Dr P.K. Warrier: An icon of Ayurveda

Print edition : July 16, 2021

The myriad aspects of Dr P.K. Warrier’s life have impacted people in different ways. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Receiving the Padma Bhushan from President Pratibha Patil in 2010. Photo: By Special Arrangement

E.M.S. Namboodiripad (right) with P.K. Warrier (centre) and N.V. Krishnankutty Varier, former chief editor of AVS Publications. P.K. Warrier’s initiation into an academic course to study Ayurveda was inspired by an interaction he had with the legendary communist leader.

With Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu. Photo: By Special Arrangement

With M.T. Vasudevan Nair , litterateur and long-time friend. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Dr P.K. Warrier, who turned 100 in June, is a clinician committed to scientific pursuits and the values of human dignity and freedom. Inspired by the ideals of renaissance in Kerala, he enhanced Ayurveda’s scientific parameters.

“When a living legend like Dr P.K. Warrier turns 100 what we are celebrating is not just the landmark age of an individual or the institution, the Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala [AVS], that he vitalised through his fruitful professional career spanning over seven decades, but the very pride of our State of Kerala and above all the discipline and science of Ayurveda, which he has literally epitomised through his life.” This was one of the key themes Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala, enunciated on June 1 while inaugurating the “Sathapoornima” (completion of 100) that was organised to celebrate the 100th birthday of P.K. Warrier. The renowned Ayurvedic physician’s birthday was on June 8, but the AVS and many other institutions associated with it, such as the JSS Ayurveda College, Mysuru, Karnataka, and the Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier Ayurveda College, Kottakkal, Malappuram, Kerala, had organised a series of online programmes consisting mainly of science webinars, discussions and lectures through the first week of June. Pinarayi Vijayan was inaugurating this series on June 1.

Indeed, the conditions caused by the second wave of COVID-19 had prompted the organisers to select the online format for the programmes, but the emphasis on holding science-related seminars and lectures as part of the “celebrations” was, in the opinion of his close associates, entirely in keeping with his persona and style. Among the other related events were book releases, cultural programmes, painting exhibitions and small, informal gatherings where patients, professional colleagues and associates reminisced about the manifold aspects of P.K. Warrier’s career and life, and so on.

The litterateur M.T. Vasudevan Nair, another living legend of Kerala and a long-term friend of P.K. Warrier, told Frontline that ostentation was conspicuous by its absence at all these events. “I would have gone personally to wish Dr P.K. Warrier if not for the COVID restrictions, but the milestones of his life in the past even when there were no constraints were observed solemnly, without pomp. Simplicity in conduct and profundity in terms of the essential ideas were the hallmarks of the milestone observances relating to the AVS and Dr Warrier,” he said.

What one of the all-time great writers of Malayalam sees in P.K. Warrier is manifest in the diverse realms of his life and work. The dominant public image of P.K. Warrier is that of a dedicated clinician, a provider of medical care to the needy and one who has had amazing success in treating cases given up by other practitioners and other streams of medicine.

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“Fabled and magical”—this is how P.K. Warrier’s peers in his field describe his healing capabilities. As the managing trustee of the AVS for 67 years—since 1954, when his elder brother P.M. Varier passed away in a flight accident—he has proved himself as an entrepreneurial visionary who implemented scores of path-breaking projects that not only brought great value to the AVS as an institution, but also enhanced Ayurveda’s scientific parameters. His pursuits as a researcher and writer have advanced a holistic approach to the treatment of diseases and contributed immensely to the standardisation of Ayurvedic drugs as well as to original research in ethnopharmacology and Ayurveda.

The five-volume treatise “Indian Medicinal Plants: A Compendium of 500 Species”, which he has co-authored, underscores his dedication to scientific research and documentation in Ayurveda.

P.K. Warrier is also a keen observer of society, whose perceptive views have found expression in several articles, public speeches and a riveting memoir, Smrithiparvam (translated into English as The Canto of Memories), published in 2005. Another widely appreciated facet of his life is his role as the patron of the P.S.V. Natyasangham, a reputed Kathakali academy established by P.S. Varier in 1939 under the auspices of the AVS. Over the past six decades, the P.S.V. Natyasangham has become a notable cultural institution, known for its reputed team of Kathakali artistes, their masterly stage performances across the globe and the rigorous tutelage of young students.

