ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

05 – Health, disease and epidemics: multidisciplinary perspectives on the socio-ecology of medicine in pre-modern South Asia

Against the background of the global climate, biodiversity and pandemic crises this panel examines aspects of public health and disease in pre-modern South Asia, including social, religious and ecological dimensions of hygiene, health and wellbeing, chronic illness and disability, and the transmission and control of epidemics.


Julia Shaw - University College London (UCL), Institute of Archaeology
Vitus Angermeier - University of Vienna, Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies

Long Abstract

The ongoing climate, biodiversity, and pandemic crises, influenced by increasingly unsustainable human-animal interactions in a globalized world, have intensified scholarly interest in relationships between human and environmental health. Diachronic perspectives on such matters increasingly characterize research agendas within Anthropocene Studies, and Environmental Humanities although integrated archaeological and text-based investigations of such human:non-human:environmental engagements and their health outcomes in antiquity are rare. Further, scholarly studies of health, disease and epidemics within the history of medicine often only touch on South Asia or omit the region altogether. Moreover, the topic of pre-modern public health and its socio-ecological underpinnings is still marginal to South Asian Studies.
This panel will examine aspects of public health, illness and disease in pre-modern South Asia from a range of social, cultural and ecological perspectives. Bridging Indology, archaeology and the broader historical and social sciences, it aims to stimulate interdisciplinary exchange on:

· The history and archaeology of epidemics and infectious diseases.
· Socio-cultural, religious, and medical responses to illness, disease transmission and control.
· Socio-ritual and hygiene-based constructions of purity and pollution and their relevance for health maintenance.
· Ascetical traditions of socio-physical distancing and their implications for public health control.
· Ecology, climate and air quality as factors in models of disease, health and wellbeing.
· Social, environmental and climatic variables of zoonotic diseases.
· Chronic illness, disability, and social stigmatisation.


Epidemic Prevention: Precursors of Public Health in Early Āyurveda?
Angermeier Vitus - University of Vienna, Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, Vienna, Austria
Interrogating the Idea of Hygiene in the Early Indian Monastic Practices through the Lens of Textual Sources.
Banerjee Chitralekha - University of Calcutta, Ancient Indian History and Culture, Kolkata, India
Fever and Widespread Disease in Thirteenth-century Tibet
McGrath William - New York University, Religious Studies, New York, United States
Pained by prolonged illness – the changing perception of a ritual solution for the diseased and elderly
Nowakowska Monika - University of Warsaw, Faculty of Oriental Studies, Warsaw, Poland
How does “nyen” become a virus? Pre-modern Tibetan medical concepts and interpretations of nonhuman entities in the times of COVID-19
van der Valk Jan - University of Vienna, Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, Vienna, Austria