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.
China has the largest and most developed industry for Tibetan pharmaceuticals, located especially in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai and Gansu. Today, this industry is completely privatized and largely Chinese-owned, and touted as one of the region’s pillar industries worth anywhere between 80 and 150 million USD. Still young and attracting considerable investment in the context of China’s overall pharmaceutical expansion, it recently entered a third phase of major transformation. In 2011, new Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) were introduced in order to streamline Chinese quality control procedures with EU, US and WHO standards, and thus to make Chinese drugs more competitive on the international market. This move has far-reaching implications for the Sowa Rigpa industry, and is likely to provide a further strong impetus to the pharmaceuticalization, commercialization and industrialization of Tibetan medicine.
The second most important producers of Tibetan pharmaceuticals are exile-Tibetan institutional and private manufacturers in India. Although the size and value of its market is only a fraction of its counterpart in China or the Indian Ayurvedic market, Tibetan medicine constitutes one of the most important economic resources of the Tibetan diaspora community in South Asia. In 2008, Tibetan pharmaceutical production in India had a total output of some 60 tons and an overall turnover of around one million USD. With Sowa Rigpa’s official recognition by the Indian government in 2010 and subsequent plans to develop its industry, however, exile-Tibetan medicine has entered a period of major growth and transformation.
Tibetan medicine was introduced to Mongolia in the 13th century and has long served as the only formal medical system there. By the time of the democratic revolution in 1990, however, “Mongolian Traditional 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 2006, six traditional drug manufacturers produced a total of 7.8 tons of medicines with a retail value of 131,200 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 (PRU) and the creation of a “Menjong Sorig Pharmaceuticals” product line with substantial EU-funding and modern quality control technology marked a clear commitment by the Bhutanese government to build a traditional pharma industry catering to both national and international markets. In 2007-08, the NITMS had an overall budget of about half a million USD and produced about 8 tons of medicines. Today, the development of the Sowa Rigpa industry in Bhutan is undergoing a crucial phase, with several state-directed initiatives for commercializing “Bhutanese traditional medicine” under way.