Working with calcite: potency as a process

By Barbara Gerke and Jan van der Valk

As part of our project, we ethnographically documented a case study of Sowa Rigpa medicine making (sman sbyor) techniques that reveals ideas of potency (nus pa) in practice. This involved apprenticing with a medical practitioner in Ladakh to process calcite or chongzhi (cong zhi). We chose the example of calcite rock, of which many types exit, because they can undergo a “hot,” “cold” or “wild” form of processing. This directs their potency to either increase the digestive heat (me drod) of the patient, or to having cooling properties that help calm stomach acidity.

Processed calcite powder is used both as an ingredient and as a pill coating in certain medical formulas. However, skillfully working with chongzhi is not just about finishing a pill, it is also “a phase in the life-story” of a substance—in our case a piece of rock that “grows” in remote mountain areas from where it is collected by amchi. We documented, for instance, how it was transformed during the full moon of the eighth Tibetan month into “moon ray calcite” (cong zhi zla ’od). This specific processing is said to enhance its cooling potency.

We are inspired by anthropologist Tim Ingold and historian of science Pamela Smith, who have shown that historical divisions and definitions of “making” and “growing,” “organisms” and “artefacts” in various societies are not as preordained as they seem at first glance. As stated in Ingold and Hallam’s edited volume titled Making and Growing, the maker or artisan “effects an ontological transformation in the material, not through the application of exterior force to inert substance, but through intervening in a play of forces and relations both internal and external to the things under production” (p. 4).

Many types of chongzhi are mentioned in Tibetan medical literature. They reveal the importance amchi give to the different environments from where they source their substances, as well as the importance of sensorial qualities and local lineage instructions.

Five types of chongzhi samples at the Sowa Rigpa School in Choglamsar, Ladakh. From left to right: pho cong, ma ning cong, mo cong, cong zhi pho cong, mo cong,

Moon-ray chongzhi processing

We visited Amchi Tsültrim’s clinic in Leh in September 2018. He is a Gelukpa monk from Nubra and was trained at the Men-Tsee-Khang, graduating in the third batch of 1973. In September 2018, during full moon, Amchi Tsültrim allowed us to process calcite with him, which is made only once a year, during the most auspicious full moon of the eighth month in the Tibetan calendar, which typically falls into late August or September, when the moon is considered the brightest.

Amchi Tsültrim said it is the easiest to process. Crushing and grinding pearls, turquoise or lapis lazuli is a lot more difficult. Properties of materials are not merely ideas; they are real properties that amchi work with.  We first spent hours crushing chongzhi rocks into small pieces by hand.

Jan is crushing chongzhi rocks into smaller pieces

Then we boil twenty kilos of crushed chongzhi rocks several times in water on a gas stove in a large aluminum pot. Amchi Tsültrim changes the water after each round of boiling, until after four rounds, the water looks clear.

Amchi Tsültrim pours out the water after the second round of boiling chongzhi

This process of boiling (cong zhi dug ’don) only removes the duk (dug) which is not poison in this context, but “what we don’t want”: dirt, other minerals, impurities of all kinds. Through this boiling, the chongzhi becomes clean, tsangma (gtsang ma) Amchi Tsültrim said: “We don’t use unclean materials in medicine, this makes the medicine rough and difficult to digest.”

Five days later we were back, for another two days of grinding. This time the boiled chongzhi rocks had to be ground into fine white powder.

Grinding the pre-boiled and dried chongzhi pieces by hand into fine powder

On the day of the full moon, Amchi Tsültrim had organized six liters of fresh dzomo (yak-cow hybrid) milk, which had been boiled. He started mixing some of the white chongzhi powder with six liters of dzomo milk in a large metal bowl. Amchi Tsültrim explained that the coolness we felt was a combination of the mixture’s exposure to the cold night air, and to moon light, which “is always cold.” Indeed, the aim of our kneading was primarily to expose every particle of the mixture thoroughly to the moonlight, while reciting the Medicine Buddha mantra.

