Recognition could be beneficial, they said, if it led to greater access to medical care for rural Tibetans, recruitment of more Tibetan medical practitioners for high-level advisory roles or laws to regulate the production of pharmaceuticals.
The worry, however, is that Unesco recognition could lift the industry’s commercial development without addressing some of its underlying problems, such as the watering-down of traditional medicinal formulas and the over-harvesting of medicinal ingredients in the wild.
The founding text of Tibetan medicine is “for the whole world to enjoy,” said Tashi Tsering Phuri, the director of the Tibetan Medical and Astro-Science Institute in Dharamsala, the Indian city that serves as the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and the residence of the Dalai Lama. “It should not be a bone of contention between two big nations.”
Sowa rigpa is practiced in China, India and neighboring countries including Bhutan, Mongolia and Nepal. The name is often translated into English as “the science of healing,” and the present form of the discipline’s founding text, “The Four Tantras,” is attributed by many Western scholars to a 12th-century Tibetan physician, with antecedents stretching to the eighth century or earlier.
As late as the early 1990s, there was no discernible competition between China and India to claim Tibetan medicine as cultural patrimony, Western scholars say. But about 20 years ago, they say, people began to recognize its potential commercial value.
Stephan Kloos, a medical anthropologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, said his preliminary calculations suggested that the industry’s value could be approaching $1 billion. Even non-Tibetans in India were beginning to see sowa rigpa as a business opportunity, he said.
But this same economic potential concerns experts who say the industry, which has traditionally relied on the gathering of wild plants and animals in mountainous areas, is not really built for large economies of scale.
Sienna Radha Craig, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and an expert on Tibetan medicine, said one possibility was that Unesco recognition could stimulate the industry’s growth without the proper environmental safeguards. In India, China and Nepal, the effort to expand the industry far outstrips “serious cultivation and conservation,” Ms. Craig said, adding, “At a certain point that becomes completely untenable.”
In 2010, India officially recognized sowa rigpa as an Indian medicinal system. India notes on a government website that while “there are various schools of thought about the origin of this medical tradition,” most of its theory and practice is similar to that of ayurveda, an Indian tradition that India says first came to Tibet in the third century.
Western scholars say there are clear historical links between ayurvedic and Tibetan medical traditions. But India’s recent application for Unesco recognition prompted ripostes from Chinese experts.
In April, the state-run newspaper Global Times quoted Qin Yongzhang, an ethnologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying, “The truth is that Tibetan medicine not only originated but has developed in China.”
China’s recent Unesco application said that Tibetan hot-spring and herbal-bath therapies — known as lum medicinal bathing — were “developed by the Tibetan people” and are popular across much of western China, including the Tibet Autonomous Region.
A Unesco designation would raise awareness of the bathing tradition “among the Chinese population, while encouraging dialogue on health and respect for nature among different ethnic groups,” the application said.
Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, said that because China “forcibly” owned most of the Tibetan Plateau, an area that he said had many mineral springs, its Unesco application made some sense.
“But to claim that somehow China has been the origin of the tradition is, frankly, just silly,” Mr. Thurman wrote in an email.
A woman who answered the phone at the office of China’s Unesco commission, who would not give her name, said that the government was working on its Unesco paperwork and that all related information was confidential.
Unesco said it could not comment on files it was processing. A spokesman in Bangkok, Noel Boivin, said in an email that the agency encouraged multinational intangible cultural heritage nominations.
In interviews, two prominent Tibetans took a mixed view of the Unesco process and said Tibetans had no easy options to safeguard their cultural heritage.
Of China’s Unesco bid, Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer who lives in Beijing, said it was “a shame to see that Tibetan people are once again represented without our consent.”
However, she said, “if you do not take advantage of funds and opportunities, Tibetan medicine, together with much of traditional Tibetan culture, will gradually disappear.”
Dr. Tashi Rabten, a Tibetan physician in Nyack, N.Y., said that the overall effect could be positive, regardless of which country filed the application, but only if the Unesco designation clearly recognized that the tradition belonged to Tibetans — and no one else.
Mr. Kloos, the medical anthropologist in Vienna, said that countries where sowa rigpa was practiced should work together if their goal was to have it recognized internationally.
“But politics creep in,” he said, “even though it should really only be about medical considerations.”
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