The Sowa-Rigpa Medical Tradition
Illustration by Peeyush Sekhsaria
Sowa-Rigpa, also known as the Amchi system of medicine, is practiced in the high Himalayan region. It is also referred to as the Tibetan medicine system and is among the oldest existing knowledge systems in the world that relies on knowledge of ecology, especially plants. In an hour-long conversation with 71-year-old Amchi Chhering Tashi of Hansa village in Spiti we speak about the Sowa-Rigpa tradition. Here is a short excerpt of this interview.
Can you speak about the origins of the Sowa-Rigpa medical tradition?
Contrary to popular belief, Sowa-Rigpa is an ancient Indian knowledge system, not Tibetan. It is believed that when the Buddha gave his sermon on ending suffering at Vaishali in present day Bihar, there were many in attendance. The audience included many learned people including spiritual and celestial beings from different realms. Buddha delivered the discourse in Pali, but all those in attendance heard his message in their respective languages. Since everyone heard it differently, it got recorded and disseminated in different ways – as Ayurveda across the Indian subcontinent, Sowa-Rigpa across the Himalayas and Tibet, and Yunani in Central Asia. That is how this knowledge spread across different cultures. It was later translated into Sanskrit at Nalanda. A part of this knowledge system was at risk of being lost due to the predominance of Ayurveda, but was preserved by the Tibetans. So, while Sowa-Rigpa originated in India, it was preserved and nurtured in Tibet. Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo – the Great Translator of Buddhism – translated these works to the local Bhoti dialect in his sixth incarnation.
Since when has this system been practiced in your family?
Every village in Spiti – from Losar to Lari – has at least one family that practices this system. Villagers help with the collection of medicinal plants and in preparing medicines. Historically, each village had an Amchi because connectivity between villages was poor and this was an essential service that all villagers needed. No fees are charged by the Amchi; it is offered as a public service to anyone seeking medical attention.
About our family, my father was a very learned man. He knew exactly what treatment is described on which page in the handbook (pointing to the old medical scriptures placed before him). I never met my grandfather, but he might have passed on this knowledge to my father. While I don’t know how and when my forefathers began practicing, I have with me several old scribbled notes that belonged to them. My grandfather, in the 1930s, also received a letter from the then Governor of Punjab which I preserve to this day. Our family has been in this practice for at least a few hundred years.
Amchi's collecting parts of plant for medicinal purpose; Photo by Mayank Kohli
How did you get inducted into becoming an Amchi?
My father started training me since I was in sixth grade. I had to attend school, manage a lot of the house work and focus on this too. I was the only male child and my sisters were already married by then. I had little interest
in learning about plants and reading the handbook. But my father was very persistent. He taught me patiently. Maybe that is how I learnt whatever little I did. Had I taken interest from the beginning, I might have become a better Amchi.
One can learn everything about the practice in six years. But my father taught me daily and he inculcated in me a habit of reading these scriptures every day, even if it is only for just five minutes. These scriptures that I possess, are nearly 600-years old. Reading them daily has been very helpful.
What is the process of diagnosis and prescribing medication?
There are four fundamental books that form the basis of this practice, which need to be learnt by heart by any Amchi. Further there are four books explaining these fundamental principles in detail. Lastly, there are these scriptures (pointing to the old medical scripts placed before him) which are like a handbook. They explain the symptoms of every illness and contain details of its treatment and medication. We match the symptoms of every patient with the explanations in this handbook and follow its recommendation for prescribing treatment.
When a patient approaches me, I first check their pulse and sometimes their urine. I then match the description of the symptoms with those in the handbook. The handbook gives details of all the local plants and their medicinal values. It also suggests the proportion in which they should be mixed for a particular treatment. I always make all the medicines and test them on myself before I distribute them.
Any illness has two causes: first from accumulation of bad karma earned in one’s past lives, and second from an imbalance in what we consume (food, water, air etc.) from our general surroundings. An Amchi can cure illnesses caused by the latter; the former cannot be cured by medicine. While modern medicine addresses the symptoms of an illness, Sowa-Rigpa tries to address the root cause of it.
Amchi Chhering Tashi from Hansa village in Spiti; Photo by Tanzin Thinley
How and when are plants collected?
There is no fixed time for collection. We use different parts of a plant for treatment, and hence collection happens across seasons. We use the flowers of some plants, while we need seeds of some and roots of others. Generally, roots of a plant grow deep into the soil before autumn and that is when we collect roots, we will not collect them in any other season. Flowers will only be collected in spring once they have blossomed. There are clear rules on when and how different parts can be collected. A separate book describes locations of where plants can be found. For example, Aconitum spp. (Bhoan karpo) are mostly found on north-facing slopes and that is where we scout for them. Delphinium spp. (Lader mentok) is another invaluable plant that grows commonly in our landscape. Rhodiola spp. (Shrolo) is also found on north-facing slopes – there are three varieties found in Spiti: one with white flowers, one with red flowers, and one that grows tall.
These details help us in collection.
The handbook also carries details of the medicinal values of these plants. For example, Rhodiola spp. cure lung infections while Aconitum spp. cure multiple ailments: flowers improve eyesight, their roots help our bones, the branches are good for our hands and legs while the stem of the plant is good for our skin. Meconopsis spp. (Landre mentok), Saussurea spp. (Kasturi kamal or Yuliang) and Trillium spp. (Nag chhatri) are mixed to make a very effective painkiller, even better than diclofenac sodium that is administered commonly. We are aware of all the medicinal qualities of many local plant species and we make use of them judiciously.
Is a change in climate patterns affecting the availability of medicinal plants?
There was a time when collection of wild plants for commercial use was common. We had then spoken with the local administration to limit irresponsible collection. They acted swiftly and we are glad that the situation was handled effectively. We believe that Spiti produces sufficient plants to fulfil local needs. No matter how much medicine the people of Spiti consume, this land will produce plants and they will never exhaust. However, if we start exporting plants outside Spiti for commercial use, then we invite the risk of depleting this valuable resource. There is a finely balanced cycle of production and consumption, which we should not disturb. Variations in snowfall may marginally affect plant growth, but not so much as to disrupt this system.
What do you think about the sustenance of this practice in future?
The practice is offered as a public service by the Amchi in each village. There is no financial benefit in the practice. In fact, we often incur expenses in the collection of plants and preparation of medicines. Our homes are always open to any patient seeking medical help.
Illustration by Nawang Tankhe
Sometimes I wonder that one must be stupid to offer such a service free-of-cost at a time when everyone runs after money. But then, I also remember that when I die, I will leave everything behind: land, family, even my own body. I will only be remembered for my integrity. That is what keeps me going. However, the local administration should consider providing basic financial support to practitioners so that they continue practicing this tradition.
About the Storyteller
Dr Mayank Kohli
This is a short excerpt and you can watch the full interview our YouTube channel: @HimKatha. This interview was conducted by Dr. Mayank Kohli who studies plant systems and is an INSPIRE Fellow at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.