Cookies Policy

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

I accept this policy

Find out more here

The Social Life of Tsotel

No metrics data to plot.
The attempt to load metrics for this article has failed.
The attempt to plot a graph for these metrics has failed.
The full text of this article is not currently available.

Brill’s MyBook program is exclusively available on BrillOnline Books and Journals. Students and scholars affiliated with an institution that has purchased a Brill E-Book on the BrillOnline platform automatically have access to the MyBook option for the title(s) acquired by the Library. Brill MyBook is a print-on-demand paperback copy which is sold at a favorably uniform low price.

Access this article

+ Tax (if applicable)
Add to Favorites
You must be logged in to use this functionality

Processing Mercury in Contemporary Tibetan Medicine

image of Asian Medicine

No other compound in Tibetan medical pharmacology seems to be as fascinating, controversial, and enigmatic as tsotel (btso thal, lit. ‘cooked ash’), the processed mercury sulphide ash that provides the base material of many of the popular Tibetan ‘precious pills’ (rin chen ril bu). The compound contains—apart from numerous herbs and other ingredients—eight metals and eight rock components. Tsotel practices, which can be traced back to the thirteenth century in Tibet, are considered the pinnacle of Tibetan pharmacology. The commercial value of tsotel gives it a strong economic and social life of its own. This paper analyses the social life of tsotel from an anthropological perspective and sketches key aspects of tsotel’s biography, which in one way or the other are linked to medical, political, and religious perceptions of mercury: tsotel events with their political and institutional agendas; the value of tsotel as a medical, religious, and political commodity; safety and toxicity debates; and tsotel’s religious and political efficacy. I argue that the social life of tsotel is increasingly linked to perceptions of toxicity and safety because of its chief ingredient, mercury, being contested in a globalised arena of tightened international regulations as well as the recent attention given to heavy metal toxicity issues in Asian medicines. Also, several fundamental misconceptions of the substance of mercury itself, its processed form of mercury sulphide, and of the contamination of herbal ingredients with heavy metals will be highlighted. Examples are based on ethnographic fieldwork with Tibetan medical practitioners and pharmacologists in India and Nepal.

Affiliations: 1: Humboldt University of


Full text loading...


Data & Media loading...

