The medical college at Labrang Monastery in Eastern Tibet:


A historical and ethno-medical study and documentation of 19 murals illustrating the bshad rgyud


Katharina Anna Sabernig MD/MA




In the inner courtyard of the medical college (sman pa grwa tshang)at Labrang Monastery (Bla brang Bkra shis vkhyil)the visitor finds nineteen murals, none of which have been previously analysed and described. They illustrate the contents of the rtsa rgyud and the bshad rgyud, the first and the second parts of the Rgyud bzhi.The murals depict each chapter in the form of an 'unfolded tree' (sdong vgrems) metaphorwhich provides a vivid visual structure to the contents of the books.On field trips in 2004 and 2005 the murals were photo-documented and transliterated on-site, however in the interim the murals appear to have been repainted. In a recent photograph they seem to have been altered and are now similar but not identical, have been placed in a different sequence and are less elaborate.


Labrang medical college was established in 1784 and was modelled on the medical college in Lhasa, called lcags po ri. Some of the Labrang murals depict the contents of the Rgyud bzhiin exacting detail, whereas others are less accurate and in some cases the illustrations show divergences. This raises questions about the traditions that influenced the painters of the murals. A preliminary comparison of the Labrang murals with the illustrations in the famous commentary on the Rgyud bzhi by Sangs rgyas Rgya mtsho, the Vaidurya sngon po (Blue Beryl), reveals a whole string of significant and often complementary differences not least in terms of their medico-cultural histories. The thangkas of the Blue Beryl were painted by order of Sangs rgyas Rgya mtsho the famous regentwho had aimed to show recent medical achievements to the public through the images. The murals in the courtyard of the medical college at Labrang Monastery were designed by a professional physician as a mnemotechnical tool for medical students.


The divergences of the murals at Labrang from illustrations in the Blue Beryl and the Rgyud bzhi raise questions about the textual traditions that influenced the murals at Labrang. It could be that these divergences are simply regional characteristics, however a cursory analysis of the Vaidurya sngon po (Blue Beryl), and the classical text bshad rgyud kyi sdong vgrems legs bshad gser gyi thur ma by Blo bzang Chos grags (2003)indicates that the elaborate murals at Labrang may reflect the attachment of the monastery to the medical doctrines of the lcag po ri tradition in Lhasa in the 17th and 18th century.


In this project the documented murals and their new facsimile will be compared with the illustrations of the Vaidurya sngon po, the corresponding parts of the rgyud bzhi and the text by Blo bzang Chos grags (2003). The results will give new insights into the didactic value of historical medical paintings and the establishment of the medical college at Labrang Monastery.