DHARAMSALA, India: Before dawn in the Indian Himalayas, scores of patients clutching small vials of urine queue patiently to see Yeshi Dhonden, a Tibetan monk who became a legend as personal healer to the Dalai Lama.
Tibetan medicine, known as Sowa-Rigpa, draws on centuries-old techniques such as blood-letting, cupping, and moxibustion—burning herbs on energy points of the body—to try to heal ailments.
The practice draws on aspects of traditional Chinese medicine and India’s Ayurvedic system as well as its own unique theories and treatments. It also features spiritual practises including meditation and Buddhist prayer.
Today it attracts devotees from all over the globe, hoping for help with conditions from back pain to cancer and degenerative diseases.
“If the sick come to me I will take care of them,” Dhonden told AFP at his private clinic in McLeodganj, surrounded by Tibetan scrolls and beaming images of his most famous client.
Dhonden—who spent three decades tending the health of Tibet’s spiritual leader—relies on his senses to divine what ails patients.
“I don’t go for tests like X-ray and all. I trust myself. I just test the pulse and the urine,” he explained.
A touch at the wrist is how he ascertains the health of vital organs and blood pressure.
The urine, held in a white porcelain cup, is stirred with two small bamboo sticks. Color, bubble formation, sediment and smell can all shape the diagnosis.
Devotees swear Tibetan medicine works, though few scientific studies have been conducted into its efficacy.
Science of healing
The increasing popularity of Buddhism in the west, as well as a global Tibetan diaspora has helped spread awareness about its unique alternative medicine.
But like other Eastern health treatments, it is viewed with skepticism among the conventional medical fraternity.
A lack of standardization and clinical trials means it will be some time before Tibetan medicine can go mainstream, said cardiologist D. Prabhakaran from the Public Health Foundation of India.
But even doubters acknowledge the natural treatment appears to assist some patients in certain cases.
“I know of anecdotal examples where people with terminal diseases have lived much longer than predicted after taking Tibetan medicine,” Prabhakaran said.
“I think there’s a lot of empathy towards the patient in Tibetan medicine. Basically it comes from the thinking of Buddhism and that may be one of the reasons why it’s becoming more popular,” he added.
In 2010, India officially recognized Tibetan medicine as a “science of healing” and enshrined it within the nation’s healthcare system, paving the way for future research and investment into the spiritual discipline.