The research presented here by Dr June Wang has been a collaboration with Arjun Chapagain whose knowledge of herbs and medicines has been invaluable.
Since the introduction of the cultural routes in the World Heritage Site programme, the new category has foregrounded trans-border civilisations and subsequently compelled scholars to reflect on the traditional wisdom that treats heritage as territorial properties for the construction of nationalist narratives.
In this circumstance, two issues in the literature of heritagisation merit further scholarly attention. First, while the idea of heritagisation ‘as a process of laborious agency’ (Smith 2006) has been widely confirmed, the complexity of actors involved in this process has not caught the attention it deserves. Frequently, studies tend to focus on the statist actors or the political/economic/intellectual elites but tend to treat the ordinary ones as merely passive identity-receivers. Second, a new spatial thinking, in forms of networks and nodes, is to be stressed to avoid the ‘territorial trap’ in heritage studies. The uses of heritage for national state making have been premised upon the idea of property ownership, which legitimises the national state’s right, as the owner of resources within its territories, to mobilise heritage in image construction (Ashworth, Graham, Tunbridge 2015). The new category of cultural routes and the transnational civilisation calls for a spatial form that allows explorations into the trans-border flow of things and subsequently the reconfiguration of the people-thing-place relationship.
In this study, Wang proposes to study the new spatiality of heritagisation through institutional territory, which examines how particular norm and identity is assembled by a constant (re-)configuration of people-things-place relationship (Adam A. Smith). Special attention will be paid to the agency of forming specific relations that hold the elements together: first, the complexity of actants in this process and their distributed agency and second, how these distributed agency were channelled across borders and territorialised to form an arrangement of heterogenous elements that gives a degree of consistency to the overall identity.
Sowa Rigpa as assemblage
Sowa Rigpa is the Tibetan science of healing: combination of medicinal + ritual practices.
In the 8th century, King Trisong Detsen invited physicians from India, China, Persia, east Turkestan, Mongolia, and Nepal to what we now would call a focus group meeting to diagnose the King’s disease in Samye, Tibet. The meeting notes, edited by then leading physician Yutok Yonten Gompo to assemble medical knowledge from many schools, is now known as the seminal book of Four Medical Tantras — the very origin of the school of Sowa Rigpa. The school of Sowa Rigpa has since boomed in Tibet and spread to the neighbouring regions in the past centuries. Now the Sowa Rigpa industry in Asia produced pharmaceuticals worth $615 million, with China leading the field, according to a 2017 study conducted by Ratimed. However, the Tibet-in-Exile community in India leads the standardisation and quality control for the export market. Wang argues that this practice should be viewed as an assemblage and then looks at the process of making it heritage.
Assembling raw materials (with a focus on flows and their directions)
Studies on the history of Tibetan Medicine have revealed that cross-border movement of merchants and medicinal ingredients was essential for Tibetan medicine for centuries (Saxer, 2013). Since then, the Tibetan Medicine practice evolved overtime as a hybrid model that drew in a wide variety of materials, people, and their knowledge on medical practices.
The assemblage of raw materials: 2000-3000 traditional medicinal elements with floral contributions coming from 191 families, 693 genera, 2085 species and faunal contributions coming from 159 animal species. Some 80 types of mineral compounds are used. Most of these did not originate in the Tibetan Plateau but ‘are made of ingredients that have travelled long distances, crossed many borders, and were compounded according to different traditions.’ These ingredients are sourced and moved across the Himalayan region resulting in border markets leading to long-distance trade and manufacture.
The assembling of knowledge has been a constant process of coming together while falling apart.In the 12th century, the Book of Four Medical Tantras (the Gyud Shi) was published (there is an 2011 English version), as an output of two centuries of contiguous work after the initial assembly of then leading medical practitioners from Chinese, Ayurveda, Greek-Roman Arabian, and Persian medical systems. As an accumulated output, the knowledge of Sowa Rigpa is by no means confined within prescription and treatment skills, but stretches across multiple phrases of medical practices, from locating, identifying and harvesting the right part of medical plants at the right season, to the post-harvest treatment (e.g. antitoxic), medicine preparation, prescription, and healing that frequently involves ritual practices. That said, collecting and processing raw ingredients has been one inherent part of the Sowa Rigpa knowledge which has been passed on by farmers, pickers, dealers, and medical doctors.
