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Medicine: The Chagpori Healers

August 4, 2010

Kuensel Online (Bhutan)

Part I
July 25, 2010

"He was quite a character, and posed himself for
this picture with his human thigh-bone trumpet
and skull drum." This is how John Claude White
(1853-1918)1 described the traditional healer
(shown in the photo) of the first king of Bhutan,
Druk Gyalpo Ugyen Wangchuck (1862-1926).

Until the 1970s, most Bhutanese leaders had
traditional physicians serving in their court.
While some were Bhutanese, most were Tibetan, who
had studied in the famous Chagpori medical institute in Lhasa, Tibet.

Two such personal physicians served in the court
of Trongsa governor, Jigme Namgyel2 (1825-1881).
One was Drungtsho Gyeltshen3. He was from Trongsa
and had been trained in Chagpori. His son
followed in his footsteps, becoming royal
physician in his turn. The second doctor of the
governor was Drungtsho Pemba. It is not clear if
he was also trained at Chagpori.

The Chagpori medical institute is located in the
Tibetan heartland of Lhasa, close to the Potola
palace. The name literally means Iron Mountain.
“From here, a path leads over a chain of rocks to
the Iron Mountain, the site of the old Chagpori medical school."4

Established in 1696, this medical school became
the spiritual centre and produced the most
brilliant adepts in art of healing in ancient
Tibet. It attracted students even from Mongolia
and Bhutan, who spent many years to learn the
science of healing,and become adepts.

Bhutan and Tibet shared a relationship of
reciprocity with regard to medicine. Tibet
provided the schools for training Bhutanese
physicians and Bhutanese trainees in turn
transported medicinal plants to places as far as
Lhasa and Kham. It is for this reason that Bhutan
was known as the valley of medicinal herbs, especially amongst the Tibetans.

Bhutanese credit the Tibetans for the
introduction of traditional medicine. The Tibetan
scholar, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651),
who fled Tibet and took refuge in Bhutan in 1616,
introduced traditional medicine in the country.
After the seventeenth century, Bhutanese sent
young clever monks to Tibet to learn medicine.
Most of them returned home and set up their own
practice, mostly in monasteries or fortresses, but also trained others.5

Contributed by Tshering Tashi
Co-author, Bold Bhutan Beckons

1. British Political Officer based in Gangtok

2. Governor of Trongsa, father of the first king

3. Traditional Bhutanese Medicine (Gso-Ba
Rig-Pa): An Integrated Part Of The Formal Health
Care Services by Phurpa Wangchuk, Dorji Wangchuk and Jens Aagaard-Hansen

4. p.129, The Art of Healing in Ancient Tibet,
Olschak, B.C, Reprint from ?iba SymposiumVolume 12, Number 3, 1964

5. British Records

6. Doctoral researcher at UCL, England and
specialized in the History of Medicine

But it was only after 1885 that traditional
medicine started to grow roots and become popular
in Bhutan, when regional leaders started to
patronise the physicians. It was common for the
local lords to engage at least one or two of
these physicians in their court. Therefore, it is
not surprising that the first king had a Tibetan
doctor in his court. In 1905, Claude White
visited the king and took a picture of the king’s
personal physician. Nine years later, in 1914,
National Geographic magazine reproduced this
photo in its April issue and captioned it, an old
lama, known as the Lhasa doctor. Currently, the
photo of the old lama is archived in the British
Library. Very little is known of the physician.
Theresia Hofer,6 a specialist in the history of
traditional medicine, believes his name to be
Gyeltshen Rinzin Gyamtsho. According to her, he
was likely to be personal physician of Demo
Regent in Tibet. The regent was one of the most
important teachers in the Chamdo area of Eastern
Tibet. It is likely that he encountered
opposition in the institute once Demo Regent had
unwillingly handed over his political powers to
the 13th Dalai Lama. He is reported to have gone
into exile to Bhutan, where he lived and served
in the court of the governor. Hofer also believes
that the personal physician of the first king,
also practised at the famous old medical college
of Chagpori in Lhasa. Traditional medicine
explores the relationship between the physical
and the spiritual; giving equal importance to
both. It is for this reason that many of the best
traditional doctors were also monks.

Part II
August 1, 2010

In 1948, a Tibetan lady doctor, Khandro Yanggkar
from Chagpori, operated on the second king, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuck’s eye.

