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Traditional Bhutanese Medicine

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The Land of Medicinal Herbs.

One of the ancient names for Bhutan was Menjung – ‘the Land of Medicinal Herbs’. The Himalayan Buddhist system of medicine is called So-ba Rig-pa and is practised in many countries today. Because it originally developed in ancient Tibet, it is commonly known as Tibetan medicine. It is believed that at the beginning of time, the art of healing was a prerogative of the gods. It wasn't until Kashiraja Dewadas, an ancient Indian king, went to heaven to learn medicine that medicine could be offered to humans as a means to fight suffering.

He taught the principles and the practice of healing, and this knowledge was spread as part of early Buddhist sacred writings. Some of the fundamental beliefs of this system are the basis of Buddhism itself. When Buddhism was first brought to Tibet in the seventh century, some of these medicinal texts were translated into Tibetan and the rulers became interested in the subject. From that time, So-ba Rig-pa was considered a single system of medicine, although some differences are found in the different lineages based on the discovery of terma, which occasionally include medicinal teachings.

When Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal came to Bhutan, his minister of religion, Tenzin Drukey, an esteemed physician, spread the teaching of So-ba Rig-pa. Though the basic texts are the same, the Bhutanese tradition of So-ba Rig-pa has developed independently from its Tibetan origins. Today, the Himalayan Buddhist tradition is the most common type of medicine practised in Bhutan. It has been recognised by the government as the official medical tradition of the country and has been included in the national health system since 1967.

Therapeutic Practices

Several forms of treatment are applied in traditional medicine. Hundreds of medicinal plants, minerals and animal parts form the basic drugs used by the practitioners. These ingredients are processed and mixed in different combinations to make about 300 medicines in the form of pills, tablets, syrups, powders and lotions. Other treatments include dietary and behavioural advice.

There are also so-called surgical procedures that include gtar (blood letting), bsregs (cauterisation by lerbal compounds), gser facos (acupuncture by a golden needle), tshug (cauterisation with instruments of different materials), dugs (applying heat or cold to parts of the body), byugs-pa (medicated oil massage), sman-chu (stone-heated bath), fsha-chu (bath at a hot spring) and turn (vapour treatment).

Diagonistic Techniques

Diagnosis begins with an examination of the 12 pulses, the tongue and urine, and questions to the patient. Illnesses develop with the increase, decrease or destabilization caused by bad food, the weather, evil spirits, the weight of previ­ous actions, karma, or way of life. Remedies, in general, consist of a diet that varies with the nature of the illness, and medi­cines, which may be aided by acupuncture and moxibustion.

The decision about what kind of treatment to use for a particular condition is made by the physician mainly through the reading of the pulses. In modern medicine, pulse reading is only used to detect anomalies of the heart and of the circulatory system. Using the So-bar Rig-pa method, it is possible to detect diseases of any organ through the pulses. The eyes, tongue and urine are also examined for signs that will help with the diagnosis, and sometimes the physician will record the patient's medical history.

Importance of Traditional Medicine

Traditional medicine has always been regarded as important in Bhutan, and a dispensary which doubles as a training centre was opened at Dechenchoeling in 1967. In 1979, a traditional medical hospital with a laboratory for making medicines was opened in Thimphu, subsidized by the World Health Organization. This hospital can be visited (see page 161). Four dispensaries were also set up in the rest of the country. In 1988, a project for cataloguing plants and establishing a training centre for doctors was begun with the help of an Italian non­-governmental organization. This project today is being continued by European Community.

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