- Old Potions, New Bottles: Recasting Indigenous Medicine in Colonial Punjab, 1850-1945
Old Potions, New Bottles shows how indigenous medical practice in north India became polarized during the late colonial period into three separate systems, each of which claimed an antique heritage and was associated with a particular language tradition and religion. Ayurveda came to be seen as a system rooted in Sanskrit and Hindi and was practiced and used by Hindus. Yunani Tibb was depicted as an Arabic system, associated with the Urdu language and Islam. Punjabi Baidak claimed itself to be a distinctively Punjabi system, rooted in Sikh culture and religion. In the process, each tried to associate itself with particular nationalisms—Indian, Pakistani, and Punjabi Sikh. Although the nationalist leaders themselves were not always enthusiastic in their response—as they generally believed in the superiority of biomedicine—these systems gained some recognition after independence in 1947, with government-regulated colleges, degrees, and systems of registration.
Like many of the "invented traditions" of modern India, the process began under colonial rule in the early nineteenth century, when the British patronized indigenous practitioners and helped identify and publish their classic texts in a scholarly way. This backing was withdrawn in the latter part of that century, as non-biomedical systems became seen increasingly as prescientific and not deserving of support by modern governments. Patronage was then taken over in many cases by religious organizations: Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh. Sivaramakrishnan traces these growing divides through a detailed reading of popular Punjabi medical journals stretching from the 1880s to the 1940s. She shows how these systems of medicine were reformed through contact with biomedicine, emphasizing, for example, the need for hygiene and sanitation, while arguing that in the past their systems had in fact placed great emphasis on such principles. In this, they claimed that their medicine was just as scientific as biomedicine, but it was rooted in an alternative indigenous form of scientific rationality. The project to create an accepted canon of indigenous medical texts proved controversial; however, by the 1940s a series of compromises brought a general acceptance of an Ayurvedic canon, which put Ayurvedic practitioners in a position to lobby stridently for state support for their system of medicine in postindependence India.
As a whole, the book is strongest in tracing the evolution of the new Ayurvedic system, while Yunani Tibb, which is today, for better or worse, associated with Muslims and Islam, is not treated as richly. As a book about the interface between medicine and politics, the relationship between indigenous medicinal systems and nationalist politics could also have been explored in greater depth. Although a little is said about Congress politicians, the Muslim League—the party of Islamic nationalism—is almost entirely missing from the discussion. The book stops abruptly at independence in 1947, and the reader is left wondering how the newly independent nation states of India and Pakistan, which divided the Punjab between them, patronized or failed to patronize the indigenous systems. This [End Page 464] would be a worthwhile topic for further study. Nonetheless, there is much in the book that is of great value in tracing the history of these emerging and competing medical traditions. Although it is not always an easy read, being written in a rather opaque style that would have benefited from some editing, it is hoped that this will not deter readers from what is an excellent case study of indigenous medicine in early twentieth-century India that is informed by a close and extensive reading of some rich and original sources.