Within the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre 1070 “ResourceCultures”[i], anthropologist Roman Sieler conducts research in South India on resource understanding and resource use in traditional medicine. While Ayurveda for example is known worldwide for oil massages and medicinal herbs, Siddha medicine is often characterised by the use of various minerals and metals. Mercury, in particular, plays a special role. Siddha medicine is part of a complex, centuries-old tradition which, in addition to medical methods, also includes philosophical currents, astrological teachings, yogic practices and tantric and alchemical influences, which can be traced back to the Siddhars, a group of mystics whose origins may be dated back to roughly the 8th century. Today, Siddha medicine is one of India’s officially recognized medical traditions and can be studied as a medical degree in India. Siddha medicine is therefore practiced today by traditional healers trained by gurus as well as by doctors who have studied in modern universities. Roman Sieler spoke[ii] with the traditionally trained Siddha physician Egilane Lebel, 48, about the meaning, effect and preparation of mercury in Siddha medicine.
Figure 1: A Siddha doctor examines elemental mercury. (Copyright: Roman Sieler)
Roman Sieler (subsequently referred to as RS): You are using mercury in your medicine. What role does mercury play in Siddha medicine and why is it important for traditional Siddha doctors?
Egilane Lebel (subsequently referred to as EL): Various mineral toxins called Pashanam are important in Siddha medicine. Viram [mercury(II) chloride], Puram [mercury(I) chloride], Rasam [mercury], Lingam [mercury sulphide], sulphur and many more—in total there are 63 Pashanam mineral poisons. These include minerals and metals. Of these 63, nine are particularly important and are referred to as Navapashanam. And the most important mineral poisons are mercury and sulphur. Mercury is the god Shiva; sulphur is the goddess Shakti. Mercury is male; sulphur is female. Because only mercury can merge with sulphur, other substances cannot. If you grind both together, you can’t see the mercury anymore, both become completely black and united. Mercury is the main medicine of the Siddhars, the founders of the Siddha medicine. But it must be purified. All mineral poisons must be neutralized and may only be used for medical purposes after such purification. And there are different processes and methods for neutralizing different mineral poisons. We can hardly use any mineral poison without purification. If we were to use mineral poisons as they are, our patients would drop dead.
Figure 2: Mercury sulphide (also known as cinnabar), called “Lingam” in Siddha medicine. (Copyright: Roman Sieler)
RS: So, is mercury toxic or therapeutic?
EL: Everything is toxic. For example, many plants provide us with drugs, but at the same time they are poisonous plants. So, we must find out which part of the plant is toxic and which part can be used to produce drugs. Take rice, for example. Did you know that the root of the rice plant is very poisonous? Nevertheless, the rice plant provides food for the whole of India! We can use a plant only if we know which part of the plant is poisonous, and which part is not, or how we can avoid the poison. When it comes to mercury, we are indeed dealing with one of the most dangerous poisons. But it can be purified. If mercury is purified, it can become medicine! Of course, mercury is not food, it is not edible. But it can be used to make medicines. If it is used alone or consumed on its own, it is toxic. But if we purify it and use it together with other ingredients, it becomes medicine and is not dangerous.
RS: How do you know that the purification was successful, and that mercury can be used as a medicine?
EL: Precise guidance or instruction is required to ensure the successful purification process. If the ancient scriptures or a Guru mentions that Lingam [mercury sulphide] needs to be slowly ground for three to six hours, it is imperative that the substance is gently ground for three hours, not two, not one. Such guidance will help to ensure successful neutralization of the poison. Nowadays, many people are lazy and only grind the substance for half an hour, but they don’t neutralize the poison. And it is not enough to grind Lingam for three hours, there are extensive and lengthy processes using different plants. The purification process alone can take several days or weeks, depending on the type and condition of the Lingam. And there are many different processes that can be used to achieve this purification.
Figure 3: A Siddha physician grinds mercury sulphide in a granite mortar. (Copyright: Roman Sieler)
And we only know for sure that mercury is really purified when we administer it to the patients. But if we follow the instructions exactly, we obtain a safe medicine. Of course, a lot has to do with the right amount and dose. In allopathy [western medicine] doctors today prescribe iron tablets to many patients. They contain iron powder. But iron powder is potentially toxic and harmful. So why and how do they do it? Does it kill or poison people? Of course, you’ll say, it’s the correct amount, it’s a special kind of iron powder, so it’s non-toxic, and so on. This is true, and it also applies to our use of mercury in siddha medicine, if used correctly. Mercury is part of many medications, but it is not dangerous because it has been combined with other ingredients and medications and purified beforehand. In addition, we extract mercury from mercury sulphide, then we use complex processes with herbs to remove the toxic parts from mercury, after which its properties have completely changed, and it is no longer toxic.
