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Essential Oils from the Tibetan Shangri-La

by Jolanta Basnyet(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 45 - October 1999

I have always been very fond of Nepal and fell in love with Nepalese essential oils over a decade ago. During my first visit to Nepal in the late eighties, I found Nepalese people very hospitable, genuine and courteous! I tried to follow my friend's advice on my first visit to Nepal. I was told that I could bring the price down to almost half if I bargained. Well, in India this system did work. I observed that prices in India were usually inflated so much that it left the purchaser with a wide option of bringing it down to almost half. However, in Nepal the situation was not the same by any means. I tried to bargain the price for a beautifully carved wooden window and after only my first attempt, I was told that I can either pay the quoted price or leave the shop. Nepalese people are proud and genuine.

Jolanta Basnyet 'supervising' the harvest of Nepalese Chamomile in the field of the processing unit in Kathmandu, Nepal

Jolanta Basnyet 'supervising' the harvest of Nepalese Chamomile in the field of the processing unit in Kathmandu, Nepal

It is therefore understandable that my sentiment for Nepal and Nepalese people is growing in affection and understanding with the passage of years and my experiences as a therapist.

My main purpose of this year's visit to India and Nepal was to re-discover and explore in greater depth the area of essential oils, the availability and quality of natural raw materials for the extraction of essential oils and first and foremost their efficacy when applied in treating different conditions. I have achieved my aim and purchased several essential oils directly from the processing plant in the Tibetan Shangri-la.

I have been using Tibetan essential oils in our clinic in Preston for over a decade now. They can grow hair, iron out wrinkles, sort out digestive problems such as diarrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome and bring back to life a person suffering from cardiac arrest or a heart attack. They are strong in action in the same way as the herbs, from which they are extracted. They have to be strong to survive the inclement conditions of the mountainous region in their original indigenous habitat.

I was not surprised when I found out that Nepalese oils were more valued regarding their clinical application than their Indian counterparts. I was led to understand that the market value of any of the Nepalese medicinal plants is higher than the raw material from the Indian region. I decided to gain more knowledge regarding the properties of essential oils and market situation in the field of medicinal plants in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

My less important item on the agenda was to relax in the warm weather and enjoy hospitality of these two countries. And warm it was! With no rain for almost 12 weeks, the sun was scorching hot (nearly 40°C in the shade). However, I was taken round the processing plant in Kathmandu with an abundance of Nepalese hospitality.

The Conservation and Management of Herbal Resources

I had stopped in India to hold a meeting with Dr Karki, PhD. Dr Karki is the Regional Program Co-ordinator for the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Program in Asia. This programme is conducted by the International Development Research Centre from their office in Delhi. In Kathmandu, I had the pleasure of holding talks with Messrs Bhattarai and Bajracharya of the Herbs Production & Processing Co Ltd and Dr Krishna Amatya – a consultant of the Shambala Herbal & Aromatic Industry.

The scientists all over the world express their deep concern regarding the availability of natural resources which serve as raw materials for the production of natural homoeopathic and herbal remedies. We all have well founded interests in complementary medicine, but the depletion of natural resources is giving concern to scientists and therapists alike.

The problem is two-fold. I find that the first and immediate concern is the fact that we seem to have instigated many illnesses and diseases which originate from a man-made source. These are the response of the human body to chemical pollution, new cross-breeds of bacteria in hospitals and a negative response to the effect of transplant operations which involve animal matter being introduced into the body of a Homo Sapien. These unusual diseases can also be caused by the ingestion of animal food items carrying the infectious matter, which in turn can breed and affect the human body and mind. The detrimental effect of BSE is a well known fact, although it was fiercely denied at the time by farmers and scientists alike.

Another ever-growing important factor is that natural remedies and herbal or homoeopathic medicine may not be as effective when confronted with man-made bacteria and chemical pollution. The increasing number of reported and diagnosed ME cases that I see in the clinic in Preston makes me think that pollution in the air, in the water and in the food chain cause ME to become a widely acceptable illness and although diagnosed and accepted in its strange form, the pathology of it is still an enigma to the medical profession.

The conservation and management of our natural resources such as herbs and medicinal plants need to be put in a workable framework so that short and long-term planning can be put into practice.

Dr Karki was concerned mainly with the area of India and Pakistan because India is one of the largest suppliers of raw materials world-wide. India exports significant quantities of raw materials to other countries. Some of these exports are associated with traditional medicine. However, India's comparative advantage in producing materials for export has not, as yet, been exploited to the full.

