Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bazaar Walks - Discovering Unani

Arq Musaffi sold here! says the advert on this shop in the Bhendi Bazaar area. 'Oh look', I said to my friend Freni. 'It's a Unani medicine store'.

I looked up Unani a bit, and I was intrigued when I found out that Unani as a formal medicine has been practiced for more than 2000 years. So I went searching for its roots.

The first thing I found is that the word 'Unani' is Arabic for Ionian, which means Greek. So, in case you thought Unani was a 'Muslim' medicine, sorry - it's Greek!

You see, Unani was originally developed by the Greek physician Hippocrates (40 - 370 B.C.) from the medicine and traditions of the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the most famous proponent of Unani is the Persian physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) who wrote about Unani in his medical classic al-Qanun.

So how did Unani come to Bhendi Bazaar, a Muslim locality of Mumbai?
The Mongols, that's how! When the Mongols invaded Persia and Central Asia, many scholars and physicians of Unani fled to India, where they popularised it. During the British rule in India, Unani medicine lost government patronage, but continued to be practiced in Mumbai because of its overwhelming popularity. Today, Unani is widely practiced among the Muslims of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In India, Unani practitioners (hakims) are legally allowed to practice as qualified doctors.

I was curious about this shop, so I peeped in to see if the hakim was in. He had just stepped into the room at the back (where he lived). I saw rows and rows of bottles with exotic looking oils, neatly stacked. There was a little brass weighing scale, there were powders and herbs, and there were certificates hanging on the wall.

There were no patients in the clinic just then, it was a sleepy afternoon. But if a patient did walk in, then the first thing the hakim would do is check the pulse. The pulse or the nabz is the primary diagnosis tool in Unani. Urine and stool tests are also used these days, but for an experienced hakim, the pulse says it all.

So is there a science behind Unani?
Firstly, Unani is rooted in the understanding that spiritual peace is essential for good health. I'll buy that idea, scientific or not.

Second, Unani is based on the Hippocratic theory that a perfect balance of three things - elements, humours and temperament - helps in keeping the body and mind healthy. Is that scientific? You decide. It certainly sounds like a neat theory!

These are the basics of Unani:

  • The elements (arkan) in the human body are fire, water, earth and air.
  • The humours (akhlat) in the human body are blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.
  • The temperament (mizaj) of a person is expressed by the preponderance of a particular humor, so your temperament could be sanguine, bilious, phlegmatic or melancholic, depending on which humour predominates.

Sounds a lot like Ayurveda, right? I can't seem to trace the connections between these two streams of medicine, one clearly dominated by Hindus, and the other by Muslims. But obviously there is something there. Material for another post perhaps!

Oh, and if you're wondering what the shop was advertising - Arq Musaffi is a blood purifier and a cure for boils and warts!


Suzanne said...

I love your virtual tours through the blog, and some day I hope very much to use your services in Mumbai.


CanisLupus said...

Hope they are not performing surgeries! Or does the system does not support it?

MumbaiCurry said...

good work DK keep it up

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone be confused abt "Yunani".. I mean Yunan is the name for greece right? Like "cheen" is china :p :)

BTW Yunani is widely practiced in Delhi as well and not just by muslims but by hindus too. There are several yunani hakims that we (me + family) go to and I personally visit due to the effectiveness of their medicine. Most yunani medicines are extremely delicious.. there's one to increase your memory power.. it's absolutely yum. Though I hated saafi right from childhood.

Deepa said...

I actually thought Yunan was a province in China.

CanisLupus said...

its a bit late to think clearly, but isn't the province in China, Hunan? or are you thinking of

Anonymous said...

Unani is popular in Hyderabad too. There is a very large Government hospital for unani medicine near Charminar. It is very popular.

There are a lot of shops selling unani medicines and their ingredients in the bylanes of the old city, near lad bazar which is almost an adjunct to the Charminar. Some of these ingredients are dry fruits. I buy dry fruits here because the quality is really good.