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India and China face-off over making Tibetan medicine a part of their own cultural heritage

The genesis of standoff between India and China over the Himalayas dates back by centuries. To give a more recent chronology of events:

  • In 1950, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had forcefully invaded Tibet.
  • In 1959, New Delhi had granted asylum to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
  • In 1962, India and China fought the now infamous Indo-China war.

Presently, the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China are again locked in a standoff at India-China-Bhutan tri-junction over China’s attempt to build a motorable road in Doklam plateau, which actually is Bhutanese territory.

The two countries also seem to be locked in another conflict, which is who will formally be able to tie the ancient practice of Tibetan medicine to its nation’s patrimony that is make it a part of its cultural heritage, according to a New York Times report.

China had filed paperwork at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in March pressing for recognition of medicinal bathing which is one of many practices of Sowa Rigpa as part of its “intangible cultural heritage”. Following this, India has filed its own bid at the UNESCO staking claim for its cultural patrimony of the entire Sowa Rigpa.

Sowa-Rigpa, which means “the science of healing” in English, is commonly known as the Amchi system of medicine. This is among the oldest documented medical traditions in the world and is believed to have originated in the 3rd century BC. Sowa Rigpa is practiced in China, India, Bhutan, Mongolia and Nepal.

“Lum medicinal bathing of Sowa Rigpa, knowledge and practices concerning life, health and illness prevention and treatment are popular among the Tibetan people in China,” reads the China’s claim.

The India’s claim, however, states, “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 centuries 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.”

Western scholars say there are clear historical links between Ayurvedic and Tibetan medical traditions.

Both the dossiers will be considered during UNESCO’s session in 2018. It is also believed that, UNESCO’s recognition to Sowa Rigpa will definitely have tangible effects on its commercial aspects. Stephan Kloos, a medical anthropologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, was quoted as saying that his preliminary calculations suggest that the industry’s value could be approaching $1 billion.

Regarding the claim, Tashi Tsering Phuri, Director of the Tibetan Medical and Astro-Science Institute in Dharamsala, was quoted as saying that the founding text of Tibetan medicine is “for the whole world to enjoy.”

In 2010, India had recognised Sowa Rigpa as an Indian medicinal system. Both the Houses of the Parliament had passed a bill to include Sowa-Rigpa under Indian systems of medicine.

But Qin Yongzhang, an ethnologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in Chinese state run newspaper Global Times as saying, “Tibetan medicine not only originated but has been developed in China.”

Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, however, said that because China has forcibly owned most of the Tibetan Plateau, its UNESCO application did made some sense. “But to claim that somehow China has been the origin of the tradition is just silly.”

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