A Life of Healing (A Biography of Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier)

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Item Code: IDC162
Author: Gita Krishnankutty
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2001
ISBN: 9780670049158
Pages: 280
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8" X 5.8"
Weight 450 gm
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Book Description

From the Jacket

P.S. Varier founded the Arya Vaidya Sala in 1902 one of the first centres that sold ready-made Ayurvedic medicines. Fifteen years later, he established the Arya Vaidya Patasala, one of the first educational institutions that taught Ayurveda. Today, the Patasala has become an Ayurvedic College and the Arya Vaidya Sala has evolved into a national institution, with branches all over India.

A Life of Healing: A Biography of Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier reconstructs the history of this extraordinary man and the institutions he established and nurtured. It shows how an ordinary student, spurred on by curiosity and determination to explore avenues of knowledge, succeeded in improving, modernizing and popularizing Ayurveda at a time when allopathic medicines were making inroads into the Indian market. Written in a style that brings the very rooms of the Arya Vaidya Sala to life, the book is a tribute to the man who was equally skilled in writing Ayurvedic textbooks, songs in praise of God and plays for his drama troupe to perform.

Exploring the different sides of the man, the book shows how nothing was too difficult or too trivial for P.S. Varier to try: new ways of processing a medicine, different methods of instruction for students, courses of study that sought to combine various traditions, textbooks that integrated the old and the new, variations in styles of architecture, innovative ways to stage a play or novel trends in music.

Gita Krishnankutty has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Mysore. She has translated several short stories and novels from Malayalam into English. She lives in Chennai.


Ayurveda has won universal recognition. Its holistic approach and healing effects have been widely acclaimed. But this was not the case a century ago when Vaiddyaratnam P.S. Varier founded the Arya Vaidya Sala in 1902. The age-old tradition of indigenous medicine was under severe attack from several quarters. The colonial masters, in their eagerness to assert the superiority of western science, condemned native values and did all they could to delegitimize the authenticity of Indian systems of medicines. The system had internal weaknesses too: stagnant knowledge, ignorant practitioners and non-availability of quality medicines. Thus the Ayurvedic system of treatment was on the verge of extinction at the beginning of the last century.

What P.S. Varier did to retrieve the lost glory to Ayurveda is part of history now. He organized his fellow-physicians, instilled confidence in them and led them to a ‘creative introspection’ based on their own experience. Himself a ‘critical insider’, he could, with their help, rejuvenate the system by integrating it with western epistemology. He introduced systematic study of Ayurveda by his pioneering institutional efforts, disseminated the ancient wisdom through scientific publications and ensured the quality of medicines by adopting modern techniques of manufacturing. His activities were not confined to the medical field. As a good physician, scholars, poet, dramatist, musician, entrepreneur and philanthropist, his efforts embraced the entire realm of our cultural life. P.S. Varier was not only the architect of the Arya Vaidya Sala but the renaissance leader of the revitalization movement of early twentieth century with its nucleus at Kottakkal. While alive, he dedicated his life to the cause of humanity and bequeathed, by his unique will, all that he inherited to posterity.

When the Arya Vaidya Sala completes hundred years of fruitful existence, the best tribute we can offer to the founder is the preservation of his personality for posterity. Ms Gita Krishnankutty, renowned for her literary pursuits, readily agreed to our request to prepare an authentic biography of the founder. With much pain she went through the annals of time and plunged deep to decipher his diaries to unravel the magnificence of his personality. We feel immensely indebted to her.

We are obliged to Penguin Books India for making this book available to the readers on the occasion of our centenary.

The life of P.S. Varier was a role model to his contemporaries; we hope it will be a source of inspiration to generations to come.


The year 1886. Vaidyam, a health care system which includes the learning and practice of the science of healing, was still being taught in the houses of the vaidyans according to the ancient gurukula system, in which a student stayed in the guru’s house for as many years as it took him to complete what he had come to learn-from three or four to even ten, twelve years.

In the year 1886, there were many such sishyas in the illam or residence of Kuttanchery Vasudevan Mooss, a Namboodiri who belonged to one of the eight great reputed families of Ayurvedic physicians in Kerala, the ashtavaidyans, and a teacher who had trained many well-known vaidyans of the time. His illam was situated in a village called Ottupara in the interior of the erstwhile state of Cochin, near Vadakkanchery.

