India Interior

The painful dance of ‘Tanga-tumbu’

Deachen Chorol | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on August 26, 2016

Cold discomfort: Living in sub-Arctic conditions, many Ladakhi women struggle with the stiffness that seems to settle into their bones - deachen chorol

In Ladakh, traditional healers are often the panacea for high-altitude arthritis

Yangchan Dolma scolds her 11-year-old daughter for sitting on the cemented floor. She opens the almirah and takes out a woollen carpet for her to sit on.

Dagsa ney nang-stak matang na ltingney kakspo chhachein” (If we do not pay attention now, it will be very difficult afterwards), she says almost to herself.

Tanga-tumbu’, the Ladakhi term for arthritis, is an old affliction in this high-altitude terrain. The sub-Arctic climate and low oxygen levels have a detrimental effect on blood circulation.

Most women here have learned to bear the stiffness that seems to settle into their bones, leading to easily ruptured ligaments and joint pain.

To cope with the extreme temperatures, the body requires an inordinate quantity of energy-providing foods.

Most Ladakhis consume carbohydrates such as barley and animal fats, including local butter. Yet this diet is not wholesome enough to meet the vitamin and mineral requirements that can only come from fresh fruit and vegetables. In winter, particularly, this becomes scarce.

Those who live in the upper reaches are the hardest hit.

Dr Rinchen Dorjey, consultant physician with Help Age India, says it is the people of Changthang — a barren plateau — who face severe shortages of fresh food.

Most of the affected people still turn to traditional healers.

Says Tsering Stobdan, 65, an Amchi (practitioner of the Tibetan system of medicine) for the last 22 years in Leh town, “When we see the starting signs — mild pain and redness of joints — we start them on traditional medicines. We restrict them from tasks that involve the use of water, such as washing clothes or dishes, and advise them to avoid sitting on cold surfaces. We also advise them to take hot showers and wear warm clothes. Then there are the local hotsprings, Chhu-Tsan, which are said to have healing properties, thanks to their abundant natural minerals. Changthang and Manali have several such ‘miracle baths’.

“In severe cases”, says Stobdan, “the patient is treated with ‘Ser-mey’ — that is, the aching joints are ‘touched’ with a red-hot iron instrument.”

This is said to melt away the deposits of Chhu-ser, or uric acid.

Those who have benefited from Amchi’s prescription, swear by it. Tsetan Palmo, from Spituk, was once diagnosed with Tanga-tumbu. After she followed the instructions on keeping warm at all times and including certain prescribed traditional foods in her diet, she is in the pink of health today.

(The writer is the recipient of the Sanjoy Ghose Rural Reporting Award — 2015-16)

Charkha Features

Published on August 26, 2016
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