The packets of powdered medicine lie in the middle of the ‘Lhabrang’ at Shechen monastery, circled by a group of Tibetan doctors, known as ‘Aamchis’. An elderly Aamchi begins a chant and the rest join in suit. This particular ceremony is one of the many features that are unique to ‘Sowa Rigpa’ or ‘the Tibetan Science of Healing’, a Tibetan medical system, which according to historical sources began in the 4th century. The ’empowerment’ ceremony which the Tibetans believe ‘blesses the medicine and makes it more effective’ is the last step in the process of Tibetan medicine production and also brings to close an eight day workshop for the ‘Aamchis’ organized by the Himalayan Aamchi Association (HAA).
Titled ‘Producing efficacious medicine’, the workshop was funded by Trade foundation of US, Nomad RSI of France, Drokpa and Darmouth College, and supported by International Centre Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine of UK. “The main objective was to provide a space for interaction between aamchis from different countries and most importantly to provide a space for the local Aamchis who don’t usually get the chance to venture abroad to partake in such workshops,” says Callum Blaike, one of the organizers. The workshop brought together Aamchis from Himalayan areas of Nepal (Dolpo, Mustang), India (Ladakh) and China (Lhasa).
The knowledge of ‘Sowa Rigpa’ was traditionally passed down as a lineage. Aamchi Namgyal from Dolpa, one of the participants, began his training at the age of twelve under his father’s guidance, who was a local Aamchi. But like many other traditions within the Sowa Rigpa, this is changing too. After the establishment of Tibetan Medicine Schools in India, China and more recently, in Nepal, more and more students whose families have no-ties to Tibetan Medicine are studying to become ‘Aamchis.’ The Ministry of Education in Nepal through Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT) has agreed to HAA’s proposal of certifying students and giving them titles when they complete the required years of education. However, the practice is yet to earn legal recognition in the country.
“We have been pressing for this cause since our inception,” says Aamchi Gyatso Bista, President of HAA who has been practicing for over thirty years. “I can’t understand why the Ministry of Health doesn’t want to give us official recognition,” he adds. While China and India have given legal recognition to the practice, in Bhutan and Mongolia ‘Sowa Rigpa’ is a part of the national health care system. The Tibetan medical industry in China is already booming with the factories in China producing more than 100 varieties of medicines every day.
Within Nepal too, we can notice the difference, albeit on a much smaller scale. Until a decade ago, there were only a handful of Tibetan clinics in the country. But now, there are more than twenty clinics within the Boudhanath area. Many of these operate under the ‘Ayurveda’ label, something that Aamchi Bista doesn’t approve of. “Sowa Rigpa is not a branch of Ayurveda. It has its own unique identity that should be maintained and this is possible only when we get due recognition,” Bista opines.The government’s apprehension to give the Tibetan medicine system ‘recognition’ has certainly put the Aamchis in the country in a lurch. Sustainability has become an issue with the Aamchis being socially and economically marginalized. This has affected their ability to make good medicines, a feature which is an important aspect of Sowa Rigpa. “Even after being existent in the country for over 1000 years, the government still doesn’t understand the term ‘Aamchi’, which is just sad,” says Sienna Craig, from Dartmouth College. Most of the Aamchis live in the Himalayan areas, in seclusion. Failure to assemble together and voice their concerns has left the Nepali Aamchis struggling.
Nepal remains an important center. Around seventy percent of the raw materials for medicine production in China are imported from Nepal which is possible mainly because there is no Tibetan medical industry in the country, hence, not much demand for raw materials. In a country like China, where Tibetan medicines are mass-produced in a factory-set up, questions about the quality are raised.With more and more Aamchis opting to buy medicine rather than make their own, it seems the traditions of Sowa Rigpa are indeed changing. The Aamchis who participated in the workshop continue to make their own medicines. They have years of experience and in-depth knowledge on the subject. Only when the government chooses to recognize them and the practice, shall the indigenous, centuries -old healing system be protected.