"My daughters are strong women, I am, and so was my mother," says Dr. Tsewang Dolkar Khangkar, 49. Her slight build and gentle demeanor belies a passion for her job - which is her life - as the first Tibetan physician for the community in Delhi.
Dr. Dolkar, as she is known, has an illustrious heritage - there have been physicians in her family for three centuries! She opened a clinic in the Indian capital in 1981, and later began treating patients in Bombay and Hyderabad as well.
Her mother - the late Dr. Lobsang Dolma Khangkar - is often referred to as the 'Mother of Tibetan Medicine'. She was not only the first woman in the family to become a doctor but also the first family member to become a royal physician. Between 1972 and 1978, Dolma was the Chief Medical Officer to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile at the Tibetan Institute of Medicine and Astrology (TIMA) in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. In fact, she paved the way for future generations of Tibetan women to become physicians.
"Traditionally, Tibetan physicians are men," says Dolkar. "So [what my mother did] was rare. She was also an accomplished astrologer."
Dolma, who also ran a clinic in Dharamsala, traveled the world lecturing on Tibetan medicine and treating patients. Her experience proved invaluable when she set about the task of training her daughter to become a doctor. Training was an intense process that began non-formally for Dolkar at the age of 12. Her formal study was at TIMA between 1972 and '78.
Dolkar learned about pulse reading, urine analysis, the identification of hundreds of medicinal plants, herbs and minerals used in compounding Tibetan medicines, pharmacology, astrology and worked in her mother's practice from 1978 until 1981. After this internship, she established her own clinic in Delhi on the advice of a junior tutor to the Dalai Lama.
Dolkar was born in Skyid-gron, southern Tibet, but fled the country via Nepal and into India with her mother after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959. It was a journey she barely remembers, but it was a forced exodus that cost the lives of her two elder brothers. "I was two or three-years-old [when I left Tibet]," she says. "I was in shock. There was a lot of shouting. We all remember running away."
Today, at the Dolkar Herbal Medicine Clinic in Kalkaji, south Delhi, the Tibetan doctor meets between 40 and 50 patients a day, six days a week, with the help of a seven-member staff. She also treats patients in Mumbai and Hyderabad by fax and email, and visits each of the two cities every second month.
Tibetan medicine, which pre-dates the seventh-century arrival of Buddhism to Tibet, bases itself on using herbs and minerals to make pills and powders to treat patients. Physicians carry out a physical examination of the patient, but also consider the patient's lifestyle and environment and actions that she may have carried out in her past lives and in her current life. Some of these may -according to Tibetan medicine - influence mental and physical well being.
"People say they want Tibetan medicine because they are sick of western medicine but I say that's wrong, they should look at positives in all forms of medicine," says Dolkar, and that Tibetan medicine can be used alongside other schools of medicine. To raise awareness about Tibetan medicine globally, she has been traveling often during the past eight years, both to lecture and treat patients. She has also written books on Tibetan medicine. "If people take an interest in it, (Tibetan medicine) can contribute a lot...many of the Tibetan plants (that are used to prepare medicines) have not been researched..."