This rare, complete set of 79 Tibetan medical tangkas was painted by the Nepalese tangka artist Romio Shrestha and his Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese students in Kathmandu during seven years in the 1990s. The paintings were donated to this Museum by Emily Fisher, a Museum Trustee.
The original set of 79 tangkas, painted between 1687 and 1703 during the rule of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, was commissioned by his Regent, Sangye Gyamtso, to illustrate his commentary (called the Blue Beryl
) to the Four Medical Tantras
, the written form of traditional Tibetan medical knowledge. The fate of the original set is unknown. There are two sets presently in Lhasa, and a third, incomplete set, in Buryatia, Russian Federation. Mr. Shrestha based his modern medical tangkas on the two published sets, one in Lhasa and the other in Buryatia.
The illustrations on the medical tangkas include nearly 8,000 distinct images demonstrating such aspects of Tibetan medical knowledge as human anatomy, causes and effects of illness, diagnosis and treatment. Most of the tangkas consist of several rows of small images of a human figure, an animal, a plant, an object or a scene with people, houses, landscape, as well as deities and demons. Read from left to right, these images follow the order in which their subject matter is mentioned in the Blue Beryl. The thousands of small and large images were designed to add visual form to the technical information in the medical tantras and thus function as an eye-pleasing teaching aid to medical students.
The medical tangkas form a unique document in the history of medicine. Firmly rooted in Buddhism, Tibetan medical practice drew on diverse earlier traditions, from India, ancient Greece, Persia, pre-Buddhist Tibet, and China, to form a synthesis visually documented in these paintings.