Roll up for India's miraculous healing herbal cloth, but where's the rub?
Amrit Dhillon, New Delhi
September 15, 2007
Weavers produce herbal cloth.

Weavers produce herbal cloth.
 

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ITCHY skin? Aching joints? Galloping hypertension? Forget the doctor, just put on a basil-infused shirt, draw the turmeric-flavoured curtains and lie down on sheets impregnated with aloe vera.

If ayurveda the ancient Indian herbal system of medicine is anything to go by, contact with these specially treated fabrics will make you feel better.

From the moment the raw organic cotton yarn is woven to the time it is ready for cutting, this special cloth woven only in the tiny village of Balaramapuram in the southern Indian state of Kerala is treated with ayurvedic herbs.

These herbs, it is claimed, help improve skin ailments, rashes, hypertension, arthritis, asthma, and diabetes.

Different herbs are used on different batches of cloth, depending on the ailment.

"Cloth meant for diabetes is treated with the prescribed set of herbs. Cloth meant for another ailment is dyed and dried with different herbs," said Kuchkundu Rajan, who runs the Handloom Weavers Development Society, a non-profit organisation of weavers.

The yarn is woven using a special gum and dyed with natural plants such as sandalwood, pomegranate, indigo or turmeric.

When the weaver has woven the yarn, it is put out to dry in a herbal garden to absorb yet more healing properties. Even the building has lime and gum extracts in it rather than cement and sand. The end product a fortnight later is medicated fabric.

"We believe that this medicinal fabric improves the body's immunity," says Mr Rajan, who has just sent 6000 burqas to Saudi Arabia. "Chemically dyed fabric is causing a lot of skin allergies among Saudi women. They prefer our fabric because it is totally natural and there are no toxic irritants."

His other customers, in the US, Britain, South Africa, Germany and Japan, use the ayurvastra cloth for making dresses, T-shirts, shirts and bed linen.

Ayurveda originated in Kerala 5000 years ago and has been used to treat various illnesses. It is popular among Indians while the famous Kerala massages are popular with foreigners.

"Ayur" is Sanskrit for health, while "vastra" means cloth, so ayurvastra literally means "health cloth".

But does it work? The only test so far has been at the government-owned Ayurveda College in Kerala. Patients suffering from rheumatism, allergies, hypertension and psoriasis were exposed to ayurvedic herbs for a month through clothing, bed linen and mattresses. The floors and walls of their rooms were lined with ayurvastra mats. Doctors reported a marked improvement, particularly in the cases of arthritis and skin ailments.

"I started wearing ayurvastra shirts and bedsheets for my eczema last year," said Ramesh Kumar, 34, a local co-operative bank worker. "The itching was terrible and allopathic doctors hadn't help. It took a while four months but it made a significant difference."

The handloom weavers call the clothes they make (and wear) "healing clothes". For them, ayurvastra has been a godsend. The arrival of power looms, offering cheaper saris, had thrown them out of work.

For generations, these weavers had woven traditional silk saris by hand but producing "healing clothes" has saved them from destitution.