Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Collections Today

Lead Research Organisation: School of Oriental and African Studies
Department Name: Sch of Arts

Abstract

The study of Tibetan art has made great progress in the last decades. Temples and monasteries as well as museum and private collections have become available in richly illustrated publications, and masterworks of Tibetan painting and metal sculpture housed in western museums and in Tibetan Buddhist institutions have become accessible as well. However, Tibetan Buddhist institutions have much more to offer for research than a selection of the most ancient and valuable pieces they own, as their collections are much broader and allow for research questions that cannot be asked on the basis of objects dispersed in museum and private collections. Examples for such questions are, the relationship of collections to place and school, the composition of sets of objects and their usage, the display and purpose of collections in the past and at present.
While western museum and private collections of Tibetan art have been researched on in numerous publications, the latest probably being the study of the Bordier Collection in Gruyere (Béguin, Gilles, ed. 2013. Art sacré du Tibet: Collection Alain Bordier. Paris: Findakly), so far no substantial research has been done on the collections of Tibetan monastic institutions. This project not only makes up for this, but also looks into the questions these collections face in the contemporary world, and thus directly participates in a dialogue that has prominently emerged in the region over the last decade.
This research project focuses on the collections of selected monasteries in Ladakh, India (such as Hemis Monastery and affiliated institutions and Matho), and Mustang, Nepal (such as Namgyal, Choede, Kag Choede, Tsarang, Lo Gekhar, Gheling, Jar Choede) and assesses them as both a rich depository to refine our knowledge of Tibetan art and as collections. The artworks themselves not only provide an extremely rich resource of new contextualised objects, many of them with inscriptions, but also for exploring new research questions pertaining to content, material, sets, usage, and display. The latter points intimately relate to the objects being part of historically formed and presently managed collections, which may or may not be representative of the respective branch of Tibetan Buddhism the institution pertains to.

Planned Impact

The main impact of the project will be in the regions the research is being conducted. The institutions participating in the documentation will be provided with yearly updated inventories of their collections. All institutions will be engaged and assisted in questions of object management and display. The abbots and caretakers of these institutions will also gain wider awareness of the treasures they hold and their value in the broader context of South Asian and Tibetan art history. Both the inventories and the engagement with responsible personnel will lead to a more careful handling and thus further the preservation of this valuable heritage.
The recent earthquake in Nepal has demonstrated the value of the documentation done so far: Namgyal Monastery was hit during the reconstruction of the living quarters of the monks around the main temple. In the earthquake the temple building, housing the entire collection, has been damaged and is in danger of collapsing. The collections and books thus have been stored provisionally in the only functional building left (the sculptures) and in a room under construction (the books). Only the sculptures have been fully documented so far, and this year (2015) research will focus on its books.
Regionally, the project will create greater awareness about the holdings of a monastery and the needs of their preservation. Previously hidden away objects will again become accessible for the faithful and tourists alike. In the long term, the regions as a whole will benefit through the project. The publication and accessibility of valuable and unique objects will further pilgrimage and tourism to the regions under concern and the participating institutions.
In Nepal, the national institutions directly involved with the heritage of the regions were the project will take place, in particular the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal, and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) of the National Trust for Nature Conservation, will directly benefit from the project, as they will receive copies of the documentation and the database, which also will be publicly accessible at the National Archives in Kathmandu. Here the project will also provide expertise on the objects not available at these institutions.
The workshop organized at SOAS in the second year of the project will highlight some project results and present them to the broader academic community in Britain. Publications in popular Asian art magazines, such as Orientations, will reach a broad international audience and create awareness of the project. Those involved with the market in Tibetan art benefit through the refinement of knowledge and the newly available comparative material.
Beyond the project period, a resulting internet publication of the objects and key information on them will protect the heritage of the project regions and benefit the wider public. It is further likely, that it will result in an exhibition on the art of one of the project regions or a specific institution, and thus reach new audiences.

