MORE than 15 years ago, Saajan Mani, a businessman and agriculturalist based in Thodupuzha, Kerala, bought a coffee plantation in the Wayanad district of the state where he employed local tribals, some of whom had crossed 80 years of age. Mani was impressed with their physique and hard work despite their incorrigible alcoholism, but he never showed any displeasure for a variety of reasons. One, they always showed up for work at dawn. Second, they had the strength and skills required to handle coffee plants at every stage of their growth. He also didn’t want to interfere with the ‘local ways’ of life, their customs and traditions. Their brawny bodies were capable of hard labour. One morning, he was shocked to receive news of the 90-year-old ‘mooppan ’ or chieftain of the Paniyar caste who never worked, but controlled the villagers who worked under him. He thought the workers had come to him with word of his death, which meant a few days of mourning and no work in that period.
Mani listened closely and then realised with a start that the villagers had just announced that a baby boy had been born to the mooppan from his 18-year-old fifth wife. Speechless, Mani decided to visit this man in the evening with a bottle of imported brandy. The chieftain immediately invited him to a chat over the local brew. Mani became a frequent visitor to the mooppan’s place who offered him a chair while sitting on the floor himself, and addressed him as Mani Thambran. After a few months, Mani asked the old man the secret of his virility. He laughed loudly and asked him to return the next day. The next day, the chief took out of a small sack a beetle that he called ‘otturumaal’. As Mani watched, the mooppan held the insect tightly and brought it close to his nostrils and inhaled its scent with athletic finesse and declared, “This is the secret. The scent of this is not very pleasant. But you have to inhale very deeply.” Mani experimented with it a few times, only to realise that the elderly chief was right about the scent being a powerful aphrodisiac.
“Our forests are full of secrets. You have to experience it to believe it,” says this businessman who has sold off his plantation business since.
More than 1,500 km away in Kondagaon, in the Maoist-ridden Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, former banker Rajaram Tripathi, who as a farmer-entrepreneur runs a company titled Maa Danteshwari Herbal Products and sells his herbal products to countries in the Middle East and Africa, vouches that his knowledge of plants has grown thanks to his close association with tribals of the region, his wife being one. He has medicines for all kinds of ailments, including hypertension, diabetes, asthma and even some forms of gastric cancer, he claims, as he takes you around his large farm in the middle of a forest filled with plants whose names you have only heard in Ayurvedic texts or perhaps in Hortus Malabaricus, a book that has compiled details of the properties of plants in the Western Ghats. “You have more here in Bastar, but people are yet to discover its numerous benefits,” he says. More than medicines for any disease, it is his safed musli powder, made from the roots of the eponymous plant, that has earned him the epithet, King of Safed Musli. For centuries, musli powder had attracted male attention in markets across the country—from Old Delhi to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai and various small towns—for its ‘ability’ to cure erection problems. The posters and announcements by shopkeepers often read, ‘Best Solution for male weakness and physical debility’, translated across languages.
High disposable incomes, easy access to foreign drugs such as Pfizer’s trademark Viagra, which treats erectile dysfunction, its cheaper generic variants, other similar local and overseas products have now crowded urban markets; yet, the mystery surrounding home-grown products that enhance sexual performance endures and still attracts widespread curiosity for their reported absence of side effects, efficacy and perhaps health benefits. Popping the pill is the easy way out; including avocados, Spanish saffron, caviar, oysters and pine nuts in your diet is trendy; ginseng, gold dust, bamboo shoots, special button mushrooms in balsamic vinaigrette, edamame beans, lavender and edible flowers are fashionable; and Indian women are looking at boosting their libido by eating flowers such as orchids, poppy flowers and Morning Glory.
