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Personalities: Nambi Narayanan

The main source for this article is Sri Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography and supported by additional references that are listed at the end of this post. The article does not present a comprehensive historical or scientific review of Nambi Narayanan’s many achievements. Rather, the content reflects a student’s limited understanding of some challenging subject matter and an attempt to learn from the insights shared by an extraordinary personality. The opinions and errors in the article belong to the author alone.

Ready to Fire‘ is available at many popular bookstores.

Early Life

Padma Bhushan Sankaralingam Nambi Narayanan was born on Dec 12, 1941, in Nagercoil, Travancore State. He was the first boy in the family after four girls. His father ran a successful business of Copra, Coir, and Oil in Thiruvananthapuram and had relocated to Nagercoil to start a new oil business. Nambi did his elementary schooling at the Parakkamadai Elementary School and shifted to the Desiya Vinayaka Devasthanam a few years later and topped the school in his Standard-10 exams. He repeated this feat in his pre-university course at the South Travancore Hindu college. He loved Mathematics from an early age and developed a natural interest in engineering. Unfortunately, he fell seriously ill during the college admission time and enrolled in a BSc Mathematics course for a year before joining the Thayagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai in June 1960. This was a college blessed with world-class professors.

Nambi Narayanan’s father passed away within five months of his joining college. At age 19, Narayanan was unsure if he should continue his studies or take over his father’s business and stay with his family. His sisters were strong personalities who made it clear that young Nambi must focus on his studies. He had earned a merit scholarship which took care of all educational expenses while he pursued his Mechanical Engineering degree. Narayanan had two close friends in college, Lawrence, who later became a colonel in the Indian army, and Chandran who would become an important ISRO colleague.

First Signs of the Nambi Effect

After being elected as the joint secretary of the student union, young Nambi faced a challenge of bring Thiru. Kamaraj as chief guest to a college function as desired by the college founder Thyagaraja Chettiar. This was opposed by a section of the college that supported Annadurai’s DMK. They wanted a flowery orator and not a school-dropout; so what if he was a remarkable achiever who brought the mid-day meal scheme to TN schools? Nambi Narayanan recalls how the wisdom of Kamaraj was earned not through book parsing but from the varied experiences of life. Clearly, this Dravidianist predilection for hyperbole over substance hasn’t diminished in 60 years. Narayanan was able to persuade a reluctant Kamaraj to attend the function and notes in his autobiography that the great Tamizh leader won over the audience including the naysayers with “his simplicity and clarity of thought”.

The faculty of his college also played a big role in shaping Narayanan’s future. Among others, he fondly recalls his training under Prof. Kothandaraman who ensured that each of his students completed their engineering project (axial flow compressor) end-to-end, from design to fabrication to the final functional testing. Toward the end of his course, Narayanan obtained gradual school admission at both Princeton University and Caltech but decided to stay in India and be close to his ailing mother.

Early Career

Nambi Narayanan’s first job was as a trainee assistant at the Deccan Sugars and Akbari Company, a sugar factory of Parry & Co, in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. He had to oversee the entire process from the crushing of the sugarcane to the final end products. Here too, one gets to see Narayanan’s multidisciplinary talents- analytical thinking, business acumen, and an eagerness to obtain a more hands-on experience. In went the future Rocket Scientist into the Bagasse (Sugarcane pulp) pit, something that no white-collar employee there had done before. His reasoning is important for every student to internalize: “Getting a feel of what the lowest grade worker does gives you an idea of wholesomeness. It works in a bagasse pit; it works in a rocket assembly clean room.”.

It can only be Karma that brought Nambi Narayanan into ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) after he quit his sugar factory job and moved back to Thiruvananthapuram.

When Nambi Narayanan met Abdul Kalam

“… then came the monthly groceries from AT Ganapathiya Pillai’s shop in Chaalai Bazaar that was to solve my problem. One of the items was wrapped in a newspaper which I was about to throw into the bin when a two-column advertisement on it caught my eye. Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in Trivandrum …” – September 4, 1966.

Picture Link Source: eastcoastdaily.in

Narayanan noticed the advertisement a day after the last date to apply, yet such was the lack of red tape in Vikram Sarabhai’s organization, his application for the position of technical assistant (design) was not summarily rejected. He was able to convince TERLS to accept his application. Narayanan wanted to learn more about the job and the people he would be working with if he got accepted. He recalls: “some of the scientists involved in TERLS were staying in a lodge. As I was entering the lodge, one of the residents, a man in a pale blue shirt and dark trousers was coming down the stairs. I thought he must be involved in the Thumba project and introduced myself as an applicant. ‘I am A P J Abdul Kalam, rocket engineer,‘ he said.” APJ Abdul Kalam would later be part of the panel that interviewed Nambi Narayanan and brought him on board. Kalam was especially impressed by Narayanan’s engineering college project work in Madurai. Narayanan joined India’s first space science team on September 12, 1966. A more dramatic life-saving interaction with India’s future President and Bharat Ratna is depicted in the opening sequence of Madhavan’s ‘Rocketry’ movie. Abdul Kalam was among the few invitees who attended the simple wedding ceremony of Nambi Narayanan and Meenakshi Ammal a year later. The couple were blessed with two children, Sankar, and Geetha.

