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THE VERTICAL

Tawang's Blessing Pills

In the 2010s, local blessing pills made in the Arunachal Pradesh town of Tawang were replaced by those made on the Indian mainland. The shift in production is also a story of nationalist transformations in this borderland.
VOL. 2
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Courtesy of Mihir Joshi.

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Courtesy of Mihir Joshi.

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7 Jun 2024
Reportage
Arunachal Pradesh
Reportage
Arunachal Pradesh
Tibet
Hindutva
Hindu Nationalism
Tawang Monastery
Indigeneity
Buddhism
Asylum
Himalayas
Himalayan Tribes
BJP
Steven Kloos
Blessing Pills
Medicine
Health
Chinese Occupation of Tibet
Space
Indigeneous Spaces
Spatial Relations
Respatialization

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Spend a week traversing circuitous trails, deep gorges, and high mountain passes in Arunachal Pradesh of the recent past, and you might have come across something otherworldly. Situated atop a hill in a small town called Tawang, a region that has long been disputed between India and China, is a majestic 400-year-old monastery with intricate and colorful artwork. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India. 


Every three years, monks and volunteers here would chant the mani dungyur mantra one hundred million times. They would do so to bless mani rilbu, red globule-size pills made from roasted barley flour, herbs, and a fermenting agent called phab gyun. “We would sun-dry these pills for weeks and chant the mani dungyur mantra round the clock seeking blessings from the deity Avalokiteshvara,” recalls Rinchin Norbu, an octogenarian who volunteered in the Tawang monastery in the 1960s.


These pills, which were highly valued by Tibetan Buddhists and took weeks to make, were eventually distributed to the public because they were believed to ensure the well-being of the people. The practice continued until the 2010s when these local blessing pills were replaced by ones made on the Indian mainland. Intriguingly, this shift in production also tells the story of nationalist transformations of this borderland.


In 1959, Tawang became a major asylum route for Tibetans fleeing Chinese occupation. The 14th Dalai Lama entered India via Tawang and a large number of Tibetan refugees who followed him settled here. Thus, the population of the region grew to include Indigenous Himalayan tribes who follow Tibetan Buddhism as well as ethnic Tibetan refugees.


Upon settling in India, Tibetan refugees started rebuilding famous Tibetan monasteries across the country, from Himachal Pradesh in the north to Karnataka in the south west. These monasteries produced various blessing pills of their own, which started to circulate among the Himalayan Buddhists. They have become so popular since the late 1990s that they have replaced the mani rilbu made by the Tawang Monastery. Eventually, by 2010, the Tawang Monastery decided to stop making mani rilbu due to lack of demand. Thus, Tawang blessing pills, among the most prominent locally-produced Tibetan “power objects’ in the region, disappeared.

 

Today, Rinchin Norbu mourns the disappearance of the Tawang mani rilbu tradition. But his 37-year old son Leki Wangchu, who is an ardent supporter of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, says he has always preferred blessing pills produced by Tibetan monasteries in mainland India over Tawang’s mani rilbu. “The pills from Dharamsala [Himachal Pradesh] are produced by doctors and monks trained in Sowa Rigpa [Tibetan medicine]. Most people these days choose these national jinden [pills] made by Sowa Rigpa experts rather than local mani rilbu. The mani rilbu produced in Tawang Monastery was only a local tradition brought over from Tibet by some monk in the nineteenth century,” Leki tells me emphasizing the ‘Indianness’ of the mani rilbu from Dharamsala in contrast to the obscure Tibetan origin of Tawang mani rilbu.


Sowa Rigpa was recognized by the Indian government as an “Indian system of medicine” back in 2010. The popularity of the practice is rising across India following its government recognition. Anthropologist Steven Kloos has captured in rich ethnographic details the tussle between the Himalayan Tibetan Buddhists and the exiled Tibetan community in India over the ownership of Sowa Rigpa. He wrote in the journal Medical Anthropology Today, “While Tibetan medicine had been known and practiced for centuries in the Tibetan-influenced Indian Himalayan regions, it was only with the arrival of Tibetan refugees in India in 1959 and their subsequent institutionalization of Tibetan medicine there that this health tradition developed into a ‘medical system’ with sufficient standards, popularity, and political clout to be recognized by the Indian state.”


While Leki Wangchu attributes the decline of Tawang mani rilbu to the rising popularity of standardized Sowa Rigpa medicine, the disappearance of various local, spatialized care practices is also triggered by the rise of right-wing nationalism in the region. In the last two decades, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS), the ruling party in India and its affiliated cultural organization that champion Hindu majoritarian religious and cultural nationalism, have made a strong ideological inroads in Arunachal Pradesh. As their vision of ‘greater India’ gains acceptance in this borderland, there is an increasing tendency among the locals to assert “Indian” identity through various means, including through purchase of commodities made in India or consumption of cultural products associated with the Indian mainland. Sowa Rigpa's increasing popularity rests to a considerable extent on its supposed “Indianness” following its recognition by the Indian government.


For old-timers like Rinchin Norbu, however, the locally made mani rilbu was much more than just a medicine. It was a care practice deeply rooted in the relations humans and local deities share in this landscape and their local understandings of disease etiology. People here believe in a range of deities and spirits connected to mountains, rivers, and other geographical features of the landscape, such as yulha (land deity), tsen, and nyen (deities of the mountain). Some of these deities are like human beings with worldly emotions such as anger and jealousy. “If you contaminate the dwellings of yulha or tsen, or offend them by visiting their places in ungodly hours, they may catch you and cause illnesses such as skin disease and nerve pain,” Rinchin Norbu tells me, “If you eat mani rilbu the spirit will leave you.”


Not only did mani rilbu help the local people navigate the anxieties of unpredictable encounters with local deities and spirits, but it was a traditional way of co-production of care in a specific landscape. “The production of Tawang mani rilbu itself was a localized collaborative process between monks, nuns, and lay people, as well as Avalokiteshvara, the divinity that blessed these pills,” writer Yeshe Dorje Thongchi, an acclaimed writer and novelist from Arunachal Pradesh explained to me.


In contrast, Rinchin Norbu says, the blessing pills brought over from outside are “just medicines” with no relations to the landscape. “They aren’t as effective as the Tawang mani rilbu we used to make simply because these pills [and their makers] don’t know the local deities causing illnesses in our bodies.”


The rise of Hindu nationalism in India has triggered new spiritual practices intended to reify a sense of homogeneous “Indianness.” They often emerge at the expense of long-standing local traditions that relate to place, community, and tradition. The replacement of Tawang mani rilbu by blessing pills made by Sowa Rigpa practitioners from the Indian mainland is just one of many such examples.

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