Workshop reflection

Aromatics and Epidemics

A two-day workshop at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton University, NJ

November 30 – December 1, 2023


Yan Liu, Associate professor in the Department of History at the State University of New York, Buffalo, IAS fellow

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, Professor of History at Goldsmiths, University of London, IAS fellow

Nira Wickramasinghe, Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, IAS fellow

William McGrath, Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies, Department of Religious Studies, New York University, postdoc on the FWF project “Pandemic Narratives of Tibet and the Himalayas” at the University of Vienna

Barbara Gerke, University of Vienna, PI of the FWF project “Pandemic Narratives of Tibet and the Himalayas” at the University of Vienna

Research and writing are often a solitary affair, even more so if one works on obscure topics. To get the opportunity to talk to scholars in the same field is precious. To find three scholars interested in aromatics in one place (the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University) is even more precious. It offers a great opportunity to get together. We designed this multidisciplinary workshop to spend time to talk shop: research projects, detailed questions on smelly substances, and our concerns regarding texts, methodology, and writing. The objective was to sit together and talk across our disciplinary divides of history, anthropology, and religious studies, finding common ground, and inspire each other in writing about aromatics through sharing our sources and thoughts on potent substances and how they have been used for epidemic prevention and treatment. Here are some of my reflections on the workshop:

We find ourselves on Einstein Drive at the outskirts of the Princeton campus on a cold but sunny wintery day. Bill and I travelled from New York and Boston; Ronit, Yan, and Nira have been busy with their fellowship projects here at the IAS. It is the first time we all get together in person. Together we want to think through the significance of aromatic substances in Asian medicines, specifically in an epidemic context.

After an extensive round of introducing our projects to each other and a marvelous lunch at the IAS, I begin by sharing my research on the multiple potencies of nine aromatic substances which are used in the formula of the Tibetan 9-Compound Black Pill, called Nakpo Gujor (nag po dgu sbyor). The formula has a long history in Tibetan medicine (Sowa Rigpa) and came to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. I trace some of the trans-Eurasian trade of these substances, some of which were also used as dyes and in paper making, apart from medicine. We discuss how aromatics in general are more about a strong smell than a good smell. Who determines what “stinks” and what is “fragrant”? What might the smellscapes of thirteenth century Tibet have been like? How can we understand their textual and transnational representations in formula texts? We bounce back between Tibetan and Chinese ideas of potency: what is the importance of “black” and of poisonous substances in anti-epidemic formulas? How important were myrobalan, musk, cinnamon, calamus, aconite, sulfur, asafetida, bezoar, frankincense, and myrrh in anti-epidemic formulas?

Bill introduces a chapter of his forthcoming monograph on Plague in Tibet, outlining the protective pandemic activities and earlier versions of the 9-Black Compound Pill of the 13th century Tibetan text Vase of Ambrosia. He shares with us his textual research on the Tibetan ways of writing about fevers and contagion. It is not all about balance, but also about displacement and invasion. We talk about the military language of disease, buboes, plague, and the protective associations of aromatic substances. We talk about the contested issue of retrospective diagnosis of disease and how easy it is to read smallpox into the past and how things have changed in the light of recent scientific research uncovering a major plague outbreak in Central Asia during the 13th century. In this context, Bill explains how he used to translate the Tibetan term ’brum as “pox,” but now he thinks maybe it is just a “pustule,” or it might even refer to a plague pustule rather than to smallpox. Spirits and demons (gnyan) have been important agents of infectious disease across China and Tibet, and Bill discusses in which context they are personalized or impersonalized. Yan responds by opening a discussion on the ontological and physiological aspects of disease etiology, going back to Paul Unschuld’s work of the 1980s, raising questions on how we could connect those in our discussions on epidemics.

