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History of Bhutan and Bhutanese Medicine

In november 2008 an expedition of two members of the Foundation IOCOB went to Bhutan to look for the roots of Bhutanese Traditional medicine. While lunching at a small village, they noticed a triple railbow at the other side of the river, above a small temple. This rainbow emerged trice. This tempel was unkown to us and we suggested our guide to pay a visit to that temple. It appeared to be a very good move. We discovered an upto now unkown or forgotten element in Bhutanese history of its royalty and its medicine.

We travelled to that seemingly unimportant temple, by a sandy road, by foot, as the road was small and slippery. At the top of the mountain we reached two praying weels and the temple itself. After waiting a while an old monk appeared and we spoke to him about the history of the temple. Its name was Bajo temple and its history began around 50 years before the coronation of the first king of Bhutan, around 1850. bajo temple bhutan by Paula Keppel Hesselink

Histoy of Bajo temple

At that time the temple was not located at that spot on the mountainhill. It was situated next to the river of Punatsengchhu, in the valley.

At around 1870 the father of the first king of Bhutan, was governor of the Throngsa district in Bhutan, his name was Jigme Namgyal. As a governor he was in a chronic battle with other governors of different districts, as well as with the Indian-British army and once in a while with Tibetan fighting groups. He repeatedly lost battles and asked desperately the advice of the Tibetan lama, who was his counseler.

The Tibetan lama adviced Jigme to pray at the temple located near the river and to ask the local deity to support him. He did so, and since he prayed, his battles ended more succesfully. He quickly became Buthan’s most powerfull governor. Due to this fact, his son was elected the first kingof Bhutan. 

The temple however, was lost in a flood, and the second king of Bhutan ordered the temple to be build elsewhere, at a more safe spot. That spot became the hill, were we found the little, seemingly unimportant temple.

The monk who told this story to our guide, said that everyone forgot this temple since a long period of time, and no improtant people visited the temple ever. However, the temple of Bajo probably is the most important temple in Buthan; without the support of the local diety Jigme Namgyal would never have succeeded becoming the most powerfull governor, neither would his son have become the first king. This we learned from the old monk.  Paula keppel Hesselink finishing her masterwork at the age of 88, December 2008

The emergence of modern Integrated Medicine in Bhutan

Drungtsho Gyeltshen was a a traditional medical doctor and the personal physician of the father of the first king, the governor Jigme Namgyal. Drungtsho was born in the same district were we found the temple, Trongsa, and was trained in Tibet in the famaus Lhasa medical school of Chagpori. His son became a doctor too, and also studied at Chagpori and was called to serve at the court of the second king of Bhutan, Jigme Wangchuck.

This lineage of kings in Bhutan formed the base of the current health system of Buthan, as the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk commanded the Health Department of Buthan in November 1967 to establish a traditional medicine system as wel as an integrated medicine system in Buthan, and since then traditional medicine and regular medicine are united in each hospital in Buthan.  

On 28th of June, 1968. an indigenous dispensary was opened in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. Two well trained healers supported the first steps towards integrated medicine in Bhutan. The first healer was the drungtsho (traditional healer) Pema Dorji, who graduated at the medical institute in Tibet, Chagpori and he was commanded by the third king of Buthan to institutionalize and enhance the age-old traditional medical system. A second drungtsho, Sherab Jorden, the personal healer to an important lama, initiated the development of the Materia Medica.   

In 1979 the idigenious dispensary was upgraded to the National Indigenious Hospital, which was renamed in 1988 to the National Institute of Traditional medicine and in 1998 into the Institute of Traditional  Medical Services. The flora of Bhutan is quite special, due to climatic cirtcumstances, and clearly can be of use for the development of future drugs. [1] [2] [3]

This institute currently supports 3 functions: the National Traditional Hospital, The National Institute of Traditional Medicine and the Pharmaceutical and Research Unit. [4]

Some have argued that traditional healers and shamans are unbalanced people and a well balanced mix between regular and traditional medicine is not possible. A recent Dutch project however, proved national shamans of Bhutan to be quite sane. [5]

The prayers of the father of the first king at the unkown temple established a strong and respected monarchy in Bhutan, and there is a direct support for integrated medicine by the kings, starting with the third king ordering this renewed focus on traditional medicine. 


[1] Kagawa K, Tokura K, Uchida K, Kakushi H, Shike T, Kikuchi J, Nakai H, Dorji P, Subedi L. | Platelet aggregation inhibitors in a Bhutanese medicinal plant, shug chher. | Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo). | 1993 Sep;41(9):1604-7.

[2] Wangchuk P, Bremner JB, Samosorn S. | Hetisine-type diterpenoid alkaloids from the Bhutanese medicinal plant Aconitum orochryseum. | J Nat Prod. | 2007 Nov;70(11):1808-11. Epub 2007 Oct 30.

[3] Ward M, Jackson F. | Medicine in Bhutan. | Lancet. | 1965 Apr 10;1(7389):811-3.

[4] Wangchuk P, Wangchuk D, Aagaard-Hansen J. | Traditional Bhutanese medicine (gSo-BA Rig-PA): an integrated part of the formal health care services. | Southeast Asian J Trop Med Public Health. | 2007 Jan;38(1):161-7.

[5] van Ommeren M, Komproe I, Cardeņa E, Thapa SB, Prasain D, de Jong JT, Sharma B. | Mental illness among Bhutanese shamans in Nepal. | J Nerv Ment Dis. | 2004 Apr;192(4):313-7.

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