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Critically Endangered? Medicinal Plant Cultivation and the Reconfiguration of Sowa Rigpa in Ladakh

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image of Asian Medicine

Despite the increasing attention being paid to Himalayan medicinal plants in various realms over recent years, the effects of resource depletion, and of attempts to control it, on the medical traditions that depend directly upon these plants remain largely in shadow. This article seeks to illuminate this lacuna by examining the relationships developing between medicinal plant conservation and Sowa Rigpa (Tibetan medicine) in Ladakh, Himalayan India. I discuss four cultivation projects, their contributions to emergent patterns of medicine production and their positioning within the wider transformations shaping this medical tradition. I show that while some plant species have indeed become increasingly threatened in Ladakh, it is small-scale medicine production, and a particular form of Sowa Rigpa associated with it, that have become ‘critically endangered’, particularly in light of an elite-driven quest to secure central government recognition for the system. Medicinal plants are being cast in a variety of roles on this stage, expressing social, commercial and medical interests that converge and conflict with one another in different fields. I argue that while the projects in question largely feed into contemporary trends towards medical modernisation and the increasing concentration of pharmaceutical production, they also play a counterbalancing role by supporting small-scale production and practice. This multiplicity reflects the ambivalence being experienced by practitioners in a period of considerable flux, as well as calling into question the utility of linear models of medical change and binary conceptualisations of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’.


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