Publications

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Kramer J. (2023) Himalayan Art in 108 Objects

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Luczanits C. (2023) Himalayan Art in 108 Objects

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Luczanits C. (2023) Himalayan Art in 108 Objects

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Luczanits, Christian (2020) From Tabo to Alchi: Revisiting Early Western Himalayan Art in Orientations

 
Description This research project results in yearly discoveries of new material pertaining to the history of the two project regions, Mustang and Ladakh. Particularly remarkable are the quality and age of some of the documented objects with the oldest metal image dating back to the eighth century.
An absolute highlight is the discovery of two 14th century handwritten and illuminated text collections, which are now documented in their entirety, catalogued and published. The sutra collection is the earliest examples of such a collection containing an illumination program across all 30 volumes of the collection. The two collections comprise of 42 volumes and it took three successive visits and more than 16,000 photographs to document them in their entirety. A monograph cataloging and studying the texts and the illuminations is now in the design and editing process.
Exploitation Route Representing independent versions of the respective canon sections the texts of the Namgyal collections will be used as reference in critical editions of canonical Tibetan Buddhist texts. This contributes to a better understanding of the history and development of Tibetan canonical literature. Once the full texts are online they can also be used by Buddhist monks worldwide to read the texts and compare them to others in terms of content.
Sectors Education

Culture

Heritage

Museums and Collections

Other

URL https://www.istb.univie.ac.at/kanjur/rktsneu/sub/index.php
 
Description Since this project supports ongoing documentation of cultural heritage, impact has already been considerable. On the one hand monastic institutions and societies have begun to undertake rudimentary documentation themselves, on the other hand the project has been requested by representatives of other regions in Nepal, Dolpo and Humla, to document there as well, an offer that with the exception of a short visit to Humla has been beyond the capacity of the project. Even before organising the workshop with invitees from the project regions in autumn 2018, there was a noticeable impact of the project regarding the importance of documentation for the preservation of monastery collections. These resulted in major discussions on heritage preservation among the responsible monks of Mustang in 2018, and the documentation of the collection of Gheling monastery that summer and of Dzong monastery in 2019. Work has continued through the COVID period with the project now cooperating with a local foundation, the Norbusum Foundation (https://www.norbusum.org). On the one hand this foundation supports the documentation locally, on the other hand the project provides art historical expertise to projects of the foundation. Supported by the project PI the Norbusum Foundation has received two grants to restore monuments in Mustang, namely Lo Gekhar and Gönpa Gang, and the project has documented the portable artworks of these institutions. For Lo Gekhar 17th century stone panels were documented and their new display planned. Further, the project has planned the display of sacred objects at Namgyal Monastery, which was partially implemented in June 2023.
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Societal

 
Description Importance of Documentation
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Even before organising the workshop with invitees from the project regions, there was a noticeable of the project regarding the importance of documentation for the preservation of monastery collections. These resulted in major discussions on heritage preservation among the responsible monks of Mustang in 2018, and the documentation of the collection of Gheling monastery that summer.
 
Title Collection Database 
Description A database on objects in monastery collections has been established using Collective Access. On the one hand the database is being used to record and research objects and collections in their relationship. On the other hand the database used offers museum quality object management, and collaborating monasteries will be encouraged to use the database for this purpose. The database also allows to cooperate online once monasteries have permanent internet access, and it allows to publish the objects online as soon as permission of the respective monastery is received. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact During the field research in 2018 and the workshop the database was demonstrated at diverse monasteries. The hope that Hemis monastery, Ladakh, adopts it for its collection management has not yet been fulfilled, but the workshop has demonstrated the importance of such management tool to the person in charge. Aim for the remaining months of the project is to migrate the database on a University server and to enter as many objects as possible. 
 
Description Dzong Choede Monastery 
Organisation Dzong Choede Monastery
Country India 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The collection of Dzong Monastery was documented in Summer 2019 and will be continued in June 2020. The project may also contribute to the display of the objects.
Collaborator Contribution The monastery provided access to their collection and helpers.
Impact Inventory of the collection.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Hemis Monastery 
Organisation Hemis Monastery
Country India 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Christian Luczanits has been collaborating with Hemis monastery already prior to the project. The project assists Hemis monastery in evaluating its collection and improving its display. 2018 the museum collection was documented and an digital inventory of all documented objects has been produced.
Collaborator Contribution Hemis provides the project with access to its collection and museum and supports the stay at the monastery. Hemis has also supported the project application confirming this collaboration.
Impact Christian Luczanits has assisted the monastery to rearrange the display in its museum and provided short labels for the objects (2016). 2018 a catalogue has been produced which is to be printed in 2019. A digital inventory of the museum collection has been produced as well.
Start Year 2013
 
