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Ivory enema syringe, Sri Lanka, 1751-1781

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King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe was a popular monarch who ruled what is now called Sri Lanka between 1747 and 1782. He is remembered as a man of action, waging war against Dutch colonisers – while prudently allying himself with the British. However, his 35 year reign was also noted for revivals in the country’s religious and cultural life. He was a lover of beautiful things and fine craftsmanship, such as this carved ivory object which he is said to have presented to his Royal Physicians – an enema syringe. But why might he have wished such artistry to be lavished on an instrument, often regarded with some embarrassment, the purpose of which is to squirt medicinal liquids up your backside? The main system of medicine practised In Sri Lanka at the time, was Ayurveda. Indeed, this ancient tradition, that originated in the Indian sub-continent, remains highly popular in the country today. In Ayurveda achieving ‘balanced energies’ in the body is crucial for good health. This might be achieved through dietary and lifestyle changes, but also through actively cleansing and purging the body. Bloodletting and induced vomiting can help, as can the extensive use of enemas - a therapy very much at the centre of Ayurvedic practice. A range of medicated oils, herbal concoctions and other fluids can be introduced into the body, via the anus, to help restore balance – as well as healing specific ailments. All in all it’s a very important instrument. It’s perhaps not surprising therefore that no expense was spared when making one for the Royal doctors. It is not known whether Rajasinghe presented this instrument with the intention that it was to be used on himself – but it certainly is an enema syringe fit for a king.

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Glossary: enema syringe

A syringe for adminstering enemas

Glossary: Ayurveda

An Indian medical tradition. Literally translated it means ‘Life Science’ and promotes mental and physical health through balancing biological elements. Ayurveda focuses on exercise, massage, yoga and meditation.