1. Adams V., Schrempf M., Craig S. Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds 2010 Oxford, New York Berghahn Books
2. Alter J. S. Asian Medicine and Globalization 2005 Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press
3. Appadurai A. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives 1986 Cambridge Cambridge University Press
4. Aschoff J. C., Tashigang T. Y. Tibetan Jewel Pills: With Some Remarks on Consecration (Byin rlabs) of the Medicines 2009 Ulm Fabri Verlag
5. Banerjee M. Power, Knowledge, Medicine: Ayurvedic Pharmaceuticals at Home and in the World 2009 Hyderabad Orient Black Swan
6. Blaikie C."‘Currents of Tradition in Sowa Rigpa Pharmacy’" East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 2013Vol 7 DOI 10.1215/18752160-2332223:1–27
7. Bode M. Taking Traditional Knowledge to the Market: The Modern Image of the Ayurvedic and Unani Industry 1980–2000 2008 Hyderabad Orient Longman
8. Clark B. The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine 1995 Ithaca, NY Snow Lion Publications
9. Craig S."‘“Good” Manufacturing by whose Standards? Remaking Quality, Safety, and Value in the Production of Tibetan Pharmaceuticals’" Anthropological Quarterly 2011Vol 84 331 378
10. Craig S. Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine 2012 Berkeley, Los Angeles, London University of California Press
11. Craig S., Adams V."‘Global Pharma in the Land of Snows: Tibetan Medicine, SARS, and Identity Politics across Nations’" Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity 2008Vol 4 1 28
12. Craig S., Cuomu M., Garrett F., Schrempf M. Studies of Medical Pluralism in Tibetan History and Society (Proceedings of the 11th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Bonn 2006) 2010 Andiast International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH
13. Dawa Ridak Bod kyi gso ba rig pa las sman rdzas sbyor bzo’ i lag len gsang sgo ’byed pa’ i lde mig 2003 Delhi Rig Drag Publication
14. Deumar Tendzin Püntsok (De’ u dmar Bstan ’ dzin phun tshogs, born 1672) Gso rig gces btus rin chen phreng ba bzhugs so 1993 Zi ling Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang
15. Dorje Lcags khams thal sreg lag len 2009 Lha sa Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang
16. Fjeld H., Hofer T."‘Women and Gender in Tibetan Medicine’" Asian Medicine: Tradition and ModernityVol 6 2 175 435 (special issue)
17. Garrett F."‘The Alchemy of Accomplishing Medicine (sman sgrub): Situating the Yuthok Heart Essence in Tibetan Literature and History’" Journal of Indian Philosophy 2009Vol 37 207 230
18. Garrett F."‘Mercury, Mad Dogs, and Smallpox: Medicine in the Si tu Paṇ chen Tradition’" Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 2013Vol 7 277 301
19. Gerke B. Long Lives and Untimely Deaths: Life-span Concepts and Longevity Practices among Tibetans in the Darjeeling Hills, India 2012 Leiden, Boston Brill Academic Publishers
20. Gerke B. Hsu E., Ulijaszek S., Potter C."‘Moving from Efficacy to Safety: A Changing Focus in the Study of Asian Medical Systems’" Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford (JASO) in press 2014 special issue
21. Gyatso Yonten"‘The Secrets of the Black Pill Formulation’" Tibetan Medicine 1991Vol 13 38 55
22. Hofer T."‘Socio-economic Dimensions of Tibetan Medicine in the Tibet Autonomous Region, China—Part One’" Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity 2008Vol 4 1 174 200
23. Hofer T. The Inheritance of Change: The Transmission and Practice of Tibetan Medicine in Ngamring 2012 Vienna Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde
24. Hsu E. Hsu E., Harris S."‘Introduction. Plants in Medical Practice and Common Sense: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology’" Plants, Health and Healing: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology 2010 New York, Oxford Berghahn Books 1 48
25. Hsu E., Harris S. Plants, Health and Healing: On the Interface of Ethnobotany and Medical Anthropology 2010 New York, Oxford Berghahn Books
26. Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé Barron R. The Autobiography of Jamgön Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors 2003 Ithaca, NY Snow Lion Publications
27. Jampa Trinlé (Byams pa ’phrin las), Bod rang skyong ljongs sman rtsis khang Bod lugs gso rig tshig mdzod chen mo 2006 Pe cin Mi rigs dpe skrun khang
28. Khétsun Tubten Memories of Life in Lhasa under Chinese Rule 2008 New York Columbia University Press
29. Kloos S."‘The History and Development of Tibetan Medicine in Exile’" Tibet Journal 2008Vol 33 15 49
30. Kloos S."‘Tibetan Medicine in Exile: The Ethics, Politics, and Science of Cultural Survival’" 2010 PhD thesis, University of California San Francisco and Berkeley
31. Kloos S."‘Die Alchemie Exil-tibetischer Identität. Anmerkungen zur Pharmazeutischen und Politischen Wirksamkeit Tibetischer Pillen’" Curare 2012Vol 35 197 207 (Processing Exile-Tibetan Identity: The Alchemy of Tibetan Medicine’s Pharmaceutical and Political Efficacy)
