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Re-Assembling Tibetan Medicine: The formation of a transnational Sowa Rigpa industry in contemporary India, China, Mongolia and Bhutan

Final Report Summary - RATIMED (Re-Assembling Tibetan Medicine: The formation of a transnational Sowa Rigpa industry in contemporary India, China, Mongolia and Bhutan)

Over the past two decades, Tibetan, Himalayan and Mongolian medicine (collectively called “Sowa Rigpa”) developed into a transnational pharmaceutical industry. The aim of the RATIMED project – short for “Re-Assembling Tibetan Medicine” – was to assess this Sowa Rigpa industry in order to understand its contemporary size and shape, its historical development, and its larger role in Tibetan societies, modern Asia, and Global Health. In order to do so, the RATIMED team – a multi-disciplinary, international group of five post-doc researchers – carried out the first large-scale study of Sowa Rigpa in China, India, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal and Siberia between 2014-19. The project aim was successfully achieved by assembling original empirical and historical data into the first “big picture” of the transnational Sowa Rigpa industry in Asia. The project’s groundbreaking results were published in 56 scholarly articles, two collective books, and presented in some 80 international conference papers and over 40 media reports. All of them are openly accessible on the project website Some major new insights from the RATIMED project are:
1) The Sowa Rigpa industry had a total value of about 900 million EUR in 2018, which is over ten times more than in the year 2000. Today, it is the sixth largest Asian medical industry (not counting Western medicine), and an important cultural, economic, and public health asset for Tibetan, Himalayan, and Mongolian populations. There exists a well-developed infrastructure of Sowa Rigpa hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, universities, and government bodies.
2) Sowa Rigpa’s industrial development depends largely on two factors. Thus, government recognition, pharmaceutical quality control, and drug registration policies are the main drivers of Sowa Rigpa’s industrial development. At the same time, it continues to depend on traditional family- and religious lineages and the moral authority of Buddhist lamas for its legitimacy and expert pharmaceutical knowledge.
3) Sowa Rigpa’s industrialization happens in many places simultaneously, but in interdependent and similar ways, so that we can consider this as one larger phenomenon. Its consequences, too, are similar all over Asia: Sowa Rigpa is increasingly recognized as an economic, cultural and political asset, and transformed into intellectual and cultural property. This leads to economic growth, competition, and fears of expropriation, but also international exposure and a growing alignment with Global Health.
4) Despite Sowa Rigpa’s growth as a pharmaceutical industry, it still remains an important and diverse field of ethical practice, social engagement, and cultural identity, that goes far beyond mere business or clinical and pharmaceutical practice.
5) The case of Sowa Rigpa illustrates the regional and global emergence of Asian health industries (TCM, Ayurveda, etc) more generally. The methodologies, analytic concepts and theories developed and used in the RATIMED project - the “pharmaceutical assemblage”, “collaborative ethnography”, and the new analytic framework of “Asian health industries” – are therefore useful to understand and critically trace not only the “industrial revolution” of Tibetan medicine, but an ongoing global “health-care revolution” that challenges the monopoly status of biomedicine.