Ancient Anatomy, circa 1687

Seventeenth-century Tibet witnessed a blossoming of medical knowledge, including a set of 79 paintings, known as tangkas, that interweaved practical medical knowledge with Buddhist traditions and local lore.

Apr 1, 2011
Cristina Luiggi

Seventeenth-century Tibet witnessed a blossoming of medical knowledge, with the construction of a monastic medical college and the penning of several influential medical texts. Perhaps most striking was a set of 79 paintings, known as tangkas, which were intended to illustrate a comprehensive four-volume medical treatise called The Blue Beryl. Created between 1687 and 1703, these paintings are vibrant pieces of educational art that interweave practical medical knowledge with Buddhist traditions and Tibetan lore—depicting such things as the use of omens and dreams for making diagnoses, hundreds of medicinal herbs and medical instruments, and diagrams of human anatomy.

The word tangka (or thangka) derives from Tibetan words meaning “rolled-up flat painting” or “written record.” Since their original creation more than three centuries ago, the 79 Blue Beryl tangkas have been painstakingly reproduced numerous times by physician monks as part of their medical training. The tangkas are still used for teaching in Nepali medical schools today. This front view of the human skeleton belongs to a set produced in Kathmandu in the 1990s under the guidance of self-taught Nepalese artist, Romio Shrestha. More than 40 assistants recreated the paintings using pigments derived from natural sources, such as mercury ore for red, the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli for blue, and sulfur salt for yellow.

Tibetan anatomists counted a total of 360 bones in the human body—significantly more than the 206 bones described in Western medical books. This disparity stems from the fact that Tibetan doctors considered cartilage, as well as fingernails and toenails, to be bones. Other anatomical estimates reveal similar inconsistencies, such as the Tibetan calculation of 21,000 hairs on the human head, while modern medicine estimates that the scalp has an average of 100,000 hair follicles.

The paintings were commissioned by the fifth Dalai Lama’s regent, Desi Sangye Gyatso, who stepped in as interim ruler of Tibet after the Dalai Lama died in 1682. Gyatso placed great value on the accuracy of the illustrations, frequently consulting medical specialists and encouraging the use of fresh corpses as models for the anatomical paintings. But he also left a lot of room for symbolic creativity, as is apparent in the depiction of internal organs such as the stomach (red diamond), the small intestines (red swirls), and the large intestine (blue waves).