Amchi Tsültrim mixes milk into the pre-processed and powdered calcite under full moonlight

It was around 11:30pm when we stopped the kneading and prepared sheets of washed plastic to place the round chongzhi cakes on that we formed by hand in uneven ways.

We form chongzhi cakes together, which are exposed to moonlight until dawn

Making chongzhi daö with Amchi Tsültrim showed us that only by doing and making we could get a sense of the intricacies of the amchi’s skills, dexterity, and empirical knowledge, as well as practical necessities, limitations, and their dynamic interactions with the substances.

Potent Substances project expo: Sowa Rigpa pandemic responses

By Jan van der Valk and Barbara Gerke

The Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB) at the University of Vienna has a modest exhibition space, which has been dedicated to Sowa Rigpa since 2018.

On December 15, 2022, Barbara added the finishing touch to our small yet dense exhibition in the hallway of ISTB. Only a few steps away from our office, this expo shares some of our on-going work on how potent substances become medicine (section 1), while also focusing on the pharmaceutical responses to the COVID-19 pandemic of Sowa Rigpa physicians in the Himalayan valleys of Ladakh and Kathmandu (section 2). The expo therefore consists of two parts, of which we reproduce the introductory paragraphs here, together with some photos of the key objects we exhibited. In this blogpost we introduce section 2. You can find our separate blog entry on section 1 here.

University of Vienna students can visit the exhibition during office hours. Others who are interested, feel free to contact us for a guided mini tour!

Overview of the new left part of the expo. There are two more framed A3 sheets that introduce our project to the left of the cabinet (see above), as well as printed photos of our main fieldsites on the side.

Anti-COVID materia medica

During the height of the pandemic, amchi across the globe prepared several kinds of well-known as well as innovative medicines, herbal products, and amulets for their patients. This is a selection of different of potent products that have been put to use to protect against and/or treat COVID-19. They were collected during fieldwork by Jan in Ladakh and Kathmandu (August-September 2022), and by Barbara in Dharamsala (February 2020).

Norbu Dünthang (nor bu bdun thang), which can be translated as “7-Jewel-Decoction,” was perhaps the most frequently used formula in Nepal during the pandemic years of 2020-21. It is traditionally used to treat infectious fevers associated with common cold and flu (cham pa) in particular. Amchi found this decoction to be especially effective for mild cases and in the early stages of COVID-19. The coarsely ground herbs are usually boiled for several minutes in hot water.

Four types of anti-COVID pills

Here are three formulas used to treat later stages of COVID-19 (from left to right): (1) Pangtsi 12, (2) Tazi Marpo, and (3) Khyung 5. The fourth is a sample of Mani Rilbu, which are believed to protect from infection when ingested. These were collected by Jan in Kathmandu in August/September 2022.

Close-up of pills used in the treatment of later stages of COVID-19

(1) Pangtsi 12 (spang rtsi bcu gnyis)
Reformulated classical formula for nyenrim (gnyen rims) disorders, with newly added ingredients (including Rhodiola spp.) for treating COVID-19.
Produced and distributed to Sowa Rigpa clinics by Bendurya Healing Herbals (Dr. Lhakpa Ngodup)

(2) Tazi Marpo (rta zi dmar po)
Another top-ranking formula used for COVID-19. This “Red Tazi” pill is often related to Hayagrīva, and is believed to carry his blessing when consecrated.
Produced and prescribed by Yuthok Himalayan Clinic (Dr. Ngawang Choekyong)

(3) Khyung 5 (khyung lnga)
Together with Norbu Dünthang, this “Gāruḍa 5” formula was one of the most commonly used medicines for COVID-19. Khyung 5 was also used preventatively for a short period in case of high exposure.
Distributed for free during medical camps and prescribed by Snow Region Welfare Clinic (Dr. Urgyen Bhuti)

(4) Mani Rilbu (ma ni ril bu)
These small consecrated pills are imbued with the power of thousands of Avalokiteśvara mantras, and with the personal blessings or jinlap (byin rlabs) of the Dalai Lama. Dr. Tsémé ingested some once in a while while dispensing pills to sick patients to protect herself.
Distributed by the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Dharamsala), and then gifted to Dr. Tseme (Shelchoe Yuthok Clinic), who gave some to Jan.

