In this project eighteen murals in the inner courtyard of the Medical College at Labrang Monastery on the north-eastern fringe of the Tibetan plateau (modern Chinese Gansu province) have been documented and their significance within Tibetan Medicine has been analysed. The murals illustrate the contents of the first and second part of the “Four Tantras”, the most famous treatise in Tibetan Medicine, in form of “unfolded trees” (in this context the term “Tantra” means treatise). These elaborately crafted tree-metaphors are used for instruction, learning as well as examination. The murals do not depict the contents of the classical text exactly: some of the trees illustrate the contents in a cursory way while others go far beyond their textual template. This is especially so in the case of the chapters on anatomy, pathology, certain aspects of pharmacology, therapeutic skills and the personality of the physician.
The murals have been compared with another didactic medium of Tibetan Medicine: a compilation of more than seventy thangkas, rolled paintings which can be hung on the wall, originating from the end of the seventeenth century and illustrating the contents of the “Four Tantras,” which are well-known among experts in the field. The depicted content in the thangkas also does not correlate to the standard text. In this project the content of both media have been compared in detail. It became evident that when an aspect was not depicted in the thangkas it would often be emblematised through the murals, and vice versa. If both didactic media are read together the content of the first two parts of the “Four Tantras” is represented almost completely.
At the beginning of the research the question of whether the murals at Labrang Monastery would eventually be deemed as a regional characteristic of Tibetan Medicine or if they would follow another, yet unknown text tradition arose. After extensive investigation a text dealing with “unfolded trees” could be identified as the template of the murals: its author is Blo bzang Chos grags was a personal physician of the Fifth Dalai Lama who lived in the seventeenth century. In his older years he became a medical instructor at the Medical College at Iron Hill (Chakpori) founded and located just opposite the Potala, the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.
Aside from the analysis of the murals’ content, an aim of the project was to delineate the historical framing. The time of the formation of the treatise on “unfolded trees” was examined, as well as the development of the Medical College at Labrang. After a research trip to Labrang it was found that prior murals had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In the course of the period of revitalisation in the mid-1980s they had been restored under the guidance of experienced physicians. During a major refurbishment of the inner courtyard of the Medical College in 2007 the murals were repainted again, though sadly not in the elaborated way they had previously been painted but still following the same textual tradition. A portrayal of the most important protagonists in maintenance of this unique medical teaching tradition completes the historical part of the project.