Khandro Yanggkar treating a patient Photo: Tibet Buddhist Resource Center

Khandro Yanggkar 31 July, 2010 - "In the
[Tibetan] earth-mouse year (1948), the Bhutanese
King Jigme Wangchuk lost his eyesight, so he sent
a messenger to Lhasa to invite expert doctor
Yangchen Lhamo to Bhutan, writes Theresia Hofer in her forthcoming article.

According to Hofer, Yangchen Lhamo operated on
the king’s eye, "She opened his - the king’s -
eyes" [spyan phye]. After the successful cataract
operation, the doctor became very popular.

The physician stayed in Bhutan until 1951, and
during the two years treated many more Bhutanese
patients. She returned to Lhasa in the [Tibetan]
water-dragon year (1951), writes Hofer.

There are three biographies and the one written
in Tibetan tells us that upon her return to her
homeland, she was sent out to operate on people’s
eyes. "The late Director [of the Mentsikhang]
Khenrab Norbu gave her a first position
certificate for her skill in opening eyes [mig
‘byed lag rtsal], and together with doctor
Ngawang Phuntsok sent her to eighteen districts,
including Taktse, Reting, Mendro, Drigung and
Sangri, to open people’s eyes [mig ‘byed]. He
also gave them donations of medicines to take with."

Who is Yanggkar and how did she come to Bhutan?
According to one of her short biographies, she
was the daughter of a monk, Jedrung Jampa Jungne.
She was born in 1907 at Pemako and died in 1973 in Lhasa.

In Bhutan, Yangchen Lhamo became better known as Khandro Yanggkar.

Some of the retainers of the second king, who are still living, remember her.

Jojo Wangdi (83) remembers the lady doctor. He
said that she first came to Paro and then left
for Bumthang, where she lived till she returned
to Tibet. According to Shatu (91), another senior
retainer of the king, the king met the doctor
during one of her visits to Bhutan. “I don’t
remember the year she came, but I know she came
with her husband, the renowned Tibetan monk,
Chami Rinpoche. “They had came to Trongsa to
administer blessing called Kachey to the monk body."

Shatu’s contemporary, Dasho Botoe Karp (93),
another senior retainer, said, "She wanted to
meet the king. He remembers arranging the
audience. Dasho Botoe Karp said, "The lady doctor was tall and very beautiful."

Both the retainers remember her melodious voice
that enchanted many Bhutanese. She sang the most
beautiful Tibetan songs. Even the queens liked
her songs and called her often to the palace to entertain them.

Shatu said that he personally served the Tibetan
doctor. One of his daily rituals was to prepare
and serve a drink to her every morning. Milk was
first boiled and butter added in it with a pinch of salt before it was churned.

The lady doctor travelled wherever the king went.
In Trongsa, she stayed near the palace of
Threpung. When the king moved to the nearby
palace of Kuengarapten, they had to build her a
guesthouse. In Bumthang, she stayed in Kurjey
monastery and sometimes in a temporary shed built
in the courtyard of the Wangdicholing palace.

She kept all her medicine in a small brocade and
labeled them. According to the doctor’s advice,
the king refrained from eating salt and his meat
was diced and boiled. However, the Tibetan story
of how Khandro Yanggkar came to Bhutan differs
slightly. One of her children claims that her mother was invited to Bhutan.

"In either 1952 or 1953, she [Khandro Yanggkar]
was called to Bhutan by the then king, ... At
this time the king was suffering from eye
problems and he called Khandro Yanggkar to come
and treat him. He told her that he had invited
many Western doctors to look at his eyes, but
none of them could help. He requested her to stay
at his court until he could again shoot an arrow
right at the target, for only then would he be
satisfied that his eyesight was perfect. Yanggkar
[...] went to help the king, and did, in fact,
take care of his eyes until he could shoot an arrow accurately at the target.”

More than one western doctor had already seen the
king’s eyes. In 1947, Dr Lloyd Ledger treated the
king’s eye (refer to Haa dispensary article in
Kuensel). Two years later, in 1949, Dr Hicks
visited Bhutan. His diary from October confirms
that Yanggkar was working as a doctor in Bhutan.
In addition to Yanggkar, they were two Bhutanese
traditional healers also serving in the court of
the second king. The two were Drungtsho Penjor and Mahaguru.

In 1994, Tibetan historian, Tashi Tshering of the
Dharamsala Amnye Machen institute wrote a short
biography, (also translated into English in 2005).

Traditional Bhutanese Medicine (Gso-Ba Rig-Pa):
An Integrated Part pf The Formal Health Care
Services by Phurpa Wangchuk, Dorji Wangchuk and Jens Aagaard-Hansen
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