No other compound in Tibetan medical pharmacology seems to be as fascinating, controversial, and enigmatic as tsotel (btso thal, lit. ‘cooked ash’), the processed mercury sulphide ash that provides the base material of many of the popular Tibetan ‘precious pills’ (rin chen ril bu). The compound contains—apart from numerous herbs and other ingredients—eight metals and eight rock components. Tsotel practices, which can be traced back to the thirteenth century in Tibet, are considered the pinnacle of Tibetan pharmacology. The commercial value of tsotel gives it a strong economic and social life of its own. This paper analyses the social life of tsotel from an anthropological perspective and sketches key aspects of tsotel’s biography, which in one way or the other are linked to medical, political, and religious perceptions of mercury: tsotel events with their political and institutional agendas; the value of tsotel as a medical, religious, and political commodity; safety and toxicity debates; and tsotel’s religious and political efficacy. I argue that the social life of tsotel is increasingly linked to perceptions of toxicity and safety because of its chief ingredient, mercury, being contested in a globalised arena of tightened international regulations as well as the recent attention given to heavy metal toxicity issues in Asian medicines. Also, several fundamental misconceptions of the substance of mercury itself, its processed form of mercury sulphide, and of the contamination of herbal ingredients with heavy metals will be highlighted. Examples are based on ethnographic fieldwork with Tibetan medical practitioners and pharmacologists in India and Nepal.
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HsuE.HsuE.HarrisS.‘Introduction. Plants in Medical Practice and Common Sense: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology’ Plants Health and Healing: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology2010New York, OxfordBerghahn Books148
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TashiTseringRin chen dngul chu sbyor sde phyogs bsdebs: Collected Works on Mercury Formulations (Rasasiddhisastra) by ’Ju Mi-Pham Bla-sman Orgyan bstan-’dzin Sde-dge drun-yid Guru-phel Kon-sprul Yon-tan rgya-mtsho. Reproduced from rare manuscripts and Sde-dge woodblocks from the library of Late Dr Jamyang Tashi Dr Tenzin Chodrak and Dr Lobsang Tashi1986DharamsalaLibrary of Tibetan Works and Archives
GuoyingS.‘Effect of Mercury in Tibetan Medicine of gTso thal on the Kidney Toxicology of Mice’2012Thesis for Master of Science of Chinese Pharmacology Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xining Qinghai
In December201115000 Nepali Rupees were about 130 Euro.
Deumar Tendzin Püntsok1993p. 499.
Summarised from Thubten Tsering (ed.)1990p. 360.
For example Men-Tsee-Khang (transl.)2011pp. 125–33.
See Aschoff and Tashigang2009. For anthropological references to precious pills see Craig and Adams 2008; Craig 2011; Hofer 2008; Kloos 2012; Prost 2008; Samuel 1999. At the Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala the precious pills containing tsotel are: Rinchen Drangjor Rilnag Chenmo Rinchen Ratna Samphel Rinchen Tsajor Chenmo Rinchen Mangjor Chenmo and Rinchen Tsodru Dashel Chenmo; those not containing tsotel are: Rinchen Chakril Chenmo Rinchen Yunying 25 and Rinchen Jumar 25. See url: <http://www.men-tsee-khang.org/medicine/pills.htm">> last accessed 15 October 2013. However Jumar 25 is coated with red cinnabar and therefore still contains mercury (see Sallon et al. 2006 p. 409).
Ridak2003pp. 414–51; Dorje 2009; Troru Tsenam 2001 vol. 4 pp. 510–625. For older texts on tsotel see Czaja and Simioli both in this issue and Tashi Tsering (ed.) 1986.
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Petech1973p. 90. Thanks to Tashi Tsering for sharing this reference.
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