Did you know?: Ancient Monastic Hospital System in Sri Lanka

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka) © Ko Hon Chiu Vincent / UNESCO World Heritage Centre

The Silk Roads produced major trade and cultural interactions between different people. In addition to the commercial interactions, diverse cultural, and scientific knowledge were exchanged between different regions. Medical sciences are one of the major fields of scientific exchanges along the Silk Roads that can be re-traced by different elements. For instance, the Buddhist Monastic Hospitals in Sri Lanka are  testimonies of the exchanges in the health sciences along the Silk Roads.

Based on the Buddhism philosophy, physical and mental wellbeing are significant for maintaining a balance of judgement in all concrete and spiritual matters. This latter is underlined in Buddha’s statement “health is the greatest gain”. With this conception of health and wellbeing, Buddha developed his philosophy around the Ayruvedic medical norm existing in 6th century B.C in India and the Buddhist religious records confirm that he promoted and demonstrated the ways and means of attending the sick monks. Some studies even attribute the idea of hospital to the Buddha and his followers. Therefore, with the evolution of the Buddhist order, studying medicine and healing sick people by the Buddhist monks become usual.

There is evidence of a tradition of establishing hospitals in Sri Lanka by the 4th century BC. Most of these hospitals were established in the capital Anuradhapura by Sri Lankan kings who sometimes had medical knowledge leading to a considerable development of medicine and hospitals in the island.

The findings of a 14th century CE Natha Devale shrine at the centre of Sri Lanka dedicated to Bhaisajyaguru (the Buddha of medicine, literally the “medical sage”), reveal the importance of health in Buddhism. Moreover, inscriptions with almost the same texts were found in Cambodia and Thailand. These records provide information on hospital activities and the disciplinary codes to be followed by sick monks recovering at the hospital.

Other archaeological findings have revealed hospitals located in the Buddhist monasteries of Anuradhapura, Madirigivi and Polonnaruva. The excavations gave important information regarding the medical system in Sri Lanka between the 8th and 12th centuries CE; they also drew a parallel to the medieval Christian churches traditions in Europe where – like in the Buddhist tradition – they built separated infirmaries for the aged and sick priests. These findings including medical and surgical materials are very similar to instruments illustrated by the ancient Indian surgical treatise of Sushruta (an Indian physician), and to Middle Eastern surgical instruments, thus displaying the continuity of a shared cultural tradition in medicine.

Traditional medicines existed in Sri Lanka, such as Indian Ayurvedic medicine and surgery, or acupuncture – a healing art from the 4th century AD coming from China. Both traditional disciplines have been known to ancient monastic hospitals of Sri Lanka, and clearly demonstrate the diffusion of sciences between Sri Lanka, South Asian regions and China.

These examples can show how the medical knowledge were exchanged between different regions along the Silk Roads and how it left a significant heritage on medical traditions and practices, in Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks still practice medicine while some ancient medical techniques are still used by people today.


See also:

Brunei in the Maritime Silk Roads

Khwarazm Region and the Silk Roads

Quanzhou – The Heart of the Maritime Silk Roads

Mongolian Nomadism along the Silk Roads

The Spread of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia through the Trade Routes

Sayyid Bin Abu Ali, a True Representative of Intercultural Relations along the Maritime Silk Roads

Thailand and the Maritime Silk Roads

Greek Presence in Central Asia

The Central Asian Maritime Silk Routes

Izmir and the Silk Roads

Baghdad and the Silk Roads

The Old City of Sana’a

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