The good doctor

The newly developed ayurvedic 'centre of excellence' is nestled beneath the forests of Nagarjun, just half an hour from Kathmandu. The centre is a legacy of ayurvedic doctor Rishi Ram Koirala who passed away last week.

I had an appointment with Rishi Ram Koirala the day before he suffered his fatal heart attack. Last week Nepal has lost one of its most celebrated ayurvedic practitioners, the founder and medical director of the renowned Ayurveda Health Home.

It was a fortuitous blessing that I was able to see him one last time, taking a friend for a consultation. Whilst we sipped glasses of tulsi tea in the clinic’s waiting area heavy with the scent of oil and powder, I struggled to find any bone fide complaints to waste his precious time.

Dr Rishi’s kind brown eyes seemed to sparkle with health. “It’s been years,” he greeted me. Wearing a voluminous green gown, blue hair net, surgical gloves, double masks and a face shield, the eyes were all I could see of his slight, sprightly figure. But enthusiasm and gentle wisdom shone through the clear plastic sheet.

“You are lucky to be so healthy at your age.” I muttered something about preferring to lose some weight and could feel his dismissive hidden humour: “It must be your inner nature. How are Tenzin and the boys?” We caught up with family news and updates on his practice. I wish now the I had thought to ask him how he was.

Dr Rishi took my pulse in his little office across the courtyard of the Dhapasi clinic, flanked by two of his junior doctors similarly adorned in full PPE, learning skills from the master. On the walls were colourful renditions of the naked body showing ancient pressure points, chakras and energy channels. Stacked on shelves were rows of red-topped glass jars containing mysterious medicines of essential natural ingredients, herbs, tablets and dried plants.

“I’ve been busy, still lecturing all over the world via Zoom, and I’ve just submitted a paper on ayurvedic policy for the National Planning Commission and Ministry of Health.” His eyes sparkled. 

“And we are now producing our own medicines from home-grown herbs and plants on our land beyond Nagarjun. We are expanding our factory to process these, taking advantage of the government restrictions on importing pharmaceuticals and trying to break the stranglehold of the cartels exporting all Nepal’s best medicinal plants to India.”

Dr Rishi’s reputation as a skilled and compassionate doctor, ayurvedic master and yogic practitioner with three decades of experience, extends across the globe. With degrees from Banaras and Kathmandu, his ayurvedic expertise was based on nearly 12 years of intensive studies. 

I ask about Covid-19, and Dr Rishi explains that ayurvedic remedies are particularly effective in its prevention, building up the body’s immunity, and to restore strength during the recovery period. Their 12 doctors and over 30 professionals do not provide healthcare for infectious diseases.

First established in 1995, the Dhapasi clinic was expanded in 2001 as a joint venture with Marilies Foerster, a German nurse who Dr Rishi describes as “our sister”. The extensive family partnership is anchored by Badri Koirala his younger brother, and their sons and daughters, some of whom have enriched the enterprise by combining conventional western medical qualifications with their knowledge of traditional techniques.

Dr Rishi and his family’s pioneering panchakarma centre in Nepal is unique in South Asia. Considered to be the essence of ayurveda, panchkarma is a holistic process designed for maintaining and supporting inner harmony. Consisting of cleansing, detoxifying, immune-enhancing, rejuvenating, and curative measures against disease, it restores harmony and balance to the mind, emotions and senses. Treatment programmes impart the benefits of pure natural products and holistic healing techniques developed from the subtle ancient knowledge of the Vedas.

Many foreigners and Nepalis have benefitted over the years with courses of therapy prescribed by Dr Rishi’s team of devoted trained professionals. Pre-pandemic groups of Europeans and Americans would arrive with a range of ailments, often staying for several weeks at a time. 

“Foreigners of 122 nations have taken our services, including high-ranking officials from Russia and the Middle East,” he said.

In anticipation of the return of this loyal international following, the Ayurvedic Health Resort is being developed as an ‘ayurvedic centre of excellence’ on a forested slope behind Nagarjun. Bordering on the national park and community forest, this sylvan retreat consists of a hotel of 28 rooms with wholesome vegetarian food and dedicated space for treatments, teachings, meditation and yoga

Nurseries and flower beds cultivate the finest quality herbal plants, and a production unit processes oils, potions and remedies according to the most efficacious medical tradition.

Huge picture windows at the comfortable new Nagarjun centre overlook the dense green cradle of forest that reverberates with life, birds call during the day and insects by night. An unseen river gurgles below the steep drop off below my balcony, and the occasional aircraft passes overhead. 

During our monsoon visit mists threaded the valleys, tendrils of clouds draped the hilltops and rain hammered the roof. Badri explains the building reflects the principles of vastu shastras, and it exudes peace and serenity from the moment we arrive. The weekend prescription plan of curative activities includes abhyanga massages, body scrubs, steam chambers, the oil flow of shirodhara and Himalayan singing bowl therapy.

Kathmandu Valley is a spiritual melting pot of great healers. From all points of the compass the ancient therapeutic traditions converge in the shadow of the Himalaya – Ayurveda from India, Tibetan and Chinese. Some practitioners are a well-kept secret, revealing themselves only when necessary and only to those in need.

Rishi Ram Koirala was a quiet modest man, but his healing skills, diagnostic expertise and extraordinary knowledge were widely respected throughout the world. His legacy will live on with the Ayurvedic Health Resort enterprise, but he himself will be sorely missed by many.

Lisa Choegyal