ayurveda were separated, and the former was undermined at the cost of the latter. There is no doubt that they should be brought at par with other established indigenous healing practices like Ayurveda.

The essential condition of seeing any practice with certainties and bounded structures to fit them into the paradigm of scientific rationality was an essential function of modernity.Practices that could not be deciphered with ease were differentiated, isolated and erased based on modern conventions of rationality. If something could not be explained within the logic of certainty, it had to be kept in the realm of the illogical.  Another way of dealing with diversity was to make certain elements of a practice visible by devaluing several other features that constitute the integrated nature of it. The visibility is also determined by the value of an aspect in terms of its performance, profit, progress, rational, etc, or the tangibility of an aspect.

Thus kalari, a practice that contained kalarippayattu, a bodily exercise and therapeutic aspects like bone setting and vital spot body-massaging, is divided into kalarippayattu (bodily exercises or martial art) and massaging. The internal cohesion of this embodied practice and its many elements, including bone setting, are devalued in the separation and projection.

Recently, the Kalarippayattu Federation of India in association with Wayanadu Kayikabhyasa Kalari Sanghom initiated a “rejuvenation” of the centuries old tradition of kalarippayattu. They introduced a new dress code similar to that of boxing matches, which included head guard, chest guard, kneecap and punch gloves (Manoj 2015). The basic tenets of kalari performance emphasise on defence that blocks the attacks without hurting the other. Attacks on vital spots or other body parts would take place only during real fights in public, which did not have any relevance in today’s kalarippayattu performance. The introduction of new attire while attracting public gaze, devalue the remaining internal perspective of an embodied practice. The new attires and protection guards do not augment the essence of a bodily art in which the whole responsibility is invested with the body. Body quickly plans the defences and/or counter-attacks (Zarrilli 1998, Vijayakumar 2000). The protection guards become a hindrance in making the body flexible and freely moving . By the 20th century, the performative elements within kalari were projected as the “actual” kalarippayattu of Kerala. The secretary of Wayanadu Kayikabhyasa Kalari Sanghom claimed that kalarippayattu can be learned easily compared to many other martial arts such as karate and kung fu (Manoj 2015). If that is the case, then  why do we need more protecting equipments to learn this art? When can one think about the idea of “care of the self”[i] inherent in the practice in its embodied nature?

Once the practices are separated as centre and margin, such as kalarippayattu and vital spot body-massaging, Ayurveda and nattuvaidyam, the subsequent attempt is to normalise the amenable core practice through institutions, policies, capital and governance. The marginal practices are continuously regulated, dismissed and devalued by the central practice, as separation from them is an inevitable criterion to assert excellence and uniqueness. In some cases, what is valuable in the marginalised practices is utilised with its tremendous potential.

Wonder Drug and Kani Tribe

An example is the commercial utilisation of Arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus Travancoricus), an endangered medicinal plant in the Western Ghats, known as a wonder herb because of its rejuvenating qualities.[ii] The scientists of the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) developed a compound drug Jeevani with this herb, by utilising the traditional knowledge of the Kani tribes. The medicine is known for its immunity enhancing, anti-fatigue, liver protective and DNA-protective properties. JNTBGRI transferred the technology to produce Jeevani  to Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (AVP), Coimbatore and it is sold through the outlets of the pharmacy from 1995 onwards. The royalty from the annual turnover of sales of the medicine is shared between the JNTBGRI and Kani Welfare Trust (Nandakumar 2015). 

But the forest law permits Kanis to collect only minor forest produce, which did not consist of the endangered species Arogyapacha. When they started collecting Arogyapacha on a commercial basis, criminal cases were foisted on members of the community. Smugglers were already selling the herb in bulk.  The community as a whole did not enjoy the benefit of their knowledge transfer as it was limited to a few members of the Kani Welfare Trust. Eventually AVP withdrew from the contract in 2008 as there was scarcity of supply and they were forced to buy the herb from Tamil Nadu. Thus, a community knowledge transfer project in producing a commercial medicine ended up benefiting a few members of the community, inviting the intervention of the forest law to regulate the community members. It also brought in new competing players who were adept at selling the drug commercially. A number of players who were “positioned unequally, in their renegotiation of knowledge and power” (Prakash 1999) entered the scene and created trust and benefits amongst the tribe, but later ended up in generating tension.

All the elements in this partnership never came together as a whole.  The possession of medicinal knowledge of certain communities at one end and the power and resources to transform it into products on the other end, did not help in empowering the community.

However, recently a four-party agreement between Oushadhi, JNTBGRI, Forest Development Agency and Kerala Kani Welfare Trust has been formed to produce and sell Jeevani (Nandakumar 2015). The project has been envisaged as a global model of access and benefit sharing among multiple contributors without devaluing any of them and by assuring half of the benefit of the profits to the Kani tribe.

It remains to be seen if this can address how disparate traditional knowledge systems are often marginalised within the rubric of “local” cultures, and what it means for the centre–periphery relationship when it comes to indigenous knowledge systems.


[i] Care of the self demands an attention of self on self.  It is an ethical mode of being in the world and a necessary condition to practice freedom properly. Care of the self includes “to know one self, to improve one’s self, to surpass one’s self, to master the appetite that risk engulfing you”, says Foucault. One cannot care for self without having a knowledge of self, as well as knowledge of a number of rules of conduct or principles which function as both regulations and truths. When the principles are learned firmly they will function as watch dogs or logos to control the unethical actions. See Raul (1987).

[ii] Kanis tribes eat the fruit of Arogyapacha to remain energetic, especially when they work in the forest on an empty stomach. See Suchitra (2012).


[All URLs accessed on 11 December 2015]

Manoj, E M (2015): “When Kalaripayattu Dons New Attire,”  Hindu, Kalpetta, 3 October,

Nandakumar, T (2015): “Jeevani to Fetch Benefits for Kani Tribe,”  Hindu, 3 October,

Prakash, Gyan (1999): Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Raul, Fornet Betancourt et al (1987): “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, Vol 12, No 112, pp 112–131.

Special Correspondent (2015a): “Kozhikode to Host Global Ayurveda Fete,”  Hindu, Kozhikode, 4 October,

Special Correspondent (2015b): “Fair to be Held in all Districts,”  Hindu, Kozhikode, 4 October,

Suchitra, M (2012): “The Kani Learning,” Down to Earth, 15 October,

Vijayakumar, K (2000): Kalarippayattu Keralathinte Sakthiyum Saundaryavum (Kalarippayattu, the Strength and Beauty of Kerala), Trivandrum: Department of Cultural Publications.

Zarrilli, Phillip, B (1998): When the Body Becomes All Eyes, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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