Reconstructive Surgery in India
In 1792 Tippu Sultan’s soldiers captured a Maratha cart–driver named Cowasjee (Kawasji) in the British army and cut of his nose and an arm. A year later, a kumbhar (potter) vaidya in Puna reconstructed Kawasji’s nose. Two British surgeons in the Bombay Presidency, Thomas Cruso and James Findlay witnessed this skilful procedure and noted the details. In October 1794, this account was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine of London, describing it as an operation ‘not uncommon in India and has been practiced for time immemorial’! This procedure, similar to that cited in the Sushrut Samhita, ultimately changed the course of plastic surgery in Europe and the world. It was different from Sushrut’s, in that Kawasji’s graft was taken from his forehead. Sushrut grafted skin from the cheek. To aid healing, he prescribed the use of three herbs and cotton wool soaked with sesame seed oil in dressing the graft. After the graft healed, he advocated cutting off the tissue joined to the cheek (Sutrasthan 16/18).
Regarding cosmetic surgery, Sushrut could also reconstruct ear lobes and enumerates fifteen ways in which to repair them. Guido Majno in The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World (1975), notes that, “Through the habit of stretching their earlobes, the Indians became masters in a branch of surgery that Europe ignored for another two thousand years.” Sushrut meticulously details the pre–and post–operative procedures. After stitching, for example, he prescribes dressing the lobe by applying honey and ghee, then covering with cotton and gauze and finally binding with a thread, neither too tightly nor too loosely. Torn lips were also treated in a similar manner (Sutrasthan 16/2–7, 18, 19).
The sun was now low beneath the horizon. Darkness spread rapidly. None of my selves could see anything beyond the tapering light of our headlamps on the hedge. I summoned them together. "Now," I said, "comes the season of making up our accounts. Now we have got to collect ourselves; we have got to be one self. Nothing is to be seen any more, except one wedge of road and bank which our lights repeat incessantly. We are perfectly provided for. We are warmly wrapped in a rug; we are protected from wind and rain. We are alone. Now is the time of reckoning. Now I, who preside over the company, am going to arrange in order the trophies which we have all brought in. Let me see; there was a great deal of beauty brought in to-day: farmhouses; cliffs standing out to sea; marbled fields; mottled fields; red feathered skies; all that. Also there was disappearance and the death of the individual. The vanishing road and the window lit for a second and then dark. And then there was the sudden dancing light, that was hung in the future. What we have made then to-day," I said, "is this: that beauty; death of the individual; and the future. Look, I will make a little figure for your satisfaction; here he comes. Does this little figure advancing through beauty, through death, to the economical, powerful and efficient future when houses will be cleansed by a puff of hot wind satisfy you? Look at him; there on my knee." We sat and looked at the figure we had made that day. Great sheer slabs of rock, tree tufted, surrounded him. He was for a second very, very solemn. Indeed it seemed as if the reality of things were displayed there on the rug. A violent thrill ran through us; as if a charge of electricity had entered in to us. We cried out together: "Yes, yes," as if affirming something, in a moment of recognition.