RS: What are the most common mercury drugs and what are they used for?
EL: Mercury can be part of medical powders called Paspams or Senthurams. For example, mercury is found in Purna Chandrodaya Senthuram, which also contains gold and sulphur. This is a rejuvenating preparation; it helps the body to regenerate. Then there is for example Sivanathamrutham, which contains mercury, sulphur, and pepper and works well for various skin diseases, but also for colds, and can also be used as an emergency medicine, because it is the best medicine for snake bites or scorpion stings. Or for example Rasaganthimezhugu, which contains 8 mineral poisons and 40 medicinal plants. It has a good effect on skin diseases but especially on cancer. The ingestion of mercury as part of these preparations is completely safe. Normally such medicine is administered for a period of 48 days. In severe cases, mercury medications can be taken between six months and up to one year without complications. But it should not be taken alone: it is not a medicine directly or by itself. It must be mixed with other ingredients. It becomes a medicine as part of a prescription. Because pure mercury would be excreted by the body again. Only if it is mixed with other ingredients, it can work in the body. In addition, its effect is also related to auxiliary medicine, as there is a difference whether we administer the powder of medicine Sivanathamrutham together with Betel leaf, then it works well against skin problems. Mixed with milk it works against heart problems; mixed with honey it works against colds. And there are many other medicines containing mercury in siddha medicine. They can be used in many cases: for nerve problems, for example. And in very problematic cases, such as paralysis. But mercury-based drugs can also be used for fever, diabetes or cancer.
RS: Have you ever been afraid of using mercury and what safety precautions do you take when using this substance?
Figure 4: Ground mercury sulphide. (Copyright: Roman Sieler)
EL: When I first learned the use of mercury from my guru, I was indeed a bit anxious. But he took that insecurity from me and it also dispersed with experience of handling mercury. There are also certain methods that we can use, especially in the initial phase and for cleaning after handling mercury: For example, we can clean our hands with cow dung immediately after we have finished working on mercury. If we use it to wash our hands, the poison that has accumulated there can be neutralised. A second method uses turmeric. It is also used to wash our hands. Also, with saltwater and the juice of Aloe Vera. With these methods we can clean ourselves. It is also important to note that mercury is a mineral metal. It does not remain in our body! If we swallow it, it is excreted again.
RS: How and where did you learn methods for the purification of mercury and the production of mercury preparations?
EL: From my guru, my teacher, through the guru method. This means that I learned by living with my guru, observing and assisting him. There is no other way. You must work for a guru. He will tell you: “Clean these pots, collect those plants, grind this substance,” and so on. This is the teaching method. In traditional Siddha medicine, you don’t find frontal teaching in the classroom, but the family method of teaching. What do students receive in the classroom? Only book knowledge, no experience. This is a foolish method! You must learn it the right way. You see, the student needs the guru because only he knows the method. The guru needs someone to help him prepare the medicine. Since it is prepared for the benefit of the patients, the guru must make sure that the medicine is properly prepared. If he lies or conceals his knowledge, his medicine will fail. The student who assists him learns the right method and will remember it if he is a good student. This is called the Gurukula system. Only this method is effective in teaching Siddha medicine. But it takes time: 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. And a guru won’t teach medicine immediately. “First read something about discipline” he might tell you. They say you can’t just teach Siddha medicine to everyone. Only if a student is disciplined will a teacher teach him medicine, otherwise he will throw him out. Because medicine is not food, it is only intended for patients. If we give patients improperly prepared medicine, they can die.
RS: In the western world and in conventional medicine, mercury is rated negatively. To what extent do you see it differently?
EL: Mercury is indeed dangerous. We cannot use mercury directly; we must extract it from lingam [mercury sulphide]. Most Siddha doctors obtain their mercury in this way. Lingam is the natural occurrence of mercury. After purchasing Lingam, some herbs must be added to obtain mercury. Half of the metal poison can be eliminated during extraction. During the further preparation of mercury, the other half must be neutralized. That’s what we do. But mercury, which can be bought in a laboratory or which is used industrially, such as to produce phosphors, is not purified. They use a chemical method to extract the mercury. We must clean mineral toxins, otherwise they are not suitable for medicine. The old Siddhars knew this of course. But many people today have become lazy; they buy industrially produced mercury. But that leads to many side effects! Many people are afraid of Siddha medicine and say: Mercury is a poison! But mercury is not a poison. Mercury is the best ingredient of the Siddhars. But the method of preparation must be right. And industrial use is dangerous and causes problems because the poison is not purified. Who says that mercury is toxic? Doctors, for example, say that mercury is toxic. Because it is made of metal. But iron is also metal and is used in allopathy. Moreover, many allopathic drugs cause liver problems, potentially even liver failure. So, are poisons not also used in allopathy? To say that mercury is poison is not a medical method, it is a business model. Well, if, for example, we want to produce a medicine by calcination, it takes at least two whole days. This must be heated over fire continuously for 24 hours. On the second or third day we can remove the calcined medicine [Paspam]. So much for the firing method alone. Before that we must procure the substance, prepare it, clean it, prepare all tools and other ingredients. All this is very complex and lengthy. Nowadays the same process can be carried out in a short time in a laboratory using chemicals. But I tell you, if you compare the value of the two resulting products, you will find that the quality of medicine made by the traditional method is higher than the quality of medicine made by modern machines. When Siddha medicines prepared in the laboratory are tested, you will see that they are not much effective and you will ask, why doesn’t Siddha medicine work? But how could something that takes three days be achieved in just three minutes? There is no shortcut to good medicines! The use of modern techniques in Siddha medicine is a big mistake. Siddhars are who? Experienced personalities. What knowledge do they have? The highest, divine knowledge. So, their medicines are also the gift of the gods. Siddha is not a business model, but nowadays everyone turns to making money and everything loses its effectiveness. But some things can’t be accelerated. There is no shortcut in yoga. Neither in Siddha medicine. It really makes a difference whether you use manual work or modern machines in Siddha medicine. And that’s easy to understand: When you grind an ingredient with heavy machines, you generate heat. If you grind by hand, there is hardly any heat. And it makes a difference to the resulting medicine whether it is ground with heat or without. So, you can imagine the difference between medicines bought in the shop and those made in the laboratory and traditionally handmade ones.
RS: Where do you get mercury from? Is it difficult to buy mercury?
EL: No, that is not difficult. We extract mercury from mercury sulphide. I can show you a simple method, but it is a very good method. It’s my guru’s method. Only two ingredients are needed besides mercury sulphide for this method: one is turmeric, the other are leaves of a tree. The preparation takes two days. After two days one obtains liquid mercury. There are two methods: there is a fire method and a smoke method, we can extract mercury with both methods. With the fire method you have to burn lingam continuously, with the smoke method you grind lingam with turmeric and heat both until no more smoke emanates from the vessel. Mercury can be extracted after 24 hours. This is a very good method. I use this method. We can buy mercury sulphide in special shops that sell raw materials for traditional medicine. However, the mineral poisons are only sold to experienced Siddha doctors. But the production of Siddha medicines has now become more difficult overall. It has become difficult to get the best ingredients-both herbal and mineral. But Siddha is still the best medicine.
Figure 5: Egilane Lebel collects elemental liquid mercury obtained from calcined mercury sulphide from a clay vessel.
(Copyright: Roman Sieler)
Figure 6: Purified and processed elemental mercury extracted from mercury sulphide. (Copyright: Roman Sieler)
RS: Is Siddha medicine possible without mercury?