Nambi Narayanan, 1967. Source: N. Narayanan Autobiography.

Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography reveals the enormous influence that Vikram Sarabhai had on him after he joined TERLS/ISRO. There would be leaders of unimpeachable integrity after Sarabhai, including the great Satish Dhawan and UR Rao, but none who could match the long-term vision of Sarabhai. Eventually, ISRO also fell prey to office politics, and this acted as a catalyst in the ISRO spying case in the 1990s. Despite internal friction, ISRO sustained its ability to deliver and retain public trust. We have to thank the many ISRO men and women whose work ethic remain true to the original vision of Vikram Sarabhai. This much is apparent from Nambi Narayanan’s book.

Picture Link Source: blog.aerospacenerd.com

Liquid Propulsion Systems

Nambi Narayanan must be recognized for his single-minded goal of developing liquid propellant rocket engines at ISRO. He differentiates between liquid propellants that are earth storable (at room temperature), while cryogenic engines [4] employ propellants that are liquified and stored at an extremely low temperature.

Picture Source: N. Narayanan Autobiography.

What’s so special about liquid propulsion systems (LPS)? Among other attributes, the strength and efficiency of rocket engines is rated on their ‘specific impulse’ which makes LPS more attractive (see the brief footnote at the end of this post). Young readers can also review this IIT-Madras lecture series [2].

Kalam and Narayanan were members of India’s first space team who branched out into different areas. Kalam took the route of solid fuel rockets and later, missiles at DRDO and achieved success in both areas (Rohini, SLV-3, and the Agni missiles) [1, 9]. On the other hand, Nambi Narayanan’s contributions were in the area of LPS.

In his book, Narayanan notes Sarabhai’s initial reluctance to venture into this area while his own belief in the potential of LPS remained rock-solid (irony unintended). ISRO’s focus was on solid fuel- it was lower risk with immediate reward, including dual-use for missile launching. LPS was viewed as a high-risk alternative, which few in ISRO were willing to bet on. A natural question that any layperson would ask is: why are we even talking about risk? Weren’t these all solved problems by the 1960s, with well-established mathematical formulas, drawings, books, and all the know-how available? After all, the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo moon missions was powered by a cryogenic engine. Why couldn’t ISRO quickly put together the desired rocket configuration using the available know-how? This question is an important one in the context of the ISRO espionage case and is addressed at the end of this article.

Madhavan’s biopic does a great job of covering Narayanan’s single-minded pursuit of LPS, starting with his stint at Princeton University (thanks again to Sarabhai slashing through red tape) in August 1969. This was a heady time period at the peak of the cold war. Public interest in space exploration was sky high. America, spurred by President Kennedy’s inspirational 1961 ‘moon shoot speech’ had beaten the Soviets to the moon and taken the lead in the space race. This result is also relevant to our story for the USSR thereafter gave up on their moon exploration program and simply mothballed their (more than 250?) cryogenic engines that never flew [1, 5].

Narayanan’s NASA Fellowship and MS admission in Princeton was related to the study of solid fuels but though his positive attitude and skills of persuasion, he became a student of Professor Luigi Crocco. Prof. Crocco was a top professor in chemical rocket propulsion (closer to LPS) who did not accept any students at that time for personal reasons. Narayanan convinced Prof. Crocco and learned from him at his residence and completed his MS in less than 11 months and returned to India in 1970.

Narayanan had spurned lucrative offers from US organizations that were trying to poach him. He came back to serve India and work on LPS in an environment that was at best lukewarm to such an initiative. It is easy to be critical of Nambi Narayanan’s outspoken go-getter personality and his inability to suffer fools gladly. But then, sweet-talking people who focus on winning popularity contests are never going to decolonize India and take her forward in a strategically important field dominated by the western powers. Narayanan and his colleagues successfully tested smaller scale two-stage rockets using liquid fuel. Despite this, skepticism persisted about their ability to build a genuinely scalable engine and LPS received limited funding even though Narayanan had the support of Sarabhai and later, Satish Dhawan.

Noticing Narayanan’s firm belief in liquid propulsion, Vikram Sarabhai, who had great awareness of the global developments in the field, directed him to recce the new Space Science facility of Rolls Royce that housed a hydraulics laboratory in Cumbria, Scotland. UK was shutting down its space program (outsourcing it to NASA) and this amazing new laboratory, which Narayanan describes as “a Fluid Engineer’s dream place”, was put up for 400 million Pounds. Narayanan traveled to Cumbria in 1971, charmed and befriended the administrator there and then made an audacious request – give it to India for free. Narayanan was startled when the request was granted with the stipulation that India must bear the shipping costs. The biopic does not show what happened afterward.

