Conservation, Documentation and Preservation of the Knowledge of Siddha Medicine
Funding Agency(ies):
British Library
Principal Investigator(s):
Dr. Brigitte Sébastia
Start Date : 
July 2015
Duration : 
2 years

This project,  which is supported by the British Library with funding from the Arcadia association, aims to digitise and catalogue siddha manuscripts as well as items related to siddha tradition: a private collection at Muncirai (Kanniyakumari district) and collections belonging to Siddha practitioners located in Tamil Nadu.  

The manuscripts are written on palm leaves, material which, by nature, is extremely fragile and vulnerable to climatic variations, humidity, and attacks by insect larvae, rodents and microorganisms. The manuscripts are often neglected by traditional siddha practitioners because they are unable to decipher the texts, which are often written in verses and in a metaphoric language, and the training of these practitioners is more oriented towards clinical practice. Moreover, the survival of these manuscripts is threatened by the fact that, at the death of the practitioners, if there is no descendant to pursue the family medical practice, they may be burnt, thrown away, sold or donated. Their digitisation is thus crucial to preserve siddha knowledge and to encourage present and future research in subjects inherent to this knowledge. Additionally, it has the advantages of preserving these manuscripts from unintentional damages whilst reading, and to make reading easier, especially when the scripts are in very small size.

Siddha refers reductively to the traditional medical system of Tamil Nadu, India. Although recognised by the government of India, its knowledge has not been systemically studied, partly due to the difficulty in accessing these texts that are mainly in the form of manuscripts kept in libraries or held by siddha practitioners, and due to their content, which, in order to be understood, requires experts proficiency in multiple disciplines. In fact, the texts cover a large range of topics that concern the medical field, notably siddha principles of physiology, nosological categories, diagnostic methods, medicinal formulations, material medica, toxicology (insects, snakes and animal bites; food and medicine poisoning), practice of accupression (varma) and medical ethics, but also subjects inherent to siddha tradition such as alchemy (iatrochemical processes),  magic, philosophy and spirituality (tantrism, cult Shiva-Sakti) and astrology. Mostly written in Tamil scripts, the texts are either attributed to cittarkaḷ, yogis supposed to have acquired powers and knowledge through rigourous ascetic practices, or signed with their names, or written by anonymous siddha practitioners presenting information based on their medical experience. The oldest manuscripts date back to the end of the 18th century; the dating of the texts authored by cittarkal is still debated.

Materials and methods:
The collection of manuscripts at Muncirai belongs to the President of the Akila Thiruvithancore Siddha Vaidhya Sangam (ATSVS) Association, who inherited a part of it from his ancestors and collected the other part from siddha practitioners of Kanniyakumari district. The manuscripts (around 130) are put in order, cleaned, digitised, and then catalogued by the president of ATSVS at his residence. This collection includes some items related to manuscript making and to siddha practice.

The collection of manuscripts and items belonging to traditional siddha practitioners were collected by the EAP810 team during the project. This material comes from northern and central districts of Tamil Nadu (around 145 manuscripts), and from two southern districts of Tamil Nadu, Kanniyakumari and Tirunelveli (around 130 texts). It is put in order, cleaned, digitalised at the French Institute and catalogued by an expert residing at Tanjavur. The material is systematically returned to the owners with a DVD of their digital manuscripts and their catalogue. This collection includes some items related to manuscript making and to siddha practice.  

The catalogue is being prepared in Tamil by these two experts, and is being translated into English by a person who has a background on siddha medicine. The description of texts is presented in the two languages in order to optimise their reach.
Main (expected) outputs:
  • Digitisation and cataloguing of around 400 Tamil manuscripts belonging to siddha practitioners
  • The digital manuscripts will be put online on the website of the British Library in the second part of 2017
  • An article on siddha knowledge confined in manuscripts for an edited volume is in progress
  • Dissemination of information regarding the project through workshops/conferences: Annamalai University (January 2016); Pondicherry University (March 2016), at Tamil Sangham, Pondicherry, at the occasion of the Siddha Word Day (April 2016), at Mother Theresa College, Pondicherry (March 2016), at College of Engineering and Technology, Tirunelveli dt (September 2016), at Palaiyamkottai organised by EAP 810 (February 2016), at Pondicherry for the Siddha Word Day the 15 April 2017 and at Nagercovil (May 2017) organised by the Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai.
  • Dr. Thirunarayanan, Centre For Traditional Medicine and Research (CTMR), Chennai (co-partner)

Staff ( IFP & External )

SEBASTIA B., Affiliated Researcher