Modi was half-right: World’s first plastic surgeon may well have been Indian (but he wasn’t Shiva)

Quartz india
Quartz india

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi caused a few eyebrows to be raised when he suggested that ancient India must have been skilled in plastic surgery. How else would Shiva have grafted an elephant head on Ganesha after having beheaded the boy, Modi asked, reaching for an example from mythology.

V0045682 Ayurvedic Medicine
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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http://wellcomeimages.org
Ayurvedic medicine. Indian Watercolour: 'Man of
the Medical caste, masseuse.
Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
(Wellcome Library, London)

That wasn’t all. Ancient India was also aware of genetic science, Modi said at the inauguration of the Nita Ambani-run Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai. To back up this assertion, he noted that Karna of the Mahabharata was born outside his mother’s womb.

By citing mythology as factual evidence of scientific progress, Modi seemed to be setting himself for ridicule. Newspapers in India and abroad did not miss the opportunity to take sarcastic digs at the prime minister’s statements, and, as was to be expected, social media users joined in too.

Modi could have spared himself the embarrassment if he’d put aside the epics and reached for some real Sanskrit treatises instead. Had he looked at the Sushruta Samhita,for instance, he would have found a description of one the world’s first plastic surgeries by Sushruta. In his treatise, Sushruta writes about grafting a piece of skin from the cheek to the nose around 600 BCE.

He also lays out instructions for how to reconstruct a nose with a flap of living skin carved from the cheek, treating it with liquorice and sandalwood. Europeans did not perfect rhinoplasty until the 19th century.

Sushruta was not the first physician from the subcontinent to detail his treatments. Shalihotra, perhaps the world’s first recorded veterinarian, wrote a long treatise on the care of horses some thousand years before that. He not only recommended what medicines to give horses when they were ill, but also detailed surgical procedures such as eye operations and bloodletting.

L0014697 Bloodletting on horse, Hindi, 18th C
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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Bloodletting on a horse
Illustration and Text
18th Century Asvacikitsa
Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Bloodletting on a horse. Illustration and text, 18th century. From Asvacikitsa. (Wellcome Library, London.)
L0014698 Eye operation on horse, Hindi, 18th C
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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Eye operation on a horse
Illustration and Text
18th Century Salihotra (Hindi): Asvacikitsa of Purusottama [treatise on horses]
Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Eye operation on a horse. Illustration and text, 18th century. From Salihotra (Hindi): Asvacikitsa of Purusottama [treatise on horses]. (Wellcome Library, London.)

As is evident, India has a long and thriving history of medical treatment. Traditional medical systems such as unani and ayurveda, which call for holistic healing, are vibrant in India even today. While they are looked upon with some distrust by western medical practitioners, these practices even have a department under the union health ministry to themselves, AYUSH, which deals with ayurveda,yoga, unani, siddha and naturopathy.

Visual evidence of India’s long medical history can be found in the collection of The Wellcome Trust, a health-oriented international charity based in London, has been collecting images of medical practices from across the world since the 1890s.

The library has over 2,50,000 paintings, prints and drawings, some of which document the subcontinent’s transition from Indian to western medicine, as ear cleaners and surgical veterinarians give way to British-run plague hospitals and informative posters about leprosy. Here is a selection.

L0058933 Earthenware jar containing medical preparations, India, 1801
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
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Labelled in Urdu and now empty, the blue earthenware jar would have contained medical treatments made by Hakims (physicians) to treat patients. Hakims are trained in Unani Tibb, an Islamic medical tradition. Health and personality are influenced by a person’s unique combination of humours, or elements, and their relationship with the environment. Illness occurs when the humours become unbalanced. Treatment is tailored to suit the individual’s specific mix of humours. The jar may have contained ma’jun. This is a herbal medicine mixed with honey to make the treatment taste sweet and maintain its freshness. Honey is also believed to have healing properties.

maker: Unknown maker

Place made: India
made: 1801-1920 Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Earthenware jar with Urdu inscription containing unani medical preparations, 1801. (Wellcome Library, London)
L0021022 Physician taking pulse
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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Physician taking pulse; by a Delhi
painter.
Watercolour
1825 Published: [ca. 1825]

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Physician taking pulse. By a Delhi painter. Watercolour, 1825. (Wellcome Library, London)
V0029875 A child with plague in a hospital bed, a nurse and two men b
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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A child with plague in a hospital bed, a nurse and two men by his side, during the plague epidemic in Bombay. Photograph attributed to Captain C. Moss, 1897.
1897 By: C MossPublished: 1897?]

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
A child with plague in a hospital bed, a nurse and two men by his side, during the plague epidemic in Mumbai. Photograph attributed to Captain C Moss, 1897. (Wellcome Library, London)
L0034493 Interior of a temporary hospital for plague victims, Bombay
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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Interior of a temporary hospital for plague victims. Bombay plague epidemic, 1896-1897:
Photograph
c. 1890's Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Interior of a temporary hospital for plague victims. Mumbai plague epidemic, 1896-1897. (Wellcome Library, London)

L0077162 Leprosy: patients showing symptoms.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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Leprosy: patients showing symptoms.
Colour Lithograph
195u By: Hind Kusht Nivaran Sangh.Published: 195-?]

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Leprosy: patients showing symptoms. Colour lithograph, [195-?]. By Hind Kusht Nivaran Sangh. (Wellcome Library, London)
L0077161 Leprosy: patients showing symptoms. Colour lithograph, 1950s.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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http://wellcomeimages.org
Leprosy: patients showing symptoms. Colour lithograph.
Colour Lithograph
195u By: Hind Kusht Nivaran Sangh.Published: 195-?]

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Leprosy: patients showing symptoms. Colour lithograph, [195-?] By Hind Kusht Nivaran Sangh. (Wellcome Library, London)

L0035993 Pharmacy advertisement, Delhi, 1993
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
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http://wellcomeimages.org
Colour photograph showing an anatomical model advertising a pharmacy in Delhi, India. The model is behind glass and surrounded with bottles. The pharmacist's name, Kaviraj A N Roy, BSc, MASFRMP, is written on a label at the top left of the glass case. A man, ?the pharmacist, sits reading a book.
Photograph
1993 By: Ben DrayPublished: 1993.

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Colour photograph showing an anatomical model advertising a pharmacy in Delhi, India. The model is behind glass and surrounded with bottles. The pharmacist’s name, Kaviraj A N Roy, BSc, MASFRMP, is written on a label at the top left of the glass case. A man, perhaps the pharmacist, sits reading a book. Photograph, 1993. By Ben Dray. (Wellcome Library, London)

This post originally appeared on Scroll.in.

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