The oldest known aphrodisiac is Chyawanprasha of high quality and prepared with top-notch ingredients. Commercialisation may have hurt its importance, but a well prepared one is the best solution to any problems to do with low sexual drive” Dr K Krishnadas, Ayurvedic practitioner, Thrissur, Kerala
Yet, the mad chase for home-grown knowledge, often considered esoteric, to enhance masculinity and boost sexual desire sees no signs of letting up. True, curious Indians are trying out various types of chocolates; yohimbine, a drug made using the bark of a central African tree; Muira Puama from Brazil; besides diets like asparagus, watermelon, celery, pomegranates and so on—and reports on the benefits of such products often go viral on the internet. Banana, maca (also called Peruvian Viagra), Tibetan Maythok g’ang-lhah and rocket leaves are other attractions. While many of these, like chocolates, Chinese Ginkgo biloba, honey, wild yam, chasteberry and so on are not medically proven and their effects are considered mythical, their demand continues to rise. Notwithstanding the craze for exotic varieties, the fascination for local experiences that stimulate humans sexually, like the scent of a beetle in the Western Ghats or the musli in Bastar, puts the spotlight on the rich diversity of Indian flora and fauna in whetting Indians’ thirst for alternative sources to enrich their sex lives. “Some of the Indian ones prove to be very effective and have been used over centuries. Wedding tribal knowledge with modern medicine can produce miracles,” says Tripathi.
Dr K Krishnadas, a Thrissur-based Ayurvedic practitioner, states that the “most validated” aphrodisiacs in traditional Indian medicine are Ashwagandha- based products prepared by gifted medicine makers. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has long been known to reduce stress and cortisol levels, increasing testosterone and fortifying the human immune system. It is also known to improve the sex drive of males, and data shows that even in the US, the numbers of those who fall back on Ashwagandha herbal pills to stay sexually active has risen rapidly over the past decade. The sales of Ashwagandha extracts in many countries in the West, too, have gone up over the years. “If you ask me, the oldest known aphrodisiac is Chyawanprasha of high quality and prepared with high quality ingredients. Commercialisation may have hurt its importance, but a well prepared one is the best solution to any problems to do with low sexual drive,” says Krishnadas.
Several regions in India have an abundance of mineral-rich Shilajit, which is a tar-like substance found in the rocks, especially the Himalayas and various other mountainous terrains. Rich in fulvic and humic acid, Shilajit has been mentioned in Ayurveda’s Materia Medica as highly potent in curing weakness and low libido. It increases heat in the body and is found in two forms: gomutra shilajit and karpoora shijalit, one with the scent of cow urine and the other of camphor. This has a few variants, too, and in south India, it is more popular as kanmadham. Commercially, Shilajit is also available mixed with gold dust.
In contrast, Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus ), which translates into ‘a woman with hundred husbands’, is a bitter-sweet herb used by both men and women. While companies such as Himalaya sell Shatavari capsules, traditional doctors insist that the powder form is also equally effective as an aphrodisiac. It is known to have both calming and stimulating properties and is used mostly by women. Users often consult doctors before they consume such drugs. Similarly, the seeds of Kokilaksham (Asteracantha longifolia), a herb that grows in wet places across India, is crushed and had with milk to increase male libido. The leaves and roots of the plant are also used for treating other medical conditions such as rheumatism, urinary infection, jaundice and so on. Meanwhile, a few Madurai-based traditional Siddha practitioners Open spoke to aver that Arrowroot powder (koova podi), which is usually fed to children, works as an aphrodisiac too. Traditional physicians from Maharashtra and Kerala also second this claim.
As a substitute to safed musli in north and eastern India, the root of Nilappanai Kilangu (Curculigo orchioides), which is also called Nilappana Kizhangu, is used in south India. Ayurvedic doctors claim it increases testosterone levels and promotes endurance. Any decline in testosterone levels results in loss of interest in sexual activity and also reduces bone strength in men. Very low levels lead to fatigue and imbalance in cholesterol metabolism. Alternatively, there are worries that testosterone- enhancing allopathic drugs lead to higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. The Lancet produced a report: ‘Specifically, in July, 2014, Health Canada warned about ‘serious and possible life-threatening heart and blood vessel problems such as heart attack, stroke, blood clot in the lungs or legs; and increased or irregular heart rate with the use of testosterone replacement products’, and worked with manufactures to effect a label change. In November 2014, the European Medicines Agency advised that testosterone use should be restricted. In March, 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned of ‘the possible increased risk of heart attacks and strokes associated with testosterone use’ and required a corresponding label change. These regulatory pronouncements raise serious questions about the use of testosterone for indications other than clinically important testosterone deficiency. Testosterone sales in the US are already falling.’
