- Dr. Thirunarayanan, Centre For Traditional Medicine and Research (CTMR), Chennai (co-partner)
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.