Sarabhai passed away (killed?) during this time. The laboratory equipment arrived in India, but India’s premier space organization did not have the land to reassemble and revive the extraordinary laboratory. In its disassembled form, it ended up in a few ISRO apartments in Trivandrum. Narayanan, the custodian of the equipment, watched the ‘engineer’s dream’ turn into a nightmare as it was ‘systematically plundered’ for spare-parts by scientists:

“.. one asking for a recorder, another taking away a pressure sensor, a third one snatching a flow meter. After giving up on setting up the facility on a new campus, I silently let these go, in a heartrending way, that it was probably better at least some of the hardware were put to use than let it gather rust. There were times when it also occurred to me that some people who did not want ISRO giving thrust to liquid propulsion systems would have derived great please in seeing what was happening. Before my eyes, the Rolls Royce hydraulic laboratory was cannibalized. “.

A more tragic story is how Tamil Nadu’s inebriated Dravidianist minister ‘interacted’ with Vikram Sarabhai and squandered a golden opportunity for TN to host ISRO’s rocket launch pad. TN’s loss was Andhra’s gain and today it is the Sriharikota range that is world famous and deservedly so. But what was the price paid by the nation for the minister’s disgraceful conduct? Narayanan calculated that every launch from the chosen location in Nagercoil would have saved ISRO enough fuel to launch a 30% larger payload.

A heart-warming sequence in the biopic is Nambi Narayanan’s stint in Vernon, France (1974-1978) along with more than 50 other ISRO scientists. Working alongside experts, the group absorbed nearly one hundred and fifty priceless man-years of hands-on experience with liquid propulsion systems. This cash-free contract with SEP France (Societe Europeenne de Propulsion) was finalized through the efforts of another famous personality, TN Seshan, IAS, who had an administrative role in the organization. The benefits would come later and culminate in the development of India’s own reliable and trustworthy Vikas Engine (Narayanan notes that apart from its Sanskrit meaning, Vikas was also named for Vikram A. Sarabhai). In France, among other things, Narayanan’s team was able to identify and resolve a major problem with the ‘upper stability margin’ of SEP’s Viking engine and earned the respect of their engineers who initially underestimated them.

It is another frustrating story that despite being ready, Narayanan and his team were only able to test the Vikas Engine in 1985. At one point, Narayanan had enough and told Satish Dhawan that he was quitting. A single make-or-break test was finally sanctioned to be conducted in France since India did not have the testing capability. Nambi Narayanan grabbed that chance and ensured a successful test of the Vikas Engine. However, it would take another eight years to celebrate its first successful launch.

Testing of High Thrust VIKAS Engine for the Gaganyaan program. Picture Source Link: Isro.gov

It is worth noting at this point that contrary to the claim in Wikipedia that Narayanan took all the credit for himself, his book recounts the contributions of numerous people inside and outside ISRO to India’s space program. This long list includes not only the first three ISRO chiefs who supported him, but also his colleagues, administrators, assistants, businessmen, and skilled technicians: Fitters like Sukumaran Nair, and Anandan who was also an expert at hand-sealing joints, and welders like Samuel Raj whose expertise stunned the French and who turned down their huge paycheck to return to Mother India and his modest salary and train more Indians. These are the hidden skills that make magic work. But for Narayanan’s book, these stories of skill and sacrifice would have remained unknown.

The most famous overseas assignment of Narayanan, we now know, happened in Russia, when the USSR was breaking up. These events have been well documented in interviews and the biopic. It is sufficient to note here that Narayanan and the ISRO team pulled off another coup and were able to bring cryogenic engines along with a limited ‘technology transfer’ into India in 1994.

This story actually began in 1975 when Narayanan and his colleague spotted a KVD-1 Soviet engine at a Paris Aerospace Exhibition where it was (deliberately?) labeled as some ‘RD-100’. This fact was confirmed by an old Soviet scientist there who also mentioned that its specific impulse was a barely believable 461 seconds, far superior to anything the Americans had at that time. This engine was first test fired in 1967 and held on to its record for the highest specific impulse until the end of the century [5].

Picture of KVD-1 (?) Link Source: European Space Agency Website

Fast forward to the 1990s. The Vikas Engine went operational in 1993 and India was in the process of completing a cryogenic engine technology transfer agreement with the Russians. Being able to indigenously develop, test, and deploy such engines would signal India’s entry into the lucrative commercial market of large payload launches. An elite club that was the sole preserve of the large powers. America promptly blocked the original deal by misusing MTCR after India passed on an American offer to deliver the same.

This was a move driven purely by commercial interests as the US was long aware that cryogenic engines were practically unviable for missile launches. Why? Narayanan pointed out in a 2013 video interview [4] that it required 48-72 hours to prep a cryogenic system prior to launch. This non-transferability of cryogenic engine technology to missiles was also strongly raised by India at that time [5].

Racist NY Times Cartoon after the Mangalyaan Launch. Link Source: IndiaToday

Eventually, seven KVD-1 engines along with documents and equipment were brought legally to India by four Ural Airlines flights in 1994. Air India turned a blind eye to national interest and backed out lest an unhappy Uncle Sam takes away ‘their’ lucrative New York landing rights. The first three flights arrived in Trivandrum by July 1994, with the last flight scheduled for late December.