Amchi Lobsang has treated hundreds of infected patients while wearing available protective equipment and using hand sanitizer (Shelkar Clinic, Boudha, Kathmandu)

Protective pills

Rimsung pills are usually wrapped in colored cloth and tightened with five-colored strings. They are called rimsung rilbu (rims srung ril bu), referring to pills that protect from infectious disease (rims nad). The 9-compound pill Nakpo Gujor (nag po dgu sbyor), wrapped in black cloth, is one of the many rimsung that came to the forefront in 2003 during SARS as well as during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

While on fieldwork in Dharamsala, India, in February 2020, Barbara documented the distribution of various rimsung by private pharmacies and the Men-Tsee-Khang. The Men-Tsee-Khang first produced rimsung during a plague outbreak in India in 1994; in February 2020 alone, they distributed 460,000 black rimsung pills across India and Nepal. Rimsung can be worn as amulets and smelled for protection.

While they contain medicinal substances, they are generally not ingested but worn around the neck. They are said to protect through the strong odorous effects of around seven to nine ingredients, such as garlic (sgog pa), sulfur (mu zi), black aconite (sman chen), types of myrrh (gu gul), and traditionally also musk (gla rtsi). Its history and related deity and mantra practices demonstrate medico-religious intertextualities of protective pills and their emergence around the time of the Black Death of 13th / 14th century Tibet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many amchi prepared rimsung pills as a first emergency response.

Variants of Nakpo Gujor


As a student of the Tibetan medical physician and astrologer Epa Sonam Rinchen and having received initiations from Pelpung Tai Situ Rinpoché, Dr. Ngawang Damchoe (Kunde Medical Clinic) had the rare combined medico-ritual expertise to prepare two variants of Nakpo Gujor (include one wrapped in red cloth, for children), as well as a Logyönma amulet.

A black rimsung pill. It is based on a medicinal formula, but worn for protection. This one was distributed in Dharamsala, India, in 2020.

Parṇaśabarī, the Leaf-Clad Goddess (Tib. Lo gyon ma) is known for averting epidemic diseases. Her protection is embodied in astrological amulets as well as in 21-ingredient pills (Lo gyon ril bu).

Logyönma amulet


During the pandemic, Dr. Urgyen Bhuti (Kathmandu) also advised her patients to burn this incense made with high-altitude Himalayan herbs to purify the air.

Dolpo healing incense

Biographies of Precious Pills expo

Based on Barbara’s previous FWF project, this expo has now been condensed into the right side of the cabinet, where most of its content can still be viewed.

Tibetan Materialities workshop reflections

University of Copenhagen, 12-13 May 2022

Authored by Barbara Gerke & Jan van der Valk

This Tibetan Materialities Workshop took place in Copenhagen (May 12-13, 2022) in preparation for a panel at the forthcoming 16th IATS Conference in Prague (July 3-9, 2022). Twelve scholars met across disciplines at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies. Emma Martin (University of Manchester), Diana Lange (University of Hamburg) and Trine Brox (CCBS, University of Copenhagen) co-organized this workshop with the aim to create an international collaborative forum on Tibetan materialities. Funded by the Asian Dynamics Initiative, the group took advantage of this opportunity to steer discussions and stimulate research, reflection, and writing.

