By Nomin Galsandorj

Traditional systems of medicine in countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tibet, and Mongolia appear to be derived from Ayurveda. In Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian traditional medicine, the mind, emotions, and body are not seen as separate but as a continuum. A person’s emotional and mental states are seen as having a significant impact on the body and vice versa. Mongolian, Tibetan, and Indian traditional medicine use a number of modalities or therapies for both prevention and treatment of disease. Many medicinal herbs are usually used in combination.

Mongolia has a severe climate with four seasons, throughout which nomadic Mongolians move from place to place tending to their domesticated animals. Their way of life and medical treatments are very peculiar. The methods of medical treatment are derived from their simple lives. Medicinal herbs, the limbs of animals, and minerals are used as natural forms of medical treatment. They are sometimes used individually and sometimes used together for
medicinal purposes. Mongolians combine medicine with psychological therapy and use sayings, such as mantras, shamanic charms, and prophecy. There are certain influences of Buddhism in Mongolian medical treatment, such as the use of spells and the stating of one’s requests and mantra expressions.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, monks of Tibet, Nepal, and China were studying Buddhism in India, and it provided the opportunity for Buddhism to spread in Tibet. Medical books from India were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan. When Mongolia tried to make Buddhism the official religion in the 13th century, Indian and Tibetan medical books came to Mongolia as well.

The book “Four Tantras” (Jud Shi) was written in the 11th century, a classic creation of Indian and Tibetan medicine. “Jud Shi” was the main textbook of Mongolian doctors when it arrived in the 14th century. In Mongolia, it was read in Tibetan and was also translated into Mongolian. The Mongolian version has been published many times. German scholar Walther Heissig wrote that Choiji Odser translated “Jud Shi” in the 14th century, and during Ligden Khan’s time (1604-1634), “Jud Shi” was revised and re-translated.

The five elements theory of Indian philosophy started to hold an important position in the basic principles of Mongolian traditional medicine and this is related to the popularity of “Jud Shi” in the 16th century and its translation into Mongolian. “Jud Shi” is the amalgamation of Tibetan and Mongolian medicine and the Indian sutra.

“Jud Shi” has four volumes, identified by tantra:

1. Basic Tantra- The Basic Tantra has four parts and is the basis of the other three tantra volumes. It contains all the general meanings of the Four Tantras and is a basic overview of the theories of Indian and Tibetan medicine.

2. Explanatory Tantra – This tantra has 31 parts. The root of Indian and Tibetan medicinal
theory is defined briefly here.

3. Oral Instruction Tantra – This tantra has 92 parts and is the largest part of the book. It
describes how diseases and disorders of the body and organ systems are generally understood in Indian and Tibetan medicine.

4. Subsequent Tantra – This tantra has 27 parts and draws conclusions on the therapies in
the other 3 volumes.

Medicine Buddha by G.Zanabazar
Medicine Buddha by G.Zanabazar

In the 18th century, Mongolian scholar Gombojav was the primary translator of “Dankhaivjunai”, a large Tibetan-Mongolian dictionary, and participated in the Mongolian translation of “Danjuur”. The book “Medicinal Formulas”, which was written by Gombojav, was block printed in Mongolian. In the book, he included some formulas from Indian, Tibetan, and Khoton medicine.

Jambaldorj was one of the greatest doctors in Mongolia during the 19th century. He wrote a 174-page sutra called “Zetsermigjan”. During this time, there were errors and mistakes in identifying medicinal ingredients. He researched the work of the best ancient doctors of India, Tibet, and Mongolia, and defined the shape, form, features, and potency of the medicinal ingredients used. He also wrote a book about ingredients in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Manj, and Mongolian, complete with 576 images. This book has attracted the attention of national and foreign scholars and has been published in foreign countries.

Luvsanchultem was a Mongolian doctor of the 19th century. He wrote about the Indian “five elements” theory used in Indian and Tibetan medicine. Mongolians enriched the ancient books on medicine that were passed on from India to Tibet. In Mongolian traditional medicine, anatomy, diseases, and the effects of medicine are explained on the basis of the five elements theory.

Five elements theory and three types of combinations

The five elements theory and the three types of combinations of these elements are the main parts of Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian traditional medicine. Everything in the universe, including human beings, is composed of five basic elements. The five elements are earth, water, fire, air, and space. These five elements form the metabolism of the body.

