As Indian and Chinese troops face off at Doklam on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, their countries are locked in another, lesser known but longer running, argument — this too involves Tibet, but is playing out in a theatre far away.
In April this year, The Indian Express reported that India had sent Sowa-Rigpa, the Tibetan system of medicine, as its official entry for UNESCO’s prestigious Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The problem was Beijing, too, had sent a similar entry, claiming Sowa-Rigpa as its own.
Chinese experts attacked India for staking claim to the legacy of ancient Tibetan medicine. “The Tibetan medicine system originated in Tibet and has developed on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in northwest and southwest China,” Qin Yongzhang, an ethnologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted as saying by the state-run Global Times.
The Indian entry, titled “Sowa-Rigpa, knowledge of healing or science of healing”, was submitted in March. The Chinese dossier, “Lum medicinal bathing of Sowa Rigpa, knowledge and practices concerning life, health and illness prevention and treatment among the Tibetan people in China”, had been submitted a few years earlier.
Both entries will come up for consideration in the UNESCO list in 2018.
Qin said India had nominated Sowa-Rigpa to enhance its soft power, gain confidence and benefit financially, but “the truth is that Tibetan medicine not only originated but has developed in China”. Tibetans in exile in India may help in the practice and spread of Sowa-Rigpa, and claim that it has been developed in India, Qin was quoted as saying.
In its defence, the Ministry of Culture has said India had been preparing the nomination dossier for Sowa-Rigpa “for many years”. Top levels of government had got involved in the attempt to speed up India’s bid ahead of the 2018 session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, sources said.
So, what is Sowa-Rigpa?
Commonly known as the Amchi system of medicine, it is believed to have originated in the 3rd century BC, and is one of the world’s oldest and best documented medical traditions. The heart of the tradition is in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, but it is also practised in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling, Lahaul & Spiti and Ladakh. Outside India, Sowa-Rigpa is practised in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, parts of China, and Nepal.
The Indian entry is supported by a detailed letter of recommendation written by Geshe Ngawang Samten, vice-chancellor of the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath near Varanasi. “Even though Sowa-Rigpa originated in Tibet, it is a part of the Indian culture since it is being practised here for more than a millennium,” Prof Samten has written. “Also, it has a lot of influences of Ayurveda.”
China’s dossier, Samten says, apparently calls Sowa Rigpa a “Tibetan-Chinese” medical system. “There is no nomenclature as ‘Tibetan-Chinese’, either it’s Tibetan or it’s Chinese,” he adds. The original Tibetan Institute of Sowa-Rigpa is in Lhasa, Tibet; the government-in-exile “reopened” it in Dharamsala, and teaches courses informally.
Sowa-Rigpa is under the purview of the AYUSH Ministry. To highlight the Indianness of Sowa-Rigpa, the AYUSH website says, “The majority of theory and practice of Sowa-Rigpa is similar to Ayurveda. The first Ayurvedic influence came to Tibet during 3rd century AD but it became popular only after 7th century with the approach of Buddhism to Tibet. Thereafter, this trend of exportation of Indian medical literature, along with Buddhism and other Indian art and sciences were continued till the early 19th century.”