In October 1994, ISRO announced its first success with a rocket that could be used for commercial satellite launches. Just when it seemed that everything was falling into place, charges of espionage were laid against multiple scientists and key ISRO partners involved with Cryogenic technology transfer in October 1994. Nambi Narayanan, the main target, was arrested on November 13, 1994. They were accused of passing on ‘secret drawings’ and papers to Pakistan using Maldivian intermediaries [1, 4]. After a long and tortuous battle, Narayanan was fully exonerated by the courts. The deep trauma suffered by his devout wife Meenakshi during this time is a most heartbreaking section of his book. Although his stance was vindicated, ISRO’s cryogenic program was set back by more than a decade – it was ‘mission accomplished’ for the masterminds of the plot. Nevertheless, India would eventually develop an indigenous cryogenic engine, thanks in part to Narayanan’s pioneering efforts.

ISRO ‘Spy’ Case: Know-Why versus Know-How

“.. our frontier past and our industrialized present both incline us toward a preoccupation with technique, with know-how rather than know-why”. — Dwight Macdonald, American social critic [12].

” .. “know-why” is understanding the context and the value of your actions. Why are you doing this? Why are you implementing the techniques and tools you have learned? What are you trying to get out of this? It’s only the balance of “know-how” and “know-why” which will create the desired outcome.” – [11].

Nambi Narayanan’s 2013 interview with Madhu Kishwar [4] was perhaps the first time a general audience had the opportunity to absorb his brilliant insights into the fraudulent case. Temporarily setting aside many other loopholes in the investigation conducted by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Kerala police, we return to a critical point that Nambi Narayanan has emphasized throughout his book and in multiple interviews. The simplest way (at least for this author) to realize why the case was spurious and lacked Pramana is to appreciate the difference between “know how” and “know why”. Not knowing this is one of the reasons why experienced IB and police officers ended up looking foolish in this sad episode.

Anyone with a basic understanding of rocket science knows even if the drawings are given, an engine cannot be made without long years of development, guidance and extensive tests. In other words, you can’t make a rocket engine based on know-how—you need the ‘know-why’. If rockets were built merely with drawings, there is no reason why every space-faring nation is making rockets its own way and not copying from others“. – Nambi Narayanan.

Raghu Garud at the University of Pennsylvania, in a widely cited paper [7] on strategic management has provided useful working definitions of know how/why/what. Let’s understand these terms through his example (emphases in bold are mine):

“.. consider a computer that comprises many components that together provide utility to users. Know-why represents an understanding of the principles underlying the construction of each component and the interactions between them. Know-how represents an understanding of procedures required to manufacture each component and an understanding of how the components should be put together to perform as a system.

.. Without an adequate appreciation of the underlying principles, changes in one element of the system may affect the performance of the entire system in a manner that is difficult to predict beforehand “.

Recall the ‘O-rings‘ element of the cryogenic-engine powered NASA Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986?


Know-how cannot substitute know-why, it can only complement it. ISRO has devoted all the time, effort, skill, and talent to accumulate know-why by working hands-on with and learning from experts. The same cannot be obtained through a disembodied review of manuals, drawings, or YouTube Videos. It can take decades. India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier is being delivered to the Indian navy as I am writing this. The work began in 1999. There are no short cuts to ‘Make in India’. The importance of know-why is not something that arm-chair experts in social media can grasp.

These concepts are not alien to our culture. Bharatiya and Tamizh Kalacharam, our inimitable traditional craft and knowledge systems, and sacred art forms have sustained for millennia, being directly passed down from master to apprentice, mother to daughter, father to son, Guru to Sishya. Deep culture pays attention to know why, a shallow one cannot think beyond technique and know-how.

To cite an example from culture and art, the know-how for making the Thanjavur Veena exists [10] but to make Veenas of sustainably high quality requires a high degree of know-why. Similarly, there once was a know-how book published by Popular Mechanics in 1950 that told you how to make a Stradivarius Violin [12]. However, it has been noted that when it comes to making Steinway Pianos or Stradivarius Violins, a lack of know-why is the reason why rivals are unable to consistently create instruments of comparable quality [7]: knowledge of why something works can therefore form the basis for sustainable competitive advantage as causal ambiguity aids inimitability..”.

To replicate and consistently achieve the same high quality without ‘working with the masters’, as Sri Nambi Narayanan puts it, is just not possible. The Vikas Engine delivered every single time, launch-after-launch, without a single failure. This is the value of know-why.

It is mind-boggling that some top investigators of a national agency proceeded under the assumption that drawings can be smuggled into Pakistan and turned into missiles with cryogenic engines. Senior IB official MK Dhar repeats in his autobiography [13] that: “They also did not appreciate the argument that peaceful space rocketry and militarised rockets used the same technology. Pakistan had an abiding interest in Indian rocket technology especially development of cryogenic engine technology.”

