This 1,100-yr-old Chola hosp had beds, docs, surgeons

As a raging pandemic befuddles governments of even the most advanced nations on how best to use their resources, inscription on the walls of a Chola temple, built more than 1,100 years ago, shows how the visionary kings had operated a 15-bed hospital complete with doctors and surgeons. The inscriptions give details on medical procedures, salary paid to doctors in the form of paddy — proportionate to their work, the kind of herbal drugs used, and the method to ration food among inmates.

The comprehensive engravings on the granite wall of Venkatesa Perumal Temple at Thirumukkoodal near Kancheepuram, located 70km south of Chennai, on the medical centre established by Virarajendra Chola in 1069AD at the confluence of rivers Cheyyar, Vegavathi and Palar has surprised archaeologists.

The centre had two physicians, including a surgeon, and one barber to perform minor operations, two people for fetching herbs, and nurses and medical attendants to take care of patients. The 55ft long inscriptions with 33 lines running from top to bottom cover an area of 540sqft. It is considered to be one of the biggest such engravings discovered so far in the Indian subcontinent. While 95% of it is written in Tamil, the rest is in ‘Grantha’ script. According to archaeologists, it throws light on 19 herbal medicines used for treating fever, lung diseases and dropsy.

As per the inscriptions, first documented a century ago, the hospital was meant to treat inmates of a students’ hostel and temple servants. S Rajavelu, adjunct faculty member of department of history, Alagappa University and former epigraphist with ASI, who studied the inscriptions in the past, said the facility also catered to the public. “It was akin to a medical hospital and college, where students stayed and it was meant for treating the public. It was an ayurvedic cum siddha hospital because we have references of medicinal plants,” he said.

“The hospital was running on the grants from the government, routed through the temple,” Rajavelu said.

The inscriptions talk of an ‘Atular Salai’, which means hospital. Similar health care centres were also functioning in Thiruvakkam near Kancheepuram, Thanjavur and Srirangam, he added.

Archaeological Survey of India, which maintains the 9th century temple, now plans to recreate the garden by planting herbs mentioned in the inscription. T Saravanan, who took over as senior conservation assistant of ASI’s Kancheepuram sub-circle recently, said the temple would also be renovated for consecration. “The herbal garden is being established as part of renovation works that would commence this year. It is being executed on the directions of the ASI’s director-general, who visited the temple early this year,” he said.

Trapped in pandemic panic, people now look up at hospitals as temples, but in the days of yore temples themselves doubled up as hospitals.

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