An old family friend of mine, R Anbalagan, was reminiscing his childhood in his village at Annamangalam near the historic fort of Gingee in Tamil Nadu. The area is rocky with small hillocks and a unique biodiversity. His grandfather, Arumugham Koneri, was called Swamiji as he would to interact with the itinerant siddha vaidyas who would come to Gingee looking for medicinal herbs and plants. His grandfather’s pastime was to perambulate the hills and dales identifying the medicinal plants that the vaidyas would come looking for.
The vaidyas would be accommodated in the veranda outside the house, be given food by his grandmother, Ramayee Ammal, and taken around by his grandfather during the day to collect herbs and plants. As a young boy, it was Anbalagan who would call the siddha vaidyas inside for dinner to be served by his grandmother. The members of the household would apparently have their food only after the visitors had finished their dinner. Such was the hospitality some 70 to 80 years ago.
The Siddhas would collect the herbs during the day and process them in the evenings for use in their own villages and for their patients. Anbalagan recalls that his grandfather never took any money from the vaidyas for the hospitality or for the long hours he would spend with them collecting the herbs and minerals. Anbalagan also remembers that the vaidyas looked at his skinny frame and told his grandfather that they would give him something that would help his general health and immune status. The grandfather was asked to bring a small bucketful of earthworms. Some workers were dispatched to the fields who came back with a bucketful of fresh earthworms that they had dug up from the field.
These earthworms were then washed and crushed. The juice was extracted from the earthworms and put in a small earthen crucible and closed. This vessel was subjected to heat from fire made from dried cow dung. After a long process a round medicinal ball was produced. Anbalagan’s grandfather was instructed to drop the hard medicinal ball in milk, boil it and give the milk to the young boy every day.
I am not surprised to learn about this earthworm concoction. Earthworms are called bhunaga and are quite often used in Ayurvedic medicine. In Rasa Tarangani, a book on rasa sastra, methods to prepare bhunaga satwapatana have been dealt with in detail. Similarly, Rasa Ratna Samuchayam explains in detail how balls of copper are obtained from earthworms. Bhunaga satwapatana is dealt with in the chapter on copper. Since earthworms are collected from the soil with abundant copper, pure copper is said to be present in the extract of earthworms. The therapeutic value of bhunaga sattva is the same as that for tamra bhasma.
Tamra bhasma is used in the treatment of pitta and kapha predominant diseases. It is also used in cases of cough, cold, asthma, chronic respiratory conditions, tuberculosis, anaemia, dyspepsia etc. It has a lekhana property, that is a scraping effect, and is used in the treatment of atherosclerosis. Tamra bhasma is used in cases of poisoning to induce vomiting and to treat cancers. Tamra bhasma also revitalises the liver and spleen, and has a rasayana effect.
The Siddha vaidyas made a present of shuddha tamra, as these extracts from earthworms were called, to young Anbalagan to help boost his immunity and free him from childhood ailments. Instead of the myriad tonics being prescribed these days (all of which contain preservatives), imagine how much healthier the medicinal ball made from the extract of earthworms would have been, which had assimilated the goodness of the earth in it. And so, the siddha vaidyas repaid the hospitality of their hosts by presenting a medicinal ball for the grandchild of their host to keep him healthy.
The writer is retired Additional Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu. She can be reached at sheelarani.