We (Barbara and Jan) were the invited discussants, Trine Brox the local host. The nine presentations illustrated the broadness of approaches that Tibetan and Himalayan objects and artefacts have recently attracted in different disciplines (e.g., Museum Studies, Anthropology, Art History, Sociology, and Conservation Studies). We covered locally embedded preservation practices of statues at the Namgyal Institute for Tibetology in Sikkim (Katia Thomas), and how to decolonize the narratives and classifications of Tibetan collections at the British Museum in London (Chukyi Kyaping). What can we learn from local artisans and rituals to overcome the limits of modern/secular museum descriptions? How do artefacts change over time, how to explore the question of their “origins” and rightful owners when we find a human skull cup in a museum collection and begin linking it to a living tantric tradition across the Himalayas and beyond (Ayesha Fuentes)? How to craft a critical museology of dissent amidst Chinese-Tibetan politics and exile activism when giving advice for the layout and display of the Tibet Museum in Dharamsala (Emma Martin)? How to integrate noninvasive spectroscopic analysis of pigments – thus treating maps as material sources – to learn more about Tibetan map-making traditions and at the same time make sense of undergirding cosmologies, for instance when finding a mandala on the back of Tibetan map (Diana Lange)? How do the embodied meanings and practicalities of wearing Tibetan Buddhist robes change for ordained Western nuns in rather isolated circumstances in Britain (Caroline Starkey)? How does participant observation, knowing by doing, and also not knowing by missing out on asking pertinent questions during fieldwork that we could not or did not follow up on, lead to “patchwork ethnography” and the forgetting of untold stories. How does what do we NOT write about impact our ethnographic narratives (Mark Jeffrey Stevenson)?

Locality, powerful spaces, and potent landscapes were recurring themes when approaching the social and political meanings of Tibetan objects and their use in every-day lives, whether in a contested Tibeto-Japanese Buddhist temple setting in Nagoya (Steven Cristopher), or among women and their menstrual practices in and around Vajrayoginī ritual sites in Sankhu, Nepal (Sierra Humbert).

The intertwining of narratives and material practices becomes more complex, blurred, and conflicting when rumors, sensitive topics, sacred/secret knowledge, “incomplete” fieldwork, and serendipity are taken into account. This also raises questions on research ethics, when and how to ask questions, and what to publish—or not. Discussions on representation, authenticity, “truth,” and dissent made us reflect on our positionalities, individually as researchers in specific settings as well as collectively as a group engaging with critical issues within Tibetan Studies. We talked about how we find our theoretical and methodological inspiration to explore all these interdisciplinary questions in other disciplines—rarely in Tibetan Studies itself. Does this place us at the periphery of Tibetan Studies, and/or Tibetology at the margins of Tibetan and Himalayan material-based research? Barbara had to think of Janet Gyatso’s first Aris lecture “Beyond Representation and Identity,” in 2015. Her question still rings in her head all these years later:

“How many times has anyone outside of Tibetan Studies—even people in as closely aligned fields as Indology or Sinology—cited any book or article in Tibetan Studies for an insight or principle or pattern or concept or mode of analysis that is relevant to their own work?”

Realizing that we search in other disciplines for modes of analysis, the question arose: How can this materiality research group contribute to the development of Tibetan Studies? Participants noted the limitations of the dominant textual-philological focus and methods of Tibetan Studies, especially when it comes to researching materially mediated skills and practices.

Our aspiration to work across the boundaries of disciplines in the context of Tibetan materialities involves critical thinking and coming up with new conceptual frameworks. Engaging Tibetan objects and their varied meanings and potencies inspires us to continually question peoples’ and our own perceptions, ideas, and practices. As a group we aspire to make our work more visible and create more opportunities for cross-fertilization, such as the upcoming IATS panel, an edited volume, and further online and in-person meetings. We both enjoyed these two days of cross-disciplinary synergy and intellectual exchange, and look forward to how this is going to evolve.

Making rejuvenating medicinal butter in the Swiss Alps with Dr. Pasang Yonten Arya

Pasang Yonten Arya (Menrampa) is a practitioner, scholar, and teacher of Tibetan medicine educated at Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala, where he served as assistant pharmacist, lecturer, and college principal between 1977 and 1989. After lecturing at the Central Institute for Buddhist Studies (Ladakh, 1981–1991), he moved to Italy, where he heads the New Yuthok Institute and Tibetan Medicine Education center (TME). I have been studying with him since 2012.

In the late spring of 2019, I (Jan) participated in a week-long TME rejuvenation workshop in the Swiss Pre-Alps, together with eighteen other students. It took place in a large chalet on the edge of a quiet idyllic village, enveloped by the sound of a nearby waterfall, green alpine pastures, and pine forest.

The view from where the medicinal butter workshop took place. The Gyüzhi states the importance of finding a suitable place for a rejuvenation retreat, which should be “clean, quiet, pleasant, and free of obstacles.”

