A Tribal Physician Who Is Also Chef, Dancer & Archer
As yet another Onam is round the corner, Nellara Vellan Vaidyan braces up to prepare ethnic dishes of even more excellent variety. For, the tribal sexagenarian is an acclaimed cook with specialisation in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian items that are fast disappearing from the recipe of a grand culinary heritage belonging to the Western Ghats of southern India. The food Vellan prepares may be commonplace for the members of fellow Adivasi Kuruma community far and near his native Nellarachal close to scenic Ambalavayal, but it is nothing short of exotica for the typical visitor to the northeast Kerala district of Wayanad.
Vellan, all the same, has another area of expertise. For more than four decades, he has been a tribal physician who prescribes herbal medicines that are mostly beyond the ken of qualified doctors. His self-acquired stature as a physician has been prompting people from around his region and even outside the state to visit him to take his ‘secret’ prescriptions and ‘off-beat’ treatment — both with remarkable success for the patient.
“I learned much of it as a child — from my parents and an uncle. Especially from my mother Veluvi,” he trails off. “She taught me how to mix the herbs — which all and in what proportion for each disease. Also, how the dose would vary when it is for kids and that of the age brackets within them. In fact, she was a paediatrician of her generation.”
Vellan’s father Kandan and uncle Kullan would regularly take him out to the forest. “It’s from them that I began distinguishing herbs and learning about their characteristics. Soon, I was sent for errands to the woods — alone.”
Today, Vellan has grasped at least a shade more than what the predecessors in his family knew about herbal medicine. Not surprisingly, he is known far and wide — sometimes as a physician with “magical cure” for ailments like migraine and spondylitis besides difficulties during pregnancy. In fact, for even more serious diseases.
For instance, Delhiite Remani Damodar was 59 when she was diagnosed her with breast cancer in 2007. The woman underwent advanced treatment in a Bangalore hospital, which detected her to have colon cancer as well. The first four of the 45 prescribed rounds of chemotherapy had weakened her body and shorn her of all hair.
Media reports about Vellan prompted Remani’s family to take her to Nellarachal, where the tribal physician gave her “sustained potions of bitter medicine and balls of bland food” for eight months. In October 2008, the mother of two underwent a check-up at a Manipal hospital, which found she had no trace of cancer, Vellan says, showing the documents.
The specialisation apart, Vellan has broadened his areas of fame to fields beyond herbal medicine. For instance, he has been a regular at the Kerala capital of Thiruvananthapuram, serving self-cooked ethnic food items at a mango festival or an Onam food fair.
“We have uniquely tasty stuff. Ones prepared by men at big events among us Adivasis,” Vellan says, referring mainly to two kinds of dishes. One, called Kalluputtu-Kozhikkari is a combination of rice powder steamed in a stone container served along with specially prepared chicken curry.
“Then there is the mulayari payasam,” he says about the protein-rich bamboo-rice pudding. “The grain looks similar to rice and has a wheat-like taste. We also prepare gruel, puttu and ottada from it. But then, procuring it has become tough these days; the produce is getting scare (in Wayanad).” The other food stuff Vellan conjures up includes matthan payasam (pumkin custard) and fried and boiled combinations of ragi (millet).
In 2012, Vellan was nominated as ambassador for Gothrayanam, a national-level tribal festival held at Mananthavady in his native district. The flair for cooking has also fetched him a number of awards and honours. Predictably, Vellan is among the key figures being promoted by KIRTADS (Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Tribes) — a government organisation that works for the uplift of the marginalised sections of society.
In the field of culture, Vellan is a practitioner of tribal dances like Vattakkali and Kolkali where the artistes assemble in a circle and tap sticks to produce rhythmic sounds. “The elders won’t teach you all the songs; you grasp them from what you hear — and sustain the tradition,” he says with a smirk.
As an archer, too, Vellan notes that one masters the leisure sport by seeing adults perform it. “You have to see others mastering the tricks in the trade. Of course, they would keep correcting you when it comes to basics. Rest is for you to master,” he says, giving tips to his two grandchildren who are showing a penchant for learning archery.
Soon he orders the duo to fetch him a certain root from the backyard. The boys rush and return with the medicinal input.
“Yeah, you got them right,” Vellan says, patting them on their back.
“There is no big difference. Theirs is kattuvaidyam (the medicinal system in the jungles) while ours is nattuvaidyam (of the non-forest areas),” say Ayurveda practitioners.
‘It’s Simply Un-codified Ayurveda’
The ‘top-secret medicine’, called ottamooli in local parlance, may be a hit with its consumers who go by the tips of tribal physicians like Nellara Vellan, but the learned class of Ayurveda practitioners in Kerala are not particularly convinced about its much-touted specialty.
“There is nothing which is not mentioned in Ayurveda that the tribals practice,” according to late icon Vaidyamadom Narayanan Namboodiri of Mezhathur, near Thrithala in Palakkad district. “Only that some of them tend to keep the tips secretive, but then they have already found mention in the texts of our ancient medical system.”
The scholar-physician, who died in October 2013, would agree that tribals have closeness with nature and first-hand knowledge of herbal medicines. “It is worth emulation. Otherwise, there is no big difference. Theirs is kattuvaidyam (the medicinal system in the jungles) while ours is nattuvaidyam (of the non-forest areas).”
On his part, Wayanad District Medical Officer Dr Vinod Babu wonders how tribal physicians would fare once they begin giving treatment in huge numbers. “The Adivasi vaidya gives the patient pure and fresh medicines. The practice deserves encouragement, but it is affordable as long as there is no mass production (of drugs) involved,” he adds.
Pulamanthol Sankaran Moos, the scion of a famed Ashtavaidya family near Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district, says each tribal Adivasi may be a wonder in isolation. “If you manage to codify their knowledge, much of it would overlap with Ayurveda,” he adds.
(The writer is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Delhi)