Herbs, metals, flowers, and plants are the recipe for all your ailments in Tibet, and a visit to the doctor with prescriptions costs less than a ticket to the movies in the U.S.
Curiosity and intrigue led us to the Men-Tsee-Khang Tibetan Medical and Astro. Institute in McLeod Ganj (Himachal Pradesh, India). Though the more famous Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, who cares for the Dalai Lama, does see patients without appointments, those patients line up at 4:30 a.m. We were curious, not desperate.
The building and its lobby were of a simple bare-concrete. Light blue walls were lit by a soft misty luminescence that pervades in this region of the Himalayas. There was no receptionist, no sign-in sheet, only a row of six hard plastic chairs, two hallways, and four doors that led to consultation rooms. Absent of scent and sound, the lobby felt clean, but not chemically clean.
Two of the doors had signs indicating the doctors were not seeing patients that day. Soon a Tibetan woman came from one of the other doors and left it ajar. We went in.
Tibetan woven works of art and a laminated poster of the human anatomy (in English) hung from the aqua walls. A tall, thick-shouldered Tibetan man in his late forties stood and asked us who was the patient. He had thick, straight black hair combed like Alec Baldwin, smooth skin free of wrinkles, and a collared button-down shirt, tie, and pressed pants. “We both are,” we said.
He smiled a warm, inviting smile and pointed to the old school chair-desk next to his wooden desk, saying, “Please, one.” Lola urged me to go first.
The doctor asked about any symptoms or troubles, and I told him that I was just there for a general examination. Again he smiled. He placed two fingers on my upturned left wrist. It was not the typical pulse counting I am used to in allopathic (Western) medicine: he pressed with one finger and then quickly followed with the second, as though he were sending messages somewhere in my body and then releasing the pressure to feel the response. He gently lowered both of my eyelids and looked beneath my eyeballs. “Have you been sleeping well lately?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “I think so.” He smiled, nodded, lowered his eyes and head and played with my pulse again. Then he said that I have a liver function problem and poor circulation. My eyes lit up; in the previous three years, I have seen allopathic doctors in the U.S. and been treated for only two conditions: low liver enzymes and atrial fibrillation (a heart condition). He wrote a prescription in Tibetan and told me to avoid salt and limit my coffee intake to one cup per day.
Tibetan doctors study Tibetan medicine for seven years before practicing. They believe the pulse does more than indicate circulatory system functioning: it leads them to the ailing part of the body. Practitioners say that all ailments except accidents can be cured through Tibetan medicine. It is therefor wrong, they say, to refer to Tibetan medicine as “alternative.”
Next went Lola, and the doctor did the same to her, but instead of looking into her eyes, he checked inside her mouth. Like for me, he then named three ailments that have been bothering her for a few years now, ailments that are not about circulation or blood pressure, ailments that have stumped doctors in the States and resulted in futile prescriptions and surgeries. He wrote her a prescription and told her to avoid garlic and a few other foods.
Down the hall was the dispensary. Most Tibetan medicines are made from herbs: between six and seventy herbs are used in a medicinal formulation, and most practitioners have a choice of up to 300 medicines for prescribing.
Our prescriptions consisted of small zip-lock bags filled with different shades of marble-sized brown balls—hard concoctions of herbs, plants, flowers—which were handed over in small brown paper bags with instructions on them: we must crush the pills and drink them with warm water three times per day. I also received Rinchen Ratna Samphel or Mutik 70. The box in which it was enclosed says:
The precious wish flourishing pill contains precious “Tsothel”, king of the essence, which was competently prepared through a series of standard detoxifying processes, calcinated powder of precious stones like pearl, turquoise, coral, Zi (precious eye stone) and metals like gold, silver, copper, iron etc., as well as other herbal and non-herbal medicinal ingredients like six superlative medicines, three myrobalan fruits, bonnet bellflower and saffron etc. This is a compound of high standard containing 70 different ingredients which is based on practical instructions of the past eminent masters of Tibetan medicine and is enriched by spiritual blessing.
Each time I take Rinchen Ratna Samphel, once every five days, I have to lie down and nap for an hour to avoid lightheadedness.
The doctor’s consultation was free. The medicines—thirty-day supplies of four different prescriptions and the “precious flourishing wish pill”— were less than US$10. Time will tell whether the medicinal formulations are more effective at treating our ailments than the allopathic approaches have been, but somehow we have to limit garlic, salt, and coffee.
-M. Myers Griffith
Photos by Lola Pava
Originally posted at Asia Sketches on 2 December 2013.
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