Over lunch on arrival day, Dr. Pasang welcomed the students to this ideal place for rejuvenation with the following words:
“This is a workshop. You have to work, you must touch with your hands, body and mind together. You might burn yourself or feel nauseous, whatever, you must do it. It is not enough to look at a video, or to attend a lecture. This is pharmacy. You must work! One, two, three times, then only you begin to understand: ‘Ah, this is the way.'”

Our teacher foregrounded manual work, the senses, practice and experiential knowledge in menjor, the making of medicine. The nourishing qualities of medicinal butter alleviate excess lung (‘wind’) and strengthen the body. Making menmar is excellent for rejuvenation, but without preliminary cleansing there would be little benefit upon taking the medicine: “preparing [fresh] food in a dirty cooking pot, does it make sense or not?,” he commented. Kitchen metaphors, associating cooking with digestion as well as with medicine making, were a recurring theme throughout the workshop.

The butter does not only need to be refined by removing impurities and ‘extracting the essence’ (chülen), it should also be ritually perfected and consecrated. This practice involved visualisation of Buddha Amitāyus (Tshe dpag med) and recitation of a specific mantra, through which the medicinal butter is transformed into nectar. The practitioner visualizes how five-colored nectar light is absorbed from the elements of the ten directions, and again emitted from the medicine, increasing the lifespan of all beings.

The medine butter jars were consecrated with the blessings of the Medicine Buddha (pictured here), and infused with life-force essence through accumulation of the rejuvenating mantra of Amitāyus.

In this combined medicinal butter and rejuvenation workshop, I learned both as a practitioner and as an anthropologist engaged in participant-observation. This education through apprenticeship foregrounds the importance of honing skills through interactions with the dynamic properties of materials, and also comes with intriguing analytical questions. To properly study medicine preparation and empowerment, it seems that fieldworkers have few options other than (partially) becoming artisan-practitioners themselves, however inexperienced they may be. In this sense, anthropology is like a craft.

Pre-COVID-19: A visit to Dharamsala, India (February 2020)

In early February 2020, I (Barbara) went to Dharamsala, one of the centers of the Tibetan diaspora community in India and the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration. At that point only three official cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Kerala, South India. But the disease was on people’s minds. A friend gifted me two pills wrapped in black cloth and tightened with five-colored strings. In Tibetan, they are called rimsung rilbu (rims srung ril bu), meaning ‘pills that protect from contagion.’ Rimsung pills are based on a medicinal formula, but worn as an amulet. The next day, I observed a queue of Tibetans gathering before the Men-Tsee-Khang branch clinic in McLeod Ganj where by 10am, the entire stock of 2,500 rimsung pills was sold out.

A protective rimsung pill

The Men-Tsee-Khang also sold protective amulets that contain mantras, written on the printed image of a mandala surrounded by a wild boar. This is smeared with liquid substances that are attributed protective potency against infectious diseases, called rimné (rims nad). The amulet is tied in cloth with a five-colored string in a complex way by trained specialists.

A protective amulet

The user should recite the mantra and visualize the image for protection, which is explained on a leaflet. These were also out of stock, but I was able to photograph one.

The Men-Tsee-Khang leaflet on the protective amulet

I was intrigued by these Tibetan medical preventive responses, asked questions on Tibetan ideas of contagion and protection from infectious diseases, and documented their early responses to the coronavirus pandemic before there were any cases in northern India. Field notes merged into a Think Piece, published in Medicine Anthropology Theory in April 2020.

Sowa Rigpa Clinics in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal

The great stupa of Boudhanath covered with monsoon clouds in the background, August 2019
A steady stream of Buddhist devotees and tourists on the khora, circumambulating the stupa

The great stupa of Boudhanath, situated in Kathmandu’s northeastern outskirts, has been a crossroads of long-distance trade and Buddhist pilgrimage for many centuries. It is said by Tibetans to fulfil the sincere wishes of travelers who first lay their eyes upon it. In the tight circle of three-storied buildings around the stupa alone, three Tibetan medical clinics attract the attention of passers-by with multi-lingual signboards including Tibetan, English, Nepali and Mandarin Chinese. During a five-week stay in Boudha, I discovered ten active clinics within twenty minutes walking distance from the stupa. Although Sowa Rigpa has centuries-old roots in the Himalayan mountain regions of Nepal as the dominant scholarly medical tradition, this profusion of urban clinics, some of which cater increasingly to tourists from both ‘East’ and ‘West’ , is a more recent phenomenon. In this blogpost, I briefly introduce three quite different Boudha clinics.

