The Social Life of Tsotel

Processing Mercury in Contemporary Tibetan Medicine

in Asian Medicine
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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.

The Social Life of Tsotel

Processing Mercury in Contemporary Tibetan Medicine

in Asian Medicine



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Lappendum Lozang Lodrö 2006p. 173.


In December 201115000 Nepali Rupees were about 130 Euro.


Deumar Tendzin Püntsok 1993p. 499.


Summarised from Thubten Tsering (ed.) 1990p. 360.


For example Men-Tsee-Khang (transl.) 2011pp. 125–33.


See Aschoff and Tashigang 2009. 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: <">> 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).


Saxer 20122013.


Ridak 2003pp. 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.


Whyte van der Geest and Hardon 2002.


Whyte and van der Geest 1988.


Van der Geest and Whyte 1989.


Appadurai (ed.) 1986p. 3.


Whyte van der Geest and Hardon 2002p. 3.


Petryna Lakoff and Kleinman (eds) 2006pp. 20–2.


See Hsu and Harris (eds) 2010.


Hsu 2010p. 23.


Gerke in press 2014.


Kopytoff 1986.


Craig 2012pp. 215–52.


Guoying 2012; Li et al. 20092010.


See Gyatso 1991.


Garrett 2013p. 280.


Blaikie 2013p. 10.


Men-Tsee-Khang 2011pp. 4–6.


Van der Geest 2006.


Saxer 2013.


Saxer 2013pp. 50–3 73–4 108–9.


Pharmacopoeia Committee 2005quoted in Wu et al. 2011 p. 839.


Saxer 2013pp. 73–4.


Saxer 2013pp. 50–3.


Ibid. pp. 108–9.


Saxer 2013p. 74.


Saxer 2013pp. 52–3.


Craig 2011p. 342.


Saxer 2013pp. 216–17.


Hofer 2008pp. 175 177–9.


Men-Tsee-Khang 2011pp. 5–6.


Petech 1973p. 90. Thanks to Tashi Tsering for sharing this reference.


Pasang Yontan 1988p. 231.


Men-Tsee-Khang (transl.) 2011p. 129.


See Kloos 2010pp. 102–3 for details on these reports.


Sallon et al. 2006.


Ridak 2003pp. 425–6.


Ridak 2003p. 420.


See Garrett 2009.


Ridak 2003p. 420.


Craig and Adams 2008.


Ibid. pp. 20–2.


Saxer 2013pp. 244–8 292.


Kloos 2010.


Kloos 2012p. 197.


Ibid. p. 200 my translation.


Blaikie 2013p. 4.


Van der Geest 2011p. 10.


Huang et al. 2013.


Kan 2013; Yang 20032004.


Dou 2005.


Bai 2000p. 70. See also Yan 2007 p. 150.


Li et al. 20112012; Yan Ma and Zhu 2007; Yan 2007; Yan and Ma 2010.


Suo 2007.


Chen 2009.


Zhao et al. 2013pp. 2 7.


  • View in gallery
    A spoonful of tsotel, the black mercury sulphide ash, on a tea saucer, Kathmandu 2011
  • View in gallery
    Amchi Wangchuk pointing to the page on mercury processing in his medical textbook, Kathmandu 2011
  • View in gallery
    The section from the Cultural Heritage List mentioning the Rinchen Drangjor precious pill (as Renqen Changjor)65

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