Monday, 27 July 2009

News from the Sowa Rigpa Institute in Sikkim

above photo: Gangtok from the 'ropeway'.

Rahima Sayer has spent the last 8 months helping to establish a herbal garden at Ringu Tulku's retreat centre in Sikkim. This is an abreviated version of the long letter she sent from Gangtok in June and the project sounds fascinating.
Some added news is that as of this week, Bodhicharya Ireland members have sponsored two machines to help Dr Tashi Namgyal to make pills and powders from the herbs grown at the centre. We look forward to some photographs.


Planting the Medicine garden at the Bodhicharya Retreat Centre

This garden is the vision of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, with the collaboration of Dr Tashi Namgyal of Gangtok. It is a conservation project, a reaction to a very real crisis in the supply of traditional medicinal plants in these beautiful Indian Himalayas. Traditionally there was respect for the plants, and the local doctors knew the appropriate time to harvest and the exact amount to harvest to allow for re-growth. There was a natural relationship between the plant and the healer, thus capturing extraordinary benefits from the herbs.

Now it is a very different picture, with many herb collectors out in the mountains with little or no knowledge if the exact taxonomy of the herbs and little understanding of their growth pattern. As a result there is overexploitation, and herbs are taken with no chance of re-growth for the following year’s harvest. It is not only Tibetan medicine that is suffering, but also Ayurvedic medicine and many local traditional healing practices. A very sad picture indeed.

The investigation that I am conducting is aimed at the sustainable cultivation of these plants that are disappearing from the wild.

The situation has not gone unnoticed, however, and in my search for sustainably cultivated plants I have met some very dedicated and inspiring people, whose wish is to protect these wonderful herb species that have been used for such a very long time within the pharmacopeia of traditional medicine. The Indian Government is also taking steps to try and preserve these medicines, by giving permits only to certain herb collectors. However, this does not stop the black market business.

Conservation Projects I visited


i) I first located through the internet the Kanchendzonga Conservation Committee, who invited me to Yuksam where they are based (some six hours’ drive along very steep and winding mountain roads), promising me seeds and plants. A breakthrough! Their initial thrust was to encourage local people to conserve the plants, but seeing that this was insufficient protection, they decided to grow a few medicinal plants, creating the Tunga Nursery in a beautiful spot above Yuksam. I was given both plants and seeds of swertia chirata (tikta in Tibetan), which Rinpoche and Dr Tashi Namgyal were particularly anxious to have in the garden. Dr Namgyal was delighted when I gave him the seeds, and amazed that they had been cultivated rather than grown in the wild. This was therefore a very successful visit, with the Conservation Committee suggesting that The Sowa Rigpa Institute might like to be involved in a joint project for growing at high altitude.

ii) In Gangtok, I also met the General Secretary of the Forest Department. They are actively cultivating medicinal plants in eight gardens throughout Sikkim, although I understand these are more for conservation than actual medicinal supplies.

Himachal Pradesh

i) I first travelled to Palumpur, in the Western Himalayas, to meet some of the scientists working at the Himalayan Biotech Resource Institute. The Director, Dr Ahuja, and his colleagues are doing trials in cultivating medicinal plants at both low and high altitudes, and offer courses in growing aromatic and medicinal plants. They are also very committed to distillation of essential oils such as rose and lavender.

ii) I next visited the Ayurvedic Hospital in Joginder Nager, and met Dr Raj Yog Shamar, researcher in medicinal plants, who was very interested in our project. They have three gardens covering 125 acres, full of different shrubs and medicinal trees and located at different altitudes according to the needs of the plants. These gardens provide almost all the herbs the hospital requires, and will be able to supply us with seeds in future. Dr Shamar, however, gave me there and then a handful of the manu seeds I had been looking for specially!
iii) I also located Biolaya Organics (, a small company who manage several farms and grow high altitude medicinal herbs. They also provide services and products related to organic agriculture and sustainable management of medicinal plants in the Indian Himalayas. I was invited to do the three-hour walk up from the road to see the farm in the Shang Valley, located at 2500m in an exceptionally pure environment, amidst beautiful forests of cedar and juniper, with carpets of wild irises just about to bloom. It was very moving to see how lovingly and carefully these plants are being tended. The growers themselves do not know exactly how viable it is; it is certainly not financially lucrative; nevertheless they continue to try and keep these species in our world. The Biolaya people are exceptional organic farmers, working for the last seven or eight years promoting organic farming, training in compost making, and conducting trials of traditional grains. They are happy to share their knowledge and expertise, and will be able to supply us with seeds of inula racemosa (manu in Tibetan) in May when the snow melts in the high passes. At the moment we are working together on Anti-Bacterial Spray with wild Himalayan Oregano oil and Flower Essences to be used in hospitals and nursing homes. I am also receiving training in how to revitalise the soil and grow some of these endangered medicinal plants.

So I am currently in this incredibly beautiful environment, surrounded by snowy mountains running with pure mountain streams. Today I bought ten kilos of saussaurea costus from a certified herb collector down the valley for our doctor in Gangtok. It comes from Lahaul Valley and is cultivated. We will have to see what the quality is like!

My experience in Himachal Pradesh is seeing people’s growing awareness of diminishing wild medicinal herb stocks. One consultancy has had resource assessment officers working in the mountains for the last few years, and the overall picture is not good. Unauthorised herb collectors are rapidly diminishing the stocks of herbs in such a way that there is no time for them to recover. Hence the need to cultivate is growing ever more urgent. Small community projects are being initiated to this end: for example, in Mandi District, Dr Lal Singh, of the Himalayan Research Group, has initiated 500 households in growing swertai chirata, with more projects planned.

Of course the cost of cultivation is far higher than the price demanded by herb collectors roaming the mountains and selling on the market. The face of traditional medicine is changing, resulting inevitably in higher costs for the patient.

But it is with great inspiration that I will return to the Sowa Rigpa Garden at the Retreat Centre, knowing that what we are trying to do is possible, and having learned more about the great value of growing these wonderful healers, the medicine plants. Our vision of a beautiful garden full of all kinds of healing plants and trees, medicine for the body and spirit, is being realised: a garden full of roses and jasmine, fine crops of salads and vegetables, medicinal plants and grains to eat, a wonder to behold!

Now we have to plant the seeds! In fact, before leaving Sikkim at the beginning of my researches, I experimented with a bag of saussaurea costus seeds already three years old, from Ladakh. With the help of girls from the village, we fine dug the ground and put in manure to try and revitalise the very poor soil. Then the seeds were planted. To our great delight, and my astonishment, they sprouted within ten days!

Thank you to all of you who are so interested and helpful with the making of this garden.

May all beings be happy.

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