Free service

The myriad aspects of P.K. Warrier’s life have impacted people in different ways. As a clinician, thousands of people from different walks of life have benefitted from his free medical service. Throughout his 70-year career, he has not taken a paisa from patients as consultation fee. Among the beneficiaries were not only thousands of commoners but also hundreds of dignitaries, including former Presidents V.V. Giri and Pranab Mukherjee, former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, former Mauritius President Kailash Purryag, former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma and former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma.

In the footsteps of his uncle

As a master entrepreneur, P.K. Warrier has steadfastly followed in the footsteps of his uncle Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier, who founded the AVS in 1902. Renowned as one of the pioneers of Kerala renaissance, especially in the field of Ayurveda, P.S. Varier ensured the availability of classical Ayurvedic medicines and standardised Ayurvedic education. Having studied allopathic practices too academically, P.S. Varier was able to blend the good practices of allopathy and Ayurveda.

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One of the key outcomes of this assimilation was the introduction of innovative methods in the production and distribution of Ayurvedic medicines. These initiatives were undoubtedly revolutionary in the early 1900s and have been acknowledged as a component of the renaissance in Kerala, especially in the field of public health.

Engagement with modernity

Talking to Frontline, Professor M.V. Narayanan, a noted scholar and writer, pointed out that the proponents of renaissance ideas in Kerala did not blindly adapt the Western concepts of modernity, but sought to retain the vital characteristics of traditional disciplines while conjoining them and modern streams of knowledge and practices.

“To paraphrase the observations made by the historian K.N. Panikkar, what the AVS achieved under the leadership of Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varier was innovation within, between and beyond traditions. It was critical inquiry into both the past as well as the present, resulting in a new dynamic, in this case the revitalisation of Kerala’s indigenous medicine. Secularism was one of the main ideological bulwarks on which P.S. Varier’s renaissance of Ayurveda was founded. The access given to the poor and the destitute of all religions and castes was the hallmark of this revitalisation. This access was not only to his medical institution but also to his home, as a shelter in trying times. Indeed, P.S. Varier was the pioneer who charted this new path and in P.K. Warrier he got a worthy inheritor who ensured the exponential growth of the institutions founded by the pioneer.”

Backed by a political vision

Right from his younger days, P.K. Warrier had shown how inspired he was by the ideals of renaissance such as scientific pursuits and the values of human dignity and freedom. His very initiation into an academic course to study Ayurveda was inspired by an interaction he had with the legendary communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who told him that although many vaidyas treated patients successfully, they were not aware of the scientific reasons that led to recovery. Hence, EMS apparently advised P.K. Warrier to study Ayurveda scientifically as a medical discipline.

Later, in the midst of his studies, P.K. Warrier was drawn into the freedom movement and the anti-fascist struggle that had come up during the Second World War. He quit college and shifted to a Communist Party camp, engaging himself in underground revolutionary activity. When his elder brother [P.M. Varier] sent an emissary to call him back from the camp arguing that the AVS had to be protected, P.K. Warrier replied that he was doing exactly that. His argument was that if the fascists took over the country, there would be no AVS left to defend. “You need to have a country first to protect your belongings,” was the young man’s resolute defence of his decision.

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Later, the elder brother reportedly told the emissary that his younger sibling’s thoughts and words were not just right but were characterised by maturity and wisdom far beyond his age. Indeed, P.K. Warrier later returned to the AVS, not only to defend it but to take it to greater heights.

The growth of the AVS

The growth that the AVS has made under his leadership underscores the strength of such convictions and a thorough understanding of the need of the hour. Over the last seven decades, it has evolved as a premier institution of Ayurvedic learning, research and drug manufacture. P.K. Warrier brought in technology in drug manufacture, initiated new research and documentation, enhanced medicinal plant cultivation and ensured overall modernisation of all the domains of the AVS.

The establishment of the Centre for Medicinal Plants Research (CMPR), a premier institution in this sector, as well as the setting up of quality control laboratories, approved and accredited by the Departments of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) and AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy), are significant milestones in this new reach. Apart from this, P.K. Warrier’s leadership was instrumental in the development of GMP (good manufacturing practice)-accredited drug manufacturing factories at Kottakkal and Kanjikode (both in Kerala) and Nanjangud (in Karnataka) to produce more than 550 classical and “new” generation formulations.

In terms of its clinical operations, the AVS now has five hospitals, a 300-bed facility and a charity hospital at Kottakkal, and hospitals at Kochi (Kerala) and Delhi. It has 22 clinical branches located in different parts of India.