MK Dhar [13] also states that “Pakistan were in the midst of developing indigenous rocket technology, fuel and guidance systems. It was interested to acquire knowledge about cryogenic engine, which India was on the threshold of developing.” This claim is also fictitious as Narayanan has pointed out that India was not even remotely close to developing one. A 2010 book that surveyed the state of rocket development in Asia and South America [6] did not mention Pakistan in a list that included Iran and North Korea. Today, nearly thirty years after the alleged attempt to acquire the rocket know-how, Pakistan has gotten nowhere and perhaps does not even care. We know why.

Dhar’s last paragraphs are devoted to the ISRO case that derailed his final years at IB. The concluding words of Nambi Narayanan’s book are reserved for the late Mr. Dhar. They are in agreement that a full multi-agency investigation is required to expose the key conspirators.


In March 1994, Nambi Narayanan had put in another request, this time to UR Rao, to quit after the success of an upcoming PSLV launch, and yet again to the next ISRO chairman, Kasturirangan in August 1994. This last request was finally accepted but the fabricated case intervened three months later. He was reinstated into ISRO at its Bengaluru headquarters on July 1st, 1996. Five space science and technology domain experts: Satish Dhawan, UR Rao, Roddam Narasimha (IISc), Yash Pal (TIFR, UGC), and S Chandrashekar (ISRO, IIM), as well as TN Seshan were signatories to an open letter in 1997 asking for an end to the harassment of Nambi Narayanan and remarked that India’s strategic programs were no longer free of outside interference. The final judgment on the ‘spy case’ came in April 1998. He continued the fight in the courts, this time seeking compensation from the government. Narayanan officially retired in 2001. He was awarded the nation’s third highest honor, the Padma Bhushan for his contributions to science and engineering in 2019. In 2021, the Kerala State Government finally paid 1.3 Crore Rupees in damages. A biopic on his life, ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ was made by the acclaimed Tamizh and Indian movie artist, Ranganathan Madhavan, and released in July 2022 to rave reviews.


GSLV Mark-II, India’s largest launch vehicle when it was operationalized, employs an indigenously developed upper stage cryogenic engine. It has delivered several successful launches to date since January 2014 [8], nearly 20 years after the 1994 deal with Russia.

Padma Bhushan S. Nambi Narayanan is a living embodiment of a ‘Make in India’ spirit that refused to be broken.

GSLV Mark-II. Picture Link Source: Isro.gov

Footnote: Isp (Specific Impulse)

Isp = thrust produced / fuel weight flow [3], which simplifies to a time unit (seconds) and makes it easy to compare the efficiency of different rocket engines.

Pic Source Link: Specific Impulse (nasa.gov)

Nambi Narayanan: “Then there is the case of energy levels, called specific impulse in rocket science. A solid propulsion engine has a maximum specific impulse of 240 seconds, while a liquid engine has up to 295 seconds. A cryogenic engine has a specific impulse of more than 460. A higher specific impulse or energy level meant the need for lesser fuel or more payload mass to orbit.”.


  1. Nambi Narayanan and Arun Ram. Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case. Bloomsbury India. 2018.
  2. K. Ramamurthi. Rocket Propulsion: Video Lecture Series. IIT Madras. Circa 2013.
  3. NASA.gov. Beginner’s Guide to Rockets: Specific Impulse. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  4. Madhu Kishwar and Nambi Narayanan. “Shreekumar’s victim ISRO’s Nambi Narayanan spoke to Madhu Kishwar on 26/8/13 – YouTube”. 2013,
  5. Brian Harvey. Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier? Springer. 2001.
  6. Brian Harvey. Emerging Space Powers: The New Space Programs of Asia, the Middle East and South-America. Springer Praxis. 2010.
  7. Raghu Garud. On the distinction between know-how, know-why, and know-what. Advances in Strategic Management (14). 1997.
  8. ISRO.gov.in. Geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV). Accessed July 26, 2022.
  9. APJ Abdul Kalam and Arun Tiwari. Wings of Fire: Autobiography of Abdul Kalam. Universities Press. 1999.
  10. B. Kolappan. From a log of wood to a symbol of melody. The Hindu. 2011.
  11. ezeep.com. The Difference Between Know-How & Know-Why. Accessed on July 26, 2022.
  12. Dwight McDonald. Against The American Grain. Random House. New York. 1962.
  13. Maloy Krishna Dhar. Open Secrets: The Explosive Memoirs of an Indian Intelligence Officer. 2018.

[Guest Post] Indian Medicine, European Gloss

The following post was composed by Dr. Ashok, New Delhi. You can follow him here on twitter.

source: chronicletodaynetwork.com


Siddha is one of India’s traditional knowledge systems. The impact that Siddha medicine has had on modern health care has not been fully understood. It is imperative to analyze and trace the progress of the ideas and methods of Siddha medicine into the western systems of medicine, and see if due credit was given to the original Siddha scholars who came up with the ideas. The following article is my humble effort to view the dissemination of Indian Siddha medical knowledge in the background of European imperialism.

