Friday, September 15, 2017

Star Water

“I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous winding labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (1942)

Almost ten years ago, our friend Malcolm at Bhaisajya blog, wrote about the therapeutic use of star water. If you don’t believe me, have a look here.* At the time I was so taken aback — really, star water was something I had never even heard of before — I whipped off a comment to the author asking him if this was indeed a thing, and he wrote back to assure me it was. Okay, I can no longer deny it. Star water is a thing. A remarkable thing, in my opinion.
(*If you read Malcolm’s blog, you will find there wasn’t much reason for me to write this reblog.)

So maybe you would expect my surprise at encountering something like this star water in quite a different context, this time in the much-deciphered yet undecipherable Voynich Manuscript purchased in 1912 from a Jesuit college outside Rome by a rare book dealer named Wilfrid M. Voynich. There have been many ideas about who the author of the book was, but all of them have been overthrown by carbon dating of the parchment. Now we can say with some certainty that it dates to around the year of the death of Tsongkhapa.* Look here to find out what some may have considered its first successful decipherment, but along the way see how stars might have something to do with water for use in bathing. Witness what the author Nicholas Gibbs says in the article:
The position of the Pleiades, the Dog star, and the Arc of Arcturus, along with the most favourable days of the month – known as “the critical days” – were all-important. Such astrological observations were inextricably bound up with the quest for a successful medicinal outcome. And that quest included bathing.
(*Thanks to Edward Proctor for his email with a link to the TLS story.)
Well, if nothing else, the Voynich would seem to agree with the idea that medicinal bathing needs to be done under the right stars, and ideas along these lines are traced back to the classical Graeco-Roman masters of medicinal arts.

If you are getting ahead of me, or if you already had a look at Malcolm’s blog, you might be wondering if star water of the therapeutic kind has a direct or indirect connection with the Tibetan bathing festival that takes place in late summer or early autumn, when the star Riji rises in the sky.* Well, now that I’ve gotten you wondering about it, I can say I’m sure the connections are there. In Buddhist India the rise of a southern star marked the end of the rainy season that meant the release of the monks from their annual retreat. The rains ended, the Indian Ocean becalmed, and one more thing we might think to be indigenous to Tibet turns out to come from India. What is, in fact, the Kumbha Mela, an event sometimes said to be the largest gathering of humans on earth? Among other ways it might be described, one is this: a collective bath with its date determined by the positions of the stars.

(*This Riji, Ri-byi in the Wylie, is a highly peculiar Tibetanization of Sanskrit ṛṣi, or [Vedic] sage, generally translated as drang-srong in Tibetan. It would seem on the face of it to mean ‘mountain mouse,’ although that is absurd, I know. The Vedic sage alluded to is supposed to be Agastya, and the associated star then would be the Canopus Star, the second brightest star in the night sky, and the star that India knew by the name Agastya in very early times. Canopus is actually a southern hemisphere star that only appears above the horizon for a short period each year, but being an exceptionally bright one, Tibetans would be bound to notice it, especially since in my experience, the stars are nowhere brighter or clearer or more splendid than in Tibet’s higher altitudes.)

But enough of these ruminations, I trust you will be so kind as to excuse me. The water has almost filled up the tub, and soon the stars will be out in their full autumnal splendor. See you again soon, friends. Meanwhile, treat yourself to some water, water with stars in it. Because you know, if you can’t see the puzzling interconnections in your life, you’re not quite living it. The same goes for seeing the beauty and the sadness.

Explorable literature on therapeutic star water:

If you are interested in the Voynich manuscript (Beinecke 408) — and who isn’t? — your optional first stop if you’re a beginner may be this Ted Talk. That finished, go to this page, then click on either the words “View a detailed description” or “View a digital version,” depending which you would like to do. There have been so many vainly heroic attempts to decipher it, it can be difficult to believe that this newly proposed one of Nicholas Gibbs is at long last the final word. Indeed some experts have been quick to call it rubbish (look here, too). It is proposed to read the whole of Beinecke 408 as a medical text primarily about astrology in relation to women’s health and medicinal baths, and as written in a shorthand version of Latin in which the consonants of each word (or the beginning and end of each word, rather like Tibetan cursive abbreviation practices) are combined into what looks like a single letter (but the Tibetan kind is not really shorthand, even if it shares shorthand's motives of making things faster and saving space). Meanwhile, looking around the internet, I found something really interesting: Nicholas Gibbs wasn't the first to find abbreviated or shorthand Latin in Beinecke 408. I believe it was first proposed by William Newbold in 1921 (see Brumbaugh, p. 92). And have a look at this 2012 blog by Nick Pelling, without neglecting the lengthy comment by Helmut Winkler you can find there. Some of the comments bring up the subject of balneology, too!* My take on this is that while Gibbs may not supply the definitive solution, there are good reasons to think his ideas are on track, just that those ideas are not his alone, but were suggested at least as far back as 2012, if even as far as 1921.
(*Just as there is a series of starmaps, there is also a series of illustrations showing women bathing together or separately in tubs linked together with bizarre tubes, the idea of the spa comes immediately to mind. In another of Pelling's blogs you can find "The Zodiac Bath Hypothesis," which is very relevant.)

