Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Krimiraja story

Businesses rise and fall. Empires are created, only to break apart at the slightest intrusion from outside. They prevail, but rarely. It’s only natural in this free-for-all, cutthroat world that benevolence rarely counts in profit-making. Whenever it does, however, it is to be commended.

More often than not, those who are rooted in their land and never completely yield to the “bottom line” bring forward their vision for a better and healthier country. Dr Sumarathna Amaratunga, you must admit, is a case in point here. He is a name to many, an icon to some, be it in the business community or elsewhere. This is his story.

Krimiraja is a household name in Sri Lanka. When it comes to Ayurveda and traditional medicine, that’s the first brand and probably the only one which comes up. It has created a niche for itself in the country, to the extent where it does not seem to have any competitor formidable enough to fight with. It’s an enduring credit to Dr Amaratunga that he has managed to balance the needs of commerce with those of a country that has seen a resurgence in Ayurveda in recent years.

Dr Amaratunga was born in Kiriwaththuduwa, situated 30 kilometres or one and a half hours from Colombo, to a fairly well-off family. He was the fourth in his family, and his father, M. D. Liveris Amaratunga, was a prominent Ayurvedic physician. From an early age, he had seen stacks and stacks of medicines at home. He remembers that even at the age of four, he was helping his father in preparing these medicines and with his patients. It was only natural that when he grew up, he would take to his father’s field like a duck to water.

Young Amaratunga was educated firstly at Kiriwaththuduwa Wijewardena Maha Vidyalaya. He passed his SSC Preparatory Exam with flying colours and entered Vidyarathna University College, Horana, near his hometown. True to form, he passed his A/Levels as well. During this time, he wanted to enter the Wickramaarachchi Ayurveda Institute in Gampaha, which he did while enrolling at Vidyalankara Campus. Admittedly he focused more on his apprenticeship at the Ayurveda Institute, which lasted five years as a Diploma course. Admittedly, he focused more on his apprenticeship at the Ayurveda Institute, which lasted five years as a Diploma course. He became a registered Ayurvedic doctor in 1971.

At this point I ask him whether Ayurveda in Sri Lanka was different in his time. He tells me that back then, traditional Sinhala medicine was practised within families. “It was passed from generation to generation,” he says, “and was mainly confined to certain families who took it up as an ancestral tradition.” There were only two institutes for native medicine in his time, one at Gampaha and the other at Borella. He remarks that back then, there were three groups of Ayurvedic doctors. “The first group, as I said before, hailed from families who practised from generation to generation. The second group were freshly educated at those two institutes without any family background in their field. The third group had their education in India, again without a family background.” Together, these three made up the shasthriya (academic) Ayurvedic community in the country.

Talking about teaching institutes for traditional medicine, Dr Amaratunga tells me that long before his time, apprenticeships were never limited to five-year courses. “How long it took for you to learn Ayurveda depended on how quickly you could learn it. Some took five years, others up-to 30 years. There wasn’t a fixed length of time.” I put it to him here that such a flexible system of teaching what was once considered a “lost art” could have yielded a solid foundation for Ayurveda, and he agrees.

After leaving the institute at Gampaha, he threw himself into the family business. “My father died when I was 15,” he tells me, “He was a physician to the teeth, and an excellent one. It was he who really began the Krimiraja brand, when in 1949 he concocted a prathyaksha (loosely translatable as “efficacious”) remedy for stomach ailments. That was when he began what I continued after he died. I was still engaged with my secondary education at the time.”

Liveris Amaratunga
I ask him whether he was able to balance his education with commitments to his family business, and he smiles. “Goodness, we had a wonderful childhood those days! We just went to school, sat down, listened to what the teacher taught, and came back home. That was it. No tuition, no cramming.” It is probably a testament to his intellect that he brushes off his schooling so easily, but I feel that the kind of education we had those days would have been radically different to what we have today. I press him on this point, and he explains.

“We had a firm teacher-student relationship back then. In fact we were supposed to genuflect before our teachers. Unconditionally.” He tells me that this continued even when during his diploma course. “You must realise that before my time, when it came to Ayurveda, teachers were not very willing to impart everything they knew to their students. Only those who were ready and able to learn this ‘art’, as you call it, could study everything. Teachers were quite reserved then, and we as students had to respect that. I must say that this was true even at school.”

