Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Week 7: Medicine in South Asia

Lecturer: Roberta Bivins

Western biomedicine was brought to India by the British, and it is known there, variously, as ‘allopathy’, ‘Angreji dawa’ (‘English medicine’), or ‘Daktari’ (e.g. ‘Doctory’). Although the British sought to ‘colonise the body’ of Indians through its biomedical practice, a large number of diverse forms of medicine and healing continued to be practised. There are the supposedly ‘classical’ systems of Ayurveda and Unani Tibb, exercise systems such as yoga, various forms of indigenous surgery and bone-setting, popular herbal remedies, indigenous midwifery, the expelling of evil spirits by exorcists, and religious cures based on faith. Indigenous medicine evolved and changed as a result of the contact with biomedicine. This lecture will introduce the ‘classical’ systems, Ayurveda and Unani Tibb, and examine interactions between the indigenous and western forms of medical practice during the British colonial period. In the readings and seminar, you will explore what happened next, in late colonial and independent India.


Discussion Questions/Essay Topics:

1. What, if anything, was distinctive about 'western' medicine in colonial India?

2. Was the Indian body successfully colonised by the British?

3. How and why did indigenous forms of therapy prove so resilient?

4. How did indigenous forms of medicine change in India through the contact with British colonial medicine?



Required Reading:

David Hardiman, ‘Indian Medical Indigeneity: From Nationalist Assertion to the Global Market’,Social History, Vol. 34, No. 3, August 2009, pp.263-83. E-Journal

Mukharji, Projit Bihari, Nationalizing the Body: The Medical Market, Print and Daktari Medicine, ‘Introduction’, Anthem Press, London 2009, pp.1-32. Course Extract


Further Reading


Indigenous Systems of Medicine

Attewell, Guy, Refiguring Unani Tibb: Plural Healing in Late Colonial India, Orient Longman, Hyderabad 2007.

Hardiman, David, and Projit Bihari Mukharji (eds.), Medical Marginality in South Asia: Situating Subaltern Therapeutics, Routledge, Abingdon, 2012.

Lambert, Helen, ‘The Cultural Logic of Indian Medicine: Prognosis and Etiology in Rajasthan Popular Therapeutics,’ Social Science and Medicine, 34, 10 (1992), pp.1069-76. E-journal

Lambert, Helen, ‘Plural Traditions? Folk Therapeutics and “English” Medicine in Rajasthan’, in Andrew Cunningham and Bridie Andrews (eds), Western Medicine as Contested Knowledge (1997), pp.191-211. A case study from Rajasthan, this provides an excellent introduction to the complexity of medical ideas and practices in India.

Quaiser, Neshat, ‘Politics, Culture and Colonialism: Unani’s Debate with Doctory,’ in Pati, Biswamoy and Mark Harrison (eds), Health, Medicine and Empire: Perspectives on Colonial India (New Delhi, 2001). Shows how the indigenous Unani Tibb system of medicine evolved through its contact with ‘English’ medicine.

Porter, Roy, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London 1997). Chapter 7 is on traditional systems of medicine in India.

Sivaramakrishnan, Kavita, Old Potions, New Bottles: Recasting Indigenous Medicine in Colonial Punjab (1850-1945), Orient Longman, New Delhi 2006.

British Colonial Medicine and Daktari

Arnold, David, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India (California, 1993). Excellent study of British handling of epidemic disease.

Arnold, David, Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (Cambridge, 2000). E-book

Bayly, C., Empire and Information, chapter 7, pp.264-283 is on medical knowledge in India. E-book

Harrison, Mark, Public Health in British India: Anglo-Indian Preventive Medicine 1859-1914 (Cambridge, 1994).

Mukharji, Projit Bihari, Nationalising the Body: The Medical Market, Print and Daktari Medicine (Anthem, London, 2009).

Naraindas, Harish, ‘Poisons, Putrescence and the Weather: A Genealogy of the Advent of Tropical Medicine’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, new series, Vol.30, no.1, Jan-June 1996. E-journal

Naraindas, Harish, ‘Care, Welfare and Treason: the Advent of Vaccination in the Nineteenth Century’, in Contributions to Indian Sociology, volume 32, number 1, Jan.-June 1998. E-journal

Ramasubban, Radhika, ‘Imperial Health in British India 1857-1900’, in R. MacLeod and M. Lewis, Disease, Medicine and Empire (London 1988).

Pati, Biswamoy and Mark Harrison (eds), Health, Medicine and Empire: Perspectives on Colonial India (New Delhi, 2001).

Prakash, Gyan, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, 1999), Chapter 5.