As many as 800,000 people benefit every year from free consultations at AVS hospitals and clinics. When P.K. Warrier took over the AVS in 1954, the annual earnings of the AVS was Rs.9 lakh. Now it is over Rs.400 crore. Another quaint detail, which perhaps sums up this growth, is that the AVS buys kilos of gold every month just to use it as an ingredient in the medicines it manufactures.

Medical pluralism

Shailaja Chandra, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who has served in various senior governmental positions, including the post of Secretary in the Union Ministry of Heath, states that a key component of the AVS’ growth as a model Ayurvedic institution is in the unique medical pluralism conceptualised, propagated and advanced by P.K. Warrier as the chief physician. Shailaja Chandra states that its hallmark is clarity of thought, untarnished by suspicion and antagonism. She perceives it as a distinctive approach, which has charted a different way to integrate medical streams, first accepting that Ayurvedic physicians need to be familiar with the diagnostic and therapeutic approaches of modern medicine. This would especially be helpful in intricate cases such as intervertebral disc prolapse or the treatment of cancer patients who cannot tolerate chemotherapy.

Total dedication

Another exceptional feature of P.K. Warrier’s life as a professional and as a human being is the total dedication that he shows in carrying out his multiple tasks and duties in different roles. Until COVID-19 swept Kerala, India and the world and forced lockdowns, P.K. Warrier attended office regularly, reaching it at sharp 8 in the morning.

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One of the first tasks every day, says M.T. Ramakrishnan, public relations officer at the AVS, was to go on clinical examination rounds of select patients under the care of the AVS medical team. “Dr P.K. Warrier has an overall understanding of who the patients are and who are the ones who need his special attention,” Ramakrishnan told Frontline.

K. Muraleedharan, additional chief physician and trustee of the AVS, said that the doyen had stopped this routine in March 2020, during the first lockdown, but resumed it in early January 2021 when the pandemic was deemed to be under control.

He said: “He attended office, took care of all his duties, carried out the medical rounds, spending over two hours in doing this and later attended to his responsibilities as managing trustee, which involved planning future operations of the AVS, as well as corresponding with AVS collaborators and associates across the world.” However, he had to stop again when the second COVID wave was announced.

Dr P.M. Varier, the current chief physician and trustee of the AVS, recounted P.K.Warrier’s hands-on approach in testing the efficacy and consistency of medicines such as ‘101 times repeated ksheerabala’, which require meticulous preparation. P.M. Varier said: “He would be able to gauge the efficacy and consistency just by feeling or tasting the medicines. Even after the AVS factories had installed technology-driven standardisation and testing of medicines to know their efficacy and consistency, Dr P.K. Warrier would carry out his ‘hands on’ tests from time to time.”

Patients and his peers in the medical field have often been awe-stricken by the “magical healing capacities” that P.K. Warrier possessed, but the master physician himself does not see himself as having a supernatural power. “What he believed was in constant learning and dedicated pursuit of Ayurveda. There is not a single day that he does not read the Ashtangahridaya [classical text in Ayurveda],” said Muraleedharan.

He also added that one of P.K. Warrier’s favourite quotations was on the evolution and the ultimate making of a good vaidya. “He often used to say in Malayalam ‘Eettil paththu, kaattil paththu, naattil paththu’. Roughly translated it meant that if you have to become a good vaidya you have to spend ten years immersed in books, ten years scouting forests for medicinal plants and ten years in places where people reside, treating them. Thus, in about 30 years you would become a reasonably good vaidya.”

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Muraleedharan told Frontline that another of his bon mots was about the meaning of the Indian expression shushrusha. “In common parlance, it is translated as medical treatment, but it is actually a combination of shrotham [listening] and ichha [need or desire]. So, in reality shushrusha is about the need to listen. When a vaidya listens, the patient is on the way to healing.”

These attributes have helped P.K. Warrier carry out his multiple roles. His systematic lifestyle, which, in his own words, consists of maintaining judicious self-discipline in eating the right amount and type of food and having the right quantum of exercise and sexual life, has helped him maintain perfect health parameters. He says that he has never had the occasion to raise his voice against anyone or have arguments with them.

At 100, P.K. Warrier is a symbol of pristine health and sagacity. As Pinarayi Vijayan said, he is an icon of pride for Kerala and the discipline of Ayurveda.

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