The illam was a modest one. It consisted of the main house-a traditional tiled structure, the nalukettu, built around a central sunken courtyard, the nadumuttam, with four wooden pillars at the corners; a gatehouse, also tiled, and a small kulappura, the building that overlooked the bathing tank belonging to the family. The tank itself has now shrunk to half its size, but the old kulappura still stands, amazingly untouched by time. The guru, Vasudevan Mooss, used to stay in a small room on the first floor and used the central hall adjacent to it as a classroom for his students. The students occupied the same building. Everyone ate in the main house, where the kitchen and women’s quarters were situated.

The guru provided all the students who stayed in his house food, oil for their bath, and vaka powder or soap, whichever they used, to wash off the oil. The disciples brought their own clothes. They attended to their guru’s personal needs from dawn to dusk not only in his own house but also on the occasions when they accompanied him on visits to the sick in other villages.

Among the students who came to take instruction from Kuttanchery Vasudevan Mooss in the year 1886 was a seventeen-year-old boy named Sankunni. With his long experience as a teacher, Mooss realized very quickly that this boy, serious by disposition, quick and eager to learn and the youngest of the group then residing at the illam, would be an excellent scholar and an exemplary disciple.

The daily routine at the illam was demanding and rigorous. The disciples had to rise at three. Their duties, which began at that hour of the day, included holding the lamp to light the guru’s path when he went to perform his morning ablutions; heating water for him; laying out whatever he might want for his bath; gathering, preparing and arranging everything he needed for his lengthy puja rituals.

The older Namboodiris ate nothing until they had finished performing their long rituals of worship every morning. The first meal of the day at the illam was therefore often served only after noon. The male Namboodiris ate first, the Namboodiri women and children ate when the men had finished. Only then were people who belonged to other castes served. This meant that young Sankunni, who was not a Namboodiri, had his first meal only at two or three in the afternoon. He had come from a home where he had been used to eating a full meal at eight in the morning and initially, he must have found this change in routine hard to accept.

The instruction imparted to the young disciples by Vasudevan Mooss and Aryan Mooss, the other teacher in the household, was based on the study of Vagbhata’s Ashtangahridayam, a text that all physicians in Kerala had to learn. This text describes the eight branches of treatment and is written in Sanskrit in the form of shlokas. The guru explained these verses to the disciples.

But the unique quality of the gurukula system was not simply the study of this text, nor the lucidity with which it was explained it was the accumulation of everything a disciple imbibed by being with the guru, by accompanying him on his visits to sick patients, by closely observing, understanding and, above all, experiencing the diagnostic and therapeutic talents his guru exercised when he saw patients. Anubhavasiddhi, or the knowledge and powers earned through experience was the acme of this school of learning.

One or two disciples always accompanied the guru on his visits to other villages. Besides carrying what they needed for themselves for the journey, the boys also carried on their heads the metal utensils the guru used for his puja, the clothes and oil he would need on the journey, his betel-leaf box and the granthams or palm-leaf manuscripts that he might have to consult. If the guru traveled in a bullock cart, it was generally driven by someone belonging to an inferior caste; if he traveled by palanquin, the same was true of the bearer. Since the rules of ritual purity were unrelenting in those days, the articles the disciples carried on their heads would have been polluted if they had been placed in the cart or palanquin. Physicians generally set out on such visits after their noon meal and, balancing heavy loads on their heads, the young boys ran behind the transport that carried their guru over rough cart tracks scorched by the sunlight, their bare feet burning.

One unforgettable day, an Ayurvedic physician who was a distant relative of Vasudevan Mooss came to visit him, accompanied by disciples overloaded with heavy sacks. After lunch, the visitor told Mooss that he wished to go on to another illam and that he would need one of his disciples to help carry his things. Vasudevan Mooss looked around to see which of them was in sight. Sensing what lay ahead, the older boys had discreetly disappeared and the only person he could see was his youngest and most loved disciple, Sankunni. Unwilling as he was to let the boy shoulder so heavy a burden, he was forced to ask him to go with the visitor. Sankunni came forward unhesitatingly, asking his guru for only one favour-permission to go home after he had reached the illam that was their destination, since his family lived nearby. The visitor’s disciples, quick to snatch their chance, placed the heaviest of the three sacks, the one that contained innumerable bell-metal vessels, on the boy’s head.