A scholar of Chinese history and the history of medicine, Yan is currently working on a book about the transcultural history of aromatics and the production of olfactory knowledge in China (7th to 13th century). Previously, we were in touch only via zoom, attending poison panels and launching our books on poison together (Yan’s Healing with Poisons and my Taming the Poisonous, both published in 2021). Poisons led us both into research of contagion, aromatics, and epidemics. It is great to finally talk in person. Yan shares his historical research on early Chinese medical texts and the use of aromatics for epidemic prevention. He mentions the use of aromatics emerging in TCM formulas during the COVID-19 pandemic and uncovers their past: patchouli, the Pill of Storax, frankincense, agarwood, and camphor, all of them having long histories in Song China (960-1279).

The trade networks were impressive: Patchouli came from northern Vietnam and was used to combat epidemics; camphor came from Borneo and was considered very cooling and good to treat fever. We also discuss how “epidemics” were called in the past and how cross-cultural negotiations are revealed in the names used for aromatic substances. We go back and forth in time, discussing the contemporary harvesting of musk, giwam (bear’s bile), and bezoars (discussed in Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China, 2021). Yan then tells us about the year 1116, in which a government-sponsored materia medica collection listed 1,800 drugs, many of which were aromatics, were traded from foreign countries, and were used to protect from epidemics. We also note that while the state was involved in prescribing (largely foreign) aromatic medicines to combat epidemics, most of that effort was aimed at the elite with negligible access to the larger population.

With Nira we dive into the multifaced sensory histories of one aromatic substance: cinnamon. She introduces her book proposal on the world history of cinnamon, which leads to a discussion on the trade, politics, and changing commodification of cinnamon over time. She shares some of her methods and ideas of how she will create the story of the book, which is telling a narrative of cinnamon through its unique environments. Her narrative begins in Sri Lanka and weaves together stories of trade and the working conditions of the cinnamon bark cutters, the changing consumption patterns across oceans, developments from cinnamon as an ingredient of Christmas pies towards, more recently, becoming an “ethical spice” substituting sugar.

Cinnamon becomes our example to discuss story-telling narratives of aromatics. We touch on Ronit’s work Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes (2011), Pippa Lacey’s The Coral Network (2016), and Amitav Gosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021). We search our laptops for Tibetan and Chinese sources on the use of cinnamon, and Bill comes up with imageries in the 17th century medical thangka book Tibetan Medical Paintings (1992), and the Tibetan History Reader (2013) which mentions that the 5th Dalai Lama was embalmed in cinnamon. Some of the older sources on potent substances that are so relevant for all of us working on aromatics in Asia also list cinnamon: Schafer’s The Golden Peaches of Samarkand and Berthold Laufer’s Sino-Iranica materia medica work of 1919, which we still find is a very valuable source.

Cinnamon (shing tshwa) in the Tibetan Medical Paintings
(Parfionovitch et al. 1992: vol. 1, plate 33, p. 82)

Ronit reads a quote for us from the book by William Rubruck (The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck. His journey to the court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253 – 1255) who traveled to Mongolia before Marco Polo and in 1253 leaves us a clear description of their quarantine response during an epidemic. Ronit is an attentive listener and gives valuable feed-back to everyone and shares her insights on trading fragrant musk and myrobalan across Eurasia from her book ReOrienting Histories of Medicine: Encounters along the Silk Roads (2021). She also raises pointed questions on how to unpack the trade of aromatics. Were doctors demanding certain substances? What triggered their demand and supply? So many good questions to guide our research.

The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton provided the perfect surroundings for our discussions with excellent working spaces, lunches, cookies, coffee, and nature walks. We return to our desks inspired and with fresh ideas to put aromas into words.

Research updates

A sampling of online anglophone discussions on COVID-19

In the context of our project, I have been tracking the many lively online discussions involving physicians and scholars of Sowa Rigpa that have taken place since the emergence of a “novel coronavirus” in December 2019. Even though SARS-COV-2 can no longer be called “new”, I believe there is still much to learn from the unprecedented amount of materials that circulated in these digital spaces: to analyze the multiplicity of Tibetan medical perspectives on COVID-19, to see how practitioners positioned themselves in relation to biomedicine and public health measures, to understand the ways in which they drew on Buddhist prophecies of degenerate times and more-than-human cosmologies to interpret the root causes of the pandemic, and so on! Keep an eye out for upcoming publications next year to find out more. Here, I would just like to share links to some of the Sowa Rigpa pandemic resources in English that remain available to give a sense of what was going on.