The influence of Buddhism is always felt in the knowledge, practice, and spread of Sowa Rigpa, dating from the introduction of the religion from India into Tibet in the 8th century. In the ‘early stage, healing in Tibetan societies was closely linked to ritual but not dominated by the Buddhist notion. The spread of Buddhist Sowa Rigpa is geopolitical. A number of Tibetan Kings promoted Tibetan Buddhism within Tibet by sending troops on pilgrimage for authentic texts, constructing Buddhist temples and monasteries, self-branding as disciples and patrons of Buddhist masters, as well as transnational marriages of royal families. The spreading of Sowa Rigpa to other areas has also largely been exacerbated by wars and conquest. Along with the introduction of Buddhism, ideas of karma and merit became an integral part of understanding health and illness’ (see Barbara Gerke 2016 Buddhist Healing and Taming in Tibet). ‘Where “science” leaves off and “religion” begins remains philosophy and cultural terrain’ (see Adams, Schrempf, Craig 2010 Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds). The Buddhist philosophy becomes the moral frame for this ‘spiritually-based health care system’. Wang then showed a tanka depicting the Medicine Buddha at the centre delivering teachings to the surrounding disciples in the form of Devas (Gods), Rishis (Sages), Buddhists and non-Buddhists (see Gerke 2014 “The Art of Tibetan Medical Practice”). This stems from the first chapter of the Four Tantras of Tibetan Medicine (the Gyud Shi) and is central to ‘let’s say a kingdom of medical practice…gravity and stress on the regime resonates with the image of the Tibetan Empire itself.’ Further to this, a new occupation of amchi (physicians) practiced by monks. The practice is motivated by compassion, and ‘an amchi devotes his body, speech, and mind to easing the suffering caused by disease. He is always on the move – searching pastures, forests, river valleys for medicinal plants…to prepare remedies in the form of powders, decoctions, pastes, and concentrates.’ Therefore, the practice is part and parcel of the movement of people and materials across borders.
Heritagisation/institutionalisation of heritage as a new assemblage
Another round of assembling Sowa Rigpa started with the heritage application attempts by China and India. Currently, two nations – China and India – are both attempting to nominate the practice of Sowa Rigpa as an Intangible Cultural Heritage to UNESCO. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage inscribed the Lum medicinal bathing of Sowa Rigpa, knowledge and practices concerning life, health and illness prevention and treatment among the Tibetan people in China (Inscription 13.COM 10.b.8). India’s submission in 2019 has yet to be approved.
The Chinese nomination focused on a very narrow practice of lum (ritual bathing), ‘relevant to communities in Lhokha, Lhasa, Shigatse, Nagchu, Chamdo, Ngari, Nyingtri’ rather than the entire Tibetan community. From the nomination document Lum ‘indicates the traditional knowledge and practice of bathing in natural hot springs, herbal water, or streams in order to balance the mind and body to ensure health and treat illness.’ This focuses the nomination on three specific aspects of the practice: the communities in these valleys, the geography of the valley itself, and the philosophy affiliated with the practice.