Amchi Wangchuk Lama is Kathmandu’s most senior practicing amchi. He still oversees the production of his own medicines, in powder and pill form, including several highly complex precious pills which are individually wrapped in colourful silk fabric. Amchi-la was born in Kyirong in the water-horse year, in 1942. He learned Sowa Rigpa at Drakar Taso (Brag dkar rta gso) monastery and was a monk for many years. Amchi Wangchuk’s clinic is not that easy to find and he does not speak English. He is highly respected, especially for his expertise and skill as a medicine maker. His Nakpo Gujor protective pills, to be worn around the neck, are popular, and monastics also come to purchase compounds for ritual purposes.

Pure Vision Sorig is the name of Dr Sherab Tenzin Barma’s clinic. It is affiliated to his main Healing and Research Center near Pharping, about an hour’s drive from downtown Kathmandu. Dr Sherab hails from Bhutan, where he studied Buddhist philosophy as well as medicine. After a five-year training, he graduated from Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute in Darjeeling. His clinics offer a range of external therapies, including various types of kunyé massage, herbal steam baths and cosmetic treatments. Besides the prescription-based medical formulas, he also designed a product line of liquid herbal extracts.

Dr Jigme (also know as Jixian Jia) heads the Youthok Tibetan Medical Clinic on the second floor of a building on the khora itself. A large bright room with four windows overlooking the stupa houses six hospital beds, where several elderly patients are getting IV drips. Acupuncture needles are also applied regularly, including by his wife and three assisting amchi in white lab coats. Dr Jigme got his Rabjampa college degree at Qinghai University Medical School, which included an internship in the large integrative hospital nearby. The consultation and dispensing room also has an altar with offerings, thangkas and photographs of important Buddhist teachers, which includes a picture of his young son, who was recognised as a reincarnation of Druptop Rinpoche. Dr Jigme prefers medicines imported from Tibet, because he believes herbs harvested there have higher potency, and since they are manufactured and packaged according to strict GMP procedures.

An amchi family’s old medicine room in Tingmosgang, Ladakh

Amchi Tashi Stobgais, who works at the National Research Institute for Sowa Rigpa (NRIS) in Leh, kindly invited us to his parental home in Tingmosgang to spend the weekend early September last year. We reached there in half a day’s drive along the Indus river valley.

Now a quiet village with dotted with apricot orchards, and some homestays and guesthouses for tourists, Tingmosgang is of considerable historical importance as witnessed by the ruins of a 15th-century royal castle, as well as centuries-old monasteries. Amchi Tashi can trace back three generations of amchi in his family before himself, but the family title ‘Lhajenpa’ and ‘Lharjé’ indicate that he probably hails from a line of royally appointed physicians. His father was trained by his grandfather and so on, but Tashi chose to study at Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala.

We were honoured to speak to Tashi’s father, and to visit the old family shrine room where Mémé Yutok – Amchi Tashi’s grandfather, a famous amchi known across the entire Sham Valley, who traveled around on horseback – had installed a special Medicine Buddha statue, and where he passed away in tukdam.

Going through a small door adjacent to the shrine entrance, we were astonished to find the medicine making room (menjor khang) with its many bottles and instruments. Out of use since his father retired, this small room with its wooden floor and three shelves is like a museum full of treasures: a large grinding stone, wooden medicine containers, bottled locally harvested blue gentian flowers, copper and horn cupping implements, minor surgical instruments, leather medicine pouches, and a large medicine bag lined with snow leopard skin!

a large leather medicine bag lined with snow leopard fur, used by Mémé Yuthok, Amchi Tashi’s grandfather