EL: In Siddha medicine, mercury is everything. Mercury is the main medicine of the Siddhars. Mercury is particularly important in Siddha medicine because we can practically produce no drugs without it! Of course, we can produce medicines from herbal ingredients: We can use leaves, roots, stems, bark, etc., but we cannot make metal oxide drugs [Senthuram] with them. We can only make them with mercury. That is why mercury is such an important medical ingredient. Siddha is a very old tradition, older than Ayurveda. The Tamil tradition is very old, and Siddha medicine is the Tamil tradition. Siddha and Ayurveda are basically the same, the basic principles and concepts are the same, but the preparation methods differ. The methods in Ayurveda are simple and easy to use; Siddha preparations are complex and take a lot of time to learn and make. Well, of course people everywhere only want to choose the quick and easy methods. But that is wrong! Nobody has time today. Not the patients, not even the doctors. So, if you have a fever, the doctor, without looking at you, will prescribe what he prescribes to everyone with a fever. But is that enough? Moreover, the methods of preparation of the Siddhars are very secret. All Siddha doctors have their secrets! But I tell you, all valuable things need some secrecy. Siddha medicine needs secrecy because it is a valuable thing. But in the industrialized world, only money is important. People can and will do anything for money. But that is not the ideal of the Siddhars. So, we must preserve this secrecy. The idea is that not everyone should practice Siddha medicine. Because not everyone can. As the Siddhars have already mentioned, there are 4448 diseases in the human body. Siddha medicine can cure them all. The Siddhars observed these diseases. They meditated. They understood them. They thought about what would work as a remedy for each of them. They prepared the medicines. And they found mercury as the most important substance.
RS: Rasamani amulets made of mercury are said to have a spiritual power. What is special about Rasamani?
EL: Every metal has a power. Iron, for example, has a certain power. Gold, copper and other metals have a certain creative power. Mercury, however, has the greatest creative power of all metals. Mercury is a liquid metal. This shows its high creative power. Water also has considerable creative power. But mercury is dry and dense at the same time. This energy can influence the energy of our body. Mercury’s creative power can increase the creative power of my body. It can also be used in medicine. It is a tantric method. With a Rasamani it is possible to increase one’s own power. If you want to know how this works, we can say that it magnifies the primordial power. Many people use Rasamani for this purpose. A Rasamani amulet can give peace to the mind. If I give you an amulet and you wear it and tell yourself that it is very strong then you will believe it and feel satisfied while wearing it. As I said before, everything has a power. And mercury has a maximum of creative power. But this is true for the natural mercury, the purified and processed mercury, not for the Rasamani amulets that you can buy in the shops or on the Internet. Of course, Rasamani amulets have become a lucrative business. But if they are not made properly, they can cause skin diseases. After all, it is a mineral poison. Rasamani amulets have the ability to use the essential forces that are already in the world. And wearing Rasamanis is a method of increasing the power that flows through us. But it is nothing more than that. It would be wrong to say that Rasamanis is the most powerful thing in the world or something. We can also recite mantras to achieve the same thing. Only when we operate a switch does the light burn. If not, the light does not burn. Wearing a Rasamani can be compared to a light switch. That is why it is important to believe in it. You must believe: “this is my Rasamani, it is powerful. Now I hold it in my hand. Now I am a powerful man”.
Figure 7: A Siddha practitioner examines a finished Rasamani amulet that can be worn around the neck. (Copyright: Roman Sieler)
RS: Do you make Rasamani amulets? If so, do you sell them or produce them for your own use?
EL: I sometimes make Rasamani amulets. I used to do it more often. But I only make them for temples—with the intention of increasing the power of the deity of the temple. In this way I have made many Rasamani amulets and donated them to temples. That is the only reason why I make Rasamanis, only as a gift to God. On no account do I make Rasamani amulets for ordinary people and not for sale. If I would make it for such a purpose, I would not be able to concentrate on good intentions when I work on it as I do for a temple. My own creative power is then different, and I cannot concentrate on God in my work; if I did it for money, I could concentrate only on money and business at work and that would make the Rasamani amulet less powerful anyway. But in many shops, they sell Rasamanis; some cost only 200 rupees. [about 2,50 €]. I wonder if there is mercury in it at all. More like tin and lead! Because not only mercury is more expensive as a raw material; the method of preparation is very expensive. It takes at least 3 months to produce an original Rasamani. Every day you work on cleaning and solidifying the mercury. It takes one month just to clean the mercury. It is not easy.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the German Research Association, DFG, for its support of the research that led to this interview, and to Dr. Brigitte Sébastia for her comments on the interview.
[i] The Collaborative Research Centre 1070 “ResourceCultures” at the University of Tübingen investigates how different societies define, evaluate, appropriate and use resources. Archaeologists, ethnologists, geographers, historians, classical philologists and economic historians shed light on how something becomes a resource for social development and which social dynamics are triggered by the demand for and use of these resources. They assume that societies in different times and places have developed their own ideas of what is of particular value for their coexistence. The SFB 1070 is currently being funded by the German Research Foundation in the second of three possible funding periods of four years each.
[ii] The interview was conducted in Tamil and translated into English by Roman Sieler.