The tale of two surgeons,10 centuries ago!

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

- Prathik Sudha Murali

India has produced many ancient treatises on medicine, the famous ones being caraka’s and sushruta’s texts. Many later literature in various regional languages are found on the topic. However epigraphic references to surgical medical practice are rare. A few inscriptions from south India throw some light on the practice of medicine and surgery. This article discusses two such inscriptions, one from Telangana and another from Tamilnadu.

4th June, 1034, a Thursday - Telangana

Dr. Aggalaya was a practitioner of medicine par excellence. In addition to being an accomplished surgeon, he was a religious man who patronised the construction of a Jain temple. He named it after his profession as the temple of ‘vaidyaratnakara’.

An inscription of King Jayasimha – II (1015 – 1043 CE) of the western Chalukya dynasty announces to the world that Dr. Aggalayá wished good health to everyone in the world. The king caused to be set in stone the fame of Dr.Aggalayá !

The epigraph continues to narrate the feathers that the doctor adorns on his cap; “Amidst the knowledge of all the scholars of medicine in the country of véngi, that of Dr.Aggalaya’s shone bright. If one comes across any person who was rescued anywhere in the country from a chronic disease, may it be known that it was due to the intentions of the great physician. If any other medical practitioner in the country felt that a case was very serious (prakarsã) and the treatment (upakramã) was difficult, they referred their patients to Dr.Aggalaya, who would then be successful in curing the ailment”

His accolades included the titles like ‘vaidyaratnakara’- The Ocean of medical practice, ‘pranacharyá’ – The master of life and ‘naravaidyá’ – The doctor of humans.

This inscription from 11th century helps us understand the importance attached to medicine and the royal patronage that physicians obtained in that era. The inscription adds an adjective before the usage of the title ‘vaidyaratnakara’. It says ‘sastra sástra kushala:’, which translates to the person who was adept in the branch of surgery.

The title of pránácharyá was also awarded to the physician called lakshmanáchárya in the court of the Vijayanagara king Bukka (14th Century). Thus it is evident that this title was awarded to great medical professional across dynasties and that the practice survived for a long period in history.

While the first two titles to a doctor are found elsewhere from the records of other dynasties, the title of naravaidyá is unique. It could be to distinguish Dr.Aggálayá from Veterinarians. Those who specialized in the treatment of certain animals were called with the respective animal names. For example, the physicians of elephants were called ‘gajavaidyá’ and those of horses were called ‘asvavaidyá’ respectively. Treatises on such veterinary practices were also written. For example, the gajasástra included the treatment of elephant diseases.

1069 CE, Tamilnadu

The waves of three rivers that met each other at a town named ‘tirumukkoodal’ in modern Tamilnadu were roaring. Accompanied by the roar were sounds of students chanting hymns from the Vedas and the cries of patients in a surgical ward. Contemporary to the Jain devotee Dr. Aggálayá was Dr.ashvattáman battan. While the former lived in Northern Telangana, the latter was a Tamil man residing in the city of Kanchipuram.

The temple of vishnu at the village talks about a university, hostel and a hospital established by the king vīrárajéndra of the illustrious chól̄a clan, 951 years ago. The hospital was called an átulasála and functioned with a 15 bed capacity. átula meant a physician and sála meant a charitable unit.

The hospital was to function with a land granted as capital to it. The tax on the land so granted was exempt, much like the provisions of income tax today. Such lands exempted upon the condition that a hospital functions with the revenue from them were called vaidyakkáni or vaidyavrtti. This could be granted by either the royalty of the country, by a religious institution or by the local authority of a village called the sab̗ã.

There were two types of doctors; the said inscription makes a clear distinction between the physician who is called the vaidya and the surgeon who is addressed as the shalyakriyai pannuván (The person who performs operations). The other staffs of the hospital were 2 people to supply the essential herbs to prepare medicines, 2 nurses to attend the patients and help the doctor and a barber.

Their salaries are agreed upon and written in stone to avoid any future disputes. The doctor was entitled to 90 kalam (a unit measure) of paddy and 8 kásu of money as his annual emoluments. He also had the land as a tax free endowment for the functioning of the hospital given on trust to him by the government.

The suppliers of medicines were entitled to 60 kalam of paddy and 2 kásu of money, while the nurses got 30 kalam of paddy and 1 kásu of money each. The barber was not entitled to the money, but only 15 kalam of paddy per year.

Much thought has gone into writing the manual of administering the hospital. Patients require care at all hours and it was a time without electricity. An amount of 2.75 kásu was set aside for a lamp to be kept burning at the hospital every night for the benefit of the patients. The sick people were rationed a portion of 1 náli (another unit of measure, lower than the kalam) of rice each per day of stay. 20 specific medicines are recorded in the inscription.

The knowledge we gain from these praises to doctors and the manual of functioning of hospitals from around a 1000 years ago helps us reflect on the medical system and its administration in those times. It also gives us clear evidence that surgical methods were active in indigenous medicine of India up to the 11th century CE.


1) Epigraphia Indica Vol XXI

2) Indian Journal of History of Science Vol.5 (1970)

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