Pioneering posts (February 2020)

The earliest English-language items appeared online in the first week of February 2020, at a time when the virus had barely spread outside China. These contributions were by Tibetan medical physicians in Tibet (translated and introduced by William McGrath) and in Dharamsala, and their focus was mainly on prevention and protection.

The first wave: spring 2020

As many across the world were under lockdown, the period from March until June 2020 saw the largest outpouring of contributions: personal blog posts (see for example here), podcast episodes (such as this one), virtual interviews (here), the launch of a webinar series by the US Shang Shung Institute, and several live discussions. Together with the American Tibetan Medical Association, Kunde Institute (California) hosted the Encountering COVID-19: Perspectives From Tibetan Medicine panel series, and the UCSF Division of Palliative Care held an event which included a guided meditation and visualization for overloaded healthcare professionals.

Anthropologists and historians working on Asian medical traditions also played their part around this time, such as by editing and authoring an extensive collection of early pandemic responses and reflections (That’s us!), and through writing a think piece by Barbara Gerke.

The second wave: fall-winter 2020

A second, considerably smaller wave of COVID-related items emerged after the summer of 2020, perhaps corresponding to yet another global peak in the number of infections. In several cases more specific topics were addressed in dedicated sessions: the role of spirit provocation and environmental destruction in understanding epidemics (here, see also this spring-time panel on the same topic), “immune boosting” and how to prepare the body for a long-term pandemic (Nida Chenagtsang and Herbert Schwabl), COVID-19 in Himalayan communities (part of the Shang Shung series), obesity and age as risk factors (Anasuya Weil), and more. Tawni Tidwell also presented at the second IASTAM webinar (see here for the two other webinars), which mainly featured academic papers on East Asian medicine.

Another pandemic year (2021)

The second pandemic year was much less productive than the first in terms of the quantity of relevant output, but several highly insightful journal articles came out: Craig et al. and Tidwell & Gyamtso (both in an Asian Medicine special issue on COVID-19), as well as an extensive interview with senior Men-Tsee-Khang doctor Dorjee Rapten Neshar. The latter is part of a noticeable trend in this year of contributions by Tibetan practitioners living and working in India, including a blog post by a younger-generation practitioner on the apotropaic Nakpo Gujor pill, a panel on mental health (a commonly recurring theme), and a Shang Shung webinar with senior doctor Namgyal Qusar. (Refer to the YouTube channels of Men-Tsee-Khang and CCTM, amongst others, for related Tibetan-language recordings). A single translated statement by a Russian physician is also worth mentioning here.

Later reflections

By 2022, the interest of the anglophone Sowa Rigpa community for COVID-19 was no longer significant, at least in the form of the kinds of publicly broadcast or published online media shared above. Now it is up to us researchers to analyze, compare, and contextualize these pandemic narratives, and also to account for what was left unspoken, and for those groups who barely had a voice on these international platforms.


Welcome to our new project website!

The Pandemic Narratives team would like to welcome you to our new website. As an introduction to our project, feel free to have a look at the following two blogposts which have already been published by us elsewhere.

First of all, you can check out our CoronAsur research blog entry hosted by National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute: Thinking about Contagion and Epidemic Disease in Tibetan and Himalayan Medical Contexts: Introducing the “Pandemic Narrative” Research Project.

Detail of Yutok Yönten Gönpo (20th c.; HAR #77181), edited by the “Last Classical Man” (最后的古典人). Seen on WeChat (February 2020)

To get a first glimpse of our preliminary fieldwork, you can also browse a selection of photos and anti-COVID materia medica specimens exhibited in a small expo at University of Vienna’s Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist studies. This post was first shared at the Potent Substances project website, and is syndicated here:

We are excited to start this project. Stay tuned for more content!