– Earth controls the physical structure of the body: bones and flesh. All life forces become
inert and inactive in this element and more energy is used to keep a body active.

– Water controls the kidneys, male and female reproductive organs, and produces antibodies. Water keeps the body and life flowing.

– Fire controls the spleen, liver, pancreas, and keeps all the organs active. It creates fire in the body. It heats water. It regulates sight, provides strength to the body by digesting food, induces hunger and thirst, maintains the suppleness of muscles, and a beautiful complexion.

– Air controls the chest, lungs, and heart and forms the purity of the mind and heart. Air is life itself. It is strength and guides every part of our body. It moves bile and phlegm, which cannot move in the body by itself.

– Space controls the entire body, thyroid, parathyroid, tonsils, saliva, cerebral and spinal fluid, the nervous system, and eliminates poison from the body. In order for air to circulate in the body and maintain a proper balance, there has to be space. If such circulation is blocked, it creates pain, even leading to heart attacks and loss of consciousness.

All these elements should be maintained in proper proportions. Any disturbance (and excess or deficiency) of one element leads to disturbances in other elements, and is considered the root cause of disease. If these five elements are maintained in proper proportions in the body, a proper metabolism is ensured and the body remains healthy. However, due to heredity, as well as eating and living habits, we can disturb one or two of these elements and upset the metabolism. When there is an illness present there is a predominance of one or more of three types of combinations of the five elements. In Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian traditional medicine, people are diagnosed as being one of these three types of elemental combinations.

1. Kapha (Bad-kan) – the combination of excessive earth and water These elements occupy the largest areas of our body. Kapha people have a regular appetite with relatively slow digestion, and prefer warm drinks and like pungent, astringent, and bitter foods.

2. Pitta (Tri-pa) – the combination of excessive fire and air Pitta people have a strong metabolism, and a good appetite and digestion. They like large quantities of food and water, and like bitter, sweet, and astringent foods and cooling drinks.

3. Vata (Lhung) – excessive air Vata people have a variable appetite and crave salty, sweet, and sour foods, and prefer warm or hot drinks. Their hands and feet are usually cold and dry with cracked skin.

In Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian traditional medicine, all foods are divided into six tastes: bitter, astringent, pungent, sweet, sour, and salty.

Mongolian diet therapy

Mongolians eat the following five kinds of food:

White – dairy products
Red – meat products
Green – plants and vegetables
Yellow – butter and oil
Black – water and distilled milk vodka

The five kinds of food of the Mongols include milk and milk products, such as curds, fermented mare’s milk, clotted cream, butter, sea buckthorn oil, cedar nut oil, apricot oil, and sheep tail fat.

The oil from sheep tail fat contains calcium, magnesium, iodine, and fluorine. It is also rich in vitamins D, C, A, K, E, B, and is good for fatigue, allergies, poisoning, and the eyes. Sheep tail fat has many medicinal qualities and is very nutritious, and has been considered beneficial “food” for infants and elders since ancient times. It enhances the metabolism and digestion, provides energy, prevents weakness and fatigue, and is thought to speed up the growth of infants. It moisturizes, softens, regenerates, and rejuvenates the skin. Sheep tail fat contains nutrients that cannot be found in any other food. The tip of the sheep tail, which is called uurag suul, is the best nourishment for the liver and supports the brain.

In Mongolian traditional medicine sutras, it’s written, “Fresh white butter is of cool quality and cures lung diseases and coughing, and treats fever. Old butter cures mental disorders, hangovers, and diseases of the eyes, brain, and womb.” In ancient sutras, it’s written “Yellow butter kept for years is good at treating diseases when applied to the skin. It has many diverse curative qualities if mixed with other ingredients. Yellow butter enhances intellectual capability, relaxes the mind, and refreshes one’s sight. It makes elders younger and makes voices melodious. It also improves fertility and cures diseases of the ears, lungs, and mind, and burns, frozen wounds, or cold weapon injuries.” The sutras also say, “Cow’s milk butter is very nutritious and good at healing any illness. The butter of goat’s milk is of cool quality and treats fevers. Yak or sheep milk is of hot quality and produces energy.”

In Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian medicine, it is said, “Unsuitable food is poison to one’s body. Perfect food nourishes and keeps the body fit, healthy, and energetic. If the food is too little, the body weakens, beauty fades, and illness appears. If the food is too much, the body gets tired from over-consumption and is invaded by sickness. Thus, two quarters of the stomach should be full of food, one quarter of drink, and one quarter left empty.”

