Sunday, October 25, 2015

Padampa's Plant Community: P’i-kuo's Response

You may recall that in our latest blog there was a bit about the botanical identification of the mkhan-pa plant that grew where Padampa stayed when he first arrived in Tingri. We're still not 100% sure what it is exactly. We based ourselves on the first source at hand when we identified it with Tanacetum, but from now on we will definitely identify it as Artemisia (or Mugwort, although this word doesn’t sound so nice). What follows is a comment, now transformed into a guest blog, from the pen of P’i-kuo:

Sorry to interrupt with a more prosaic matter, but are you sure about the identification of mkhan pa as Tanacetum? I've googled around a bit and most of what I found seems to be pointing towards wormwood/mugwort (Artemisia).  
First there's Mia Molvray's Glossary of Tibetan Medicinal Plants (now available online), where mkhan pa appears as a name for several species of Artemisia (though not specifically vulgaris; this will become important later), while Tanacetum shows up under other Tibetan names. Three of Molvray's sources for the Artemisia identification are ultimately traceable to Northern (incl. Mongolian) contexts, which you would expect to overlook Tanacetum as it doesn't seem to grow there, but her fourth source is Tsewang Jigme Tsarong who was the director of the Tibetan Medical Centre in Dharamsala. 
More sources (including, recursively enough, Molvray above) are listed by Yumiko Ishihama 石濱裕美子 et al. here supporting the Artemisia theory; the species do include vulgaris. Their sources are given here, and the only one mentioning Tanacetum are the Tibetan Medical Paintings edited by Parfyonovich et al. 
Chinese sources also translate mkhan pa as 蒿 hāo or 艾 ài (as in Ai Weiwei) i.e. 'wormwood' or 'mugwort'. (This is from an article in Chinese Tibetology; 蒿 hāo is used to translate mkhan pa, one of the 'five nectars' (bdud rtsi) listed in the Cha lag bco brgyad.) 
Now a very common mugwort is Artemisia vulgaris, in Chinese 北艾 běiài ('Northern mugwort') and maybe also 白蒿 báihāo ('white wormwood'). It grows up to 2 m tall, and is edible, to some extent. 
(Admittedly Padampa wasn't eating the mkhan pa, but maybe he could pluck a leaf or two to season his droma spuds.) It would seem to grow in the roughly relevant geography, and indeed there is one var. xizangensis found in e.g. Qinghai and Western Sichuan, including over 2500 m above sea level. 
Tanacetum aka Ajania, on the other hand, while just as medicinal and arrestingly beautiful, seems rather less hospitable to hide in. The tallest species I found about stay around 70 cm. T. nubigenum or Ajania nubigena, in particular, which does grow in Tibet (Gyirong), is just 30 cm tall. 
And if I may abuse your comment section's hospitality even more egregiously by nitpicking on Latin gender agreement: it's Taraxacum officinale

I’ve changed my mind, P’i-kuo. I’m convinced. I’ve looked today for mkhan-pa in a lot of Tibetan-made materia medica reference books and they practically unanimously identify it with Artemisia. There is also a small literature on the Hidden Country of Mkhan-pa-lung, “Artemisia Valley” (see the listing below). I guess one of the best known usages of Artemisia is as a source of vegetable tinder for Chinese moxibustion. It’s definitely known as a medicinal and an aromatic, and has properties that may repel small biting insects at the same time it attracts moths and butterflies. I’m liking it more and more all the time, the more I look at it. How tall did you say it could get? Two meters?

I won’t try to speculate which variety of Artemisia is the one in question. Tibetan medicine generally recognizes four main ones:  white, lightish, black and red. One reference work identifies the black one as Artemisia vulgaris, but another says it’s the white one.

~  ~  ~

Olaf Czaja, “Tibetan Medical Plants and Their Healing Potentials,” contained in: Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Petra Maurer, eds., Nepalica-Tibetica:  Festgabe for Christoph Cüppers, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (Lumbini 2013), vol. 1, pp. 89117. Particularly recommended to those who doubt the difficulties of identifying botanicals used in Tibetan medicine, difficulties exacerbated by the widespread practice of substituting locally available plants.

Hildegard Diemberger, “Beyul Khenbalung, the Hidden Valley of the Artemisia: On Himalayan Communities and Their Sacred Landscape,” contained in: A.W. Macdonald, ed., Mandalas and Landscape (New Delhi 1997), pp. 287-334. This author wrote a dissertation on the same subject. It's worth considering that the place usually identified as Khenpa Lung is in the general surroundings of Mount Everest, and so is Tingri, not that this makes them all that close, although I suppose we could speak of neighboring plant communities.

Hildegard Diemberger, “Lhakama (Lha-bka'-ma) and Khandroma (Mkha'-'gro-ma): The Sacred Ladies of Beyul Khenbalung (Sbas-yul Mkhan-pa-lung),” contained in:  E. Steinkellner, ed., Tibetan History and Language: Studies Dedicated to Uray Géza on His Seventieth Birthday, ARbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien (Vienna 1991), pp. 137-154.

Hildegard Diemberger, “Political and Religious Aspects of Mountain Cults in the Hidden Valley of Khenbalung: Tradition, Decline and Revitalisation,” contained in:  Anne-Marie Blondeau & Ernst Steinkellner, eds., Reflections of the Mountain: Essays on the History and Social Meaning of the Mountain Cult in Tibet and the Himalaya, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1996), pp. 219-231.

Giacomella Orofino, “The Tibetan Myth of the Hidden Valley with Reference to the Visionary Geography of Nepal,” East and West, vol. 41, nos. 1-4 (1991), pp. 239-272.

J. Reinhard, “Khembalung: The Hidden Valley,” Kailash, vol. 6, no. 1 (1978), pp. 5-35.  Contains the Tibetan text སྦས་ཡུལ་ཁན་པ་ལུང་གི་གནས་ཡིག་མཐོང་བ་དོན་ལྡན་ -  Sbas-yul Khan-pa-lung-gi Gnas-yig Mthong-ba Don-ldan.


  1. Very flattered to see my comment upgraded to a post in these august columns (one column actually). The Mkhan-pa-lung connection is intriguing. Is it certain that the 'hidden land' is named after a plant, or could (m)khan pa have any other meaning there?

    The colour issue is too intimidating to try and pin it down to a species within Artemisia. Competing hypothesis on A. vulgaris as black or white? It looks rather green to me.

  2. I was thinking I ought to upgrade this comment, too. I'm ready to farm out Tibeto-logic to other writers, except I can't find any that always agree with me... You could do the job in a pinch, I suppose. I think mkhan-pa (and sometimes khan-pa or even khen-pa) always means the botanical species. Diemberger, at least, doesn't suggest any other meaning in her paper listed above, and even then she doesn't delve into botanicals. My understanding of 'black' and 'white' in Tibetan herbology is just a distinction in lightness of color, although I've noticed color distinctions do sometimes point to the colors of the flowers.


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