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The Siddha system of medicine is an ancient practice that is believed to have originated between the 3rd and 10th century BC, in Tamil Nadu. The practice is thought to be even older than Ayurveda, though some of the tenets—like using herbs to treat ailments—are common to both of them.

While Dhanvantari—the Hindu god of medicine—is credited as the founding father of Ayurveda, Agastya (also known as Agastiyar) is believed to be the founder of Siddha medicine. Siddha in Tamil means an ascetic who has achieved enlightenment. Agastya is among the 18 Siddhars or scholars who are thought to have gained mastery over medicine, yoga and meditation.

Agastya is also known as the Hippocrates of Siddha medicine—Hippocrates was the Greek physician regarded as the father of modern medicine.

In modern times, Ayurveda continues to be practised throughout the country. But the practice of the Siddha system of medicine is more prominent in the southern part of India—mostly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The practice of Siddha medicine today falls under the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH). In 2018, the Ministry of AYUSH declared 4 January—also the birthday of the revered Agastya—as Siddha Day. Since 2019, the AYUSH ministry has also been opening Siddha clinics in major hospitals, like Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi.

  1. History of Siddha
  2. Principles of Siddha
  3. Benefits of Siddha medicine
  4. Basics of Siddha
  5. Siddha medicines
  6. Treatment in Siddha medicine
  7. Side effects and controversies

History of Siddha

The legend goes that Lord Shiva himself passed down the knowledge of Siddha to Agastya. And Agastya, who is also thought to be the creator of the Tamil language, wrote books on medicine and surgery that are still being used by Siddha practitioners today.

In older times, scholars attained this knowledge by practising the methods passed down in ancient texts about Siddha medicine, yoga, fasting and meditation. Today, Siddha, like some other ancient and traditional systems of medicine, is taught in government as well as private medical colleges, particularly in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Principles of Siddha

The Siddha system of medicine sees the individual as a microcosm of the universe, which is made up of the five natural elements: earth, fire, air, water and space; and three humours: vatham (movement), pitham (digestion or metabolism) and kapham.

The food we consume is the fuel for the human body which is processed by the three humours, and when this equilibrium isn't maintained by the body, there is illness.

The basic concept of Siddha is similar to Ayurveda, although the differences begin to show when studied in detail, as the Siddha branch of medicine has its uniqueness and tradition rooted in Tamil or Dravidian philosophy and culture. 

One of the ways Siddha medicine distinguishes itself from Ayurveda is through its use of metals and minerals in the making of medicines. The materia medica of Siddha medicine is peppered with references of drugs made with the use of sulphur, mica, mercury and other metals, a practice believed to be in use since the 6th century AD.

The basic concept of Siddha remains a system that puts equal emphasis on the mind, body and spirit. It works towards restoring this equilibrium after a person has fallen ill. The practice of Siddha is guided by a series of do's and don'ts, also known as pathiam and apathiam

Some of the prominent textbooks on Siddha fall under the category of rasashastra, or alchemy—as many as 200 books are believed to be focused only on ideas of alchemy, all written in Tamil. Of Agastya's prominent textbooks that are believed to have survived are Pannir-kandam, Paccaivettusutram, Guruseynir, Carakku, and Muppuvaippu.

Other practitioners of Siddha medicine are also believed to have gained their knowledge of alchemy in China or through Chinese experts on medicine and alchemy.

According to Siddha, seven different elements of the human body—in different permutations and combinations—make up the physiological and psychological functioning of an individual:

  • Saram: Plasma that is behind the growth of a human body and its development and nourishment
  • Cheneer: Blood, that flows to different parts of the body to nourish, purify and rejuvenate them
  • Ooun: Muscles, that form the shape of the human body
  • Kollzuppu: Fatty tissue, which lubricates the joints and protects them from wear
  • Enbu: Bone, which gives the human body its structure and posture that enables its movement
  • Moolai: Nerves, which give the body its strength
  • Sukila: Semen, which is responsible for reproduction

Siddha practitioners focus on curing any dysfunction in the organs which may be causing the disease. According to Siddha medicine, the route to a healthy soul is through a healthy body.

