India Digitizes Age-Old Wisdom

Patients received siddha medicine, based on the teachings of a Hindu god, at a hospital in Madras in 2002.
Patients received siddha medicine, based on the teachings of a Hindu god, at a hospital in Madras in 2002. (By M. Lakshman -- Associated Press)

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By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 8, 2006

NEW DELHI -- In a drafty government institute, Nighat Anjum reads from a dog-eared textbook on traditional Indian medicine and acquaints herself with the miracle fruit known as aamla, which is said to be useful in treating heart palpitations, immune disorders, bed-wetting and memory lapses.

Tapping on a computer keyboard, the 27-year-old physician enters its properties in a database that eventually will contain more than 100,000 such traditional remedies -- the collective wisdom of the ancient healing arts known as ayurveda , unani and siddha , the latter based on the teachings of the Hindu god Shiva.

Other entries include powdered nightingale droppings (a skin lightener and laxative), nightingale flesh (an aphrodisiac), ostrich fat (for aches and pains), ostrich blood (for inflammation), charred sea crab (constipation, ulcers, cataracts and dental stains), honey (for improving vision), tumeric (for treating wounds and rashes) and coconut milk (urinary tract infections).

Employing about 150 doctors and technicians, the four-year, $2 million effort is aimed at protecting India's traditional remedies from theft by multinational drug companies in a practice known here as bio-piracy. The database will also include hundreds of yoga poses so that foreigners cannot copyright them as their own.

Though Indian officials can point to just a handful of such intellectual-property cases involving traditional medicine, they say the threat is bound to grow as foreign drug companies seek to cut soaring research-and-development costs by finding new products among natural remedies that have been used in India, China and other developing countries for millennia.

More broadly, the compilation of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library reflects a nationalistic pride in India's ancient scientific heritage as well as its citizens' continuing faith in herbal and other natural treatments that often are viewed with skepticism in the West.

Indian officials say the data-collection effort will promote the commercialization of traditional Indian remedies, help validate their scientific underpinnings and encourage collaboration between Indian and foreign pharmaceutical companies.

In doing so, they say, the project will spur the development of a uniquely Indian health-care industry that blends 21st-century technology with spirituality and the wisdom of ages in the same way that Brahmin traditions of Sanskrit and mathematics helped set the stage for India's information-technology boom.

"India's strength is civilization, and its culture and knowledge," said V.K. Gupta, the director of the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources in New Delhi, which is overseeing the project. "The moment we revisit that, the power of India is unimaginable."

In a telephone interview from Washington, Mark Grayson, a spokesman for Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, the drug-industry lobbying group, described the Indian project as "a solution in search of a problem." He said "there is no evidence of bio-piracy," noting that most modern drugs are developed from chemicals with the aid of computers, rather than from natural substances.

At the same time, he said, the Indian effort could "inhibit drug development" by discouraging companies from developing new cures from plants whose medicinal uses India now claims as protected intellectual property. The drug industry is opposing India's efforts to amend World Trade Organization rules to protect such ancient remedies.

The most popular traditional medical system in India is ayurveda, which is rooted in Hinduism -- its original Sanskrit formulations were recorded 2,000 years ago on palm leaves -- and aims to restore the "balance" between body and spirit. Despite the growing influence of Western medicine, ayurveda remains the dominant form of treatment in many parts of rural India, where access to conventional care is often limited.


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