It was a hot summer’s day and the sun blazed mercilessly overhead. Although they stopped now and then to rest their burdens on the stone platforms by the wayside, the journey, which took all of ten hours, seemed interminable. They arrived at the illam they were bound for only by nightfall. Exhausted, Sankunni slept there that night. When he reached his house the next day, he had a raging fever. Ordinary remedies did nothing to relieve it. The fever rose so high that he lost consciousness for a while.

AT some point during the painful, delirium-racked days that followed, at a crucial moment during the illness that took such a heavy toll of him that it obliged him to stay home for a few months, interrupting his studies, a thought came to the boy, half-dream, half-vision: would it be possible some day for students like him, avid for learning, to pursue their studies without having to undergo such severe hardships and dedicated themselves single-mindedly to mastering Ayurveda?

It took all of three decades for that vision to take shape: in 1917, the young boy, by then known as P.S. Varier, Panniyinpally Sankunni Varier, established the Arya Vaidya Patasala, the first educational institution which taught Ayurveda in the town of Kozhikode in Malabar. The institution was to move a few years later to his home town, Kottakkal, where it stands today, a tribute to the perseverance and determination of its remarkable founder.

Kottakkal is a bustling little township today. Gleaming jewellery stores, colourful textile shops, stationery shops, stationery shops stationery shops festooned with cheap plastic toys, furniture showrooms displaying wood finished in veneers ranging from pale white to rich maroon, jostle each other on the main road which is part of the National Highway Seventeen.

A narrow street veers at a sharp right angle to this main road and dips down a steep slope. Halfway along it is the small building in which P. S. Varier started the Arya Vaidya Sala, the first centre that sold ready-made Ayurvedic medicines in Kerala, a hundred years ago. The modest structure is dwarfed by the vast complex of office and factory buildings that surround it now. Across the street from it are the Ayurvedic Hospital and Research Centre that provides accommodation for in-patients who come to Kottakkal for long-term treatment. The Patasala established in 1917 has now become an Ayurveda College affiliated to Calicut University.

Vehicles belonging to the Arya Vaidya Sala ply up and down ceaselessly, carrying goods and passengers from the factory and Nursing Home in the heart of Kottakkal to the Ayurveda College, the Herb Garden, the Charitable Hospital, and to all the far-flung branches of the Arya Vaidya Sala in India

‘Do you remember your uncle, Sreedevi Cheriyamma?”

For eighty-seven-year-old Sreedevi Varasyar, P.S. Varier’s niece and the oldest living member of the Panniyinpally family, known to everyone as Sreedevi Cheriyamma, the past and the present are inextricably woven together. The smile that starts in her bright eyes radiates to every contour of her face, to even the crisp curls of hair that frame it, as she answers” ‘Of course. Do you know, all the children loved to play a game with him. They would run upstairs, stand on the veranda outside the big window opening into his rooms and call out to him. He would laugh loudly in answer and the next thing you saw was all of them diving, heads almost colliding, to catch the sudden shower of pastel-coloured peppermints that rained through the window, pale pink and green and creamy yellow, with letters of the English alphabet on them…’

Sreedevi Cheriyamma reached out for a book on the table beside her. ‘Shall I sing you the song he wrote in praise of Lord Vishvambhara?’

Her voice rises, true and clear:


Poornathrayiyil paripoornathma
Shyanandapure seshashayan nee
Vimalavaraha viharakshetre

(You are the Complete One in Tripunithura, in the temple of Poorna Threyeeshan; You are Seshasayee, He Who Lies on the Serpent, in the temple at Thiruvananthapuram; in the temple of Panniyinpally [the house of the boar, Varaha], you are Vishvambharan.).




  Acknowledgements vii
  Foreword ix
  Prologue xi
1 The Beginnings 1
2 Birth and Childhood 13
3 The Life of a Student 21
4 The Restless Years 29
5 The Long Period of Waiting 39
6 The Arya Vaidya Sala 47
7 The Dhanvanthari Magazine 56
8 The Parama Shiva Vilasam Nataka Company 74
9 Widening Horizons 90
10 The Arya Vaidya Samajam 101
11 The Patsasala 111
12 The Revolt of 1921 128
13 The Arya Vaidya Sala Silver Jubilee 142
14 Kailasamandiram Takes Shape 151
15 The Sixtieth Birthday 162
16 The Temple for Vishvambharan 176
17 A Renaissance Personality 195
18 The P.S.V. Natya Sangham 203
19 The Will 216
20 Turning Seventy 225
21 At Rest 237
22 Kottakkal Today 245
  Index 257


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