Nomadic Mongolians had a healthy lifestyle. During the winter time, meat products were mainly eaten, and during the summer time, dairy products, vegetables, and fruits were mainly eaten. The four conditions of climate, evil spirits, diet, and lifestyle act together to affect disorders. The four remedial measures for disorders are diet, lifestyle, medicine, and external therapies.

The following disorders are treated in Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian traditional medicine: hot and cold disorders, pediatric disorders, gynecological disorders, wounds, geriatric disorders, infertility, indigestion, tumors, edema, fever, smallpox, and the common cold. They also treat disorders of the head, the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, the goiter, and genital disorders; disorders of vital vessels and organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, stomach, intestines, and colon. Miscellaneous disorders, such as laryngitis, anorexia, hiccups, asthma, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, diabetes, gout, arthritis, skin diseases, nervous disorders, and minor injuries are also addressed.

For centuries, Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian medicinal practices were used not only to diagnose diseases but also to prescribe medicine based on individual conditions, using a unique system of evaluating the pulse, eyes, tongue, skin, and smell. The botanical formulas used thousands of years ago continue to be in use today. The Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian traditional medicine systems are fond of using formulas involving multiple herbs.
The treatments include decoctions, powders, pills, paste, medicinal butter, calcinated powder, gems, herbal compounds, oil therapy, purgation, emesis, nasal drops, enemas, channel cleansing, venesection, moxibustion, cauterization, compression, medicinal baths, natural spring baths, massage, and surgical therapy.

The diagnostic techniques are visual study, pulse taking, and interrogation. The visual study involves the examination of the tongue and urine. Touching with the fingers is like receiving information transmitted by the patient’s pulse. Interrogation involves the patient’s medical history, looking at the signs and symptoms of illness, as well as dietary factors.

For centuries, Mongolians have utilized traditional methods for surviving the harsh winter season. During the winter months, Mongolians eat “hot” foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, and abstain from eating “cold” foods. Eating hot foods has the positive effect of increasing blood flow, energy level, improving the functions of the main organs of the body (including the digestive system), and has been scientifically proven to prolong life expectancy to an average of 70 years. However, in recent years, the life expectancy of the population has been decreasing, due to improper dress during the winter season and spending too much time in cold places, therefore not being able to maintain internal body heat. The long-term effect of this is a decrease in the immune system’s functions, cold sweats, and lower blood levels. Daily consumption of cold starters and salads, coffee, soft drinks, juices, beers, and other drinks that are below room temperature and straight from the refrigerator can lead to “cold” digestive ailments.

Cold water, drinks, and ice cream reduce body heat and increase the burden placed on the digestive system. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, it is said that heat is life, while cold is death. Due to these practices in recent years, and particularly among young people, intestinal inflammation, stomachaches, stomach ulcers, the feeling of fullness or bloating, constipation,
and the removal of gall bladders have been much more common.

Yellow Pasqueflower, commonly used in traditional medicine

Mongolia is home to hundreds of rare medicinal plants, most of which are found in the Khangai Mountain Range and the steppes. Prior to making any traditional medicine, plants must be collected at the appropriate time or season. For instance, the yellow snowdrop (aneta) blooms in early spring. Therefore, the exact time of its full bloom must not be missed and the collected plants should be dried out.

There are cases where toxic vegetation is used to make medicines. Those toxic plants need special care, and there are specific methodologies for drying and removing the plant’s poison. A branch of a toxin-containing tree must be cut in half before drying. If the plant has a poisonous surface, the outer layer must be scraped away. To release the toxins in spar, it needs to be placed in a covered dish and set on fire.

Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian traditional medicine is based on a philosophy that guides the practitioner to serve his patient according to special needs at a special time, and under special circumstances. They are extremely individualized, personal, and flexible, dependent on a person-to-person and expert-to-client relationship. Treatments and prescriptions are tailor-made for the patient, and take into account the individual’s constitution, age, gender, syndrome, primary complaints, accompanying signs and symptoms, the season, and the geographic location.

Nomin Galsandorj is a freelance writer and translator, translating texts from English to Mongolian, including the Dalai Lama’s official website. She can be contacted at [email protected]