Dr. Kelsang Dolma is exceptionally busy these days. In the absence of the other two doctors at the clinic, she’s seeing as many as 100 patients a day. Referring to her annual almanac’s auspicious dates, she suggests therapies according to her patients’ Tibetan Zodiac. And in her traditional dark blue dress lined with a bright blue border, Dr.Dolma is all smiles for every patient who comes to visit. Her prayer beads and incense stick case lie beside her blood pressure machine and the wooden tokens taken by patients remind her of pending appointments. A sense of calm returns to this Navi Mumbai Tibetan Clinic as patients sigh in relief every time the queue begins to move again.
Men-Tsee- Khang, the Tibetan Medical Centre, is celebrating its centenary this year. Founded in 1916 by the 13th Dalai Lama to keep traditional Tibetan medical practice alive, it was re-established by His Holiness Dalai Lama in India 55 years ago. Although Tibetan medicine is many centuries old, almost dating back to 12th century and by some accounts 961 BC, the current system has been in practice for 100 years. Tibetans all over the world are pledging 100 hours of their work salary towards the celebrations.
“Men means medicine, Tsee means astrology and Khang means Institute,” explains Dr. Dolma. The clinic that she has been transferred to is the Koperkhairane branch of the medical institute that was established in Navi Mumbai in 2007. “There are more than 50 centres in India but this is my first placement since graduation. I have been here for three years now,” says the 29-year-old who trained in Darjeeling.
Tibetan medicine can be compared to Ayurvedic medicine when it comes to diagnosis. They check three basic energies in a patient which is rLung (which deals with wind/air,) mKhris-pa (deals with bile/ digestion) and Bad-kan (deals with Phlegm.) The medicine also relies on pulse, nerves and urine. “We don’t diagnose the symptoms. We go straight to the cause of a disease and treat that,” says Dr. Dolma. Doctors train for 5 years where they also learn the basics of Astrology. Based on a person’s zodiac, the doctor will suggest a therapy that needs to be carried out on holy or auspicious dates according to the Tibetan calendar. “Earlier, people sought guidance from astrologers; they even suggested which doctors should be approached. We suggest therapies according to the age, gender and the date suitable for the patient,” she explains.
The cases they receive are mostly chronic. “The biggest problem Indian patients suffer from is related to digestion. Other chronic illness that comes to us in large numbers is arthritis. Most people believe that this alternative therapy is Ayurveda but it is different in many ways. The same disease could have a different medicine or the same therapy could be performed in different time periods for the same type of people. People here are not exposed to this medicine,” she says.
When a blood cancer patient was cured by Tibetan medicine, he decided to make a donation so that more patients could reap the benefits. Today, the clinic and the doctors’ quarters in Navi Mumbai are able to provide their services because of the foundation. “Earlier, only medical camps were being held in Mumbai but we now have a permanent clinic here. We also have one clinic in Malad who are looking to shift from their current space as it is not our own. Dr. Yeshi is stationed there,” says Dr. Dolma.
The other two doctors in the clinic have gone on an official leave. Dr. Lungtok has gone abroad to attend a medical camp and the other doctor has gone to Nashik for the same reason. The clinic receives patients from all over, right from Aurangabad, Ratnagiri, Dhulia and Ambarnath. So, what makes the patients come back? Sanjay Singh seems to have an answer. “I had a tumour in my gall bladder and many doctors suggested surgery. One of my friends told me to try this clinic. I have been coming here for two years and my tumour has reduced upto 90%. The medicines suit me and they have no side effects. The doctors here spend a lot of time on every patient. They dig in deep and study the cause. They have helped me change my lifestyle and taught me how to take better care of myself. My health is much better and I have stopped going to other allopathic doctors,” admits Singh, who is a business owner from Thane.
Shraddha Savle doesn’t feel numbness in her hands anymore. “I had absolutely no relief for many years. The painkillers that my family doctor gave me would give me a terrible headache. I have been coming here for a year, and it has worked. Their medicine and consultation is also cheaper than allopathic medicines. I knew a woman who had some issues in her chest area and doctors had given up on her. She came here and is fully cured. I kept seeing her throughout these years and she looks healthy. She was on the heavier side first but has lost weight as well,” says Savle, who is a home-maker and lives in Ghansoli village.
There are some nine Tibetan refugees that work in this clinic and they begin their day with prayers at 9 a.m. They are the only Tibetans in Navi Mumbai and have to face their share of intrigue and racist abuse while traveling to the clinic. “We are no more bothered about being called Nepali, Chinki, Japanese, etc. It has become a part of our lives,” Dr.Dolma says.