The Hippocratic Oath

The Chinese physicians take an oath to adhere to medical ethics in the name of Sun Simiao, who is referred to as the “The king of Chinese medicine”. His teachings are a ‘must read’ for every Chinese medical practitioner. The Japanese doctor takes a similar oath in the name of the “Seventeen rules of Enjuin”.  Enjuin was a Japanese Buddhist scholar of the Ri-shu school in the 16th century. Similarly, Israeli physicians take “the oath of the Hebrew physician” (3), while Islamic scholars of the world, especially in Malaysia, have begun to take oath in accordance with Islam. It is called the “Islamic oath”. However, when it comes to India, curiously, the Indian physician follows the “Hippocratic Oath”(17). Hippocrates was not an Indian, and neither did he ever visit India. Then why do Indians pledge in the name of Hippocrates?

Hippocrates (wikipedia)

To understand this phenomenon we need to look inside the history of medical care. First, we summarize the state of healthcare in medieval Europe, and then briefly compare it to the situation in India and the east. It must be noted that during this time period, Europe’s economic situation was completely different from what it is today. Its economy (as per Angus Maddison, the macroeconomic historian) was a mere 1 % of the world economy. In comparison, India’s share was around 26 % until the 18th century (18).

European chamber pot (alamy.com)

Health challenges faced by medieval Europe

  1. Bathing was considered “unspiritual”, and even “sinful”. For example, in 14th century Tuscany, the only time a person ever bathed was when he married, when both bride & groom would bath in a tub. Boniface-1 & St. Gull condemned bathing. Apparently, the Norwegians never washed hands after eating in those times. Bathing was considered a prelude to sin, and in the penitential of “Burchard of Worms“, we find an exhaustive catalog of the various sins that are accrued when men and women bathed together. Before the renaissance, people practiced sweat-bathing and perfuming to avoid bathing their whole life. The Catholic church banned bathing to prevent Syphilis (2).
  2. Only the rich used perfume to mask body odor. That is how the deodorant was invented (the usage of Right vs Left in Social Studies also stems from this context. Right of aisle were the rich, and to the left of aisle were the smelly poor.).
  3. Many women did not groom their body hair until the 1920s.
  4. In the Victorian era, bodily waste was emptied inside their bedrooms into chamber pots (since homes did not have plumbing) which would then be thrown off the window.
  5. Toilet paper was invented in the 1800s.
  6. Many were infested with head & body lice, and they used mercury to treat themselves. This led to several fatalities (10).
  7. Many suffered from STD. The most feared diseases included smallpox, dysentery, measles, leprosy, typhus and especially the plague. There was no cure available, and widespread epidemics could wipe away large populations of Europe (23).

Healthcare and Medical Sciences in Ancient India

Since ancient times, Indians had given prime importance to  bathing, grooming , soundarya, medicinal practices etc.  Harappa , Mohenjedaro, Lothal, and other settlements show evidence of possessing separate toilets & drains as early as 3000 BCE (19).


A large well and bathing platforms at Harappa (Obed SuhailCC BY-SA 3.0)

The following Shloka from the Vishnu-purana gives the philosophy of protecting our environment by the adoption of safe and hygienic defecation practices:

Dashasthan paritjay mutram kurya
Jalashay Shathasthan
Purishartha tirtham nadyam Chaturgunam !
Dharashauch na kurvita shauchashudh
Mabhipsta ! Chulukairaiv Kartabya
Hashtatshudhi Vidhanta!

  • Urination ought to be done at least at a distance of 10 cubits from the source of water. Defecation to be done at a distance of 100 cubits from the source of water.
  • At least 40 cubits distance is to be observed while urinating near a river or a temple, and defecation at least at a distance of 400 cubits.
  • Urination and defecation ought not to be done in running water or a river. Water should be taken in hand and washed away from the river.

Similarly the Manusmriti, Narad Puran, the Yoga sutras of Patanjali, and several traditional Indian texts emphasize the importance of hygiene (20).

Centuries of theft as well as the confiscation of Indian manuscripts, and the destruction of ancient Indian universities have deprived Indians of a clear understanding of their own heritage of cleanliness and hygiene. Currently, the Indian sanitation & hygiene standards are in dire need of improvement. The Swach Bharat campaign has provided a much needed impetus in this direction, and India needs to look no further than its own dharmic tradition in order to reclaim its position as world leader when it comes to sanitation and hygiene.

Ayurveda and Siddha

There is evidence to show that both Ayurveda and Siddha systems of medicine can be traced back to the Indus valley (Sindhu-Sarasvati) civilization. History is witness to the great achievements of Ayurveda, but Siddha medicine, which happens to be localized mostly in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, remains relatively unknown in other parts of India. Both texts are similar in content but Siddha medicine has more of a chemical component to it, and is rooted in local Tamil tradition. It uses several Sanskrit words while describing compositions.