During our conversation, Dr Karki emphasised the fact that with the exception of a limited number of plant species, the production base relies mainly on materials harvested from the wild. Current practices are unsustainable and many studies have shown rapid depletion of the natural resource base. This problem is further compounded by the inequitable nature of the harvesting and marketing of the plants, thereby perpetuating impoverishment for those charged with stewarding and gathering the resource. Evidence points to a limited number of people profiting in dramatic disproportion to their inputs.

Nonetheless, India and Pakistan are known to be storehouses of biological diversity. They need to focus on sustaining the resource base of medicinal plants. Efforts to relieve pressure on wild plants through cultivation have made a good start but have a long way to go. This is a complex issue by virtue of the sheer numbers of plant species and the need for sustainable propagation, suitable agronomic practices, the selection of superior genotypes and linking production to people.

The situation, I was informed would need to be looked at from the point of view of the resource base, the use of medicinal plants at the local level, marketing channels, exports, the domestic drug production sector and co-ordination efforts as well as the dissipation of informative material. After all, almost 75 per cent of raw materials in the pharmaceutical industry utilises natural medicinal plant matter.

In Nepal, Dr Bhattarai agreed that most of the available data regarding the formal sectors are in aggregate form and such statistics supply little information about how the market actually works; they rely solely on market price as an indicator of value. Much more attention therefore needs to be given to the socio-institutional context of the market in the geographical area of the Indian Sub-Continent.

We have to realise that, according to the World Health Organisation, over 80 per cent of the world's population relies on traditional forms of medicine, largely plant-based, to meet primary health care needs. In India alone, the collection and processing of medicinal plants and plant products contributes at least 35 million man days each year to the national economy, as a source of both full and part-time employment. Microstudies suggest that a large number of those employed are women. In recognition of the significance of the sub-sector, and the fact that it is largely undocumented, the World Bank and the IDRC Medicinal Plants Network (IMPN) agreed to produce a report on the medicinal plants sector in this part of the world.

Dr Bhattarai – General Manager – informed me that The Herb Production & Processing Co Ltd in Kathmandu involves about 600 families in the cultivation and processing business as outgrowers for the company. Also, the company grows the natural medicinal plant material in private farms in the Kathmandu valley and beyond and the company has a production unit in every farm and also in the private sector growers' vicinity. In total, I was advised that HPPCL employs 160 staff and about 5000 herbs collectors.

The report suggests that despite a wealth of resources – biological, human and financial – being available, the lack of a co-ordinated approach which considers sustainable and equitable development in the short-term as well as long-term goals for the sub-sector, has resulted in the under-utilisation and over- exploitation of the valuable plant resources.

Some Nepalese Essential Oils

I have purchased several Nepalese essential oils and brought further samples of essential oils as well as raw material for laboratory testing. One of the interesting Nepalese essential oils is Rhododendron. This plant is a national symbol in Nepal. Rhododendron anthopogon grows in Nepal at an altitude of 3300-4000 m. It is harvested in several regions in Nepal. Anthopogon oil, as it is usually referred to in Nepal, is obtained by steam distillation of the aerial part of this shrub. It is a fluid liquid of pale yellow colour and sweet-herbal, faintly balsamic aroma. The physico-chemical properties of Anthopogon oil in terms of acid number is 1.54 to 4.06 and Ester number is 5.40 to 25.92. Due to altitudinal and regional variations some oils are soluble in 95% alcohol and some are not. Rhododendron can be used in gouty rheumatic conditions. The essential oil is a stimulant and affects fibrous tissue, bones and nervous system. I was informed that it works on people who are sensitive to windy and stormy wet weather when usually any disorder they suffer from will display aggravated symptoms. We shall start using this essential oil in the clinic, but would like to know much more about it.

The Nepalese Xanthoxylum essential oil has many aromatherapeutic uses. It is commonly known as Prickly Ash. The essential oil is obtained by steam distillation of the dried fruits of Xanthoxylum armatum. It is a fluid liquid in appearance and of light yellow colour. Nepalese Xanthoxylum essential oil has a refreshing, pleasant and spicy aroma. The oil is rich in linalool, and also contains limonene, methyl cinnamate and cineole. It possesses strong anti-infectious characteristics with a sedative effect on the body. It is commonly used for arthritic conditions. The oil is considered to be carminative and stomachic. However, the most effective action of this oil is within the circulatory system. It works well on chilblains, cramp in the legs, varicose veins and varicose ulcers. Due to its stimulating effect upon the lymphatic system, circulation and mucous membranes, it can play an important role in clinical aromatherapy.

