November 30 – December 1, 2023
Aromatics and Epidemics: A two-day workshop
Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton University, NJ, USA.
Co-organized by Barbara Gerke and William McGrath, and with the following IAS fellows: Yan Liu (Associate professor in the Department of History at the State University of New York, Buffalo), Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim (Professor of History at Goldsmiths, University of London), and Nira Wickramasinghe (Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at Institute for Area Studies, University of Leiden)

23 June 2023 (9:30–11:00)
Barbara Gerke, Jan M. A. van der Valk, and William A. McGrath
COVID-19 in Sowa Rigpa: Approaching Epidemics in the Texts and Practices of Tibet and the Himalayas.

ABSTRACT: As COVID-19 spread throughout the world, Tibetan and Himalayan practitioners of Sowa Rigpa drew upon their medical training and textual traditions to respond to this pandemic disease. Based on early online responses (2020-21) and fieldwork in India, Bhutan, and Nepal (2022-23), we analyze Sowa Rigpa approaches to the identification, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of COVID-19, placing these results in conversation with textual analysis of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Tibetan medical texts on fever (rims) and heat disease (tshad pa or tsha ba). This is a first attempt at a broader multi-sited, transhistorical perspective that aims to better understand the multiplicity of Sowa Rigpa responses to pandemics in globalized contexts.

This presentation is part of the 1-day workshop Pandemics, Epidemics, Academics, which introduces the three FWF-projects on the medical traditions in South Asia and Tibet currently based at the University of Vienna. Learn more about the other two projects here:

Ayurveda and Philology: Gangadhar Ray Kaviraj and His Legacy

Epidemics and Crisis Management in Pre-modern South Asia

Venue: Seminar room 1, Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, Spitalgasse 2. Hof 2.7, 1090 Wien
Passcode: 302045

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Conference presentations

5-8 October 2023

Barbara Gerke will present the paper: “New directions in Sowa Rigpa practice in post-pandemic Ladakh” at the 20th Conference of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany.

7-9 September 2023

Barbara Gerke will present a paper at the panel “Buddhism and Religion” at the 16th DDD Conference “Learning from suffering, fear of death and dying: New languages from sciences to the humanities” in Padua, Italy.

“Our loved-ones are being burnt alive!” — Buddhism, Medicine, Pandemic Deaths and new Hospice Movements in Ladakh, India

ABSTRACT: The COVID-19 pandemic has had numerous transformative impacts on Himalayan Buddhist societies. This presentation explores pandemic responses of a Buddhist community in Leh, the capital of the Western Himalayan Union Territory of Ladakh, India. How did Buddhist nuns who are trained amchi (practitioners of Sowa Rigpa/Tibetan medicine) respond to the COVID-19 deaths in 2020/21? I trace the responses of the Ladakh Nuns Association (LNA) and the efforts of its director, Ani Tsering Palmo, to COVID-19 deaths and the trauma that unfolded for surviving family members. Before the pandemic, Ani Palmo was in the process of constructing a nuns’ institute and Sowa Rigpa medical school outside of Leh. When people began dying of COVID-19 in the isolation wards of Leh hospital, infected bodies were cremated within a day. Ani Palmo heard the outcry of relatives: “Our loved-ones are being burnt alive!” In Tibetan Buddhist traditions deceased bodies are kept for three days untouched for the consciousness (namshe) to fully leave the body. From a Buddhist perspective, early cremation would devastatingly disturb the end-of-life transition. Via social media Ani Palmo persuaded the hospital to keep infected corpses for three days untouched in an isolation room. Her work with the ensuing trauma and pandemic anxieties of families convinced her to turn the newly built, still unfurnished pharmacy at her institute into a hospice. The space was used to quarantine and care for COVID-19 patients, and for grief-counselling. Based on ethnographic interviews with Ani Palmo, LNA nuns, and affected family members, this paper documents this pandemic history in Ladakh. I argue that the nuns’ pandemic responses have brought about a fundamental shift of values in Sowa Rigpa medical practice, which traditionally does not include such end-of-life care. The LNA amchi are pioneers in integrating hospice work into their Sowa Rigpa community health services.