32. Kopytoff I. Appadurai A."‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’" The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective 1986 Cambridge Cambridge University Press 64 91
33. Lappendum Lozang Lodrö (Lab phan ’dum Blo bzang blo gros) Gnas lnga rig pa’i pandi ta mkhan chen khro ru tshe rnam mchog gi rnam thar baidurya sngon po’i rang mdangs (=Mkhan chen khro ru tshe rnam gyi rnam thar) 2006 Pe cin Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang
34. Mayer R. A Scripture of the Ancient Tantra Collection: The Phur-pa Bcu-gnyis 1996 Oxford Kiscadale Publications
35. Men-Tsee-Khang"‘Research & Development (Projects and Activities of a Clinical Research Department)’" Men-Tsee-Khang Newsletter Spring 2004-Autumn 2005 11 14 11 (4) to 13 (1)
36. Men-Tsee-Khang"‘Successful Completion of Tsothal’" Men-Tsee-Khang News Letter 2011 Oct–DecVol 23 4 6
37. Men-Tsee-Khang The Subsequent Tantra from the Four Tantras of Tibetan Medicine 2011 Dharamsala Men-Tsee-Khang (transl.)
38. Millard C."‘Rinchen Medicines in the Bon Medical Tradition’" (unpublished paper)
39. Namdul T."‘Heavy Metals in Tibetan Medicine: Dilemma or Magical Remedy’" Payul 2005 November 11 last accessed 7 May 2014 URL: <>
40. Pasang Yontan Arya Bod kyi gso ba rig pa’i lo rgyus kyi bang mdzod g.yu thog bla ma dran pa’i pho nya 1988 Leh, Ladakh Yuthok Institute of Tibetan Medicine
41. Pasang Yontan Arya Dictionary of Materia Medica 1998 Delhi Motilal Banarsidass
42. Petech L. Aristocracy and Government in Tibet 1728–1959 1973 Roma Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente
43. Petryna A., Lakoff A., Kleinman A. Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices 2006 Durham and London Duke University Press
44. Pordié L. Tibetan Medicine in the Contemporary World: Global Politics of Medical Knowledge and Practice 2008 London, New York Routledge
45. Pordié L., Gaudillière J.-P."‘The Reformulation Regime in Drug Discovery: Revisiting Polyherbals and Property Rights in the Ayurvedic Industry’" East Asian Science, Technology and Society (in press) 2014Vol 8 1
46. Prost A. G. Precious Pills: Medicine and Social Change among Tibetan Refugees in India 2008 Oxford, New York Berghahn Books
47. Ridak Dawa Bod kyi gso ba rig pa las sman rdzas sbyor bzoi lag len gsang sgo byed pa’i lde mig 2003 Delhi Rig Drag Publications
48. Sallon S., Namdul T., Dolma S., Dorjee P. , et al"‘Mercury in Tibetan Medicine—Panacea or Problem?’" Human Experimental Toxicology 2006Vol 25 405 412
49. Sallon S."‘Research on bTso-Thal (Purified Mercury)’" 2009 Lecture presented at the 2nd International Conference on Tibetan Medicine in Dharamsala 27 October 2012 Preliminary outcome of a cross-sectional clinical study with 120 patients on mercury toxicity conducted at the Men-Tsee-Khang (unpublished paper)
50. Samuel G. Hinnells R., Porter R."‘Religion, Health and Suffering among Contemporary Tibetans’" Religion, Health and Suffering 1999 London and New York Kegan Paul International 85 110
51. Saxer M."‘A Goat’s Head on a Sheep’s Body? Manufacturing Good Practices for Tibetan Medicine’" Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 2012Vol 31 497 513
52. Saxer M. Manufacturing Tibetan Medicine: The Creation of an Industry and the Moral Economy of Tibetanness 2013 Oxford, New York Berghahn Books
53. Schrempf M. Soundings in Tibetan Medicine: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Proceedings of the 10th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS) Oxford 2003 2007 Leiden Brill Academic Publishers
54. Sehnalova A."‘The Bon Sman Sgrub Ritual’" 2013 MPhil thesis in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, University of Oxford
55. Tashi Tsering Rin chen dngul chu sbyor sde phyogs bsdebs: Collected Works on Mercury Formulations (Rasasiddhisastra) by ’Ju Mi-Pham, Bla-sman Orgyan bstan-’dzin, Sde-dge drun-yid Guru-phel, Kon-sprul Yon-tan rgya-mtsho. Reproduced from rare manuscripts and Sde-dge woodblocks from the library of Late Dr Jamyang Tashi, Dr Tenzin Chodrak, and Dr Lobsang Tashi 1986 Dharamsala Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
56. THL (The Tibetan & Himalayan Library)"‘Tibetan to English Translation Tool’" 2010 last accessed 20 October 2013 URL: <>
57. Thubten Tsering (Thub bstan tshe ring) Krung go’i gso rig kun ’dus las bod kyi gso ba rig pa 1990Vol vol. 1 Lha sa Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang
58. Troru Tsenam (Khro ru Tshe rnam) Gso rig rgyud bzhi’i ’grel chen drang srong zhal lung 2001 Cheng tu Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang 6 vols
59. Van der Geest S."‘New Release: Anthropology and the Pharmaceutical Nexus’" Anthropological Quarterly 2006Vol 79 2 303 314
60. Van der Geest S."‘The Urgency of Pharmaceutical Anthropology: A Multilevel Perspective’" Curare 2011Vol 34 1–2 9 15