Perhaps this was a sign of a rigid relationship between teacher and student. Things are different now, of course, and more often than not this has compromised the integrity of teachers. That may have something to do with the changing face of Ayurveda in Sri Lanka today. Mindful of this, I move on to Amaratunga’s later career.

Krimiraja was begun initially with three or four products. Under Dr Amaratunga’s oversight, the business portfolio has increased to about 300 products, from oils to mouthwashes to kasaya to pimple cures. “We’ve targeted a wide customer base while keeping in mind that what we deliver should be based on traditional methods.” But for millions of Sri Lankans, Krimiraja’s signature would have to be the karal guli, a must-have and must-need for stomach ailments. “That was my father’s creation right through, and it remains our most popular product,” he tells me, confirming how much of a legacy Liveris Amaratunga left behind with his business. “It’s sad that I never got to see what his vision was.”

I ask him whether his business’ product range accounts for every ailment that Ayurveda can cure, and he tells me that this is very nearly the case. It’s basically a “you name it, we’ve got it” portfolio. “We don’t stop here,” he says, smiling, “We want to increase our range as time goes by. With more products aimed at other ailments.”

This is where we come to the subject of Ayurveda and its place in today’s society. “Ayurveda wasn’t born yesterday. It has a history of over 4,000 years. That’s a long time, indeed even longer than what it took for Western medicine to develop. It’s multifaceted, which is why it’s divided into eight different components.” Perhaps it’s a sign of how modernised it has become today, but Amaratunga admits that with the onset of colonialism and globalisation, Ayurveda began to assimilate foreign medicinal systems. “We can see this very clearly with many of our native doctors today. Western medicine wasn’t dominant until a long time ago. When it became popular, our doctors began to take to it while being protective of ancient customs. Same thing with doctors who took to other alternative forms of medicine, like Chinese acupuncture.” As time went by, however, this became a problem.

For one thing, he admits that at present, Ayurvedic doctors have found it difficult to fight with foreign medicinal systems. He talks about an “anti-Ayurveda” bias which runs in both government and private health industries. This is shown most clearly with people who, knowing zilch about our medicinal tradition, tend to degrade it and show Western medicine in a better light. “They are fanatical about slinging mud at our customs, to be honest. It’s similar to non-Buddhists preaching and criticising Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings without knowing what it is they are talking about.”

He adds moreover that during the British era, colonialism manifested itself in different ways and while one way was through missionary education, another was through degrading traditional medicines. “Missionary education continues to this day, but it has died down from the days when it used to sling mud at our way of life. On the other hand, experts in Western medicine continue to puff up their names by degrading Ayurveda.” He gives me a specific example by way of illustrating this problem: “It has become a fashion among Western doctors to say that ratha kalka is harmful to infants.” I confess here that my own mother used to give me that when I was young, and he says that there is enough and more proof that such products do not harm those who take them.

In a way, I think this problem has very much to do with the system under which each form of medicine works. “Western medicine is heavily preventative. When it comes to ailments which are not contagious, however, Ayurveda is the answer. It has been the answer and I know that it will remain the answer. The West knows this.” He adds that if we are to develop as a nation, we must focus on that which defines us (“apekama”). For the time being at least, it is our medicinal system which we can contribute to the rest of the world. In order that this will happen, first the government must lend support. “Before we combat the enemy, and before we talk about what suits us and what doesn’t suit us, we must first understand what we are good at. That is when true independence will come to us. In name only freedom is what we have seen during these past few decades, unfortunately.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Secondly, he says that Ayurvedic doctors themselves must lend more dignity (“ugathkama”) to their trade. “It is sad to see how certain physicians are marketing themselves in a way which does no good to what they are practising. It isn’t Ayurveda they have learnt, but a maimed hybrid of different traditions. There must be a synthesis between cultures, true, but never at the cost of stunting what your own country has bequeathed to you.” It is this synthesis which, the way Dr Amaratunga sees it, will validate our country in the eyes of the world. Sadly, however, the only true “development” he sees in this regard is the fact of there being two Ayurveda institutes in the country. He admits that while they do provide a solid foundation to our native medicinal system, which can at once compete with the outside world, it is not enough. A two-pronged attack from the government and practitioners is in order.

