Thursday, 6 June 2013

Aziz Ahmed, The Srinagar Unani Hakim

"Arak Kelab". Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
"Aziz Ahmed, The Unani". Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
"Dame-Jeanne Bottles". Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
"Aziz Ahmed, The Unani". Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Across from the Sheikh Hamdan mosque in Srinagar, I noticed a small traditional store (top photo) with a sign in Urdu script which, in Arabic, read "Dogs' Sweat"! However, on further clarification, it was a store owned by a vendor of rose essence, and the sign actually meant "Sap of Roses"....quite a bit of difference.

I entered the dingy small store, and introduced myself to the owner Aziz Ahmed, a Kashmiri unani who's been practicing this dying profession since inheriting the business from his father, and his grandfather before him. The store had been standing for many generations, and still has a wonderful array of antique bottles and jars; some of glass, others in ceramic, imported from England during the Raj. Some larger ones called dame-jeanne (or demi-john in English) have capacities of up to 15 gallons. I know that because my maternal grandmother used to buy similar bottles in Cairo, and convert them into beautiful floor lamps for her home.

But what is unani? It's a form of traditional medicine practiced by Muslimsand first arrived in India around 12th or 13th century with the establishment of Delhi Sultanate and Islamic rule over North India, and subsequently flourished under the Mughal Empire.  Unani is the Arabic word for Greek, and it's based on the teachings of Hippocrates, hence the term.

However, Aziz hasn't really practiced it for a while, and it's a profession that is slowly but surely disappearing. He survives by selling rose water used to wash the Sufi shrines, and kewra water used for flavoring various foods, sweets syrups and soft drinks. Extracts of these two florals are also used for perfume...so the unani may have turned into a attar (a perfume seller).

Listen to Aziz Ahmed telling me (in accented English) about the demise of his business: