Ayurveda, the 5000 year old holistic system of healing, has eight specialized branches that correspond roughly to eight branches of western medicine. Ayurvedic physicians or ‘vaidyas’ who are equally proficient in all the eight branches are known as ‘ashtavaidyas’, for ‘ashta’ means ‘eight’. Ayurveda or the science of life is rooted in Nature. Kerala in South India has traditionally been the source of a rich variety of medicinal plants and herbs, thanks to its abundant sunshine, rich soil and generous rainfall. As a result, Kerala has a long history of folk medicine that was practiced by healers from all levels of society. Between the 6th and 7th century, it is believed that Vagbhata, an Ayurvedic physician from Sind came to Kerala in quest of rare and valuable medicinal plants. His arrival triggered a new dynamic medical culture, and the traditional healers of Kerala adopted his work ‘Ashtangahrdayam as the foundation of their system of medicine. They continued to draw on regional folk and medical practices too, and with their deep knowledge of the eight branches of Ayurveda as described in the Ashtangahrdayam, these healers became the Ashtavaidyans of Kerala.
Origins and Legends
The Ashtavaidya culture flourished between the 13th and 17th Centuries with generous royal patronage that nurtured scholarship and scientific research in medicine as well as in other fields. There were originally 18 Ashtavaidya families in Kerala, but the number has come down today. Each family developed its own specialized treatment procedures, and passed it down from generation to generation. However, there are other versions explaining the origins of the Ashtavaidya families of Kerala. . One belief is that Lord Parasuraman who brought Brahmins or Namboothiris to Kerala, assigned eight of these families as physicians, and these families came to be known as Ashtavaidyas, meaning Eight Physicians. There is another legend which says that eight prominent disciples of Vaagbhata and their families who followed the Ashtangahridayam method of treatment were the original Ashtavaidyas. It is even thought that Vaagbhata composed Ashtaangahridayam sitting on a rock near Thiruvizha temple.
Becoming an Ashtavaidya was a long drawn out, demanding and rigorous process. An Ashtavaidya would accept disciples from outside his family and their education involved a long period of intense study and apprenticeship under an accomplished master. Knowledge of Sanskrit was compulsory, and the study of grammar, poetry and drama were all considered essential to analyze the intricate meanings of the ancient medical texts. The disciples also had to study and memorize all the 7120 verses of the Astangahrdayam . They would observe very carefully the master practicing his art and would gradually get to understand the rationale behind the different forms of treatment. It is said that a disciple would be required to spend five years studying the texts, five years learning about medicinal plants in the forest, and five years of apprenticeship at the home of his Guru. The Ashtavaidyas of Kerala represent the cream of scholar physicians, who live and breathe Ayurveda. They excel in individualized treatments often using novel methods and even ordinary substances to heal body , mind and soul. They are truly the pride of Ayurveda, and the heirs of a tradition that has evolved over centuries without compromising its fundamental principles.