Amaratunga tells me that while Western medicine is based on research, Ayurveda is more speculative. “Ayurveda does not need research to develop. You must remember that we have 4,000 years before us. The West does not have all the answers. It needs to find them. That’s where research comes in. We don’t need to do that. On the other hand, this does not mean that we should be complacent. If at all, since we can’t really ‘research’ on our native system of medicine, we should keep records of whether our ancient methods are being adhered to. If we let these methods be uprooted in the name of change and novelty, we can’t hope to develop.

“This is why we need a solid financial base. For that to happen, the government must step in. Not even after 1956, when the deciders of our country’s destiny became the sangha, veda, guru, govi, kamkaru, was Ayurveda given financial independence. We are still trying to unshackle ourselves of colonialism. One obstacle which keeps hindering us is our dependence on Western medicine.” For us to combat this successfully, we must wield the enemy’s weapon (the “kaduwa”). How so? Amaratunga gives us the answer here: “By making sure that whatever traditional treatments we have are recorded, along with their success rates, for generations to come.” The West, he implies, does this all the way through. We don’t. Not yet. And until we do, we can’t hope to develop or be independent.

This doesn’t mean that Ayurveda is 100% accurate all the time. Currently, the success rate for a Krimiraja product would be anywhere from 70 to 80%. “No medicinal system can boast of a 100% cure rate,” he tells me, laughing, “But for us to sustain a high rate, instead of going back on what we’ve developed so far, we need to develop a strong Ayurvedic tradition.” I tell him here that such a need would have been addressed after S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike came to power in 1956 on a platform of the pancha maha balavegaya (the five great forces) mentioned above, but he dismisses this. “We have not developed in any sector since independence. Not one bit, whether in Ayurveda or anything else.” What we have for ourselves, which we can proudly stamp our name on and show to the world, is our medicinal system, one which has survived many a millennium.

Amaratunga is no pessimist though. The way I see it, he is a quiet pragmatist. He has combined business acumen with a sharp insight into this country’s way of life. I am neither a businessman nor an Ayurveda expert, so I will not deign to offer a full-scale analysis of Krimiraja. It certainly is an empire in terms of profit. “We have a huge following in this country. No other competitor has become formidable enough to fight with us. This is the case even abroad. We cater to expats in the UAE and various countries in the West.” He is also happy about the quality of Ayurvedic products, something he definitely sees as an indication of how developed the industry is becoming. But this does not make him complacent. If at all, he argues that the level of development we are seeing today is not enough. “We have great potential. Believe me, we do. We can reach for the stars. It’s sad that we have not focused hard enough on what we are best at.”

As a final note, he argues that when it comes to teaching Ayurveda, we are much better off than we were in the past. “We have enough and more potential in our institutes today. Students are eager to learn our ancient medicinal methods, and they learn well. This will guarantee a healthy generation of practitioners in the years to come. What we lack however is an appropriate aushada panthiya (medicine portfolio, to roughly translate it).

"This is not a problem abroad. In the West, a proper industry that can cater to and accommodate students from the medical field has been set up. That’s not the case here. Unless we develop our product portfolio to compete with the West, our students will not be able to realise what they are good at when they leave their institutes. This means that their potential will be stunted. Severely. That is why I say we must have a two-pronged attack, not only from the government but from the non-state sector too, from students, teachers, practitioners, and intellectuals.”

Krimiraja’s overarching goal seems to be going beyond earning profits. It’s almost as though its founder, Dr Amarathunge’s father, was leading a crusade against colonialism in a way no other businessman in the country did or could. I remember what a political commentator once told me about businessmen parading as nationalists: “That’s just a cover. In end, they don’t care where profits come from. As long as they come, they’ll happily remain uprooted from their country. They’ll even rubbish it if that gets them money.” I also remember a term I came across while I was at school and reading the Classics: lotus-eaters. It denotes a kind of people who are removed from the land of their birth, who acquire an identity-less identity, and who remain indifferent to their way of life.

The point here is this: for a long time, I associated that term with businessmen and capitalists. I still do. But now, I have met Dr Sumarathne Amaratunga. I have sampled his products and I have been a devoted customer of them throughout my life. From what I have talked with him, I can tell you this much: if it’s about doing business while respecting the way of life you are born to, Amaratunga’s name will probably lead all the rest. He is no lotus-eater. Perhaps that’s the best way I can sum him up. We as a country should be grateful to him. And we are.