This article is adapted from Suzanne Newcombe for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.
Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861–1946) was a high-profile Indian educationist and politician, notable for his role in the Indian independence movement.
He was elected president of the Indian National Congress party, generally arguing for moderate and constitutional activism and involved with the founding of Benaras Hindu University. He also campaigned for Hindu unity and re-conversion to Hinduism, as well as removing “untouchability” from Hinduism. Malaviya was extremely active and very much in the public spotlight. However, by 1937, the ageing Malaviya had retired from active politics due to his failing health. In search of rejuvenation, Malaviya chose to undertake a relatively unusual and intense treatment which ensured global media coverage.
Malaviya was urged by supporters to meet an Udāsi sadhu called Tapasviji (also Tapsi Baba) who had recently completed a successful rejuvenation treatment in Uttar Pradesh. Tapsi Baba was widely reported to be much older than he looked and to have undergone radical rejuvenation three times, most recently in the early 1930s. According to Malaviya, who enquired about the sadhu in the local area, a lot of people had seen the Tapsi Baba as a decrepit old man, the most sober estimate of his age being between 65 and 70 years, before he entered a purpose-built cottage (kuṭī) for his treatment. Others put his age much higher. But when he came out after 40 days, he looked not more than 40 years. After meeting Tapasviji, Malaviya was impressed and became convinced that he would benefit from a similarly intense rejuvenation practice, despite his weak state of health.
As reported in The Hindu on January 16, 1928, Malaviya, aged 76, entered a dark chamber, in a bungalow on the Ganges bank, from which light and air had been practically shut off to produce conditions similar to those existing inside a mother’s womb. Within a couple of days, the cycle of day and night was lost to the Pandit who now slept soundly for several hours in the day and used to sit up late in the night to meditate and study by the ghee lamp which was permitted. He lived on a diet of milk, butter, honey and “aonla” (possibly the Indian gooseberry) until he left the kuṭī on February 24, 1938.
One of the newspaper accounts provides some interesting detail about the method of preparation of the medicine used for Malaviya’s treatment in the forest: ‘Every fourth day Tapsi goes forth into the distant jungle to supervise the preparation of medicines from rare herbs. The main ingredient is from the dhak tree. Such a tree is cut down and the bottom of the tree is hollowed to form a cup where bark and precious dried herbs are placed. The cup is covered with dried cow dung which is ignited. The fire burns all day, and by evening the medicine is ready to be taken back to Allahabad where more secret herbs are mixed in. Beyond the medicine itself he was only allowed to drink the fresh milk of a black cow throughout the period of treatment. Despite this diet restriction Malaviya claims to have gained nine pounds during his sojourn in the purpose-built hut (kuṭī).’ Another contemporary newspaper report suggested the overall cost of this treatment in 1938 could “run from $2,000–$17,000,” putting it out of the reach of most individuals. Nevertheless, after Malaviya’s success, newspapers reported that several offers to sponsor Gandhi’s rejuvenation were forthcoming.
The effects of Malaviya’s treatment were considered universally positive but less extreme than promised in the Carakasaṃhitā. Malaviya explained that in fairness to Tapsi Baba, he had told him beforehand that a new set of teeth would not come out, nor would the nails fall off. According to Malaviya, Tapashivji ‘did expect that my hair would largely become black and I would look and feel as if I was twenty years younger. Malaviya concurred with the effectiveness of the treatment and noted he felt more confident and walked more upright.’ The Hindu, which did not offer photographs in its coverage of the incident, described it as “A Wonderful Change:“ His wrinkles had practically disappeared. His gums had gone stiff. Rumours of new teeth growing, were however, discredited. His face was fleshy and cheerful. … Compare with this the bowed and emaciated figure of the old Pandit when he delivered the Convocation address of the Allahabad University on December 14. This was the last occasion when Malaviya appeared in public before the Kayakalpa treatment. Before and after pictures of Pandit Malaviya appeared in The Illustrated Weekly of India of 20 March 1938.
Malaviya was somewhat embarrassed by the extent and tone of the media’s interest in his treatment. Upon his exit from the hut, Malaviya commented that, “I was sorry to learn that the treatment was very much advertised and that very exaggerated hopes were created about its results”. The tone and interest in the treatment varied depending on context, but it was syndicated by the Associated Press as well as being attended to by a variety of “correspondents” for major global newspapers in India.
The concern Malaviya expressed about the exaggerated reports is evidenced by one found in The Daily Telegraph, usually considered to be a sober broadsheet. On 19 January 1938, The Daily Telegraph ran a short note that Malaviya: has entered a specially prepared chamber on the banks of the Ganges for rejuvenation treatment by Sannyasi, who is reputed to be 72 years old. … it is claimed that after 10 days treatment the pandit will look 20 years younger in every way. The “exaggerated hopes” which Malaviya spoke of are clear in this report. Malaviya’s political activities were widely covered in British newspapers, his activities in this arena having direct impact on British colonial interests.
This news item is focused on the extreme end of the claims being made, in what might be best described as a condescending tone and most British papers did not pick up the feature.
In contrast, syndicated accounts of the report were widely reprinted in small-town papers in the United States as a novelty item of general interest. The Indian press was both more thorough and circumspect in their descriptions of Malaviya’s health cure. Although not a miracle cure, the general consensus in the Indian Press was that Malaviya did visibly benefit from the treatment.
Newcombe, Suzanne (2017) ‘Yogis, Ayurveda and Kayakalpa– The Rejuvenation of Pandit Malaviya’ History of Science in South Asia 5(2): 85– 120. DOI: 10.18732/hssa.v5i2.29