statute of Agastya (Indonesia). wikipedia

Siddha medicine was started by the great Rishi Agastya (who also gave the world the Tamil language), and it had 18 founders, who are revered as Siddhars. Siddha medicine employs herbs, minerals,  and chemicals as remedies. Use of metals started from the period of Vagbhata (6th Century CE). Siddhar Korakkar was the first to introduce Cannabis as a medicine. Mercuric sulphide was termed as “lingam” and it was used as one of the “ashtadhatu” while preparing the shiv ling. This shiv ling had several purifying properties owing to its chemical composition. Perhaps this is the reason why water is dropped at a slow pace above the shiv ling & the collected water is purified, and free of bacteria & viruses. Theraiyar, in his Thylavarkachurukkam, insists that a physician should clean his hands many times and bathe after examining a patient. By some accounts, a Siddhar traveled to Mecca under the name of Yakub and taught the Arabs (1). ‘Varma’ was a branch of Siddha medicine which dealt with trauma & internal injury. By the 18th century Siddha medicine developed hundreds of specialized branches of science. Siddha medical practitioners were required to follow a strict code of discipline (1), (6).

A depiction of 18 Siddhars (velacherymahan.com)

Let us now examine the spread of Siddha medical techniques to the west.

Digestion of Indian system of Medicine: Case Studies

Siddha medical texts were extensively translated, studied & taught by the Dutch, Italians, Germans, French, and the British. Whitelaw Ainslie stayed in India and studied “Agasthiyarvaythiaamayinooru”& other medical texts extensively for more than 20 years, and published the “Materiamedica of the Hindoos” in 1813 (24). We briefly discuss three important instances of the digestion of Siddha medicine. The interested reader is encouraged to read the cited references.

Case 1: Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (source: bbc.co.uk)

The credit for inventing modern medicine was given by western historians to Edward Jenner. He is regarded as the father of immunology for his invention of Vaccination,  a technique where you expose the patient to a small quantity of the virus that is not enough to cause disease, but just sufficient to make the body immune to it. It was Dr. J. Z. Holwell who sent a  most detailed account of the Indian rites of vaccination to the College of Physicians in London in 1767. Subsequently, Jenner earned his M.D degree (5). This technique saved millions from the small pox virus, which had already killed hundreds of thousands  of people in Europe, and left the survivors blind. Little do people know that the technique of vaccination was practiced widely in India, and the Indians were immune to this disease thanks to its indigenous systems of medicine (11).

Case 2: Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur (ozlusozluk.com)

Louis Pasteur is widely celebrated as the French chemist and microbiologist who discovered microbial fermentation and pasteurization. He is credited as the creator of the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax. He propounded the germ theory of disease. He is known for using pasteurization as a technique for sterilisation. He is regarded as one of the three main founders of bacteriology, together with Ferdinand Cohn, and Robert Koch, and is popularly known as the “father of microbiology” (7). What is the real source of these discoveries? We provide an alternative thesis here, along with evidence.

It appears that Louis Pasteur obtained this knowledge from the Tamil Siddha text Sillarai Kovai. It so happened that a Jesuit named Friar Jean Baptist de Choisuel working in Pondicherry came across this text, and subsequently wrote a book in French, titled “A New sure shot and easy method for treating patients with Rabies”. This book was sent to France, and reached Louis Pasteur. Soon after, a vaccine for Rabies, and many other medical principles surfaced there. The book is preserved in the archives of Venves, Paris (8, 9). Thus it appears that modern sanitation in Europe began after Louis Pasteur published his germ theory of disease (inspired from Siddha medical texts). Until these discoveries, sewage often used to mix with the drinking water supply in Europe, leading to widespread cholera epidemics.

Case 3: Robert Koch

Robert Koch (britannica.com)

Robert Koch is also regarded as the father of Microbiology. He received the Nobel prize for isolating the bacteria  “Mycobacterium tuberculosis“. Few are aware that he worked for the notorious East India Company and spent most of his time in Madras, but also traveled extensively within India.  Koch was investigating the cause and possible treatment of Anthrax, Plague & Cholera. He explained the same germ theory of disease, which was also detailed by Louis Pasteur. The Tuberculosis bacteria was already described as Yaksma in Rig Veda & Yajur Veda (25). Furthermore, all the above mentioned diseases, their etiology,  and treatments have been clearly explained in Ayurveda and Siddha texts (11).

Additional Reading

K V Ramakrishna Rao has done research on the appropriation of the Tamil texts on indigenous knowledge systems by European scholars. I briefly summarize some findings below, and interested readers can visit his blog.

Portuguese Physician Garcia dOrta (1501-1568), Finnish Botanist LEcluse, Christovas da Casta, Dutch scholar Henrick Adrian Van Reede (1637-1691), Johann Ernest Grundler (1677-1720), Charles Clusius, Linchoten (16th century), Poludanus (explaining the writing of Linchoten) and others had studied Siddha medicine and sent voluminous palm-leaf books back to Europe.

Tranquebar was the Fortified Scientific Research Centre for Europeans. It had members of naturalists, orientalists, linguists and historians from the Danish colonies and the mother country, including missionaries.  Parthalomius Ziegenbalg, Heinrich Plutscha, John Fryer, Samuel Brown, James Petiver, The United Brothers (1768-1848), and many more came from different parts of Europe to India with the dual aims of mining traditional Indian knowledge, and religious conversion.