61. Van der Geest S., Whyte S. R."‘The Charm of Medicines: Metaphors and Metonyms’" Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1989Vol 3 4 345 367
62. Whyte S. R., van der Geest S. The Context of Medicines in Developing Countries: Studies in Pharmaceutical Anthropology 1988 Dordrecht, The Netherlands Kluwer Academic Publishers
63. Whyte S. R., van der Geest S., Hardon A. Social Lives of Medicines 2002 Cambridge Cambridge University Press
64. Wu Q., Lu Y.-F., Shi J.-Z., Liang S.-X. , et al"‘Chemical Form of Metals in Traditional Medicines Underlines Potential Toxicity in Cell Cultures’" Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2011Vol 134 839 843
65. Bai H."‘Determination of As and Hg in Tibetan Medicine with Hydride Atomic-Fluorescence’" Journal of Qinghai Junior Teachers’ College 2000Vol 6 70 72
66. Chen Y."‘Mechanical Processing Method for Tibetan Medicine Zuotai’" 2009 last accessed 7 May 2014 CN 101401818A. URL: <>
67. Dou G."‘Analyzing the Toxicity and Compatibility of Tibetan Medicine’s “Zuotai”’" Journal of Qinghai Junior Teachers’ College 2005Vol 4 72 75
68. Guoying S."‘Effect of Mercury in Tibetan Medicine of gTso thal on the Kidney Toxicology of Mice’" 2012 Thesis for Master of Science of Chinese Pharmacology, Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology, Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xining, Qinghai
69. Huang H., Wang B. Q.-Z., Wang X.-W., Feng X. , et al"‘Overview of Current Researches on Tibetan Medicine “Zuotai”’" Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi (China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica) 2013Vol 38 17 2886 288
70. Jiang A., Chang C., Wang J.-E. , et al"‘Pharmacodynamics Study Research of Tibetan Medicine’s “Zuotai”’" Lishizhen Medicine and Materia Medica Research 2009Vol 20 8 F3 F4
71. Kan Z.-B."‘An Introduction of Zuotai in Tibetan Patent Medicine’" Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi (China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica) 2013Vol 38 10 1621 1623
72. Li C., Suolang Zege, Zhang W. , et al"‘Chemical and Structural Analysis of Negchi Bakuang Ashes in Refining Tibetan Medicine Zuotai’" Yaowu Fenxi Zazhi (Journal of Pharmaceutical Analysis) 2011Vol 31 2220 2224
73. Li C., Duo J., Zhan D., Xia Z. , et al"‘Chemical and Structural Analysis of Nengchi Baji Ashes in Refining of Tibetan Medicine gTSo thal’" Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi (China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica) 2012Vol 37 13 1952 1957
74. Li X.-J., Feng W.-L., Yuan M., Li Y.-P. , et al"‘The Pharmacokinetic Effect of Tibetan Medicine’s “Zuotai” on Gentiana in Gentiopicroside’" Huaxi Yaoxue Zazhi (Western China Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences) 2008Vol 6 668 670
75. Li X.-Y., Feng W.-L., Zhu J.-B., Nima C.-R. , et al"‘Effect of Tibetan Medicine Zuotai on In Vivo Pharmacokinetics of Crocin-1 in Rats’" Zhongcaoyao (Chinese Traditional and Herbal Drugs) 2009Vol 40 1425 1428
76. Li X., Feng W., Ma Q., Zhu J. , et al"‘Preliminary Study on Absorption and Excretion of Mercury in Tibetan Medicine Zuotai in Rats’" Shizhen Guoyi Guoyao (Lishizhen Medicine and Materia Medica Research) 2010Vol 21 2 290 292
77. Suo L. ‘Processing of Zuota’, Journal of Medicine & Pharmacy of Chinese Minorities 2007Vol 5 40
78. Yan L."‘Tibetan Medicine’s “Zuotai’s” Micro-Structure and Composition Analysis’" China Tibetology 2007Vol 3 150 153
79. Yan L., Ma X."‘The Chemical and Structural Analysis of Carbon in Tibetan Medicine ZuoTai’" Chinese Journal of Ethnomedicine and Ethnopharmacy 2010Vol 19 9 1 2
80. Yan L., Ma X., Zhu Q."‘Analysis of Inorganic Elements in Tibet Drug Zuotai’" Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi (China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica) 2007Vol 32 159 160
81. Yang B."‘Characteristics and Safety of Mercury in Tibetan Medicine’s “Zuotai”’" National Tibetan Medicine Symposium 2003 481 485
82. Yang B."‘The Pharmacology and Safety of Mercury in Tibetan Medicine Zuota’" Tibet Research 2004Vol 1 74 80
83. Zhang G., Wang D.-P., Li C., Zhu H.-M. , et al"‘Chronic Accumulation of Mercury in Tibetan Medicine Zuotai (gTso thal)’" Shizhen Guoyi Guoyao (Lishizhen Medicine and Materia Medica Research) 2012Vol 23 9 2146 2147
84. Zhao X.-Y., Sun M., Wang J.-X., Xu Y.-Z. , et al"‘Characterization of Tibetan Medicine Zuota Multiple Techniques (article in English)’" Bioinorganic Chemistry and Applications 2013 Article ID 198545. DOI:10.1155/2013/198545

Article metrics loading...



Can't access your account?
  • Tools

  • Add to Favorites
  • Printable version
  • Email this page
  • Subscribe to ToC alert
  • Get permissions
  • Recommend to your library

    You must fill out fields marked with: *

    Librarian details
    Your details
    Why are you recommending this title?
    Select reason:
    Asian Medicine — Recommend this title to your library
  • Export citations
  • Key

  • Full access
  • Open Access
  • Partial/No accessInformation