Now practiced in many countries worldwide, traditional Tibetan medicine traces its history to 300 BCE. According to ancient legend, Tara, the Buddhist god of compassion, commanded two Indian physicians to go to Tibet to teach the ways of Buddhism, including the secrets of herbal healing. For their efforts, the doctors were granted immortality. Current folklore says that they live on today in the sandalwood forests of the region.
The doctors’ most famous relative was Yuthog Yonten Gonpo, who reportedly lived to the ripe old age of 125 during the 9th century. Yuthog established the first Tibetan medical school and wrote no fewer than 30 seminal herbal books, each incorporating many aspects of traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda. His research led him to reorganize and compile the Four Medical Tantras, the basis of Tibetan medicine. The first three tantras focus mainly on the study of behavior, diet, and the causes of diseases. The fourth is completely devoted to the use of herbs in medical treatment through pills, tonics, ointments, and moxibustion, which utilizes a substance called moxa, made from the herb mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Heat from burning moxa is applied to specific external points on the body, activating the internal organs, increasing blood circulation, and improving the flow of ki, or life force (similar to the Chinese qi, sometimes spelled chi).
Though many of the medicinal herbs used in Tibet came from India and China, about one-third were unique to the region. The herbs were occasionally used to make powders or tonics, but pills, which were composed of as many as 25 herbal ingredients, were by far the most common form of Tibetan treatment.
In an area as difficult to navigate as mountainous Tibet, pills were the easiest form of medication to transport and administer to patients. They could be prepared in advance at a medical facility with access to a wide variety of herbs, then preserved by rolling them back and forth in cloth to reduce the air inside and prevent the growth of bacteria. Local doctors kept as many as 200 different varieties in stock to treat their patients.
Very early in its history, India became a coveted destination for traders eager to profit from the region’s bounty of native herbs and spices. In the early Middle Ages, the people of Europe and Mediterranean Africa developed a voracious appetite for the exotic spices of India and the Far East, including cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, and mace. Arabs, who occupied the middle ground between the two regions, became experts in spice trading, establishing overland east-to-west trade routes. Later, sea routes were added.
By the early 1600s, the Dutch East India Company had established a near-monopoly of the spice trade. The British, seeking a piece of this lucrative market, founded the British East India Company. Soon, British-built factories in India were profitably cultivating herbs such as tea and indigo by the ton. Seeking a permanent foothold in the region, the British negotiated a treaty with India that gave the East India Company exclusive rights to build factories in certain major ports.
By 1690, the British East India Company had become almost a subcountry within India. It minted its own money, acquired its own territories, held criminal jurisdiction, and commanded its own substantial army.
In 1773, lobbyists working on behalf of the East India Company convinced the British Parliament to ratify the Tea Act, which gave the company the right to trade tea tax-free to the American colonies. Outraged American merchants, who could not compete, stormed one of the company’s ships and dumped its entire cargo into Boston Harbor. The event, which became known as the Boston Tea Party, was one of the catalysts of the American War of Independence (1775–1783).