Asian Medicine: Cultivating Traditions and the Challenges of Globalisation/Panel 1: Traditional Healing in Bhutan/Panel Organiser:
Françoise Pommaret/Title: Colour, Thread and Cloth in Religious Contexts and Healing Rituals in Bhutan/Abstract:
The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is an independent state situated between China and India. It emerged as a unified polity
in the early 17th century under the rule of an exiled Tibetan religious leader and much of its elite culture, including its
medical traditions, were brought from Tibet during this period. Although it took shape in Tibet, this medical tradition, which
is still practiced in Bhutan, has always been characterized by the diversity of its origins. It is based on Indian and Chinese
traditions and has also incorporated ancient medical practices connected with magic and religion. The Bhutanese Traditional
Medical system subsequently evolved distinct characteristics that enable it to be viewed as a separate part of the Himalayan
tradition of Sowa Rigpa ('the science of healing').
The Bhutanese medical system is an integrated and recognized part of Bhutanese culture and tradition, strongly influenced
by Buddhist concepts when it comes to identifying the sources of sickness in local explanatory models. Local deities, demons
and spirits play a significant role and are considered responsible for certain afflictions. To obtain healing people in rural
Bhutan often consult religious and ritual specialists. The rituals aim to remove obstacles, hindrances, and sickness, particularly
when these are seen to be caused by harmful spirits, and as such many of these practices are directly related to medicine.
In Bhutan’s religious contexts and 'art of healing', colours as well as threads and cloths take on special meaning. In these
contexts threads and cloths can be invested with protective powers and are thus part of many healing rituals all over Bhutan.
Colours are an important aspect of a person’s identity or 'essence' and this becomes obvious in the special significance of
threads and cloths used for ritual purposes. For example, the five primary colours (white, yellow, red, blue and green) correspond
to the five elements, to directions of the compass, to deities, to calendar years, to the astrological setting of a person’s
birth date and accordingly to a person’s character as well as to different qualities and emotions. A horoscope reveals which
colours will be most efficacious in the case of sickness and a lama, or religious teacher who is conducting a healing ritual,
provides instructions about what kind of colour, thread and cloth to use. Usually a shrine made of wood and thread will also
be erected to ward off evil spirits and illness. These shrines consist of one or more wooden crosspieces, wound with coloured
yarns that look like a spider web. For particular purposes special textiles are also in use. Their colour and format usually
depends on the locality, the illness and the horoscope of the person, who is to be healed.
This paper, which is based on seven months of anthropological field research in Bhutan will for the first time shed light
on the role of colours, threads and cloths in the crossovers of Bhutanese religion, healing and medicine.