26-29 July 2023

Jan van der Valk (co-authored with Barbara Gerke) and William McGrath will each present a paper at the panel “Health, disease and epidemics: multidisciplinary perspectives on the socio-ecology of medicine in pre-modern South Asia” at the ECSAS 2023 in Torino:

Fever and Widespread Disease in Thirteenth-century Tibet
William McGrath

Fever was a popular subject for the physicians and scholars of thirteenth-century Tibet. There are sixteen separate chapters on fever in the Four Tantras (Rgyud bzhi), for example, and Darma Gönpo’s (Dar ma mgon po, 13th c.) Epitomes (Zin thig yang thig) include about fourteen more. Throughout these complex and textually intertwined chapters, one finds “empty fevers” (stongs tshad or stongs pa’i tsha ba), “chronic fevers” (rnyings tshad or tsha ba rnyings pa), and “widespread fevers” (rims tshad or rims kyi tsha ba), among many other categories. Simply put, there are three ways to think about fever discourse in these sources: 1) fever as the translation of a Sanskrit term (rims = Skt. jvara), 2) fever as a heat disorder (tsha ba or tshad pa), and 3) fever as a widespread disease (rims = Tib. yams). This paper will analyze these and other thirteenth-century Tibetan sources on fever to clarify the precedents for and relationships between their explanations. I will ultimately argue that a Tibetan-language discourse that equates fever with widespread disease developed in the thirteenth century in response to the unprecedented outbreak of a deadly epidemic disease during this period.

How Does “Nyen” Become A Virus? Pre-modern Tibetan Medical Concepts and Interpretations of Nonhuman Entities In The Times Of COVID-19
Jan van der Valk

In Tibetan medicine (Sowa Rigpa), different types of infectious disease are clustered under the term nyenrim (gnyan rims). Foundational sources—such as the Four Tantras of the twelfth century, and its seventeenth-century textual and iconographic commentary, the Blue Beryl—describe disease-causing demons (gdon, gnyan) troubled by humans through improper activities, such as burning food, slaughtering animals, or inappropriate seasonal behavior. These sources depict and discuss disturbed (female) demons, who send waves of poisonous breath (kha rlang), which in humans can cause disease. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sowa Rigpa practitioners circulated interpretations of nyen (gnyan) as “virus” and began treating COVID-19 as a nyenrim. How have Tibetans and Himalayan Buddhists interpreted SARS-Cov-2 within their own narratives of more-than-human disease causation? How and to what end did this happen? We analyze aspects of these contemporary pandemic narratives based on online Sowa Rigpa webinars, interviews, and blog-posts from 2020-21. Through a critical analysis of nyenrim iconography in Tibetan medical paintings, related medical works, and current interpretations, we argue that retrospective pathogenic disease identification guided practitioners to respond to a new infectious disease. In other words, long-held Tibetan and Himalayan interpretations of nonhuman entities continue to inform Sowa Rigpa etiologies of widespread disease, even in the modern times of COVID-19.


21 June 2023 (18:00 CEST)
Barbara Gerke and Jan van der Valk
Sowa Rigpa Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Material Manifestations of Protection and Treatment. Tibetan & Himalayan Studies Lecture Series, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Online via Zoom. Register here.

ABSTRACT: COVID-19 affected people across the globe, but how the pandemic played out over the past three years varied greatly across different contexts. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, this presentation explores how Sowa Rigpa communities prepared for and reacted to this rapidly developing crisis. We compare some responses of traditional medical institutions and privately operating physicians and highlight ways in which their pandemic-related practices were impacted by state public health policies and the legal status of Sowa Rigpa. Despite the varied spectrum of COVID-19 responses and the many factors involved, the exile-Tibetan and Himalayan practitioners we encountered were remarkably confident in dealing with the pandemic. The general sense was that (a) the occurrence of deadly epidemics in the degenerate age was prophesied in Tibetan treasure texts, (b) COVID-19 was not considered a “new” disease since virulent contagious diseases are discussed in classical works such as the Four Tantras, and (c) the prescribed protections and treatments had long been in use and were deemed to be effective. Although biomedical interventions were integrated in new institutional protocols and some Sowa Rigpa pharmacy experts innovated products, this pandemic narrative of confidence in tradition deserves further scrutiny. Not forgetting the ways in which customary ways of practice were re-negotiated and the tragic suffering and death that occurred, we argue that the material manifestations of the therapeutic arsenal – including amulets, pills, decoctions, and more – played a key role in “boosting the immunity” of Sowa Rigpa within the limits of existing government regulations