The Chinese application of lum bathing shows a deliberate effort on immobile things and the spatial arrangement with immobile things at the core. Positioning the application in the category of ‘knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe’, the application develops its articulation from the natural hot springs that are located in the Yarlung Valley to herbal water as a practice between human and nature. While lum bathing is defined as a practice evolving from the usage of hot springs, it is not surprising to see that almost all actants unfolded in the arrangement of lum bathing are very much tied to the Tibetan Plateau. The communities involved are defined by their geographic locations, such as Lhokha, Lhasa, Shigatse, Nagchu, Chamdo, Ngari, Nyingtri, instead of by language or other ethnic or cultural characteristics. Evolving through the interaction among man, nature, and the universe, lum bathing has its philosophy in a Tibetan life view based on Jungwa-nga (five elements) i.e., Sa (earth), Chu (water), Me (fire), Lung (wind) and Namkha (space), all of which have geographic qualities. What has further territorialised the practice of lum bathing to the Tibetan Plateau is the emphasis of folklore activities: the transmission of the practices happened along the bloodlines from father to son and from clan masters to their disciples while the institutional transmission only occurred very recently; the annual Karma Dulpa Festival that takes place in the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar; among others. The immobile feature of hot springs, therefore, situate the origin of lum bathing in Tibet and thus carve it out of the long history of Sowa Rigpa.
India’s application is ‘very much about Sowa Rigpa as a broad family of practices’, with an intention to stress the value of its medical and ritual origin and the recent professionalisation, institutionalisation and standardisation in India. The communities inhabit the Himalayan belt where many of the raw materials originate. ‘The raw materials and practices show similarity to the Ayurvedic philosophy with approximately 75% of the Sowa Rigpa texts originating in the Ashtanga Hridaya’ and therefore can be seen as one branch. This nomination is focused on the origins with the flow of knowledge originating in India 2500 years ago and introduced across the Trans-Himalayan border region around the 8th century CE. ‘Since then it has been propagated and transmitted through teacher-student lineages, including family lineages, is prevalent among secular and monastic contexts.’ India seems to emphasise formal, institutional training in Sowa Rigpa institutions in India. ‘Sowa Rigpa education, healthcare delivery and research is formally recognised and promoted by the Government of India.’
Stephan Kloos (2017 “The Politics of Preservation and Loss: Tibetan Medical Knowledge in Exile”) talks about the processes of professionalisation, formalisation, standardisation which is in line with the Tibetan elite lineages over time. Almost as soon as the exiled leadership arrived in India the Men-Tsee-Khang medical college was established (the original being in Lhasa) and has since grown throughout India and the world. When India was trying to nominate these practices, there was tension and resistance from the Tibet-in-Exile government, for example, the Men-Tsee-Khang schools use their own standards and quality controls outside the Indian Ayurvedic practices. This is linked to their desire to keep their own practices rooted in the Tibetan cultural homeland. But in 2018 the college was incorporated into the Ministry of Culture of India as part of the formal education system. These internal fractures have made it difficult for India to complete its nomination process.
By examining the two applications through assemblage, that is, how particular arrangements of people-thing-place are established, this study reveals that both applications have attempted sanitisation and territorialisation in the process. However, what elements have been chosen and put together are different. The Chinese story underlines the crucial role of immobile natural resources and local folkloric practices, both of which have their anti-elite quality while serving the purpose of territorialisation. The Chinese application is about how things settled down, in other words, how lum bathing is articulated as a territorial output of flow of raw materials and knowledge, rather than the contingent flows themselves that are always transcending borders. A new institutional territory that works together for a stable relationship has been formed through the nomination process. The Indian story underlines the development of particular knowledge and its standardisation, institutionalisation and professionalisation, with perhaps an effort of constructing India as the authority. In the Indian assemblage of Sowa Rigpa, what has been rendered much more visible are the formal institutional training in Sowa Rigpa institutions, standards with state recognition, and the formal trans-sectoral system from Sowa Rigpa education, healthcare delivery, and research that have been channelled and promoted by the Government of India. However, the contingent process of institutionalisation of Sowa Rigpa in India (Kloos, 2017) has been marginalised, given that it involves the uneasy relationship with Dalai Lama, a political force that is not necessarily Indian. This study attempts to unravel the agency of assembling particular institutional territory through a comparative study of two cases. Putting aside the politics in the process of assessing the nomination that may affect the result of application, this comparative study shows the significance of thing power in the effort of establishing relationships among people, things, and territories.