Description Kag Choede Monastery 
Organisation Kag Choede Monastery
Country Nepal 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Kag Choede monastery owns a collection of about 150 bronzes which were documented preceding the project period. 2018 the ancient books of the monastery were assessed and documented and the sculpture display organised. 2019 minor objects from storerooms were assessed for museum display. The project also support the planning of a museum at the monastery.
Collaborator Contribution Kag Choede granted access to their collection. A collaboration agreement has not yet been signed by the monastery.
Impact An inventory of the collection has been produced and delivered in the project period and has been updated once since.
Start Year 2013
 
Description Namgyal Monastery 
Organisation Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collection of Namgyal Monastery has been documented almost in its entirety, including 120 books. Much of the documentation preceded the project period, but the documentation of books continued 2017 and 2018.
Collaborator Contribution Namgyal Monastery has been the first monastery to grant access to its collection in Mustang.
Impact A first survey of the highlights of the Namgyal collection has been published before the commencement of this project. Partial inventories of the collection have been delivered and two publications on aspects of the collection are currently in the process of completion.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Resources for Kanjur & Tanjur Studies 
Organisation University of Vienna
Department Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies
Country Austria 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have contributed the documentation of the hitherto unpublished Kanjur (words of the Buddha) from Namgyal Monastery, Mustang, consisting of 38 volumes, to the Tibetan Manuscript Project to be included on their Resources for Kanjur & Tanjur Studies.
Collaborator Contribution The partner will catalogue the Kanjur and provide this to the project and also makes the catalogue of these manuscripts available to a wider public.
Impact There is no formal output yet, but the place of the Namgyal Kanjur within the history of its development could already be clarified to some extent.
Start Year 2016
 
Description "Artistic Excellence in Early Mustang", at the Aksheswar Traditional Buddhist Art College, Lalitpur, 28th December 2022. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This presentation was directed towards practicing artists of Lalitpur and Kathmandu, to establish contacts with the artistic community of the valley.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description A Brief History of Lo Gekhar Monastery, Mustang 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at a public lecture series of the Social Science Baha in Kathmandu, introducing the project to a wider local audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://soscbaha.org/lecture_series/a-brief-history-of-lo-gekhar-monastery-mustang/
 
Description Book launch "Two Illuminated Text Collections of Namgyal Monastery" (Buddhistisches Kulturerbe in Mustang, Nepal) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The book launch and debate on the cultural history of Mustang took place at the University of Vienna, the seat of my co-author Markus Viehbeck. Participation was limited due to COVID.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Panel discussion with the Gyalwang Drukpa on cultural heritage 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The main purpose was to meet the Gyalwang Drukpa, he is the head of one of the cooperating monasteries and it was important to make the AHRC work known to him. The current field research is now directly coordinated with a charity he heads.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Royal Society for Asian Affairs/SOAS, Schools Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Introducing the project as a research activity in the arts and humanities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://rsaa.org.uk/lectures-and-events/schools-day/
 
Description Workshop: Tibetan Monastery Collections and Museums, Traditional Practices and Contemporary Issues 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The workshop brought together invited representatives of the collaborating monasteries as well as academics and museum professionals concerned with Tibetan art to reflect on traditional practices and contemporary solutions for dealing with collections in monasteries across the Himalayas with the goal of identifying best practice. The workshop will be organised into the following panels: Monastery Collections, Monastery and Museum, Collection Records, and Curating Collections. The invited representatives were also introduced to museum practice in London institutions, such as the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Library.
For many of the approximately 80 participants the workshop offered the unique opportunity to hear monastery caretaker talk about their collection practices and the difficulties they are facing, an aspect that was widely appreciated. The workshop demonstrated the complex issues involved with this project and brought striking differences between the two project regions, Ladakh and Mustang, to the fore.
Goal of the workshop is an edited volume bringing these emic and metic perspectives on the subject together. It is further hoped that the workshop will have a positive effect for future work.
The workshop also helped greatly to plan how the project should be continued in future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.soas.ac.uk/art/events/08nov2018-tibetan-monastery-collections-and-museums.html