The Curcuma Zedoaria essential oil is produced from the rhizomes of Curcuma zedoaria Roscoe. In Nepal, this oil is better known as Sathi. The oil is viscous and of golden yellow colour. It has a warm-spicy, woody and camphoraceous cineolic odour. It has pronounced effect on the digestive system. It is a known stimulant and carminative. It can be applied directly to bruises to speed up healing.

However, one of the most used in the clinic essential oil is the essential oil of Jatamansi (Spikenard) which is obtained by steam distillation of dried rhizomes of Nardostachys jatamansi D.C.

It is a slightly viscous liquid in appearance and varies from amber to deep blue or greenish blue colour. The aroma of Jatamansi oil is lingering, heavy, sweet-woody and spicy-animal when used in treatment.

In clinical aromatherapy, Jatamansi oil can be employed in the treatment of epilepsy, hysteria and in many varieties of convulsive affections. It is used in cases of heart palpitations (even as a substitute for Valerian). At the Preston clinic, this oil is being used successfully in intestinal colic and nervous disorders. Its antispasmodic characteristics are unsurpassed. Clinical aroma- therapists do appreciate Jatamansi's properties as a diuretic, carminative, stomachic and laxative (excellent when used over time in cases of chronic constipation). Tibetan herbalists use Jatamansi oil for the purpose of hair growth and colour restoration. The results are more than rewarding as many patients in our clinic would testify. This essential oil shows excellent results in combating baldness and grey hair.

Jatamansi oil grows in the Himalayan regions at the altitude of 3300-5100 m. The raw material for the extraction of this oil is prized if it is harvested in the Nepalese range of mountains. Its name derives from the Tamil language. The herb is used in tribal medicine for incurable skin conditions and is believed to contain anti-ageing properties.

One of our patients used Jatamansi oil when her husband, suffering from high blood pressure, collapsed at home. She could not feel his pulse and he became unconscious. Waiting for the ambulance, she tried to think how to help her husband. In a trauma of the circumstance, she ran to the bathroom cabinet and took the Jatamansi oil. She started to massage her husband and let him smell the oil on a tissue. When the ambulance arrived, her husband was sitting on the carpet propped up comfortably against the wall. He later fully recovered in hospital. This anecdotal evidence is well documented on our patient's file.

The above information is only a fraction of knowledge I have gained by visiting India and Nepal this year. I decided to share my experience and my fascination for the countries of the Indian Sub-Continent and the range of their natural medicines, and particularly so for the Himalayan Kingdom and its interesting flora.

And so it is Namaste! A Nepalese greeting which conveys my wishes for peace of mind and body.


Aryal, M. 1993. "Diverted Wealth: The Trade in Himalayan Herbs", Himal, 6(1).
Bhattarai, K.R. 1993. in Kantipur (Nepali daily), Nov. 17, 1993.
Karki, M., A.N. Rao, R.N. Rao and J T Williams 1997. The Role of Bamboo, Rattan and Medicinal Plants in Mountain Development – INBAR Technical Report No. 15, IDRC, New Delhi, p.232.
Ministry of Forests & Soil Conservation 1997. Medicinal Plants of Nepal Bulletin of the Department of Medicinal Plants, Kathmandu, Nepal.
World Health Organization 1991. Guidelines for the Assessment of Herbal Medicine Programme on Traditional Medicine. Doc. WHO/TRM/91.4, WHO, Geneva.
World Health Organization 1993. Research Guidelines for Evaluating the Safety and Efficacy of Herbal Medicines. WHO, Regional Office for the Western Pacific, Manila.


  1. Luna said..

    Thank you for sharing this incredible knowledge! I am a student of Tibetan Medicine; so this is super interesting to me. Is there any resources you can recommend to learn more about essential oils native to Nepal / Tibet / India and their traditional use? Thanks so much.

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About Jolanta Basnyet

Jolanta Basnyet BA(Hons), BSc, MFO, DO, MGO(Lon), ITEC, C&GTC, MAR, is a fully qualified osteopath, aromatherapist, reflexologist and a body worker with the practical knowledge of Reiki therapy. She practises in her own multi-disciplinary health clinic in Preston. She also trains practitioners in the field of body massage, aromatherapy and reflexology in her private training establishment Lancashire Holistic College. Jolanta takes part in radio programmes on contemporary health issues and is a Chairperson of the British Massage Therapy Council, a national organisation with its minimum Core Syllabus for body massage training in the U.K. Jolanta embarked on her second degree course at the University of Central Lancashire and this year successfully finished her degree in Complementary Medicine course. She decided to conduct a pilot study in aromatherapy for her final dissertation. Her findings and comments on the preparation of this project may be of interest to many practitioners of natural therapies, whose practical skills and financial resources would enable them to proceed with such a project without any external financial support.

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