Living ‘in exile’ is a struggle, but to live without family is even more difficult. The staff, when not explaining medicine routine to patients, try to keep their tradition alive. The medicine cabinet is filled with jars of round tablets of different colours and sizes and Tsering Dolma is more than familiar with the routine. Working as a cashier and staff on rotation, Tsering has been with the Mumbai Men-Tsee-Khang since 2012. From Leh and Ladakh, Tsering struggles with her heavy ‘Chupa’ in this weather. “This material is better suited for the northern winters. It is terribly hot in Mumbai. That is the only problem we have here, the climate,” she said. Her Khakhi coloured chupa has yellow borders and Tsering holds it up in both of her hands to be able to walk. “All of us wear traditional Tibetan clothing here. It’s a symbol of our culture,” she said.
The handful of Tibetans that live in the quarters are better off than the Tibetan refugees who migrate to the city in search for jobs. “Everything is taken care of for us by the Men-Tsee-Khang foundation. We don’t have to face as many issues as some of our other people. We do keep in touch though,” says Dr. Dolma.
The Mumbai Momo group has some 40 members on their whatsapp group who meet each other on Tibetan holidays and important occasions like the New Year, His Holiness’ Birthday and more. Whenever they meet, they feast on Tibetan food. “We haven’t met in almost a year, we just can’t find the time. The clinic is shut on Fridays but others get an off on Saturday and Sunday and that’s the day we have the most rush,” Dr.Dolma explains. Many Tibetans live in the quarters when they shift to Mumbai before finding a home for themselves. “Many Tibetans come for pilgrimage to Kanheri caves but not many come looking for jobs,” she adds.
When not working, the staff and doctors go to malls, watch movies, shop and explore the city. 28-year-old Namgil Choedon explains the medicine routine of a patient at the counter when not rotating as a cashier. She likes to travel to nearby areas like Lonavala, Karjat and more. “I got recruited last year and had to come here. I will be giving competitive exams and maybe go back to Himachal soon,” she says. Most of the staff gets transferred for a 3-5 year period. Dorjee Tsering has been here only for 6 months. An experience of the city life attracted him to Mumbai. “I am a driver here. I drive the staff to Nashik and Pune whenever there is a medical camp,” he says.
Tsering Dolma lives with the staff in the Men-Tsee-Khang building located in a nearby sector. They get their daily meals in the mess where a Tibetan cook has been appointed. “We make momos on Thursday but we don’t have many Tibetan ingredients here to make other dishes. I miss the Tingmo and Tsampa dishes that you get in the North a lot,” she says. Tsering is from Delhi and will seek a transfer soon because there is more community presence there. “There are a lot of activists and officials who come and stay with us. We have guest rooms that are open to family, relatives and friends,” she said.
The pristine white building is much like the India-China border as it is sandwiched between two other apartments. A row of plants and flowers greets visitor with the kitchen and mess on the right. The four floors of the building house two rooms on each floor along with guest rooms. Most doors have a colourful curtain before them.
Tsering’s door has a long and blue embroidered curtain with mulit-coloured fishes on it. She said the curtains signify good luck. “All Tibetans have this good-luck curtain in front of their houses. It is a sign of welcome as well,” she said. A poster with the words ‘Keep Calm As I Am Tibetan’ printed on it is the first sight that one sees when entering her room. Her accommodation doesn’t boast of many frivolities. Yellow stickers line her walls and depict the prostrations she does before her God everyday; 108 to be exact.
All houses have their own temples but all of them feel the need for their own community temple. On occasions, they take one of the house temples on the terrace to pray together. “We do need a temple but we manage with what we have. We meet and keep in touch with everybody. We discuss everything with each other be it politics, daily updates and our lives. We go to Dharamsala on auspicious occasions. All the Tibetans in Mumbai gather here for a party,” she says.
The terrace is lined with prayer flags in different colours and they are changed twice every year. The breeze moves the clothing line that cuts across the terrace ceiling and Tsering adjusts it for better view. “We are in this field and we keep our culture alive with our traditional dress and our language. When people know it is the Tibetan culture, our memory stays alive with them. Even the living memory of Tibet is enough to acknowledge our presence,” she said.
“Aur kisi cheez ki kami nahi hai yaha, sirf chutti ki kami hai,” she concludes.
Click here to view the entire series of photographs taken by Karan Khosla