Sowa Rigpa – the Tibetan science of healing – has been widely spread across the Tibetan cultural area over the last millennium. Adapted to different local contexts, it is practiced today in a whole range of countries as part of their cultural heritage.
The Sowa Rigpa industry, by comparison, is a very recent and still ongoing development. So far, it remains limited to China, India, Mongolia and Bhutan – the only countries to officially recognize Tibetan medicine as integral to their national economies and health policies – but is also growing in Nepal, and to a smaller extent in Tibetan Buddhist regions of Siberia.
China has the largest and most developed industry for Sowa Rigpa pharmaceuticals, which include both Tibetan and Mongolian medicine. Touted as regional pillar industries, Tibetan medicine is prevalent especially in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, and Mongolian medicine in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Qinghai. China is actively encouraging these industries through policy support and financial incentives. Today, the Tibetan and Mongolian medicine pharmaceutical industries generate some 900 million USD in annual sales value, amounting to 99 per cent of the transnational Sowa Rigpa industry’s total value.
The second most important producers of Sowa Rigpa pharmaceuticals are exile-Tibetan institutional and private manufacturers in India. Sowa Rigpa has been officially recognized by India in 2010, although its integration in Indian health care systems has been slow. Nevertheless, Sowa Rigpa constitutes one of the most important economic resources of the Tibetan diaspora community in South Asia, and also plays a central role in the health care and economies of Indian Himalayan communities, most notably in Ladakh. Today, the Sowa Rigpa pharmaceutical production in India has a total output of over 150 tons, and is worth some 8 million USD.
Tibetan medicine was introduced to Mongolia in the 17th century and has long served as the only formal medical system there. By the time of the democratic revolution in 1990, however, “Traditional Mongolian Medicine” was no longer intact after 70 years of Soviet repression. Following its recent rapid development with active state support, it is today fully integrated into the national health system, with hundreds of public and private traditional hospitals serving about one quarter of the total population. In 2018, eight official and dozens of unofficial traditional drug manufacturers produced some 30 tons of medicines with a retail value of about one million USD, some of which were patented and exported.
Tibetan medicine was formally introduced to Bhutan in the 17th century, and is today centrally organized and integrated in the national health system through the National Institute of Traditional Medicine Services (NITMS) in Thimphu. The 1998 founding of the Pharmacy and Research Unit, which later became Menjong Sorig Pharmaceuticals and is the sole producer of Sowa Rigpa medicines in the country, marked a clear commitment by the Bhutanese government to build a traditional pharma industry catering to both national and international markets. In 2018, Menjong Sorig Pharmaceuticals produced about 12 tons of medicines worth over 30,000 USD.