Beinecke 408, fol. 70 verso:
Women Bathing in Half-Barrel Tubs Holding Stars

Robert S. Brumbaugh, “The Voynich Cipher Manuscript: A Current Report,” The Yale University Library Gazette, vol. 61, nos. 3-4 (April 1987), pp. 92-95. There is so much more literature out there, I balk at the idea of trying to list everything. For what may be the most reasonable, interesting and extensive website on the subject, look here.

Olaf Czaja, in his article “The Administration of Tibetan Precious Pills: Efficacy in Historical and Ritual Contexts,” Asian Medicine, vol. 10 (2015), pp. 36-89, at p. 50, note 39. The context is a broad discussion of the ideal astrological conditions for taking medicines:

The sage Agastya, in Tibetan Ri-shi or Ri-byi, is based on Indian astrological lore that was also transmitted in Indian Ayurvedic treatises, such as Vāgbhaṭa’s Aṣṭāṅga-hṛdaya-saṃhitā, that were translated into Tibetan; see, for instance, Vogel 1965, pp. 164f. Agastya is the bright southern star Canopus. In medical texts, as well as in classical poetry, it is said that the waters are cleaned with the rise of this star Agastya, ibid.; Mythrey et al. 2012, p. 770. Its rise occurs on the seventh day of the second half of the Bhādra month in Indian astrology, and on the seventh day of middle autumn month Mon-gru in Tibetan astrology, respec-tively. Rain that falls on that day is said to be endowed with the eight qualities.

Sde-srid Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho, Gso-ba Rig-pa'i Bstan-bcos Sman-bla'i Dgongs-rgyan Rgyud Bzhi'i Gsal-byed Bai-ḍūr Sngon-po'i Ma-lli-kā (reproduced from a print of the 1888-1892 blocks preserved in the Lha-sa Lcags-po-ri Rig-byed 'Gro-phan-gling), SSS series no. 51, T. Y. Tashigangpa (Leh 1973), in 2 vols.  Volume 1, chapter 20 (pp. 393-547) is on materia medica. At p. 526, line 3, is this brief entry on star water:  
skar chu la spyi dang 'dir ming gcig / de'ang skar mar btang ba'i chu lus la bran pas tsha ba 'joms shing smin tshad lam nas bzlog.   
“For star water in general and in this particular context one name is used. When water that has been left out in the stars is soaked into the body it overcomes fevers and even ripened fevers are reversed from their course.”

Practically every Tibetan-Tibetan medical dictionary has an entry on skar-chu (སྐར་ཆུ་), but I won’t go to them right now.

I searched through the full texts of the Tanjur medical works translated from Indian languages, and found not a single bona fide occurrence of the term skar-chu. Searching the Vienna site covering the entire Kanjur and Tanjur, I only found one bona fide usage, in a magical recipe contained in the rgyud (tantra) section of the Lhasa Kanjur (perhaps this would repay closer investigation, but really, it’s just part of a list of ingredients).

For an entry to star water in the dictionary of Sarat Chandra Das, p. 86, go to this link, and find the 3rd entry in the left-hand column. And notice Das's entry for ri-byi on p. 1177, top of the right-hand column: “a corruption of the word ri-shi, a sage, and applied to the name Agastya.”

Bkra-shis-bzang-po, “May All Good Things Gather Here: Life, Religion & Marriage in a Mi nyag Tibetan Village.”  This is same as volume 14, of Asian Highlands Perspectives. See if this link will take you to the exact page (p. 98) about star water used for Losar / New Year preparations.

On Tibet’s autumn swimming festival, you can read short descriptions in English in Hugh Richardson's book Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, p. 109, and in Tsepak Rigzin, Festivals of Tibet, p. 54.
Agastya drinking up the entire sea.
This happened recently with hurricane Irma in the Caribbean.

Watch this video!  Added on May 8, 2018.


  1. Now Beijing wants to gain UNESCO recognition for 'Chinese' therapeutic bathing traditions of Tibet, at the same time denying India any credit for it? Somebody has to talk to the UNESCO people about the absurdity of this. Look HERE.

  2. For a part of Beijing's application material for UNESCO, see this slideshow. If my link doesn't take you there, try a websearch for something like this: lum medicinal bath.


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