Agasthyakoodam, a legendary herbal mountain near Neyyar Dam, 20 kms south of Thiruvananthapuram, has a hoary history as the home of Siddha medicine. Agasthyakoodam is considered to be the abode of sage Agasthya, the foremost among the Siddhars who developed the Siddha medical system. Agasthyakoodam and its surrounding Western Ghats, 1500m above sea level, constitute the hot bed of bio-diversity. Eight percent of the plant species found here is endemic to this region.
According to Buddhist tradition, Sage Agasthya was a Buddhist monk whose contributions developed Siddha medicine. The 2,500- year old Tamil Sangam literature talks about Agasthyakoodam as a mountain Potalaka which is considered to be the abode of Avolikideswara, a Buddhist deity. Many Buddhist scholars from all over the world used to visit this place in the days of yore.
Potala in Tibet, which is the seat of the Dalai Lama, is believed to be the replica of Potalaka.The herbal-healing culture, which spread around this mystical herbal mountain, gave birth to a very potent branch of Ayurveda which is found in southern Kerala. Kalari system contributed to the growth of Ayurveda in northern Kerala.
Kerala, situated in the tropical region, has an unparalleled herbal wealth compared to the other parts of India. Though the very same herbs are found in the Himalayas, the herbs of Kerala have a special potency due to its unique geographical position and tropical climate. These aspects made it possible for the healers of Kerala to perfect the preparation of Ayurvedic medicine. Even for classic Ayurvedic preparations, Kerala Ayurveda has evolved its own formulations that are superior in effect.
Kerala has an unbroken tradition of Sanskrit (the language of ancient wisdom) learning. This knowledge of Sanskrit enables the healers of Kerala to interpret the Ayurvedic system accurately and get a proper insight. The Namboothiri Brahmins even today follow the Vedic tradition and knowledge systems.
They are the only people who can perform the fire sacrifices or yajnas as they were done during the Vedic times and pronounce the Vedic chants the original way. They still practice Ayurveda and contribute to the efficacy of the system. Sanskrit learning has spread to all layers of Kerala society. Ayurveda is a living tradition belonging to people of all socio-cultural groups.
The Ashtavaidyan tradition of Kerala
Legend has it that when Parasuram created Kerala, the southernmost tip of India, it consisted of 18 city-states with 18 kings to rule over them. Each city-state also had a family that practiced Ayurveda and other traditional healing systems in order to look after king and his subjects. These medical practitioners were known as Ashtavaidyans, literally translated to doctors trained in the 8 (ashta means eight) branches of Ayurvedic medicine - kaayam (general medicine, baalam (pediatrics), griham (psychiatry), urdhavangam (including all the organs above the neck - eyes, ears, nose, teeth, throat, etc.), shalyam (surgery), dhamshtra (therapy for poisoning), jara (anti-ageing treatment) and sexual diseases.
Thus, 18 families of Ashtavaidyans existed in the days of yore. They were the torchbearers of the 5000-year-old Ayurvedic healing system in Kerala. However, since they were engaged in surgery and were likely to touch blood, they were not allowed to intermingle with other Brahmin families. This led to a lot of inbreeding within these 18 families and consequently, a decline in their fertility. Thus the Ashtavaidyans came to be reduced to 8 families. Alathur, Chirattamannu, Ilayidathu Thaikkadu, Pazhanellipurathu Thaikkadu, Pulamanthol and Vayaskara are the six families of Ashtavaidyans still practicing today.