For the past twenty years Indian Ayurvedic medicine has experienced a profound transformation originating in a complex process of industrialization and unequal but significant integration within the world of global pharmacy. The reformulation of classical combinations of medicinal plants described in centuries-old reference texts used by Ayurvedic practitioners lies at the heart of this process. Reformulation means at the same time simplifying and standardizing polyherbal combinations in order to (1) adapt them to mass and mechanized industrial processing, (2) mobilize elements of biomedical experimentation in the laboratory and the clinic to provide evidence of medical value, and (3) link Ayurvedic and biomedical categories to address the health needs of cosmopolitan consumers. Intellectual property rights play a peculiar role in the reformulation strategy since Ayurvedic formulas are viewed both as collective resources that must be protected from private appropriation to ensure further mining and as innovative products deemed protected through trademarks and patents.
This article explores this conundrum, using the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) that the Indian government began to develop in 2000 as a lens into this Indian path to biocapital. The article discusses three dimensions of the TKDL trajectory: (1) its origins in the international controversies about “bio-piracy”; (2) the structure and operations of the database and its complex relationship with Ayurvedic knowledge, since its main aim is to translate traditional formulations into a scientific and legal idiom amenable to the work of patent offices worldwide; and (3) the consequences outside of India of its establishment, in particular at the European Patent Office, where TKDL-based information is used to evaluate patent applications for polyherbal drug formulation protection, thus creating a new jurisprudence about the boundaries between the protection and the appropriation of traditional medical knowledge.