Summary of Project Results (July 2018)

This two-year project focused on “biographies” of contemporary Tibetan precious pills and their social history. Precious pills are unique multi-compound pills that form a special part of Tibetan medicine, also known as Sowa Rigpa (“The science of healing”). They are considered precious because they include a variety of pre-processed precious and semi-precious stones (pearl, turquoise, coral, rubies, etc.) and metals. Based on an ethnographic analysis of the most common precious pills currently produced in India and on a study of their formulas in Tibetan medical texts dating back to the twelfth century, several key results became apparent.
Precious pills comprise heterogeneous Sowa Rigpa formulas (between 25 and 150 ingredients of herbal, animal, metallic, and mineral origins) that emerged from different histories, contexts, and sources and should, at least textually, not be treated as a homogenous group. Only more recently, largely with the onset of the pharmaceuticalization of Tibetan medical products beginning in the 1990s, have they been presented as a cohesive group of medicines. The overall popularity of precious pills draws on a combination of their perceived therapeutic and rejuvenating benefits.
To understand the nature of Tibetan formulas and their “biographies” comprehensively over time, I looked at recipes as a specific “genre” and analyzed them in terms of their authorship, intertextuality, and naming practices, as well as their product design. Results revealed a certain flexibility to reformulate recipes while manufacturing the pills. The textual and ethnographic analysis showed that their inherent design poses a challenge within the present movement to codify formulas into a standardized pharmacopeia, which in India is currently required for four medical traditions (Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) and might become relevant to Sowa Rigpa in the near future. The ways in which formulas are standardized will be a defining aspect of the future of the Sowa Rigpa industry in Asia. The findings of this project alert to the issues at stake and the nature of the medical knowledge that will be lost if Tibetan formulas, including those of precious pills, are standardized following the ayurvedic model.
The contemporary commodification of precious pills in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where they drive a multimillion dollar business, is quite different compared to India, where they are deeply linked to expressions of Tibetan national identity. The analysis of a Tibetan-Chinese-English precious pill leaflet shows that in the PRC Sowa Rigpa’s specific terminology and disease etiologies are largely sidelined while catering to a Chinese-speaking patient and consumer clientele, whereas in India we find elements from Buddhism and Tibetan identity integrated in the presentation and packaging of precious pills. Each serves the commodification of precious pills, but in different ways. Results also highlight how the commodification and over-the-counter sales of precious pills, found largely in the PRC but also at certain clinics in India, might easily lead to their misuse. Warnings about possible toxicity and calls to use precious pills only as prescription drugs are mentioned in brochures but rarely implemented. One of the project’s main concerns has been to show that the commodification of precious pills with financial gain as the main strategy undercuts the therapeutic purpose of precious pills as potent medicines and tends to lead to their overuse. Uninformed consumers outside the Tibetan cultural context who buy precious pills over the counter or online either as tonics, supplements, or when self medicating, can easily underestimate their effects. The open-access project publications and an exhibition at the Institute for South Asian, Tibet, and Buddhist Studies provide accessible and relevant information.

Link: Project Summary in German [PDF]
Background Photo Credit: Brigitta Gerke-Jork (