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Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 13:09 GMT
Traditional medicine takes on the world
Indian herbs and spices used in Ayurvedic medicine
India has thousands of medicinal herbs and spices

Delegates to the world's first conference on traditional medicine are leaving the southern Indian city of Cochin pledging to raise the global profile of "ayurvedic" remedies.


The world as a whole is switching over from chemical drugs to natural drugs

DN Tewari, Indian official
More than 2,000 Indian and foreign delegates spent four days discussing the relevance of the 5,000-year-old tradition of herbal and "alternative" medication in the modern world.

Prominent practitioners and academics from India and elsewhere spoke about the benefits of natural, non-chemical and non-invasive traditional medical practices.

Ayurveda uses herbs and spices like basil, turmeric, garlic, ginger and aloe vera, as well as yoga exercises, to treat physical and psychological problems.

Opened by India's Health Minister, Shatrughan Sinha, the congress talked about "the threat posed by the WTO patent regime" to traditional medicine.

Mystical art

More than 300 research papers were presented at the congress, at which some 100 speakers took the podium over four days.

Most presentations focused on adapting and standardising ancient traditional medication to the complex needs of modern societies.

A highlight of the congress was "Daiva Vipasaya Yagnam" - a ritual that relieves tension without using any drugs.

A special session on yogic exercises and "tantra" - ancient and mystical writings - also drew much attention.

But many of the Indian and overseas delegates came to the congress to learn more about India's traditional medicine.

Attractions

The organisers of the congress believe they are on to something big.

Traditional doctor (L) treating Indian patient (painting from Wellcome Institute library)
Ayurveda has a 5,000-year history in India
The market in traditional medicine is large, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates.

In addition, officials like DN Tewari, chairman of the ayurveda task force in India's Planning Commission, say ayurveda's attractions are growing by the day.

"The world as a whole is switching over from chemical drugs to natural drugs," he told the BBC, "because they are non-narcotic, they have no side-effects and are easily available.

"The world is interested in simpler and gentler therapies - especially for ageing, the problem of obesity, diabetes, neurological disorders, cardiac diseases and digestive problems."

Big business

However, commercial concerns were a major drive behind the congress.

Ayurvedic herbs being processed in an Indian laboratory
Ayurvedic herbs are studied scientifically
Although ayurveda is an Indian tradition, Delhi exports ayurvedic drugs worth under 5.5 billion rupees (about $120m) a year.

By comparison, China's ayurvedic exports are worth $5.56bn a year.

Dr SK Sharma, an adviser to the Indian Government, says Delhi has set an export target of $1.08bn by 2008.

Dr Sharma said with 15,000 plant species, India was well placed to increase its share of the $75bn global market in medicinal plants, which is growing by at least 7% a year.

Officials attending the congress said Delhi was setting up a task force of 10 industries to work out ways of expanding its revenues from this ancient tradition.

See also:

19 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
25 Jan 99 | Health
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