Tibetan medicine between tradition and modernity: an article by Stephan Kloos

What are the connections of medicine, identity and politics? What does it entail to go to one or another practician, if you live in a Tibetan village? And: when did modernity start? When did the state’s capital become the “center”?

Amchi Medizin zwischen Rand und Mitte (“Amchi medicine between periphery and center”, you can download a cope here) by Stephan Kloos might have escaped some interested people’s attention since it appeared in German. It tells the story of the Amchi (traditional Tibetan practicioner) Tashi Bulu and of his life in Hanu, in Ladakh. However, at the same time it asks broader questions regarding the relationship of Tashi Bulu’s small village and the “center” (be it the capital of Ladakh, or that of India, or a remote West), so that Tashi Bulu’s case throws light on the general picture while becoming better understandable through this interpretative frame.

Tashi Bulu collecting medical plants (from S. Kloos’ website)

But let me start from the beginning, namely from the fact that I usually find anthropological research either superficial (when I listen to papers showing similarities between Tibetan folktales from the 16th c., Brazilian tribes’ beliefs and Siberian Shamans’ practices) or boring (when it only deals with a few people about whom I cannot convince myself to care and who have been repeatedly interviewed). Challenging my (stupid) prejudices was my first objective while reading S. Kloos’ paper and the paper succeeded in (almost) uprooting them.

The paper starts with a methodological introduction, which explains how the concepts of “center” and “periphery”, just like those of “modernity” and “tradition” are not absolute definitions and are rather part of what Michael Taussig calls “epistemic murk” (1987:121, quoted by Kloos at p. 55). Further, as soon as “tradition” becomes self-aware, it turns into something else, namely “traditionalism”. Last, the anthropologist himself (cf. p. 69) interfers with his field, insofar as he represents himself a new “center” (the West). In other words, Kloos concludes, “periphery”, “center”, “tradition”, modernity” and many other similar concepts (Kloos mentions “culture”, “society”, “medical system” —about the complexity of the latter see Kloos 2013)

do not explain anything and rather need to be explained (p. 56).

I could not agree more. The use of labels is often an easy way out (an example from my field of study: “What does ‘authoriality’ mean?” “Easy, it means being ‘original'”…).

The case study regards the village of Hanu Gongma, in Ladakh and the shift from traditional Tibetan medicine, represented by Amchis, to a “modern” health center, payed by the state’s capital and thus perceived as “neutral” in regard to the social relations holding within the village. This shift was caused by (and at the same time reinforced) the loss of the traditional relations holding between a certain family and an Amchi (who was expected to practice out of sheer altruism, but was supported by the village). Now the villagers perceive themselves as “receivers”, depending on a “center” which is the “giver” and to whom one is not indebted at all (p. 68).

Kloos suggests that the central government of India has actively wanted to achieve this dependency, in order to strenghten the loyalty of the border regions (p. 71). He also points out that such risks are inherent in development strategies (p. 68).

What makes Tashi Bulu particularly interesting is that he is a living “actor” in the process and not just a passive element of the society. In fact, Kloos describes how he managed to impose himself as a medium between his village and the center (this time meaning the state’s capital, Leh), introducing in Hanu, among other things, the new system of centrally paid Amchi medicine. This meant that he started being perceived as a “giver” to whom one was no longer indebted, although he was himself still part of the village (and possibly perceived himself as a “receiver” (p. 70).

Last, articles about the irruption of modernity in a remote village often leave me with a strange Sehnsucht, as if there had really been a time prior to this “violation”. Kloos avoids this risk by taking a look at history and showing Hanu’s role under different “centers”. In fact, Hanu is inhabited by Dards (and not Tibetans) but agreed in the 16th c. to adopt the Ladakhi language and gave up its dard identity. This meant many political advantages (both for the Hanu-inhabitants and for the “center” who gained their loyalty), among which was the introduction of the Amchi medicine, which was, hence, itself a “newcomer” in Hanu.

Do you have further instances of the problematic use of concepts such as “center” and “periphery”?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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