ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Fever and Widespread Disease in Thirteenth-century Tibet


McGrath William - New York University, Religious Studies, New York, United States


05 – Health, disease and epidemics: multidisciplinary perspectives on the socio-ecology of medicine in pre-modern South Asia


 Fever was a popular subject for the physicians and scholars of thirteenth-century Tibet. There are sixteen separate chapters on fever in the Four Tantras (Rgyud bzhi), for example, and Darma Gönpo’s (Dar ma mgon po, 13th c.) Epitomes (Zin thig yang thig) include about fourteen more. Throughout these complex and textually intertwined chapters, one finds “empty fevers” (stongs tshad or stongs pa’i tsha ba), “chronic fevers” (rnyings tshad or tsha ba rnyings pa), and “widespread fevers” (rims tshad or rims kyi tsha ba), among many other categories. Simply put, there are three ways to think about fever discourse in these sources: 1) fever as the translation of a Sanskrit term (rims = Skt. jvara), 2) fever as a heat disorder (tsha ba or tshad pa), and 3) fever as a widespread disease (rims = Tib. yams). This paper will analyze these and other thirteenth-century Tibetan sources on fever to clarify the precedents for and relationships between their explanations. I will ultimately argue that a Tibetan-language discourse that equates fever with widespread disease developed in the thirteenth century in response to the unprecedented outbreak of a deadly epidemic disease during this period.