The Pharmaceutical Assemblage

The transnational Sowa Rigpa industry is best understood as a pharmaceutical assemblage: just as Tibetan pills are an assemblage of various herbal, mineral, animal and metal ingredients, so the Sowa Rigpa industry is the product of many different parts and processes.


So far, most existing scholarship on Tibetan and other traditional medicines has been limited to the specific elements and locations of this industry. This knowledge is useful and important, but it does not tell us much about what happens when these individual parts come together in the new form of a transnational industry.


Despite its heterogeneity, the Sowa Rigpa industry cannot be reduced to national contexts or specific components. Rather, it needs to be studied as a larger phenomenon with its own dynamics – in other words, as a pharmaceutical assemblage.


This project focuses on four key domains of the Sowa Rigpa pharmaceutical assemblage: raw materials, production, market, and intellectual property.


The raw materials

A crucial function of any traditional medicine industry is to transform natural raw materials into cultural knowledge products, and consequently into international commodities.

Tibetan traditional pharmaceuticals consist primarily of herbal ingredients, but also include mineral, metal and animal components. The industry is therefore entirely dependent on natural resources, a large part of which is wildcrafted and circulated through complex networks of trade and exchange. As a consequence, raw material classification, availability and price, as well as environmental regulations and conservation efforts, directly impact upon all aspects of the Sowa Rigpa industry.

Pharmaceutical Production

The Sowa Rigpa industry revolves around the mass-production of previously hand-made medicines. This entails fundamental changes and innovations in production methods, quality standards, notions of efficacy, and in the pharmaceutical products themselves.

Such innovations are directly observable on the factory floor, and are at the same time closely connected to national and international regulations, market strategies and intellectual property claims. This project will be the first to generate systematic qualitative and quantitative data to gauge the Sowa Rigpa industry and its socio-cultural, political-economic and public health impact.

The Pharmaceutical Market

Markets are normally defined in terms of value or commodity chains through which goods and money are exchanged. In the case of traditional medicines, however, they are equally sites for the exchange of ideas, the expression of identity and the negotiation of power relationships.

The Sowa Rigpa pharmaceutical market has become an important field in which Tibetan, Mongolian and Bhutanese cultural and national identities are produced and negotiated as commodities in the form of pills, powders or teas. This has important effects on Sowa Rigpa, on its stakeholder communities, and on wider transnational relations in Asia.

Intellectual Property

Who owns Tibetan medical knowledge, and who is eligible to profit from it? As the economic, political and cultural value of Sowa Rigpa becomes increasingly clear, different stakeholders have begun to voice both proprietary claims and concerns about “protecting traditional medical knowledge”.

The “protection” of traditional knowledge may result in the disenfranchisement of traditional knowledge holders, but can also create new knowledge forms, ethnic identities and economic opportunities for these knowledge holders and their communities. This project will be the first to analyze the ongoing attempts and consequences of protecting Tibetan medical knowledge in the context of the booming Sowa Rigpa industry.