ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

From Stone to Text: linking pre-modern healthcare institutions and āyurvedic epidemiology


Bianchini Francesco - University of Cambridge


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


 There is considerable archaeological and epigraphic evidence to guide us in the study of early hospitals in South and Southeast Asia. A growing number of studies has engaged with healthcare institutions from ancient Sri Lanka and Cambodia, while evidence from the Indian Subcontinent has been surveyed by Wujastyk (2022). And yet many aspects remain obscure, including the links between archaeological remains and coeval theories of disease. Can we link actual buildings to the descriptions found in the Carakasa?hita? Did ayurvedic epidemiology help shape programmes of communal health? In this paper, I will focus on three aspects of extant hospital buildings: location/landscape; water management; and sanitation.

As for the first, there are instances of medical buildings placed outside the city walls at Angkor and Phimai, which mirrors guidance found in the Arthasastra and later Indic manuals on city planning. But can we identify epidemiological concerns beyond those for easy access and supplies?

As for water management, Angkorian hospitals regularly include step-pools, while Sri Lankan examples feature a curious sarcophagus that may have served for immersion therapy. Once again, specific links with medical texts and theories require further scrutiny.

Lastly, some structures appear to feature sanitation systems. This may at first remind us of Vinaya passages dealing with toilet practices and decorum. Further medical dimensions should be discussed in a silo-busting collaboration