The Jesuit policy of “Theft, Confiscation and Purchase” of Indian Books is repeated in the context of Mackenzie as “Beg, buy or borrow.” [These quotations are from a book referenced in the linked blog].

It was Syphilis which forced the Europeans to come to India in search of a cure.

The Europeans were called Parangi by the Tamils, since they were infected with a contagious disease known as Mega noi”, Granthi noi” and so on. In fact, Johann Philip Fabricius (1711-1791) gives the meaning for “Parangi” as Syphilis in his famous Tamil to English dictionary.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) was Influenced by the work of Garcia deOrta. He had several specimens of plants, palm leaf manuscripts sent to him by his Indian counterparts.

Bogar (a Siddhar) taught Ema vittai (the art of converting bae metal to gold with basmam, ash) to the Europeans. On a side note, the Sivavakkiyar poems refute Christian theology implicitly and explicitly.

Theodor Ludvig Frederich Folly came to Tranquebar to study Siddha medicine. After learning from the Tamil doctors, he accused them of being highly superstitious, imbibed with religious doctrines, and dismissed them as Quacks.  Roberto Nobili, Kepler and many others collected several Siddha texts on astronomy . They later accused the Siddhars of being unscientific, and that the knowledge possessed by them was riddled by religious superstition (21).

Despite the extensive knowledge mined from the Siddha Tamil texts, many Europeans stubbornly continued to use Opium as a treatment for practically every disease until the 1900s. It is well known that Opium trade helped expand the British Empire (13). Vast areas of Bengal, Andhra, and Tamil Nadu, were forced to cultivate Opium, which led to the infamous Bengal famines of 1770, 1890, and 1943 in which several millions lost their lives due to starvation (22).

Summary and Conclusions

There is considerable evidence to show that from the early 16th century to the 20th century, several physicians, botanists, military surgeons, pharmacists, and others from Europe had copied, translated , reviewed, experimented & extracted from the Siddha medical texts anything that was a portable & profitable product. That which could not be ‘digested’ and fit into the Christian value system was eventually rejected as pseudo-science. This prejudiced view may have led the colonial powers to believe that the Indians were clouded by religious “superstitions” and that they alone were equipped to extract the scientific & medical truths from the Siddha texts.

It is apparent that the Indian science & its dharma knowledge systems played a significant part in pulling Europe out of the “Dark-Ages”. In fact, Indians today largely believe that modern science is solely a result of the sheer intelligence, creativity, and hard work of the European mind. It is hard to dismiss the claim that the Indian contribution has been neglected deliberately.

The full extent of the loot and destruction inflicted upon India during the British Raj has not been completely understood. Let us break the chains of mental slavery and stop taking any alien oath that was thrust upon us. Let us create our own path, and write our own grand narrative.







6) The Yoga of the 18 Siddhas: An Anthology, edited by T. N. Ganapathy, 2004.

7) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Pasteur

8) http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137567604

9) https://books.google.co.in/books?id=GkTvCgAAQBAJ&pg=PT125&lpg=PT125&dq=pasteur+siddha&source=bl&ots=4xhqDI4AGD&sig=UNvk4PT5NOmx_qJBrp0rz0xjh1w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjV3qjozeTKAhWDCI4KHVBGDhQQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=pasteur%20siddha&f=false

10) http://listverse.com/2012/10/22/10-revolting-facts-about-the-18th-century/

11) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3336341/

12) http://en.europenews.dk/A-History-of-Medicine-part-3-78482.html

13) http://www.academia.edu/1444383/The_role_of_Opium_in_the_Expansion_of_the_British_Empire_from_1764_to_1825

14) https://books.google.co.in/books?id=0ohiAgAAQBAJ&dq=robert+koch+east+india&source=gbs_navlinks_s

15) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angus_Maddison

16) https://books.google.co.in/books?id=OnJ9QgAACAAJ&dq=isbn:9780199227204&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj2tI72zOTKAhWGI44KHT07BqMQ6AEIGjAA

17) http://www.ima-india.org/page.php?page_id=21

18) https://books.google.co.in/books?id=a-JGGp2suQUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Contours_of_the_World_Economy_1_2030AD&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

19) http://www.sulabhtoiletmuseum.org/history-of-toilets/museum/

20) http://www.sulabhtoiletmuseum.org/history-of-toilets/aryan-code-of-toilets-2nd-century-ad/

21) https://siddhadreams.wordpress.com/2009/03/07/the-transmission-of-scientific-knowledge-from-tamilnadu-to-europe-15th-to-20th-centuries/

22) http://www.tehelka.com/2014/06/remembering-indias-forgotten-holocaust/

23) http://edu.turku.fi/tiimalasi/en/diseases.html

24) https://archive.org/details/materiamedicahi00ainsgoog

25) http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/tamil_nadu/article447635.ece?service=print

Disclaimer: This article represents the opinions of the author, and should not be considered a reflection of the views of the Tamizh Cultural Portal. The author is responsible for ensuring the factual veracity of the content, herein.