Benefits of Siddha medicine

Siddha is an ancient practice of medicine. It may not be as popular or widely accepted as modern versions of medicine being practised the world over, or something that has been established as a universal practice of medicine, but the fundamentals of Siddha medicine also remain the same: to heal the human body.

The Siddha branch of medicine has also been known to cure diseases outside the realm of emergency cases as well. Skin problems such as psoriasis, STDs, urinary tract infections (UTIs), gastrointestinal infections as well as liver problems, postpartum conditions such as anaemia, diarrhoea as well as arthritis and allergies are also known to have been treated with the help of treatments according to Siddha medicine.

Basics of Siddha

To diagnose an illness under the Siddha system of medicine, the Siddha practitioner will analyse the patient's pulse, skin, tongue, complexion, speech, eye, stool and urine, also known as the eight types of examination, with pulse assuming the highest importance while providing a diagnosis. 

Unlike other traditional Indian forms of medicine, Siddha medicine liberally endorses the use of metals and minerals, an ode to its advancements as compared to the other ancient forms of medicine at the time. One of the reasons for their use is believed to have been because of the unavailability of certain herbs throughout the year.

The drugs are classified into three categories:

  • Thaavaram: Made of herbal products
  • Thaathu: Made of inorganic substances
  • Jangamam: Made of animal products

The use of herbs in Siddha medicine is not only of those endemic to the southern Indian region, but many herbs are also borrowed or used from the higher altitudes in the Himalayan region. Cannabis was also put to use as a powerful painkiller, while animal products were used primarily to treat mental health problems.

Siddha medicines are also broken up based on five different properties:

  • Suvai (taste)
  • Guna (character)
  • Veerya (potency)
  • Pirivu (class)
  • Mahimai (action)

The use of Siddha medicines is also two-fold, with one class of medicines being used orally (this class is further broken down into 32 categories), while the second class comprises topical or external application medicines to treat injuries or skin infections, or nasal, eye or hearing problems.

Siddha medicines

As mentioned earlier, there are several different categories of medicines developed under the Siddha branch of medicine with different combinations of metals, minerals as well as other products:

  • Uppu: This system of medicines contains 25 varieties of inorganic compounds that are soluble in water, and made up of different alkalis and salts.
  • Sulphur and mercury hold a position of prominence in Siddha medicine.
  • Another 64 varieties of mineral-based drugs that do not dissolve in water, but emit vapours when heated or put in the fire. Half of these drugs are naturally occurring while the other half are artificial.
  • Metals such as gold, silver, copper, lead and iron are also prominently used in the concoction of several medicines and are classified based on their properties as they melt upon heating and solidify when cooled.
  • Seven other drugs are also prepared with the heating process but emit vapours and do not dissolve in water.
  • Panchasutha: Mercury is used in five different forms, namely rasam (mercury), lingam (red sulphide of mercury), veram (mercury perchloride), pooram (mercury subchloride) and rasa-chinduram (red oxide of mercury).

Along with the different medications, yoga and breathing (pranayama) are essential for treatment and overall well-being for a prolonged life.

Treatment in Siddha medicine

Treatment under the Siddha branch of medicine focuses on three different categories:

  • Deva maruthuvam, or the divine method, which focuses on the use of medicines derived from metals and minerals such as mercury and sulphur.
  • Maanida maruthuvam, or the rational method, which uses medicines made of herbs.
  • Asura maruthuvam, or the surgical method, which looks at performing incisions, applying heat, the application of leeches or bloodletting.

Side effects and controversies

Siddha medicines and therapies can also produce side effects. According to a study published in the Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology in 2018, as many as 32 patients were observed after they were administered Siddha medicines containing mercury and mimicked symptoms of neuromyotonia. About two-thirds of the patients who were administered the medicine between 2012 and 2016 were admitted with mercury toxicity. (Neuromyotonia is a state of hyperexcitability of the nerves in which the muscles make spontaneous movements.)

Siddha medicine was banned as a form of rural and alternative medicine in India in 1953. The Supreme Court of India and the Indian Medical Association have been routinely dismissing Siddha as a form of "quackery" since 2014.

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