People are yet to discover the numerous benefits of indigenous herbal products. Some of the Indian flaura and fauna are very effective in enriching sex lives and have been used over centuries. Wedding tribal knowledge with modern medicine can produce miracles” Rajaram Tripathi, agri-entrepreneur, Bastar, Chhattisgarh
In the light of such warnings, the sales of alternative sources of testosterone are only expected to soar, feel practitioners of traditional Indian medicine. Alongside, various preparations mentioned in Vatsyayana’s seminal text Kamasutra are expected to be in high demand. Besides postures to enjoy sex, the Kamasutra also prescribes various aphrodisiacs, even measures for thickening and enlarging sexual organs using ingredients that are available in your kitchen such as honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, asparagus and so on. It also lists ways to heat or cool such ingredients to get best results.
A well-known south Indian actor is known to experiment with various potions that traditional physicians prepare for him to increase his sex drive. “Aswagandha and Chittamrith are very much part of this lehyam (tonic). Then there are other normal raw materials such as cinnamon, fenugreek, saffron, milk, honey, shallots and so on. Temperature management is crucial to making this formulation. We have some of the best traditional vaidyas [doctors] preparing it,” says a person close to the actor.
Chittamrith (Tinospora cordifolia) is widely known as an herbal cure for diabetes. Dr Krishnadas says that it is also a rejuvenative herb that doubles up as an aphrodisiac. Besides that, its leaves, stems and roots are used in making medicinal jams that even diabetics can have. The plant is known by different names across India and is also known as the home-grown Paracetamol for its temperature-regulating properties. Other names are Vayastha, Jevanthi, Bishkpriya, Gulooji, Chinnarooham, Amrithavalli, Somavalli, and Madhuparni, according to various sources.
ONE OF THE most effective desi medicines prescribed for people with erectile dysfunction is Chandraprabha, a tablet which is also very effective in fighting various other diseases, including constipation, bloating and back pain. It is even used to treat eczema, dermatitis, fistula and various other health disorders. It is considered a natural sex stimulant and an anti-ageing medicine, according to various Ayurvedic practitioners.
The Charaka Samhita, considered one of India’s most ancient Indian treatises on medicine, along with the Srusruta Samhita, Amla, or gooseberry, especially the smaller variety, is considered the best antidote for ‘those who have been weakened by sexual indulgence and wine and poisons’. Today’s Ayurvedic doctors state that various traditional preparations flush with small gooseberries function as aphrodisiacs when they are consumed over a long period of time. But then it is the way it is prepared—temperature balance and quality of ingredients—that determines the efficacy of the medicine, say doctors. Kaunj Beej seeds (Mucuna pruriens) are known to be potent sex stimulants. Animal tests have proved that male rats that were given these seeds ended up mating ten times more than usual, according to several reports. In powder form, this herbal remedy for erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation has proved to be fruitful when taken with milk or water. It also known to help raise testosterone levels and sperm counts. The product is available in oil and capsule formats.
The rise in demand for aphrodisiacs— whether chemical or nature-based— points, however, to other deep-seated problems not in the body, but in the mind.
Tense people, or those who suffer from anxiety disorders or chronic stress, often find it difficult to enjoy sexual activity or sustain it for long. Unfortunately, allopathic medicines prescribed for treating depression and anxiety further tend to cause lacklustre libido among some people. In such situations, it has been found that Indian herbal substitutes that reduce cortisol and raise dopamine are good for enhancing one’s sex life. Herbs such as Bengal quince (Aegle marmelos, also known as bael or golden apple) and dried ginger are known to do the trick, say doctors. Similarly, the bark of the Pala indigo plant finds mention in Indian texts as a useful aphrodisiac.
But allopathic doctors have a point when they insist that the business of herbal alternatives to erectile dysfunction drugs is mostly handled by crooks who are avaricious and unethical in pushing fake products. There have been several cases of such charlatans creeping out of the woodwork to capitalise on reports of the side-effects of modern medicines. But when the subject of interest is as old as mankind, there is always scope for human greed and folly. Besides, India, which is home to some of the most ancient medical systems in the world, does have a lot to offer. As new knowledge about old ways forgotten or buried in esoteric ancient texts keeps surfacing, interest in desi alternatives is likely to stay alive. After all, don’t they say sex is the best medicine?