Monday, 17 March 2014

Ancient Prescriptions From Tibet

March 13, 2014

Instructions on setting bones, in an exhibition on Tibetan medicine at the Rubin Museum of Art.CreditArnold Lieberman Collection

Continue reading the main storyShare This PagTIBET’S LONG HISTORY OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE
Treating ailments according to ancient Tibetan medicine recipes could require salves of warmed moss and soil found in mouse holes facing east. Soaking in hot springs near coal veins was also recommended, as were gold needles pricked into the scalp.
Instruction manuals and surgical tools from the last two millenniums have been gathered for “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine,” an exhibition that opens on Saturday at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea. As the show and its accompanying book (from the University of Washington Press) explain, much of the evidence of Tibet’s healing customs has vanished or become inaccessible at the hands of foreign invaders and Chinese rule; the handful of surviving archives and libraries in Tibet are largely off limits to outsiders hoping to study and preserve the material. “Many items are in dire need of conservation, recording, and publication,” the curator Theresia Hofer writes in the book’s introduction.
The Rubin has drawn on American and European collections to assemble about 140 objects, from pill jars and measuring spoons to sketches of splints. Deities proffer herbs in paintings and gilded statues, and diagrams explain where burnt mugwort leaves should be applied to pressure points on the body. Astrological charts unfurled at the exhibition traditionally would have been used to determine the best dates for taking medicines and having surgery.
A few documents date to the ninth century; they came from desert caves in western China. In the early 1900s, Europeans, including the Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein and the French explorer Paul Pelliot, helped empty the caves, exporting works to London and Paris institutions.
The artifacts arrived just as Tibetan medicine was coming to the attention of Westerners. A family of Tibetan medical practitioners named Badmayev had moved to Russia and begun promoting the techniques to elite customers. The Rubin exhibition’s book devotes a chapter to the family’s tragic wanderings. One descendant befriended the czars and ended up in Soviet prisons, and another was accused of being a Japanese spy and was executed along with most of his patients.
The book also describes the mid-20th-century destruction of artifacts and buildings in and around Tibet. In 1959, Chinese soldiers razed a 17th-century medical college. A radio tower now occupies the ruined foundations. A few staff members at health care institutes have managed to keep some antiques on view and “to acquire medical texts that have surfaced since the 1980s all over Tibet, having been hidden, often at great personal risk,” Ms. Hofer and the architectural historian Knud Larsen write.
Institutions around the New York area, including Tibet House US and theNewark Museum, are now displaying paintings and statues of Tibetan healing figures, diagrams for choosing treatment dates and tools for making medicines. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art on Staten Island has recreated displays that the flamboyant art dealer Jacques Marchais set up in her 1940s fieldstone compound. She had the buildings modeled after a Buddhist monastery, complete with dank outdoor monks’ cells, and she combined statues of deities holding potions with a library of related titles like “Clairvoyant Reminiscences and Herbal Remedies.”

Tibetan healing-related artifacts are now for sale in New York as well, at Asia Week auctions and gallery shows. On Thursday, Christie’s will offer a gilt-bronze Buddha (estimated at $2 million to $3 million) holding medicinal fruit.

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